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Higher Education August 19, 2008

Posted by federalist in Education, Uncategorized.
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As I previously noted, our current system of higher education is an expensive way of taking an IQ test, and it’s a waste of time for most people to pursue 4-year college degrees.  Charles Murray returns to lampoon this system in a recent essay:

First, we will set up a single goal to represent educational success, which will take four years to achieve no matter what is being taught. We will attach an economic reward to it that seldom has anything to do with what has been learned. We will urge large numbers of people who do not possess adequate ability to try to achieve the goal, wait until they have spent a lot of time and money, and then deny it to them. We will stigmatize everyone who doesn’t meet the goal. We will call the goal a “BA.”

As the United States faces a shortage of skilled blue-collar workers, Murray’s new book, Real Education, is a timely proposal for overhauling the way society approaches education.

Here’s the reality: Everyone in every occupation starts as an apprentice. Those who are good enough become journeymen. The best become master craftsmen. This is as true of business executives and history professors as of chefs and welders. Getting rid of the BA and replacing it with evidence of competence — treating post-secondary education as apprenticeships for everyone — is one way to help us to recognize that common bond.

Murray takes a lot of flak from egalitarians who don’t like the idea that we are not all created with equal potential.  But it’s not just the IQ or “g” Murray often emphasizes.  Variations in individual dispositions and interest mean that education valuable to one person might be wasted on another.  We can preserve the idea that everyone gets an equal opportunity to pursue happiness without implying that happiness requires a college degree.

The first step we should take as a society is to depreciate liberal arts degrees.  A four-year vacation by a young adult to study liberal arts should soon seem as unusual and antiquated as the previous norm that every college graduate should be fluent in Hebrew, Greek, and Latin; or the earlier norm that most literate adults should take an oath of celibacy and spend their lives copying scripture by hand.

Higher study of liberal arts should be its own calling and profession, like medicine or divinity.  Unless someone intends to practice medicine we do not expect them to master more than first aid.  So why do we suggest that every sufficiently intelligent person should tuck themselves away for four years studying primary cultural sources and writing short papers about them?  Employers should never hold the lack of a liberal arts degree against someone who is not seeking a job as a liberal artist.

Even many of those who are “intelligent enough” spend most of college trying to do as little as possible to get the degree.  And why shouldn’t they?  It does not take four years of lectures, reading, and writing on arcane subjects to learn to read, write, and reason.  The content of these courses is readily available to anyone, whether as lectures recorded by master professors or books written by the most insightful scholars.  Those who have the interest and disposition to study liberal arts can and will do so outside of college — such study is a useful hobby.  The most motivated students of the Liberal Arts will follow popular derivative works to primary sources, and may even choose to become professionals in those fields.  Everyone else should feel free — even encouraged — to pursue productive hobbies and studies to which they are naturally attracted.

Society needs to evolve beyond this four-year core-curriculum paradigm.  Or perhaps it needs a devolution to the classic apprenticeship model of developing productive adults.

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Comments»

1. federalist - November 4, 2008

An anonymous tenured professor of liberal arts gets tired of the system and announces, “I’m Leaving,” following

a discernable and precipitous decline in the quality of college students. More of them come to campus with dreadful study habits. Too few of them read for pleasure. Too many drink and smoke excessively. They are terribly ill-prepared for four years of hard work, and most dangerously, they do not think that college should be arduous. Instead they perceive college as an overnight recreation center in which they exercise, eat, and in between playing extracurricular sports, they carry books around. If a professor is lucky, the books are being skimmed hours before class.

2. federalist - November 4, 2008

An anonymous tenured professor of liberal arts gets tired of the system and announces, “I’m Leaving,” following

a discernable and precipitous decline in the quality of college students. More of them come to campus with dreadful study habits. Too few of them read for pleasure. Too many drink and smoke excessively. They are terribly ill-prepared for four years of hard work, and most dangerously, they do not think that college should be arduous. Instead they perceive college as an overnight recreation center in which they exercise, eat, and in between playing extracurricular sports, they carry books around. If a professor is lucky, the books are being skimmed hours before class.

3. Karl M - December 24, 2008

I couldn’t agree more. BUT, I think it’s a case of horrible parenting. We teach our children how to be adults, but not how to be parents, so one generation later, we have kids with the most AMAZING tools a google away, and they spend their time online pursuing the social if we’re lucky and the prurient if we’re not.

4. federalist - February 19, 2009

James Taranto astutely highlights another fundamental problem with our education system:

What we have, then, is a mismatch between what customers are buying and what institutions are selling. Colleges and universities have had great economic success marketing themselves as sellers of job-hunting licenses. If they embraced instead an old-fashioned vision of learning as an end in itself, the quality of their product doubtless would improve immensely–but their market would shrink correspondingly.

Professors may be unhappy to be working for institutions that, to a large extent, have degenerated into mere diploma mills. Many of them, however, owe their jobs to that degeneration.

5. federalist - August 30, 2009

The American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) has published What Will They Learn, a site that grades schools based on their curriculum.

My alma mater gets an F, and I am inclined to agree since it is possible to earn a Yale degree without studying any traditional area of higher education.

6. federalist - January 18, 2011

Student tracking finds limited learning in college reviews the new book Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses by sociologists Richard Arum of New York University and Josipa Roksa of the University of Virginia.


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