November 06, 2003

More on Credentialing

In the light of this discussion on credentialing versus education, I was interested to come across (via Cranky Professor) a couple of posts by Michael Kantor at The Calico Cat. In Student Loan Rip-Off Kantor questions the value of a college education as follows:

I know it's very anti-mainstream to question the value of a college education, but I'm going to go ahead and question it anyway. My experience is that the majority of college students are just in it for the piece of paper they get at the end which they think will be a ticket to a 'good job.' Yet we have so many college students graduating with no job awaiting them at all. And then to add insult to injury, they are burdened with student loan payments of hundreds of dollars per month. This is debt that can never even be discharged in bankruptcy.

How are we benefiting society if we make kids get themselves deeply into debt so they can obtain the same jobs that people obtained a generation ago with no college degree at all? Student loan proponents will say that without student loans, people will be denied the opportunity to advance themselves. I say that without federally guaranteed student loans, the bright students who would be able to benefit from a college education will still be able to obtain funding. The marginal students, who don't belong in college anyway, will also be better off because they will be able to get the same job they would have gotten anyway, except they won't be burdened with having to pay back student loans.

He follows up with this post, where he reiterates his argument that many students are wasting time and money in college.

It will inevitably be objected that Kantor's position represents an elitist view, and not without cause. Certainly, the posts can be read as suggesting that college should be reserved for those who are truly worthy of an advanced education. But the issue of student debt is real, and for many the burden is substantial. And I have to agree with Kantor that while the children of the affluent needn't worry about the economic payoff of a college degree, other students do not have that luxury (for an earlier discussion on this theme, see "Pursue a Liberal Arts Degree and Join the Ranks of the Non-Industrial Proletariat?").

One of the arguments I make on this weblog is that professors in the humanities should stop encouraging bright young undergrads to pursue PhDs in the humanities, or at least should think carefully before doing so, and offer prospective grad students a more realistic picture of the long-term academic employment prospects. This position then leads me to ask some uncomfortable questions about the undergraduate liberal arts degree. Much as I'd love to live a world where such degrees were highly valued, the fact is that I don't. At what point does it become irresponsible to encourage young people to go into debt for degrees that may actually reduce their economic prospects and earning potential over the long run?

Posted by Invisible Adjunct at November 6, 2003 11:16 AM

An undergrad liberal arts degree is the best qualification for most, non-professional employment. I'd much rather hire a computer programmer with a philosophy degree than one with a software engineering degree, because I'm more interested in interesting conversation than productivity.

I also don't employ people and think all private enterprise should be outlawed, so I'm probably not the best judge here.

Posted by: Chun the Unavoidable at November 6, 2003 01:32 PM

I think you (IA) are very highly over-valuing vocational degrees. I have an MBA from what's generally considered the school best in finance (worldwide), and top 5 in accounting, and so on. Literally, this is considered the most "academic" of all the graduate business schools (you should be able to identify the school by now!).

I don't have any hesitation in saying that the vast majority of courses (remember, my school is considered perhaps the hardest of all the major business schools) were, literally, EASY. Sure, Derivatives Theory was hard (but very few people took Derivatives Theory and you certainly didn't even need to take it for a finance degree). I can only imagine what undergraduate business courses at lesser-tier institutions are like. I went to business school with a large number of people who's undergraduate degrees were in business subjects. Universally, they described their undergraduate studies as "easy", "useless" or "irrelevant". In fact, academically, they tended to perform WORSE in graduate business school than liberal-arts or engineering people did. The best performers were ex-scientists. In general, the people who got the best jobs were graduates of Ivy League or similar quality schools, pretty much regardless of what they had studied as undergraduates.

I personally believe that the problem with a liberal arts undergraduate degree is not the academic content. If anything, the academic content is superior to the actual training you would get in business courses. The problem is more that, since liberal-arts students aren't studying business subjects on a daily basis, they are less familiar with business jargon, the major industries out there, job opportunities and internship opportunities.

The last is really where I believe the rub comes in. Most employers, except for a relative handful of very specialized jobs, care little for the academic training (they've been through it themselves and know what a joke it is) but hugely for the experience. I personally would readily rather hire a liberal-arts or science major over a business major (and have done so in the past) with one proviso: THAT I KNOW THEY'RE INTERESTED IN MY BUSINESS. If they can establish that through an internship or other means, they often would be preferred over other candidates.

For one thing, business majors often write terribly (I'm not kidding here, their writing skills are often minimal). They often don't have any research skills at all, they're often incurious and intellectually lazy and sometimes think their courses in college entitle them to things.


Posted by: alex at November 6, 2003 01:56 PM

I'm pretty sure you're not talking about Harvard, Alex, so you're wrong about your school being the most rigorous b-school. Our President chose it for a reason, you know.

Posted by: Chun the Unavoidable at November 6, 2003 02:02 PM

As someone with $75,000 in student loan debt, I've given these question a lot of thought. However, I don't know if I have any good answers.

I can say two things. Without the Federal Student Loan Program, I would be working at McDonalds. No question. With the federal student loan program I'm a professional economist with an expected income stream in the low six figures. Yes, I have a lot of debt. Yes, it's a burden, but not an unduly one.

For many students with my background, student loans are necessary for access to higher education. Financial aid pays for some, but not all of tuition. Jobs can cover rent and food and little else. Loans cover the gap. Without them, access to higher education would be denied to thousands of students, many of whom go on to be productive and prosperous individuals.

What troubles me most about the federal student loan program is that, while ex ante the returns to the loan may seem to justify it, ex post, there can be cause for serious regret. While the average return to education is high, an individual's private return on an education depends on a great many factors: their own assets, abilities, and willingness to earn income, in particular. But I don't know if I feel sufficiently paternalistic toward these folks that I would deny others access to an education.

I would instead offer students more opportunities to work in volunteer programs (such at Teach for America) for release from federal student loan debt (instead of the very small debt reduction offered currently). For students with high earning potential, these programs would not be appealing, but students who found that ex post they regretted the loans could work in a much-needed area for five years to write off their debt.

PS I can also vouch for Alex on the quality of business undergraduates and the academic contents of MBA programs. I've taught both business and MBA classes and's not brain science, let me leave it at that.

Posted by: Matilde at November 6, 2003 02:07 PM

Harvard has never been the most rigorous (certainly in recent years) and readily admits that is the case. Harvard's focus at HBS is less upon academic training (though certainly they DO teach quite good courses) than upon building corporate leaders - in which case, the current President (as lacking in abilities as probably both you and I agree he is) should likely be considered a success.

Harvard is generally not considered a great finance school, in particular. In fact, I personally don't think their finance department is all that hot. In the most top-tier of senior profs, they only have the semi-retired non-teaching Merton. Below Merton; Gompers, Lerner and Perold are certainly sharp but the line-up at HBS doesn't compare to Chicago, Wharton, MIT, Columbia or Stanford. I personally think Carnegie Mellon, Berkeley, UCLA and even URochester have better finance faculties than HBS.

HBS' strategy faculty is certainly among the best anywhere, but strategy courses from a student's perspective are generally the easiest (easier than marketing, even). The most rigorous are the very advanced finance courses and statistical analysis courses. So, HBS isn't too hard, overall, as an MBA student.

Posted by: at November 6, 2003 02:25 PM

Last comment (no. 5) was by me. Sorry.


Posted by: alex at November 6, 2003 02:27 PM

I have to say that I find the original comment interesting and it tallies a great deal with my own teaching experiences and concerns. Frequently, I taught students who were (and I am not kidding) marginally literate---this was at a school which is considered to have medium-level admissions standards. I was troubled by this because the students really were in it for "the piece of paper" (which is what they called the degree). I know it's politically incorrect to say this but many of these students were not very bright---they should not have gone to college and had this been Europe or Japan, they would not have been in college.

Obviously, I don't think that cutting off student loans is the answer (I taught many rich dumb kids). I think we would be better served if we thought about why people should go to college and what kinds of standards we have. Encouraging people to spend $100,000 (whether it is their own money or a loan) on something which they may not be qualified to do does not really make much sense to me.

I have a very good British friend who is married to an American. David is not a college graduate (I think only 4% of Britons go to university and that includes polytechs). David is, however, much better educated than Sandy, his wife who went to a mid-level American college. They both admit this (Sandy says "I'm not especially academic but I knew I had to go to college.")

I think we'd be better served if we began to have more rigourous admission standards (I am eager to see what happens with the SATs when the writing component is added---I had so many students who could not write a sentence and who, when I asked, were unclear on what a verb was---why were these people in college?).

Posted by: Hana at November 6, 2003 02:44 PM

Matilde is correct about student loans within the current context -- without loans, a healthy fraction of the student populace would be unable to obtain that all-important credential. Yes, there are those who will utilize higher education for actual education -- the proverbial bettering of the self -- but there are also those simply in it for the diploma. But what choice do they have? After temping in Henious Metro Area for a good amount of time, I have met one (1) person with a "real" job that does not have a diploma. Loans are a terrible financial burden for a graduate, but within the current system, there is often (and I do emphasize often, not only) no other choice.

Which leads back to the sorry state of "education" previously mentioned. During my state-subsidized tenure as a student at Big State U., I couldn't believe I was sharing an "academic experience" with the morons around me -- and that's not a bias towards the humanities, or my fellow English majors in particular. Moronity is not limited to any particular field. My classes were cluttered with the disinterested, the secondary ed. folks forced to interact with the subject they intended to teach our burgeoning youth, and business folks trying to game the interview system with a note on the transcript. Add that to the rest of us -- the "hard-core" majors, who were often just as lazy, if not more so, than the rest -- and you get an idea why teachers and professors desperately cling to the axiom that "if I can only reach one or two students a semester" --- they have to! Everyone else is simply there due to a socio-economic imperative that requires the acquisition of a diploma.

Which leads further to the sorry state of career counseling in academia--a topic covered before on this very blog in relation to grad school. What about undergrads? I was told, as a nominally bright undergrad, that with my English BA I should go to grad school. Someone, branded a heretic by the department, I'm sure, told me about Law school, since it was fashionable to go in with an English major -- a suggestion I summarily rejected as, of course, heresy. No other options were presented. My fellow English majors -- the aforementioned "hard-core" group -- are now floundering about the country in the exact situation described by Kantor -- saddled with debt, and with no readily available career save grad school.

