In Defense of Education–Responses

I have had some very interesting responses to a previous blog post (courtesy of Facebook). The responses themselves were quite long, and I’m sure my retorts will be as well, so I figured this would be a medium that would (a) allow for great amounts of text and (b) give my readers their due respect and courtesy.

“i think you missed the progressive argument for education. it is not liberal arts vs. nothing… for the past ten years the quality of life of american college graduates has been slipping and unemployment has been rising. yet at the same time, we are importing millions of educated people from other nations to fill engineering, medical, scientific, and other roles. a major reason for this paradox is that our students are learning the wrong things – they are getting degrees in fields with little practical application because they ‘just want to learn’ or ‘the subject is fun’.”

This paragraph packs quite a bit. We’ll begin with the progressive movement statement. There is a HUGE difference with any movement between its philosophy and its practice. Philosophically speaking the progressives have much in common with the liberal arts ideal of education as a social responsibility and of long-term learning goals. That’s pretty much where it ends. From a practical perspective progressives encourage group work, and experiential and “discovery” learning, and is very much against rote learning. So, then, if we’re talking about the progressive movement in college, then I correctly did not consider it because colleges have not considered it. Academia frequently functions within its own bubble. Unless they are in education or perhaps psychology departments, professors do not care at all about Dewey; from a methods-of-pedagogy stand-point they certainly do not practice his preachings. If we’re talking about the progressive movement in pre-college, then I did not mention it; however, it certainly has had a non-trivial impact on that area of education (though ironically its impact there seems to be all practical and no philosophical).

As for the remainder of the paragraph, you say that students are learning the wrong things and I argue students are not learning as much as they should. There’s quite a bit of over-lap there.  I disagree strongly, however, with the last sentence, but will address it later.

“while i hope that everyone can become the scholar-citizens our democracy needs (the foundational argument for liberals arts), it also pains me to see people waste their time in college to become part of an educated underclass. need proof of this? see who works in the bars downtown: hundreds of history, english, art, etc. majors.”

The concept of an educated underclass is certainly depressing; however, what makes their time in college wasted? Or really, who suffers as a result of the waste? There are only a few reasons why people would want to go to college:

  1. I know what I want to do with my life and I want to get a degree specifically to prepare myself for that job.
  2. I don’t know what I want to do with my life, but I want to get a degree in something flexible and applicable.
  3. I don’t know what I want to do with my life, but I want to get a degree in something.
  4. I don’t know what I want to do with my life.

In what category do those future-bartenders-of-America fall? Certainly not category 2. Low probability of category 1, but it is possible. Looks more like categories 3 and 4 and it is those two categories that need to be eliminated from the general college population. Categories 3 and 4 are what have made college degrees increasingly worthless. Categories 3 and 4 are what make companies look at out-sourcing as a means to save money. BUT, most people don’t see these four categories. Most people see only two categories: (1) College degree (2) No college degree. As I will argue later, the logic that having a college degree will automatically mean an increase in salary (regardless of what the major is) is the most detrimental idea to have invaded our society.

“I think people make a mistake of making direct comparisons of education systems of today to those of decades ago, especially at a post-secondary level. As you say in your blog, only 2% of students went to college a hundred years ago. The rest went to work early or got apprenticeships, and many jobs did not have education minimum requirements or strict education requirements. Over the past hundred years, we’ve gotten rid of a lot of agrarian and blue collar jobs thanks to technological advances and exporting these jobs overseas. What happened to all these people who would have been farmers or factory workers, etc? They stayed in school and felt increasing societal pressures to pursue higher degrees.

So when people compare education from different eras, they often neglect to address that today we educate a much larger segment of the population, and past eras often only educated the elite in intelligence and wealth.

