One of those subjects that interests me a great deal, is whether a college degree is "necessary" or not. Lately, as the price of (even a mediocre) education skyrockets, the question is a getting a new and respectful hearing. Megan McArdle's in-depth Newsweek article on the topic, has prompted extensive discussion.
I am one who has often had my jobs supplanted by college grads. Frequently, these kids couldn't even decently proofread their own ad copy. I have trained college grad after college grad, many as dumb as dirt. It seems they are getting dumber, too... I think this is probably because the actual value of a degree is less than it used to be. I have trained numerous college grads who barely made it through (sometimes taking much longer than four years to do so), but by God, they had that almighty sacred CREDENTIAL that meant they should make more than I do; never mind that they couldn't even answer a customer's simple questions. (One college grad argued with me that there was no such thing as vitamin B-5. Really.) The dimwitted arrogance of "I have a degree and you don't; so I know everything and you know nothing," is worthy of a whole separate post. I collect such stories. Another big problem with college degrees is that the holder of said degree seems to believe that IQ points were magically bestowed when the degree was conferred... which is more proof of stupidity.
I am also one who has lied on occasion (especially in the pre-digital era) and claimed a college degree I don't have. It never seemed to make any real difference in anything an employer expected me to do. Such unnecessary college degrees (say, among video store clerks) are simply about gate-keeping; making sure that People Like Us are the only people in the break-room. The fact that I was easily able to pass as People Like Them, would suggest that it's the (apparent) fact of the degree, nothing tangible that is learned in the actual process of obtaining one.
From McArdle's piece:
Unsurprisingly those 18-year-olds often don’t look quite so hard at the education they’re getting. In Academically Adrift, their recent study of undergraduate learning, Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa find that at least a third of students gain no measurable skills during their four years in college. For the remainder who do, the gains are usually minimal. For many students, college is less about providing an education than a credential—a certificate testifying that they are smart enough to get into college, conformist enough to go, and compliant enough to stay there for four years.True. Learning itself often seems to be beside the point.
When I was a senior, one of my professors asked wonderingly, “Why is it that you guys spend so much time trying to get as little as possible for your money?” The answer, [writer/economist Bryan] Caplan says, is that they’re mostly there for a credential, not learning. “Why does cheating work?” he points out. If you were really just in college to learn skills, it would be totally counterproductive. “If you don’t learn the material, then you will have less human capital and the market will punish you—there’s no reason for us to do it.” But since they think the credential matters more than the education, they look for ways to get the credential as painlessly as possible.
I have lost count of the number of times I have been reading some 'complicated' (but not really), obscure or arcane book (i.e. Jean Paul Sartre) and have been asked by the resident college grad in my office (accompanied by furrowed brow): "Are you reading that for a class?" The idea that one actually reads something "difficult" for oneself, for pleasure, is utterly foreign to them. Sometimes, when I reply "no"--the puzzlement is evident, and they continue, dumbfounded: "Then why are you reading it?" I hardly know what to say. (Tellingly, it is usually the 'uneducated' redneck in the office who giggles, at this point.) They usually punctuate these questions with, "All of that is behind me now! Whew!" or some other amazing comment, expressing relief that they will never have to READ A REAL BOOK again. (Wow, wasn't that shit HARD?) Some have proudly bragged to me they got through their entire college years without actually finishing a single one. I have never doubted it.
Nonetheless, I was surprised to read on Brad DeLong's blog (check the comments), that questioning the nature of COLLEGE UBER ALLES is now regarded as a conservative viewpoint. As Tim Gunn would say, this worries me. Back in the 60s/70s, liberals and radicals made this argument first, offering the common-sense observation that working and living in the real world--as well as a variety of interesting 'learning experiences' (this era marked the birth of that now-common expression)--also conferred 'an education.' I wasn't aware that questioning authority is now up to the right wing. (And how depressing is that?) Are liberals-on-the-coasts THAT out of touch with the situation on-the-ground? Do they interact with college grads from schools that never expected them to do math without calculators, or spell without spellcheck? I don't think they have.
More proof of the disconnect between elite liberals and the great working-class unwashed... and that makes me uneasy.
Further, there is the increasing importance of teacher evaluations, and whether they are a good or bad thing for education. What does it mean that students now determine whether a teacher stays employed? Is this an education worth paying big bucks for, one that has been "voted on"?