I could continue on how the academy perpetuates the situation by maintaining ridiculously low standards, but I won't - I'll just leave you with this. One of my fellow MA students roomed with a crew of med students. After observing them --and their rigorous study schedule-- for a semester, she dropped out to enter law school. THe workload for our program was, in comparison, laughably low. And I defy anyone to show me a humanities program that does.

Posted by: shkspr at November 6, 2003 02:47 PM

Ah, one more thing. I just read Hana's comment about admissions standards -- yes, the standards do need to be revised. A glut of aimless undergrads leads to a glut of ill-informed grad students, which leads to the hell of a mess we have with the job market.

Of course, the same problems arise -- how to inform people of this? "I mean, I'm sure that -I- would still be admitted, so it wouldn't apply to me..." I think we've heard that one before.

Posted by: shkspr at November 6, 2003 02:51 PM

shkspr, what does your final 'does' in your penultimate post refer to?

What would happen if the country raised admissions (and retention) standards fiercely in, oh, 2005, and increase outright aid for the students still there? (Not that the whole country could. The horse is a perfect sphere...)

It seems to me that theoretically employers would know that a post-2004 admission was 'worth' much more than a pre-2004 one, and that the bottom tier of employers would have to adjust their demands. I think the current overhang of unemployed college grads would get a magic present as the employers' standards adjusted stickily; and correspondingly the first few years of not-quite-college students would have a horrible time, socially and economically.

Posted by: clew at November 6, 2003 03:10 PM

Sorry, I left a dangling "does" out there for all to see. I was referring to the following: humanities programs -in particular English, since that is my frame of reference- are much less rigorous than, for instance, medical school, which possesses a much higher workload and a more intense course of study. I know that doctors save lives, so that course is, in some sense required --- but I yearn for the day that someone in a restaurant shouts out "Is there a PhD in the house?! This man needs a text explicated, or he'll die!"

And I do agree with your point, clew, that the first generation of not-quite-college-students would face a horrible economic situation. Maybe Chun would like to chime in and remind us that our capitalist society necessitates a mindless proletariat conditioned to repetitive tasks. Or maybe someone smarter than myself could propose a better solution.

Posted by: shkspr at November 6, 2003 03:31 PM

I think another point to bring out is that students, everywhere, at all times, are often clueless. And I think, most likely, that that's fine! I'm not sure I would want to be in a society where everyone knew at the age of 16 what they wanted to do with their lives. Most likely, that would imply that everybody would follow in their father's or mother's or uncle's profession. Notwithstanding the economic inflexibility of that system, I don't think it would necessarily lead to greater happiness.

Sure, the floundering that some liberal-arts (in particular) majors do is particularly horrific. And nobody should be flip about that. On the other hand, counseling students to change their majors to, say, engineering, won't necessarily reduce their floundering. It may delay it (and delaying it to a later crisis may well be positive) - but won't necessarily cancel it at all. For example, I've never encountered an accountant at a Big 4 firm who liked it, I've encountered few lawyers at large law firms who truly enjoy it and the number of engineers who want to do something else is literally staggering.

I would argue that liberal arts majors, overall, who plan well for the transition to working life will tend to be happier than vocational majors who don't and fall into "well-traveled" paths that often turn out not to be so pleasant.


Posted by: alex at November 6, 2003 03:41 PM

The assumption seems to be that, perhaps, these underachieving, uninterested students would have been better off not going to university at all--which I can't argue with--but also that the bright and interested ones *should* be in university.

Well, should I? I'm a senior in an undergraduate linguistics program at a good university, love my classes, high GPA. But I continually question whether the money my parents have spent on classes is actually worth it--if I had to go into debt for this education, what would I be getting out of it? Four years of knowledge that are fascinating but for the most part utterly useless in the real world. Four years of living on my own at someone else's expense. Is this really right?

Posted by: Emily at November 6, 2003 03:57 PM

This is one of my obsessive themes (more at my URL).

A few new things. One is that as more people get BA's, the BA becomes a minimum standard, and entry into the middle class (which can only be so large) requires a fifth year for even more certification: MBA, Med Tech, MAT, etc., in a tech field -- or simply, return to a tech program and starting from the beginning. (A friend of mine did well with a BA in philosophy followed by a community college certificate in high tech. Having the BA often affects prospects and promotions even if not directly relevant to work).

Second, a college degree all by itself means pure Class. Not money Class, but (at least) genteel-poverty Class.

Among my son's old and present friends (aged 30 or so) you have people without money and with, people without degrees and with. Ultimately the people he's known with degrees will mostly do better financially than those without, but right now it's not so clear. One non-college guy contracting carpentry is probably making more money than 90% of the college guys at the moment, though several of them will catch up.

I think one of the big left/right cleavages in this country is between those with money and no degree (Limbaugh types), and those with degrees and no money (slackers, Greenpeace canvassers). That's what the "elitist" thing is often about -- successful non-college guys vs. successful college guys (and snotty, unsuccessful college guys).

Posted by: zizka at November 6, 2003 05:15 PM

"I can say two things. Without the Federal Student Loan Program, I would be working at McDonalds. No question. With the federal student loan program I'm a professional ..."

Funny, with the student loan program, and a Ph.D., many of us are ONLY qualified to work at McDonald's -- or teach for similar wages as McD.'s pays as an adjunct.

Posted by: at November 6, 2003 05:30 PM

I think there's a case to be made that for at least a significant minority of college students, four years of tuition is not necessarily a good value.

I mean, really: A degree in institutional management to manage a Pizzeria Uno? A bachelor's degree in psychology (and a bill for four years of out-of-state tuition) to work as a clerk in a human resources office? A B.A. in communications to perform secretarial and administrative work? These are all examples I've personally encountered, and I see many, many more in my role as an adjunct at a big Northeastern state school. The people themselves are perfectly nice, and often quite bright, but they simply didn't need to spend tens of thousands of dollars for a credential that could have been supplemented by experience, on-the-job training, youth internships, etc. Scratch that: of course they *needed* to, in order to get the job; they shouldn't have had to.

There are also signs that high-school guidance counselors just don't get it. I recently came across a news story about a principal in New Jersey who implemented a new policy: every student now must apply to a college' it's a requirement for graduation. I think that sends a terrible message to kids: if you don't go to college, you're a failure--and an aberrant weirdo to boot.

I think it's wonderful that nearly anyone *can* earn a degree these days, but I think our society has absurdly overvalued the college degree. The actual education is wasted on many students who doze through their classes, and the credential indicates nothing at all about the individual's competence--only that he or she paid the cost of admission.

Posted by: J.V.C. at November 6, 2003 05:38 PM

I think Rana's comments on the original Pursue A Liberal Arts Degree post are worth re-reading: it's interesting here that education is constructed entirely instrumentally; it's only valued in its application to some concrete activity (viz. shkspr's cry for an English PhD in the house), and that concrete activity is constructed as having a solely monetary value. That monetary value seems to be then constructed as an excuse for excluding the unworthy from higher education.

IA, I also think bringing up the loan concern allows one to commodify education and further reduce it to a dollar value. (Rana made many of these points in the original thread you point to.) I'm sick of the monetized myopia that can see only an all-consuming economy that is outside of human intervention and to which -- in its avatar of The Market -- all other concerns must bow. This all-consuming economy, as I understand it, rewards competition and the rational actions of self-interested individuals, and as Rana gets at, that's a really crappy foundation upon which to build a democratic community of citizens who have an interest in the greater good.

While others may sneer at non-monetized constructions of education and call it "enrichment" and suggest that the academics who speak in favor of it are speaking from a position of self-interest, they seem to be unaware that it's a model that's been around for 2000 years, and was originally spoken for by a lawyer -- not an educator -- in De Oratore.

If the economy is all one can see, then perhaps the economy is all one needs and all one deserves: stay home and read the business pages. Me, I got a couple tickets for The Winter's Tale.

Posted by: Mike at November 6, 2003 06:03 PM


While this discussion often veers onto topics of global import - and, yes, thinking about those things is important - on the other hand, there is a trap in thinking so much on those subjects that it interferes with what you want to/need to do for yourself.

Our current social system has much in it to criticize. Our educational system contributes its part to that. On the other hand, we all have to function well within all the interlocked systems.

At this point, much of your parents' money is already spent and to worry about it is to participate in the sunk cost fallacy. What is important for you is how well you handle the immediate period ahead of you.


Posted by: alex at November 6, 2003 06:07 PM

And Zizka -- as you begin to acknowledge, your points re class depend entirely upon what definition of class one uses, and class is a highly contested term (more at my URL on this, including posts categorized by definition of class). I'd take issue with the assertion that "the middle class can be only so big": how big? By what definition? The genteel-poverty definition implies one thing (class as education: how scarce a commodity is education?) and the wealth definition implies another. The underlying assumption, of course, is that success itself is a scarce commodity, and there's only so much of it to go around. Depends on how one defines success, I'd say. And scarcity.

Posted by: Mike at November 6, 2003 06:11 PM

Re: JVC's Post No. 16

While we probably agree on the ultimate thrust of your post, I do have to take exception to your characterization of the three examples you give of over-education. First, almost all jobs straight out of college (undergrad) could be done by a high school graduate (or certainly, a high school student with a very minimal amount of training). There are some exceptions, but in general, the previous is true.

However, the hope (and yes, very high chance) is that all three of these people will move out of those positions into more rewarding (whether professionally or monetarily or otherwise) in the fairly near future. That's not to say that they could not do this at age 18 without college. What we do know is that people who don't hold college degrees tend to do worse (monetarily) than those who do. That may be an artifact of numerous other possible processes going on, and admittedly, the causation arrow's direction is unclear.