Again, this packs quite a bit of punch. I’ll start with the last part: “So when people compare education from different eras, they often neglect to address that today we educate a much larger segment of the population, and past eras often only educated the elite in intelligence and wealth.” I disagree, unless we want to more clearly define “era.” Let’s go instead with “generation” and say that that equals 25 years. Here are some events in our definite generational past that include masses needing/demanding to be educated:

  1. The Great Depression–(82 years or 3.28 generations ago). Prior to 1929, the majority of the population did not even attend HIGH SCHOOL. Starting in 1929, though, more and more students stayed in school. Why? Because there weren’t any jobs–farming, factory or otherwise. Thanks to this economic event, high school populations more than TRIPLED. This created a need for more prepared teachers–prepared from a content as well as pedagogical standpoint–and started the era of “tracking.” That is, there were “college” tracks and “non-college” tracks for students–by the way, this is also when classes like shop and home economics came into the picture. Last, this was the biggest movement towards the death of your farmer–over 80 years ago.
  2. WWII–(ending 66 years 2.64 generations ago). The GI Bill sent thousands of “average”–albeit patriotic–Americans to (at the time) the college of their choice. Certainly with the number of colleges then being significantly smaller than it is now, this created quite a population boom in academia. But, this really set the number of “average” people with college degrees into a Fibonacci-bunny-esque scenario; once those GI’s graduated, they expected their children (the baby-boomers graduating from high school in the 1960’s and 1970’s) to go to college. Those children then had their own kids, who were expected to go to college (graduating from high-school in the 1980’s and 1990’s). Rinse and repeat.

“While you talk about students only being interested in having a good time or not being interested, you don’t really address why they’re there as opposed to going straight in the work force. The simple fact is that a college degree is a requirement for a large number of jobs, and all the data shows that life earnings and quality of life increases with a college degree. You’re not going to weed out the disinterested students until there is a viable alternative for them to get into the workforce (and not at a disadvantage).”

Ah, there’s the rub. And I sense a recurring theme. A college degree is NOT a requirement for a large number of jobs. A college degree (with a specific, “applicable” major!) is  required for jobs that have a given starting salary. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts these occupations will have the greatest number of job openings through 2018:

  1. Cashiers
  2. Retail Salespeople
  3. Waiters and waitresses
  4. Customer sales representatives
  5. RN’s
  6. Food preparation workers (including fast food)
  7. General office clerks
  8. Laborers and hand-material movers
  9. Elementary school teachers
  10. Stock clerks and order fillers

Now, of these 10 jobs (which, even in the US’s recent state of unemployment affairs, collectively are over 1 million current openings), only two require any college training. BUT, with the exception of the two jobs that require college training, we have extremely low salaries.

And here we have found the greatest issue: MONEY. People want to make a lot of money–naturally. College has been marketed as a place where you can spend 4-6 years majoring in “something,” and then magically you can demand a higher starting salary than you could have otherwise. And because people frequently only know that they want to make money, they do not think that it matters what their major is (see students type #3 and #4 above). Moreover, they do not value the work that it takes to get that degree–what they value is something that they will only (maybe) get after graduation. BUT, with everyone having the same “brilliant” idea, the market becomes swamped with bachelor-degree-holders; moreover, because students don’t know what they want to do or (assuming I may be onto something) they are lazy and don’t want to do anything strenuous, these degrees are not readily applicable. So even with bachelors degrees people don’t get dream-salaries and dream-jobs right out of blundergrad, and they end up bar-tending.

There really is a problem with mind-set, however. Even if we were to add vocational training programs in high-school, and bring back shop classes, we still would have the same problem as we do now. The only jobs that are valued by our society are the ones that involve climbing some ladder, earning regular raises and bonuses, etc. Those are the jobs that EVERYONE is going to want. Whether people like it or not, though, there always has to be someone at the end of the salary ladder. It is impossible for a country to function with everyone making what’s considered a “high” salary. It doesn’t work. And it doesn’t happen.

What we as a society need to realize is that if there is a job, then there must be a need (for something). It may not be the most glamorous job in the world, but it is a job that contributes. We need to realize that not every job that requires a college degree is glamorous. We need to realize that not every job that does NOT require a college degree is low-paying or not worth having. The focus needs to come back on the greater contribution to society than on the perks of a individual contract.

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