In the New York Times, former Duke professor Stuart Rojstaczer writes:
Student evaluations are a poor indicator of professor performance. The good news is that college students often reward instructors who teach well. The bad news is that students often conflate good instruction with pleasant ambience and low expectations. As a result they also reward instructors who grade easily, require little work, are glib and chatty, wear nice clothes, and are physically attractive. It’s generally impossible to separate all these factors in an evaluation. Plus, students will penalize demanding professors or professors who have given them a bad grade, regardless of the quality of instruction that a professor provides. In the end, deans and tenure committees are using bad data to evaluate professor performance, while professors feel pressure to grade easier and reduce workloads to receive higher evaluations.In the mid-90s, I had a short-term temp-job processing teacher evaluations for a technical college. I fed the evaluations with the penciled-in answer-dots into a "reader" (which often spit them right back out at me... just like when you stick your dollar in the vending machine and it spits it back for having a crease in it) ... and then made pie charts on a Model-T-Ford-like-Mac, breaking down the teacher-ratings from the students: Excellent, Good, Fair, Below Average, Sucks. Then I deciphered the written gibberish from the students ("I like Mrs X, she is hot!", "Mrs X needs to stop talking about her cat all the time, some of us HATE CATS!" etc etc) and typed it up separately. Then I stapled the pie charts to the comments. (Yes, it was Model-T level stuff, indeed, but I remember thinking how high-tech the pie charts were!)
And do I need to tell you, how many times the teachers came sneaking in, asking WHO I was working on? ("Have you reached the computer/engineering/CAD department yet?") If I answered that I was working on their department, their eyes would go boinnnngggg (like a Tex Avery cartoon) and they would frenetically rifle through the papers (that I had carefully separated into piles, of course, causing me hours of extra work) looking for their own students' names and replies. My skinny, ADHD-supervisor would attempt to circumvent this extracurricular activity, keeping the door open from her adjacent office (where she liked to listen to Aerosmith) and bust them when they did this... scurrying in and shooing them away like kindergartners, reminding them of rules, rules, rules: YOU ARE BREAKING THEM. They didn't care. They did it virtually every day I had the job. (Some departments, I could see, were far more nervous than others; the nursing department was impervious and never showed up a single time.) The rifling of my careful piles of papers continued, and since my supervisor could SEE that this was not MY fault, I often got paid overtime.
I finally got the message, loud and clear, that their jobs were at stake. One teacher started groaning as he looked at his pie chart, his mortgage payment obviously hanging in the balance. One of them asked me if there was any way to fudge the replies, which I pretended I hadn't heard, just as skinny-supervisor bounded through the door and banished him from the room.
I remember a short, stolen conversation with one such crestfallen teacher, as I whispered (Aerosmith momentarily drowning us out) that his pie chart looked okay to me. He whispered back, shaking his head, that OKAY/FAIR was not good enough, you had to have blah-de-blah percent of GOODS... FAIR does not cut it. (I remember being surprised, since I am the product of a lifetime of FAIR public school teachers, and I still know every single one of my state capitals.)
What does this mean, that the opinions of students now dictate whether college instructors get to keep their jobs? (Even in a field like AUTOMOBILE ENGINE MECHANICS?!?)
Might this lead to getting softer and softer on the students?
And take note, this was at the dawn of the online era. "Rate My Professors" and other such sites that rate instructors publicly (and anonymously) had not even been invented yet.
In today's economy, we now have the sordid spectacle of employers demanding that bartenders and appliance-salesman have college degrees. As a result, we have a class of people who used to self-select out of college and go to work in factories, choosing to trudge through the torture of college, simply to avoid becoming unemployable. Since there are no longer any factory jobs in the USA, such a person is now at loose ends, and preyed upon by all the fake colleges promising a college credential during TV commercials. (Since these particular working-class folks haven't already been hanging out with the college-set, as I have, they are not quite aware that all college degrees are not equal, and some are barely regarded as real degrees at all.)
College is a racket, straight up. The costs are rising, and increasingly staggering. People graduate and can't find work. Worse, due to the magical degree in their hands, they think a job is promised to them. Thus, when they do get work, they expect it to be a certain KIND of work--the exalted occupations promised on the glowing TV commercials. When expected to mop floors with the rest of us, they are unexpectedly indignant: I didn't spend four years in college for this! they fume. As a matter of fact, you did. You did it to get hired, and now you are hired... now, mop.
I know, you didn't read Twelfth Night and go into six-figure debt to push a mop, and do you now see how ridiculous that was?