Posted by: alex at November 6, 2003 06:25 PM

Hmmm ... yeah, some of the people in college should be in vocational school. But how 'bout these apples (with some repetition of parts of the above):

A liberal arts education is what one makes of it. Even with today's extravagant prices, the truly good students may not have terrible loan problems, because they've wangled grants and scholarships. (I ended up with only $18k in loans for the 18 years my three degrees took, but face it, that means I started when Community College was $50 a semester and UC cost $487 a quarter. Grad School was fellowships and waitressing.
That said, what's it really worth to be able to carry on intelligent conversations on many subjects? How fulfilling is it to know how to find out more about a topic and adequately critique the sources? As the commercial says, "priceless."

On the other hand, as I tell my students, my liberal arts education also gave me enough computer skills that I could land temp jobs that got me job experience; the critical thinking skills and knowledge base almost always led to offers of permanent work and advancement. My MA and a bit of teaching were enough to convince a sales manager that I could learn about products and train clients in how to sell them -- and my writing skills got me a job in marketing. The foreign languages made it possible for me to interview (when I was desperate for a job) and get offers for high-level admin work at companies with international offices -- and exec assistants often start in the mid- $40k's, enough to pay off student loans!

Anyway, although I can see good reason to offer more non-university training and dispel the myth that a degree is the only way to a well-paying job, I see no reason to bar the door to the underachievers to protect them. Hell, lots of people perfectly capable of doing the work waste somebody's money every day they spend in college -- and many of them do straighten up eventually ;-)

It would be nice, though, to provide more ways of forgiving student loans. Unfortunately, I fear it wouldn't help those most hurt by the system -- the people who drop out (and I seem to remember, IIRC, that this is most true for private, for-profit colleges and vocational programs).

Posted by: ANother Damned Medievalist at November 6, 2003 07:15 PM

Montaigne wrote, in "Of Study" I believe, "The purpose of study is to learn to die well and live well." I agree with that notion.

Everyone needs to learn how to die and how to live. As most of the posters here construct a college education, college is NOT a good place to learn how to die and how to live. But it should be.

However, I construct my lower division courses around this very fundamental belief. I also try to show students many of the instrumentalities in writing, but the most central value of writing lies in its capacity for self-discovery, for constructing freshly what was before only dimly understood.

I trace this failure of college academics to see the fundamental values of liberal education to what I call the Nixon-Reagan axis. During that time, a drumbeat for the vocational aspects of education developed. Reagan won election in California partly by running against hippies and wild-eyed students and professors who kept focusing on ethics and justice and crap like that instead of just getting on with a degree and a job.

The depressing part of all this has been the way so many humanists in some misguided sense of realpolitik have bought the vocational line. When my students tell me how valuable a college education is for getting a job I reply: Bill Gates and Steve Jobs.

If part of your education does not focus on figuring out how to be happy, then I'm not sure the rest of it has any real point. I suppose one of IA's mantras here is that education should no make you unhappy. I agree with that. If you pursue a PhD, you better find some intrinsic satisfactions in that work--and you ought to understand how that work will help you die well and live well.


Posted by: John at November 6, 2003 07:17 PM

"IA, I also think bringing up the loan concern allows one to commodify education and further reduce it to a dollar value."

Mike, to acknowledge a set of existing conditions is not to extoll the merits of that set of conditions. As I said in my post, I'd love to live in a world in which the liberal arts degree was highly valued. But I strongly suspect that I do not inhabit such a world. And I personally know people (and also know of many more people) who are struggling with student loan payments. They have bills to pay, and they have children to feed (yeah, I know "love of Shakespeare doesn't pay the rent" is a tiresome bromide. But you know what? You don't get to go out and see a performance of The Winter's Tale when you're saddled with debt and you have to worry about -- and not only worry about but actually accomplish -- the care and feeding of another human being). It's no exaggeration to say that for some, college costs turn out to be a kind of mortgage on their future.

To make my position clear: when I contemplate a world in which we no longer read Plato or Shakespeare, I'm not only dismayed, I'm profoundly disturbed and even frightened. But I can no longer support the sort of monasticism that reduces all concern with the material to some form or other of philistinism. People do and must live in the "real world." And I think the humanities, or people in the humanities, need to think harder about the role of the humanities in the world, rather than hold the humanities up as a kind of ideal alternative to the rest of life that we know as "the world."

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at November 6, 2003 07:32 PM

"That said, what's it really worth to be able to carry on intelligent conversations on many subjects? How fulfilling is it to know how to find out more about a topic and adequately critique the sources?"

Interestingly enough, not very much. I learned this the other day when I discovered that the three women who work at my doctor's office all have med-tech degrees and no college experience whatsoever. And for havint aken the smart, non-liberal arts avenue, they get: 1. a job for life, or until the doctor retires (she's 35, so that's not happneing any time soon); 2. a thorough and full (no riders, no hidden caveats) health benefit package with no out-of-pocket costs; 3. a comprehensive 401k retirement plan; 4. a pretty decent income; 5. and the ability to have a "life," i.e., have a spouse/partner, buy a house, and enjoy peace of mind and relative security.

Now, what do I get for my ability to "carry on intelligent conversations on many subjects"? Not much. In fact, I'd take another step and say nothing. Zero, Nada, Zilch. Oh, no, wait ... I forgot: I'm the guy the man in the bank was able to ask to explain the appropriate uses of 'further' as opposed to 'farther'. Yeah, priceless, f**king priceless.

Those who argue for the intrinsic rewards of a liberal education are living in an admittedly genteel, but bygone era: Long Live Montaigne!

Posted by: Chris at November 6, 2003 07:49 PM

Mike: Well, the middle class can't be so big as to swallow up the entire lower class. "Middle" is relational. If 50% of society is middle class, there's a bit of devaluation. So people try to separate themselves off from the rest of the middle class into some higher group (even though they know they can't attain the upper class -- people who don't have to work, tell others what to do all day long, own several houses, etc.)

The vague and shifting definitions of class are intrinsic, and my main point was to distinguish two separable aspects of class, money and education, and point out what happens when they're separated. People with both money and education who are still not upper class are unambiguously middle class, but the ones I mentioned are ambiguously middle class.

I don't claim that what I said about class is universally accepted, but I think that it's a pretty good starting point and relevant to the question of why a lot of people go to college when it seems that they really shouldn't. And also some of the frustrations people feel when they find that their B.A., M.A., or PhD doesn't do for them what they expected it would. There just aren't enough slots and too many people competing for them, whether you're thinking of tenure-track positions, secure college-graduate jobs, prestige, or whatever.

Posted by: zizka at November 6, 2003 08:04 PM

"That said, what's it really worth to be able to carry on intelligent conversations on many subjects? How fulfilling is it to know how to find out more about a topic and adequately critique the sources? As the commercial says, "priceless.""

I can't let this elitist statement pass without comment. Before attending college in my late twenties, I worked for a number of construction companies. Most of the people there did not have anything more than a high school degree. Amazingly enough, they were quite capable of carrying on intelligent conversations on a wide variety of topics. I grew up in a rural, farm driven area, where almost no one had a college degree (other than teachers). Yet, they too carried on intelligent conversations! In fact, other than a (very) few political science majors - the people in my home town are much better informed about world politics and events than any of the people I met at college. They are informed and can make intelligent conversation about these topics because world events affect their livelihoods.

As far as knowing how to find out more about a topic, anyone who is motivated can walk into a library and learn more. If they get stuck, well, that's why help desks exist. I didn't learn research skills as an undergrad. I learned them at the public library. Because I questioned hat I learned there, I became motivated to get an undergrad degree (and now Phd). My professors certainly didn't teach me research or critical thinking. Given the proliferation of term paper web sites, I think it is possible for unmotivated students to get a college degree without learning any of those things. Certainly many of my students are completely flummoxed about what to do if they can't find something on J-Store.

People who do not go to college are not necessarily less intelligent or capable than those who do go to college. Some of them just don't like sitting in a classroom or doing paperwork. That doesn't make them less, it just makes them different. As a TA I see many students who are in college because they "should" be there. Because someone told them that they "should" aspire to be some kind of middle manager. I think they would be happier if they just became auto mechanics (one student's desire) or carpenters, or whatever. They would certainly be better able to avoid working a job they hate just because they have to make their student loan payments.

Posted by: irritated at November 6, 2003 08:09 PM

I have a question that hopefully someone can answer.

The world we live in today is different from that 20 years ago.Stuff like cloning, nanotechnology, computers,etc were not as common then.
Yet, I am not sure if the liberal arts classes have changed what they taught that much over 20 years. Perhaps isnt that we dont value the ability to "carry on intelligent conversations on many subjects", but rather we have to learn new things to talk about.

Liberal arts students have an edge in the balance of analytical and communication skills. But talking about say computer ethics will be enhanced by at least some knowledge about computers. Perhaps its time we redefined what is a liberal arts education?

Posted by: Passing_through at November 6, 2003 08:14 PM

One definition of undergrad education not mentioned except glancingly so far is "the four-year party". Some analysts of education conclude that for many students college just is a way to postpone getting into the labor force, have some fun, and dabble in some interesting things. (A way of masking unemployment, as in Europe). But when college debt balloons and the parents' cost likewise, this definition becomes less plausible, especially when students end up unprepared for the work force when they enter it.

To me this definition of education isn't unspeakably horrible as such. People do get this smattering of knowledge and a larger perspective no matter how lazy they are, which is a good thing.

I've known a moderate number of people who "got practical" very young and have been dependent on commercial media for their further education, and there's a big cost to that. I've also known people who first went to college at age 30-35 who were just overjoyed to be learning things even though they weren't tremendously good students and even though their education didn't have a lot of practical value. Being trapped in the world of work and TV is pretty hellish.

Posted by: zizka at November 6, 2003 08:21 PM

As I mentioned before, I personally am not convinced that vocational majors will better prepare students for the workforce. The accounting faculty may make that claim - I've hired some of their products and I'm not impressed. Of course, this might be an inherent problem with our entire educational system - liberal-arts, scientific and vocational. All of them are quite divorced from practical applications, work experience is an afterthought at best, and so on (roll out the list of well-founded criticisms).

So, if all of our education system is deeply flawed (a position I agree with), I don't see that liberal-arts majors are necessarily more severly disfunctional than the others. Equally disfunctional, quite likely, but significantly more disfunctional? Nah.

Posted by: alex at November 6, 2003 08:34 PM

Ok, so we are talking Wharton (would be my guess, if it is finance), though I've a couple of notes.

First, a couple of studies have shown the MBA to have no net benefit for lifetime earning. Some interesting discussions go on with the Academy of Management.

Second, a DBA or PhD in business takes only a year more than an MBA, gets you a stipend for the entire program rather than charging you tuition, and in finance there are about 7 jobs in education for every 5 graduates.

That is part of the entire theme behind the PhD project.



I think you (IA) are very highly over-valuing vocational degrees. I have an MBA from what's generally considered the school best in finance (worldwide), and top 5 in accounting, and so on. Literally, this is considered the most "academic" of all the graduate business schools (you should be able to identify the school by now!).

end quote:

the fact that the top 10% of the graduates from the "vocational" (professional) schools are making 120k or so a year obscures the placement of the rest, especially lower tier who place only the top 20% of their students. It is what makes medical school so attractive. If you visit you will get a good idea of what a starting med student can make.

But visit for an interesting perspective on graduate school.

Posted by: visitor at November 6, 2003 09:41 PM

No, not Wharton, though you're thinking in the right direction.

I'm not sure what you're driving at. I'm quite well aware of the pay differentials between business schools. I wasn't recommending business school. In fact, I don't generally recommend most undergraduate business degrees at all, except for a handful of schools.

Doctorates in business do NOT take three years. I don't understand where you're getting that. No, you can not write a dissertation in a year, even in business. At my school, the average length to gain a doctorate in the various business subjects was 5-6 years - less than many other subjects, admittedly, but not a short amount of time either. A few gunners might be able to do it in four years, but nobody can do it in three, at least not in the past 10+ years.

Note: some schools do throw in the MBA for free, others don't. Gotta be careful with that one.

Posted by: alex at November 6, 2003 09:54 PM

Poorly educated students graduate from college because faculty are ill-equipped to teach or to evaluate them. The fact that there are so many ill-educated college graduates speaks poorly of the academic profession. I do not believe that most well-credentialed (I can't call them 'well-educated') professors really do a good job of teaching.

Business students who can't write, speak or think completed their writing, speaking and thinking courses in the arts and sciences. Business schools are not allowed to teach these subjects; they are the sole turf of the humanists and social scientists, although I've met more humane and social people in business schools than I have in the colleges of arts and sciences. And the business faculty usually did NOT major in business as undergrduates and, in some cases, in their doctoral programs. They just figured it out that there are more and better and more interesting jobs teaching finance, economics and marketing, even with their BAs, MSs and PhDs in English, psychology and mathematics. Business students learn a language, call it global-ecospeak, and some of them are simply not fluent in it or able to survive or to prosper in the real world, where speaking is a survival art, not just an art.

More credentials (gosh, I wish I could say 'more education') still means better lifetime income prospects but only on the average. Too many people try to dispute the value of a college degree by pointing to Bill Gates (without one) and unemployed PhDs in English. But look at who stays employed, who earns the most money, who holds on best over the years, who has a life AND a career, and it is much more likely to be a college graduate than a high school graduate or, worse, a drop out from high school. And we still look with disdain at someone who loves learning, did well in school, and yet chooses to stay at home with his or her children. That's not a failure, that's called a life.

Posted by: Peter at November 6, 2003 10:01 PM

IA, my point is that your reduction of education to a dollar value -- demanding that education be economic -- is precisely what constructs the humanities as somehow transcendent, rather than material and in-the-world. The humanities are very much real, material, and in the world: one does not need a one-to-one conversion into dollar value to be material. Reifying an all-consuming economy by assuming that the only material matters in the world involve serving that vocationalized economy contributes to the monasticism you describe. Absolutely, the humanities need some grounding: but constructing the vocationalized Economy as somehow in opposition to the humanities can only serve to deny that grounding.

You write that "You don't get to go out and see a performance of The Winter's Tale when you're saddled with debt and you have to worry about -- and not only worry about but actually accomplish -- the care and feeding of another human being" and seem to have missed my metaphorical point -- or maybe not. By your metaphorical point, the argument would seem to be that those "saddled with debt" can do absolutely nothing that is noneconomic in nature. Now, I'll absolutely agree that those whose lives are not so constrained by debt or poverty have a much easier time enjoying noneconomic concerns, and have written much about that problem at my weblog; it's part of the project of my dissertation, and part of the reason I debunked every single protestation of "But Amherst grads aren't any more privileged than anyone else" Anon made in your 2% of All BAs thread. But to suggest that for some people economic concerns are the only concerns perpetuates Matthew Arnold's vicious, screaming classism, and veers perilously close to the vanguardist view that the poor have no culture and no appreciation for culture.

Posted by: Mike at November 6, 2003 10:10 PM

I think there is some confusions about MBAs and phds in business. A phd in business is very very different from an MBA. Phds in business in the top schools deal with really complicated stuff. The math/statistics in finance or business economics phd programs rival that of applied math phd programs. Game theory in strategy at the phd level is almost as complex as the stuff found in some CS AI programs.Check out some of the recent dissertations from the top places and see how much math is involved.

Posted by: at November 6, 2003 10:41 PM

Hana, these sentences your students could not write -- I can't help but you imagine that you were teaching Conrad, because it sounds like your basic message is that we ought to exterminate all the brutes, or at least keep them out of college. You ask, "why were these people in college?" if they didn't know these things.

For education, perhaps?

John's response about the "most central value of writing" might help you understand some things about the relative value of identifying verbs. His weblog is pretty good, too, and might help you do something about that elitist snarl.

And, while I'm at it, Peter, your assertion that "business schools are not allowed to teach these subjects" [i.e., writing] is uninformed, and nonsense. Many schools rely on writing across the curriculum programs. But thanks for the "business good/humanities bad" idiocy.

Posted by: Mike at November 7, 2003 12:47 AM

OK, here's a proposal. No one can enter a PhD program in the humanities who has not already proved themselves as a teacher or in some other area of work. Anyone who wants to teach undergraduates would be required to demonstrate competence in that field before being admitted to a PhD program. And if you rearranged doctoral studies so that faculty could hold on to their jobs while they did advanced study, then you'd greatly reduce the over production of PhDs. Most would already have a job.

Testual scholarship could be divorced from undergraduate teaching and associated with the great libraries. We'd still have a place for those who want to read deeply and idiosyncratically in literature. We just wouldn't expect them to be teachers.


Posted by: John at November 7, 2003 01:57 AM

A couple of quick thoughts.

To the poster who lamented lack of work experience, the NSF and many other agencies/organizations/ schools are now making concerted pushes to provide just such work experience in the form of summer "Research Experience for Undergraduates" and similar programs. ABET-certified engineering institutions are required to have seniors complete an internship or senior project as part of certification. Music majors must perform and/or teach to finish their degrees. Perhaps something similar is needed for liberal arts students.

About student loans, they should not be removed, but they should be more difficult to qualify for because too many people misuse them (people will do all sorts of things, I've even lived off of mine one semester). I refuse to take another one, but I also appreciate that without them I would not have been able to go to school full-time and would have lost the rest of my financial aid. That would have turned a 5-year experience into a 10-year ordeal paying out of pocket. Instead the need for financial aid should be increasingly satisfied by other means. Perhaps rewriting insurance policies and other institutional paperwork to allow more students work-study or to work a few more hours a week would help. Pell Grants definitely need looser criterion for qualification. I had to pay for a lot of tuition out of pocket because my father retired my sophomore year and had $20k taxable benefits (Uncle Sam benefitted, my family saw little of it, and I lost Pell Grant eligibility). There has to be a better way to make college available than saddling students with such debt.

Lastly, a lot people here seem to have beef with a technical education. Please stop with the rhetoric of this type. It only serves to drive engineering and the sciences away from liberal arts, which will drive the erosion of support for liberal arts. People can clearly see the benefits of, say, the Web (which was invented by a physicist), or cancer treatment (again, an application of physics research), but for many it is harder to see why we should bother with, say, literary studies. Both sets of disciplines make invaluable contributions to society, and both should be praised for that. Neither should be denegrated in an effort to enhance the appeal the other.

Posted by: Aramis Martinez at November 7, 2003 04:04 AM

Where did I get the idea that PhD in business could be completed in three years (assuming proper undergraduate and post graduate experience)?

From the program materials I read. The class work is only three years worth of material, and the hiring that I've seen done was of people who had their degrees. Guess a fair number were ABDs, but they were employed at 70k to 100k (more for the finance guys).

"Doctorates in business do NOT take three years. I don't understand where you're getting that."

Hmm, now a complete website on the topic:

and the original:

Hope that is clearer.

Didn't realize that Wharton was no longer number one. You can tell I've not kept track of things.

Posted by: visitor at November 7, 2003 07:50 AM

What ANother Damned Medievalist said, and also what Aramis Martinez said, especially the passage about making student loans more difficult to get. The "real job" I had in the early 90s had to do with the student loan business, and back then, one of the major problems was "Bob's School of Cosmetology and Bartending" was considered as "legitimate" of an institution as the University of Virginia or what-have-you.

The idea that an undergraduate degree is a waste of time and money is not exactly a new concept. I recall teaching an essay in first year composition in the late 80s that was literally called something like "College is a Waste of Time and Money." I don't remember the details, but essentially, the author argued that an 18 year old who became an auto mechanic would be better off financially than the 18 year old who went to college. Even though the college grad would end up making more money, the author argued, the auto mechanic would end up making more money in total because he would have spent that many more years in the work force, and also because he wouldn't have taken on any student loan debt. My students' back then thought the essay was both obvious and ridiculous: "obvious" because they had all weighed similar options, and "ridiculous" because they had decided to go to college precisely because they didn't want to be an auto mechanic.

I think my current students are more or less in the same boat, particularly my "non-traditional" students. In fact, I had a student in a class last year who literally had been an auto mechanic for a couple of years right out of high school. He offered quite useful advice about my ailing minivan.

Obviously, this student reached his decision about pursuing a college degree based on some knowledge of the working world for people who don't have a college degree, and at the university where I teach, this is a very common reason why students are taking classes. I have many students who have jobs in factories and the like, or who have "real jobs" where they must get a college degree to move on to the next level, or who had a "real job" with their liberal arts degree but who were coming back to college to get certified to be a high school teacher. These students tend to be the best ones because they know why they are there and also why they are spending all this money. They have considered their options.

Two last thoughts. First, getting a degree in the liberal arts has NEVER in and of itself prepared anyone for the working world, certainly not in the way a degree in a field like engineering, nursing, or business might. In other words, no one is going to give someone with a BA in English a job just because they have a BA in English. So what? All this means is that people who decide to major in something like English or history have to be proactive.

Second and perhaps more important, I'm sort of curious as to the reason why there seems to be this notion that one goes to college to either get an "education," or to get a "credential--" just a piece of paper, so to speak. Why are these things mutually exclusive? Who among this group would have gone to college had their not been some piece of paper at the end of it? What makes people think it's not possible to get an education while one gets a credential?

Posted by: Steven D. Krause at November 7, 2003 08:35 AM

"one does not need a one-to-one conversion into dollar value to be material."

I wish I could agree with you here, and in a basic sense I do. And yet. A one-to-one conversion into dollar value is, within the current system, the only way to account for the idea of value. "Value" means money, and if you cannot calculate a dollar amount for something - in this case a "liberal arts education," or a similar description -- then it is seen as possessing no inherent value.

This seems to be the impetus behind the efforts of schools like U. of Wisconsin, who have attempted to analyze the impact of the university on the economy of the state --- in other words, putting a dollar value on the institution in order to justify its existence. Does it provide other, less "capitalist" benefits? Of course, but if you can't put up a dollar value, it will be lost.

There was a column in the Chronicle a few weeks ago (the reference escapes me now, I'll try to find it) that proposed an economic analysis of humanities departments, in order to demonstrate that such departments are contributors, rather than economic dead weight, to the university. This does not amount to advocating a thoroughly economized worldview -- it is simply a realization that within the current situation no other alternative seems to exist.

Of course, we'll all have something more - or at least different -- to worry about when the education system as we know it collapses.

Posted by: shkspr at November 7, 2003 09:16 AM

Alex writes that "What we do know is that people who don't hold college degrees tend to do worse (monetarily) than those who do." I'm surprised no one has yet made reference to the study mentioned previously on this blog claiming that liberal arts degrees in the UK actually result in a lower lifetime income than the non-degreed worker.

I think the interesting question here is not whether, in an ideal world, many entry-level jobs ought not require a degree, or whether non-academically-inclined students should have to go to college to get ahead — the interesting question is whether, in the world as it is, forgoing college can be a beneficial option. I think that it can. Not starting off one's working life with $20K in debt is a huge step up, of course; and I wonder how many employers really value a degree more than the value the four years of work experience that a high school graduate will have accumulated by the time his college-bound classmates graduate.

As to the argument that one should be in it for the education rather than the credential, and that knowledge is its own reward, I find it hard to take that seriously. The current academic system doesn't seem to offer any more — at the undergraduate level — in the way of pure learning than can be gotten from the public library, the Internet, conversations with friends and co-workers, etc. Like Frank Zappa said, "If you want to get laid, go to college; if you want an education, go to the library."

Additionally, it's easy to say that knowledge is priceless when you have tens of thousands of dollars to blow. When defaulting on your student loans because you make $14K a year with your vaunted degree results in your living with your parents at 30 (like one of my acquaintances), I wonder how much of a comfort the ability to break into extemporaneous discourse on Lacan really is. I've known far too many happy stupid people and miserable smart people to believe that knowledge is worth much on its own.

Posted by: E. Naeher at November 7, 2003 10:51 AM

I've been challenged at my own blog to come over here and give Hana hell about students not belonging in college, but actually, there are several posts here that I find troubling. Steve Krause may have put his finger on why.

I'm a tenured English prof at a community college. I choose to teach basic writing and freshman composition because I love the work (well, not the endless paper grading, but the nature of the work). I also love the students I get to know in those classes. They are very different from the students I'm seeing described here.

True, many of them come to college to seek job skills; that is, in fact, what the institution encourages them to do despite the rigorous efforts of the liberal arts faculty to instill other values. What I see, though, are students who say, "I want a better job, but I want to be an educated person, too." Now their idea of what an "educated person" is may not be that of a humanities professor at Big State U.; they may lack the language and breadth of experience to construct and articulate a definition we'd all be satisfied with here. What most of them do say is that they know they need to be able to read and write in addition to programming a computer if they ever want to be taken seriously, and if they want to be able to attach that magical title of "educated person" to themselves. It's not education for education's sake, but it's more than education merely for job skills; it's a first step towards understanding why it might matter to read some literature even if they plan to be graphic artists. But even when a student tells me that she came to college only because she doesn't want to work two shitty jobs just to pay her car insurance in this expensive county we live in or that he wants to be able to help his moms (sic) out, there's no way in hell I'm going to look down on him or her because s/he hasn't yet--and I say yet because sometimes it just takes time--learned the value of a liberal arts education.

What I don't usually see are students with the kinds of attitudes being described here, probably because most of my students are looking for something more than JUST a big paycheck in the end. They are looking for a way out of real poverty, they are looking for self-respect, and they are looking for a decent neighborhood to raise their kids in. I suggest that many of the posters here who are so disgusted with the disengaged students they claim they are seeing in their classrooms teach a class at their local community college. It might be refreshing.

Oh, and Hana, ditto what Mike said.

Posted by: cindy at November 7, 2003 11:17 AM

Mike misses the entire point to reach what must be his own conclsuion: "business good, humanities bad". Many schools do NOT have writing across the curriculum programs, and the ones that do are not always effective. If Mike's assertion were true, our students would graduate writing well. Worse, it is hard to teach "writing across the curriculum" to juniors and seniors if their freshman and sophomore courses are not effective. Whatever the number of "writing across the curriculum" programs exist, there are plenty more that delegate writing to the humanities.

Posted by: Peter at November 7, 2003 11:27 AM

re: post no. 38

The classwork for a business PhD could be finished in 3 years. But, there's no way, at that pace, that you could get your dissertation done within those three years (theoretically, I suppose it's conceivable, realistically, I haven't seen anyone even aim to do it within three - gunners aim for four). The masters exam are usually done at the end of the second year, and I can't see anyone doing their dissertation in any serious way while studying for the master's exams. I would be very careful as to believing that website. It's flawed in many ways and geared toward Russian students, which doesn't always apply well to the audience here.

No, as to Wharton, my own school and them have had a running battle for 30+ years as to which is the top finance school. While I respect Wharton, I would argue that the evidence is overwhelming that my business school is superior in finance. You should know the name of my school by now.

What most people should also be aware of is that, as another person mentioned, business PhD programs are structured similarly to economic PhD programs. They tend to be extremely mathematical, especially in finance and business economics. There are some people doing marginally softer stuff, but the vast majority of students and faculty are very quantitative indeed.


Posted by: alex at November 7, 2003 11:27 AM

IA really is not a blind advocate of vocational education. Nor is she crassly materialistic, nor does she believe that "The Other" (= "the average American"?) is crassly materialistic. She also does not deny that on the average, the college graduate is better off than the HS graduate, or the HS graduate than the HS dropout.

She's specifically talking about the fact that a lot of parents make enormous financial sacrifices for their kids, and a lot of students (specifically in the humanities) go heavily into debt, and then the students go out into the world and find that they're financially worse off than they would have been if they hadn't gone to school. This is true at both the BA and the PhD level. (A $20,000 loan plus $20,000 from the parents -- not excessively high numbers -- could set up a small business).

Three things that don't seem to have been stressed enough above: first, a higher proportion of people gets degrees at every level than before; second, since about 20 years ago the cost to the student and family has been increasing, without the rewards increasing; and third, that in the old society the people when got educations often were from already-comfortable families Education wasn't "vocational" for them in many cases because they were already propertied. Education just put the seal on their privilege. (Against this, after WWII or so college education often WAS a path to upward mobility -- IA is in part talking about how this part isn't working so well for many people these days.

So people now with a BA or PhD but no family money or job skills are like aristocrats without money. They've been to finishing school, but they don't have the inheritance. At the humanities PhD level this is substantially demographic -- history PhD's as such only have been trained to do research and to teach undergraduates, and there are only so many slots for them.

As far as the intrinsic value of education -- you can get a lot of that without the formal schooling, and follow your own interests rather than the "trend in the field". I got a BA degree (1964-1980) at a cost to my parents of ~$10-15,000 (inflation adjusted) and with a personal debt of ~$1000--2000. This was worth it, but prices have gone up. I have many times regretted not going for the PhD, but I have also often thought that I made the right choice. The latter is my present opinion. On my own I've laid a foundation which allows me to publsih stuff, and I haven't had to spend any time at all trying to cram myself into research projects alien to my own interests.

Posted by: zizka at November 7, 2003 11:29 AM

Just a quick reply (more later).

Uh, what Zizka said. Let me add: at the end of the day, I don't think I'd agree with Kantor that college is a waste of time and money. And in terms of liberal arts, there's a lot to be said for the goal of general knowledge, and for gaining at least a familiarity with history, literature, philosophy and so on. And I absolutely do not agree that people don't learn anything in the liberal arts. I'd be willing to defend the argument that, in addition gaining some knowledge in an area that might have little to no relevance to employment, liberal arts majors come out with better writing and thinking skills that will be of value to them throughout their lives (not just economic value, either!). There is also much to be said for the college experience itself -- the 4-year immersion in this world as a kind of rite of passage.

But. I can't dismiss the economic concerns either. And when I see someone with an English degree working for minimum wage at a bookstore and struggling to make the loan payments, I have to wonder. Perhaps that person would have been better off combining an English degree with something else that would help get her a better job? As Stephen Krause points out, education and credentialing needn't be mutually exclusive.

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at November 7, 2003 11:49 AM

re: post 41

The English study is of 1. England and 2. extremely flawed, as has been pointed out in earlier discussions. England has a significantly different educational system than America - and also importantly, the English corporate structures are very different from America's. That may seem surprising, and we can certainly get into that tangent, but English studies are just not that relevant to an American framework. Studies of the American economy show that, while holders of liberal arts BAs do tend to earn less than holders of technical BAs, still, the holders of liberal arts BAs out-earn persons without college education. I don't have links on me at the moment, but I'll try to dig them out.

As to the more interesting question of the post, my answer would be generally "no". The extra four years of working don't really seem to add significant value. That may be surprising, but I'll attempt to explain why. It really depends on how internally firms are structured. Persons who enter the structure without any college experience are very often slotted into very low level positions. These positions are intentionally not designed for the employee to learn about the business, gain additional skills, interact with higher level managers, etc. They tend to be uni-functional positions (you answer the phone exclusively, or deliver the internal mail, or box up products, etc.). Do some people work their way out of such positions? Sure, millions do, but overall, not usually. In addition, such workers also tend to face more layoffs and turn-over problems than do "higher-level" employees. So, while these employees do have some experience, it's essentially viewed as "non-experience" in many ways.

On the other hand, even if the initial job seems pointless, entry-level jobs for college graduates often do have a different character. Superficially, the jobs may seem very similar, but, in reality, they're different. These jobs will have some educational opportunities attached, will have more of an "analytical" focus and will have more interaction with management. Gradually, such employees do tend to be viewed more positively within the firm's internal labor market and do tend to (again, gradually) increase in skills and responsibilities. Do people without college degrees also eventually manage to rise within the firm? Without a doubt - but it's much, much harder. The returning older students in your classes aren't there for no good reasons (in fact, their reasons for being there are usually quite economically sound).

Why do American firms view the college degree as such an important de-marcator? A number of interesting reasons which we can certainly get into, but which would be a bit of a tangent. My own personal explanations revolve around how American corporate governance concieves of "methods of control" and the rationales behind them. It is interesting to note that similar processes appear to drive large German, French and Japanese firms as well, so it seems to be a bit of a universal phenom. England remains an exception, which we can discuss, if people so desire.


Posted by: alex at November 7, 2003 11:57 AM

re: post 37

My intention was not, and is not, to denigrate non-liberal arts degrees. I myself have degrees in finance and business strategy, so I don't think that I can be accused of that! As I mentioned, my own ultimate preference tends to be that I respect the hardest of the sciences the most (particularly, physics and mathematics).

On the other hand, I think some people here have gone very much overboard and under-appreciated the actual business skills imparted by liberal arts studies. I mean, I've seen numerous posters here say they would steer their students into marketing or journalism majors. Marketing? Are they actually serious? As an ex-product manager and ex-salesman myself (and having taken more than my share of graduate-level marketing classes), I openly tell people that they would learn more by being a traditional English major and (ok, here's THE kicker) just getting a marketing internship in school and taking a maximum of maybe three or four marketing classes at the very MOST (quite frankly, I think two would likely do it).


Posted by: alex at November 7, 2003 12:14 PM

Please let it not be said that I think one cannot be well-educated without going to college. My grandfather was an auto mechanic, father a firman, mother works for the postal service, and husband left school at sixteen after taking his O-levels. None of my in-laws have gone to university, and my smartest (and most securely employed, highly paid) sister started working after high school. They can all hold their own in any group. But they are also all over thirty, and educated when a high school education meant something and gave people the tools to find things out on their own.

Considering the lack of intellectual curiosity and basic skills levels of many of my own students (not just in community college, but also at Private Liberal Arts U), I would say that the fact that a college education today is necessary for a person to achieve the same level of basic skills required for high school graduation 35 or 40 years ago is a good reason to go to college!

Posted by: Another Damned Medievalist at November 7, 2003 01:34 PM

For all the academic defense of the $ value of an undergraduate "liberal arts" education there's a problem in this thread. Gosh. Doesn't the "liberal arts" teach Plato or Aristotle? Here's a reminder from the Ethics.

"....We must be content, then, in speaking of such subjects and with such premisses to indicate the truth roughly and in outline, and in speaking about things which are only for the most part true and with premisses of the same kind to reach conclusions that are no better. In the same spirit, therefore, should each type of statement be received; for it is the mark of an educated man to look for precision in each class of things just so far as the nature of the subject admits; it is evidently equally foolish to accept probable reasoning from a mathematician and to demand from a rhetorician scientific proofs.

Now each man judges well the things he knows, and of these he is a good judge. And so the man who has been educated in a subject is a good judge of that subject, and the man who has received an all-round education is a good judge in general. Hence a young man is not a proper hearer of lectures on political science; for he is inexperienced in the actions that occur in life, but its discussions start from these and are about these; and, further, since he tends to follow his passions, his study will be vain and unprofitable, because the end aimed at is not knowledge but action. And it makes no difference whether he is young in years or youthful in character; the defect does not depend on time, but on his living, and pursuing each successive object, as passion directs. For to such persons, as to the incontinent, knowledge brings no profit; but to those who desire and act in accordance with a rational principle knowledge about such matters will be of great benefit. "

Is there any here who'd be willing to claim that a couple semesters of philosphy consisting of a handful of selected readings and the INSTRUCTION of the meaning of a list of simplified summaries of the greatest works in recorded history is a fair replacement for a mature adult sitting down and reflecting upon the original works? hahaha. The Scholasticism of willfull ignorance! The scale of the rip-off!

Sister, you owe $75,000 loan, are an economist, and make good money. You didn't need the loan to succeed, that was all inside yourself from the beginning. Don't thank them for giving you enough of a challenge to step up. You'd probably own a couple McD's in a different life

Posted by: A Crawford at November 7, 2003 02:14 PM

One of the big problems with BA humanities degrees is that, while it often gives you analytic, argumentation and writing skills useful in PR, law, advertising, business, or administration, it also makes you not WANT to go into those fields. Rather than going into a similiar-but-different field like those, I think liberal arts types might be better off training for distantly-related or quite-unrelated techie type jobs which pay OK.

Posted by: zizka at November 7, 2003 02:22 PM

Alex, your distinction between entry-level jobs for HS and college graduates seems to assume that everyone works for a large corporation, which isn't true. Smaller companies can rarely afford the luxury of single-task employees, and these are also the companies (in my experience) more likely to be flexible about their qualifications if they see a candidate they like.

As to the UK study, the only "flaw" I saw mentioned in the original discussion was the it didn't distinguish between correlation and causation. As all of the statistics I've seen equating BA/BSs with increased earnings also fail to make this distinction, this seems like a double standard.

I would be very interested to see the average increase in lifetime earnings which an undergraduate degree buys graphed against the average cost of a four-year education — for each year since, say, 1940. I suspect the results would be revealing.

Posted by: E. Naeher at November 7, 2003 02:23 PM

Over at the WaPo's website, the Friday chat hosted by columnist Bob Levey featured an interview with new Cornell president Jeffrey Lehman.

Here's the link:

The insights are not exactly earth-shattering, but they did cover a couple issues germane to this thread. Here's a sample:

Bob Levey: Back in my day (ice caps covered the earth), Washington was ladling out huge college scholarship dough because America had to close the "Sputnik gap" with Russia. I couldn't have gone to college without such loans. Today, there's no such thing as an NDEA grant, and there's barely such a thing as a Pell grant. Has Washington deserted the idea of supporting higher education?

Jeffrey Lehman: Not exactly deserted. But I think we need to do a better job of explaining to our elected representatives why it is that our costs (driven disproportionately by the cost of super-skilled labor) keep going up so fast, how that leads to rapidly escalating tuition, and how we are at risk of making college so expensive that either (a) students from low- and middle-income families won't come at all, or (b) they'll graduate with so much debt that their life choices will be seriously constrained.

Bob Levey: As a devoted fan of liberal arts education, I worry that even great schools like Cornell are seen by students as employment-readiness mills, rather than as places to think, write, learn and contemplate. Please comment.

Jeffrey Lehman: I share your worry. But I don't think the answer is to suggest that students banish employment readiness from their minds. I think we need to keep reminding them that over the course of their lives they are likely to change jobs many times, and that college is a time to nurture the intellectual qualities and character traits that will help them throughout their lives. There's always going to be a demand for people who are curious, contemplative, honest, self-crtical, open-minded, and good writers.

We are "at risk" of making college so expensive that people graduate with crushing debt? Gee, at least each person that graduates from college - or, apparently, Cornell - is such a contemplative, honest, self-critical individual.....

Posted by: shkspr at November 7, 2003 02:44 PM

"I would say that the fact that a college education today is necessary for a person to achieve the same level of basic skills required for high school graduation 35 or 40 years ago is a good reason to go to college!"

In other words -- and I realize others have made this point, both explicitly and implicitly -- college has in fact become a kind of natural extension of high school (welcome to 13th - 16th grade, Rhet/Compers). It's a credentialing system intended to prepare and train new workers qualified to function in the brave new world of hi-tech and other related fields. And college, or rather what was once college (25? 30? years ago) has now been atomized and transposed to graduate school.

Posted by: Chris at November 7, 2003 02:45 PM

meant to add this to the above: what makes Rhet/Comp so utterly necessary to todays colleges is the fact that they are the ones who accomplish one of the most necessary tasks in prearping these new workers. As a result of sub-standard secondary education systems, and an overall anti-intellectual climate, Rhet/Compers are the ones who provide students with the corner stones that will eventually lead them to possess the ability to write high-level, sustained, and thorough sales reports, as well as clearly worded, articulate memos to be sent between floors at the company.

Rhet/Compers talk of their "noble work" etc. Hey ... whatever gets you through the day ...

Posted by: Chris at November 7, 2003 02:58 PM

Re: post 52

Large companies: I agree, of course. However, small companies often model their processes to reflect (as much as feasible) those of large firms. In this respect, as well, many small firms also imitate the large ones and prefer not to hire high school-only graduates for positions either (at least positions they believe will "grow" in the future).

Beyond that, many people would prefer (for many reasons, including, on average, higher salaries and better benefits) to work for large firms. If a potential college student believes that she might prefer to make a career at such a firm, then it is fully rational for her to conclude that she should attend college, since it will be very much more difficult for her to do so without a degree. So, while education would not prohibit her from working in a small firm either, she has the option of doing either, while the high-school graduate often does not have even the potential choice of working as a professional in a large firm.

As to the study, the fact that it is in England alone is quite problematic to applying it to an American economy, as I pointed out (admittedly, not a flaw within the study's own parameters but a problem in applying anything learned from it). Your comment on the correlation / causation problem with almost all salary/education studies is justified, however.

Posted by: alex at November 7, 2003 03:07 PM

re:post 52 (again)

We would expect that marginal returns to the same level of education should fall over time. It's essentially an arbitrage. If my net present value of increased earnings due to education is x, but I need to pay only x-y for it, then education is a good arbitrage trade. Since education is a scarce good, we should expect that people will increase their bids for education, until, at some point, the price is either x (the net present value of future increased earnings) or fairly close to x.

For such a thing NOT to happen would probably indicate that there has been severe interference in that marketplace, for example, the heavily funded public universities of Europe, for example (not that I disagree with that policy, but the European price of education did rise heavily - but it was funded through the secondary route of taxation across the whole population, rather than as a price only applied to the consumers of education themselves, as is more the case in the US.)


Posted by: alex at November 7, 2003 03:17 PM

Re: this comment at post 42: "The current academic system doesn't seem to offer any more at the undergraduate level in the way of pure learning than can be gotten from the public library, the Internet, conversations with friends and co-workers, etc. "

I'd say a lot depends on which institution of higher learning you are talking about. If I compared the options for learning and exploring information on my own with those related to doing the same in a very intense small college environment, I have to say that the latter was better. Believe it or not, that "piece of paper" was not the main impetus for me or most of my fellow students (grades were actively and deliberately de-emphasized). Perhaps I could indeed have learned similar things on my own, but I doubt it. The interactions with dedicated peers and professors trained in their fields make what could have been a slow and awkward process into something focused, dynamic and useful.

Autodidacticism certainly can work -- I taught myself to knit and play the recorder, for example -- but not always (my self-taught Spanish is far inferior to the Russian I learned in college). The biggest problem of the autodidact is that you don't know enough at the beginning to even recognize what you don't know or how best to learn the topic systematically; there's a lot of wasted time just trying to find the path to follow, without even adding in the topic itself.

Posted by: at November 7, 2003 06:13 PM

re: post 46

No, actually I personally don't think it's the degree that causes the underemployment of the English graduate working for minimum wage in a bookstore. I think, overall, if you had taken that person and forced them to also be an accounting and English double major, they most likely would have ended up working in the bookstore anyway.

Why? I don't think it's the content of the courses that person took. It's the attitude and commitment they had (or didn't have) towards their impending job search while at university. The students majoring in vocational subjects tend to spend a great deal more time preparing for their future work and spend more time looking for a job. My personal belief is that liberal arts majors who spend equal amounts of time will do just as well as vocational majors on their job searches.

Posted by: alex at November 7, 2003 07:30 PM


That's an interesting point. I wouldn't dismiss it out of hand, but I'm not sure I can agree with it. Certainly, the student who goes into a vocational major is much more likely to be thinking about job prospects than the student who spends a couple of years exploring different areas before even declaring a major. But I actually don't think the English major who was forced to take accounting would still end up working at a bookstore.

One reason why the English major ends up at the bookstore is that he or she does not have any sort of connection to various job markets that might be interested in someone with an English majors (in part because his or her advisors and mentors don't have those connections). By "connection" I don't only mean personal/professional ties but also knowledge of what's out there and what it takes to find it. So an English major in a program that provides very little guidance in terms of future career prospects might end up at the bookstore. An English major in a program that offers, say, an internship in a relevant field might end up with another sort of job because the internship allowed him or her to discover other opportunities.

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at November 7, 2003 07:57 PM

Most academic advisers also scorn anything other than an academic career. At my alma mater (one of them -- Reed College) biology profs sneered at people who planned to go to medical school. True story. Same for law school in other departments.

Posted by: zizka at November 7, 2003 08:33 PM

Way back in this fast-growing thread, shkspr suggested that money is the only true measure of value in this culture. On the surface, that's probably true. In fact, almost everyone here seems to consider just how the money spent in higher education translates into some other material value. Part of me wants to say that most of this discussion reflects the failure of liberal education in American higher education.

I would argue that time is a more fundamental value than money, even in this culture. The student who doesn't want to work two jobs to pay for car insurance may be speaking in monetary terms, but really is saying she wants to spend her time in a more satisfactory way.

A good education (whether from schooling or from self-instruction) teaches one how to spend time well, how to get the most value out of an irreplaceable resource. You can always make more money; you can never make more time. Most of my students know the expression carpe diem, but not many of them really appreciate its implications. Whether you prefer a life of action or contemplation, a good education should give you the insights and the ethical criteria to evaluate your use of time. If you don't spend most of your time in personally satisfying ways (and that could include earning tons of money), then your education, whatever it is, failed.

I will further suggest that a young person who sees time this way can get a good education in current institutions by careful selection of courses and professors and by using office hours well. The fact that a lot of students don't seem to do this might be laid at the feet of the colleges--but could more easily be laid at the feet of the cultural eleders and the messages they propogate through corporate media. Example? Check out the MTV Spring Break programming sometime.

Posted by: John at November 7, 2003 09:41 PM

Mike: A quick response. No, my students could not write but they were also genuinely uninterested in learning how to do so. They complained bitterly because I assigned four novels and a textbook for a Western Civ class and they spoke to me frequently about the need to "pass the class so I can get the degree." "What's the right answer?" they often asked me when I sat down to speak to them about their essays and improving their work. I really wish I could say that they were interested in learning---yes, I occasionally had a student who read books outside of the class, who was eager to discuss things with me etc. But these kids were rare.

Reading these posts, I can't help but think about my high school boyfriend. Larry was a success---he did everything right, dutifully took all of the courses which would get him into a good college. He went to Princeton. In high school and in college (yes, we continued our friendship after high school), Larry only read one book which was not assigned for a class (Tolkein's The Hobbit). Larry works as a CPA, lives in Scarsdale and is pretty successful in the eyes of the world. He will never join a book group (he's 39 so I doubt this will change), he will never join a library, he will never visit a museum (unless it's for a business-related fundraiser), he rarely ever travels (and even then it's generally for business). He's a nice enough guy but he has no intellectual curiosity whatsoever. Why did he go to Princeton (and what does it say that Princeton accepted him)? In many ways, Larry could have done what his father did---gone to the state university where he could have majored in accounting. Oddly enough, I think college should be about learning---if you are not interested in learning and discussing ideas, why should you go?

If you want to become an artist (as my friend Sandy did and does), why did she go to a medium level college? Why did she have to do this when Sandy fundamentally doesn't like to read? Nothing is going to change that. Although I don't believe that we are set in who we are when we are 18, I do think that if you are not a reader when you are 18, you will unlikely to become one (just as if you are not interested in or gifted artistically at 18, it's unlikely that you will change and believe me as someone who wishes she were artistically gifted, I wish that these kind of changes were possible!).

Why is it so controversial to say that a carpenter who has dyslexia and hates to read should earn a BA? Especially if he or she is gifted in woodworking, loves the work etc.? What troubles me about this is the assumption that "vocational" training is a bad thing---a second best to a non-vocational training. Call me weird but I genuinely admire electricians, people who work with their hands etc. They have skills and abilities I will never possess. Why should they be forced to do what they may not enjoy and something for which they may not have any talents? Should I be forced to take woodworking when I am terrible at this kind of thing? I hope I am reading this critique incorrectly but I do worry that there is a strain of anti-manual labor etc. here. Not everyone has the same skills---thank God! It makes for a much more interesting world.

I am actually much less elitist than you seem to think. I look at a good manual laborer, a great dancer and I am filled with wonder and appreciation. Believe me, I lack their skills and I envy them their abilities (I am watching a carpenter do some work on my boyfriend's house---he is an artist and I wish I could say that about myself! His work is incredible and watching him is a pleasure and very exciting).

Posted by: at November 8, 2003 12:55 PM

I want to add something about money. Plumbers, electricians, carpenters and so forth often earn significantly more than professionals who have BAs and PhDs. So I'm not always sure that this link "college degree equals higher salary" is necessarily true. The carpenter I just mentioned charges more per hour than my boyfriend (a government lawyer at a highly prestigious government agency) makes.

I think it's great that Cindy has students who say that they want to be educated. Perhaps that is more common at a community college? I genuinely ask this because I cannot help but feel that many of the students at community colleges struggle to attain their educations. The kids I taught came from middle class backgrounds; for the most part, they took their education for granted (even the kids who had taken out loans). I did notice a tremendous difference when I taught returning students---these were the people who came to me repeatedly to ask questions as to how to improve their work (not for the grade but so that they would truly become educated).

I'm seriously saddened and troubled that saying "not everyone should go to college" causes someone to want to "give me hell." Is it really that controversial a statement? A college education is not for everyone---to say that it is strikes me as foolish. Why don't we simply give everyone credentials to become an electrician---whether they have the ability to do so or not? I'm not sure I'd want that electrician doing any wiring in my house but hey...we all should have the same credentials.

Posted by: Hana at November 8, 2003 01:05 PM

Hana, I, too, think there is nothing wrong with challenging the notion that everyone needs to go to college. The reader who suggested your original post was worthy of a good flame was most likely focused on your wording and tone (as was I--I think what you just said here is somewhat different).

Making judgments about whether someone belongs in college is different from suggesting that too many students go to college who would probably be happier with and are better suited for other paths in life. I had a heartbreaking talk the other night with a student who is struggling to pass composition--for the third time--who just doesn't want to be in school, has no interest in intellectual pursuits. His mother wants him there. He wants a profession his mother doesn't seem to think is worthy or will earn him enough money.

Posted by: cindy at November 8, 2003 01:41 PM

Cindy: Read my posts more carefully in the future. And, yes, I did say the same thing in all of my posts; I elaborated more on the second and third posts. But fundamentally, I am saying and have said "not everyone is equipped to go to college." I really find the idea that everyone should do so troubling. Second, if I as a professor, am not able to make judgements about who should go to college and who should not, then who is? I read my students' work, I spoke with them and I watched them in class. I think this actually enables me to determine who is qualified and who is not.

When I taught, I had a student who, I am pretty sure, could not read. His essays were gibberish. He had clearly been passed through a system which never truly assessed his abilities. This student was unusual in that he was hopelessly ill-equiped to be in college. He didn't care about his education because when I set up appointments with him for the writing lab, for a tutor (yes, I did all this), this kid never followed through. He repeatedly put pressure on me to pass him, however ("I NEED this course to get my degree"---never once "how can I improve? What should I be learning?"). This student was not typical (in his lack of skills) but I had many many students who were only marginally better equipped. I read their work, I listened to them (I'm a woman and because I did almost of my prep and research in my office, I had students visit me a lot), and I came to the conclusion that most of these kids would have been much happier if they had been able to begin their adult life---to begin work. College is a wonderful experience---for some people. How do we determine who these people are? I'd suggest we listen to the students and we listen to the professors and teachers who evaluate and assess their work.

Perhaps I am reading your post wrong but I feel you are saying that I should not be making "judgements" but I do believe in testing and making judgements. Once again, I apply this to the electrician. I want someone who is skilled and capable of making judgements (I'm not) to determine if the electrician is qualified to do the wiring in my house.

Posted by: Hana at November 8, 2003 02:04 PM

re: post 60


I don't think we're in much disagreement. In fact, in an earlier post, I pointed out that I considered vocational majors main advantage over liberal arts majors was not the classes they took, but precisely those connections to the job market you highlighted in post 60.

The difference between us, I think, is in your and my estimation of how hard it is for liberal arts majors to build those connections to the job market versus how hard it is for more vocational majors to do so. I would suggest that, while the liberal arts major may have to work a bit harder, that harder is not that much more and that any student should put that amount of work into their job search anyway.

IE, the vocational student may need to put x hours into their job search, while the liberal-arts student needs to put x+y hours. The question is, how big is y? You argue that y is large relative to x, and I argue that y is small relative to x. I would argue Y is tiny compared to the hours spent by vocational majors into
their own irrelevant courses (and, if you think vocational students don't take vocational courses they think are as equally irrelevant as thier liberal-arts courses, you should probably ask them that question).

Your point in saying humanities educators should be more aware of the post-college world- no disagreement from me here! A personal story here: perhaps the best-liked professor at my college was a philosophy professor, who has been teaching there for 50 years. Though a philosophy professor, he keeps up close ties with as many of his former students as feasible and thus is able to offer both practical career advice and actual referrals to former philosophy majors working in many different fields. He also participates in college alumni events when possible, adding to his knowledge of both people and potential careers.

My liberal-arts college also sponsored a large number of symposia on subjects like "What do I do with a degree in ________?" quite frequently (every week or so). Perhaps my school was outstanding in that regard, but somehow I don't think so.

Posted by: alex at November 8, 2003 03:51 PM

I've mentioned this elsewhere, but I'll repeat. Besides my son's non-college friend who contracts carpentry, there's a Reed College guy in town who's very successful at it. He tells his story simply: "With a history B.A. I had two choices: law school and grad school". Since he'd been working in his father's contracting business since his early teens, it was relatively easy for him.

I think that in ANY business, people who are able to do library and internet research have a big advantage. No business whatever is sitting still these days in its practices -- to say nothing of tax laws, licensing and regulation, bidding on contracts, changes in the market, etc.

Posted by: zizka at November 8, 2003 04:44 PM

Hana, as someone who loved what he did as an enlisted man in the Army, who still holds a Class A commercial driver's license, who had over a million accident-free OTR miles in a combination vehicle and who at one point (haven't done it in a few years) could alley-back a 55-foot reefer van in less than 90 seconds, I think there's absolutely nothing wrong with manual labor for a living. And I agree with the point that you make later: college skills are not the only skills we should value (and, as an aside to shkspr, this is a kind of value that is more complex than just a dollar value: what John said), but it's not the same point you were making earlier. Earlier, you suggested that we need to keep some students out of college via tougher admissions standards. You then amended that to suggest that you were valuing vocations for people who didn't want to go to college.

I really don't think Cindy misread you at all, especially when you make the rhetorical wiggle from saying "a college education is not for everyone" to suggesting that a college education is the same thing as training for taking the State Board of Master Electricians licensing test. Which, in a sense, is what this thread's debate is all about: so it sounds to me as if you, like some other posters, think the two (the education a student receives versus the "piece of paper" that credentials a student for a particular vocation) are equivalent. I don't, and it's certainly -- as evidenced by the discussion above -- a contentious point, so perhaps our difference in perspectives should just be left at that.

But I do think you're conflating desire to go to college with how adequately prepared a student is to go to college. And I think education has enough value beyond the vocational cash equivalence that to tell someone who you say at 18 is unlikely to become a reader (how does that intersect with the "tremendous difference" you noticed teaching returning students?) that they don't belong in college whether or not they want an education is a form of elitism, and it seems to me is just a degree away from suggesting that the poor want to be poor (pun intended). Again, though, that's probably a matter of degree and perspective: I think the open admissions policies of CCNY's decades-ago experiment and the California Community Colleges John describes are admirable in the way they democratize education. Others may not, and in my more het-up moments, I tend to characterize those perspectives (rather bombastically) as "elitist" or "Arnoldian" or "vanguardist" or whatever, and it's difficult for me to see how hierarchizing education via gatekeeping in an already unequal society can do anything to remedy those inequalities. In which case I hope you'll feel free to write me off as just another liberal blinkered by his politics.

Posted by: Mike at November 8, 2003 08:12 PM

I think that it is characteristic of American education to be more lax at the early stages but to give people second and third chances and let them catch up. I think that this is superior to the elitist systems where your whole future is decided with one test when you're 16. So I like open-admissions and don't think that making it harder to get into school is an answer.

An old friend wasn't even counseled to go to college in HS (wrong side of the tracks white trash) but ended up with a philosophy PhD. He entered college at age 25-30 at a bottom-level "urban university".

At the same time, I knew people in my small-town all-class high-school who hated even high school and did not want to go to college at all. At least two of them are doing fine as long-haul truckers. Both are intelligent enough, but restless and not book-oriented.

There always will be truckers, etc. Equality to me means paying people in labor well and making it possible for people to develop their talents, not making it possible for everyone to escape from the working class. Adult education giving cultural access to non-undergraduates is also a good thing.

Posted by: zizka at November 8, 2003 09:42 PM

Hana, your job as a college professor is to make judgements about a student's performance in your course. If the student doesn not meet the course objectives, if the student doesn't do the course work, make the judgement that the student fails your course. A professor is NOT hired to make judgements about students' goals and ambitions. In your role as professor, you don't know enough about a student to make such judgements. You know what your course demands and you should demand that of every student. The fact that some students try to cajole their way through a course is neither new nor shocking. It says nothing about the quality of American higher education or the state of Western civilization.

Years back at my college, we did not require the same level of writing course for students in vocational programs that we did for students planning to transfer to the university. I argued that all of our graduates should complete the first course in freshman composition. I supported my argument with the cases of my dentist and my auto mechanic. One drilled my teeth and the other drilled my car's engine. Both ran small businesses in my community. Both had to maintain extensive written records on their clients/customers. Both played political and civic roles in the community. Given those expectations, I could see no justification for setting a "below college" writing standard for the auto technology graduate. It turns out that my dentist read a lot more than my technician, but I doubt that was a function of degree requirements in any event. For more than 20 years now, we set the same writing standard for the Associate degree as we do for transfer: English 1A, the college-level course taught in all California universities.

Mike makes a number of good points in regard to letting indivdual students make their decisions about the value of college for them. I don't think any human being should judge another's ambitions.

Posted by: John at November 8, 2003 09:49 PM

I do find a very big difference between saying that a student "should not have gone to college" and that a student "is not equipped for college." If I didn't, I wouldn't do what I do (i.e. teach basic writing at a community college). Many of my students are underprepared for college, but as both Mike and John say, it is not for me to determine that they should not be there.

Posted by: cindy at November 9, 2003 12:31 AM

I fully support Hana in this. It is indeed for me and all other responsible college professors to determine whether our students are college-worthy -- and we do this every day, or should, in our honest evaluation of them. Of course we can join the culture of grade inflation and happy talk and continue to produce thousands of Americans with high self-esteem and low learning; we can even pat ourselves on the back and say we're working class heroes because we're advancing the interests of the less fortunate and/or less motivated by our dispassionate championing of them in our classrooms. The reality, however, is that we're ripping off the vast majority of these people, making them pay for a non-experience that won't do them much good in the job market or in the business of leading a meaningful life. Just as senior faculty are rightly called cynical because, despite awful job prospects, they continue to accept grad students in the humanities, so faculty who use anti-elitist bromides to justify ripping off people who can never benefit in any way from a college education (but whose tuition dollars and warm bodies keep those faculty employed) are equally legitimately called cynical.

Posted by: manon at November 9, 2003 06:10 AM

I just learned how things work at the "Big Urban State Univ." where I am a one-year full time hire. I have been teaching at various isntitutions for a long time now -- as a one-year, and adjunct depending on the year and the school. At BUSU, I have roughly 75 students spread across 3 sections. Of these 75 I estimate that about 20 - 25 deserve to pass the course. This is to say, that of 75 students total, roughly 20 - 25 are writing at the minimum level for college. A few are above this minimum level, a few others will probably rise above it eventually, but the majority who I feel are at the minimum level are sitauted right at the minimum. I realize it is only Novemeber, but I feel fairly safe speculating about the level(s) the studenst are likely to get to this semester.

BUSU utilizes a statistical model that establishes the average failure/passing rate for their required writing courses. I learned that the normal failure rate, as established by the statistical model they use, is around 30% - 35%. But, after checking with some of my similarly employed colleagues, I learned that the ability/skill level of my students is not atypical. And yet each of these colleagues more or less hits the 30% - 35% mark each semester, even though each agreed that they could fail far more. And then slowly what was being said by not being said started to become clear. Once again, the statistical failure rate is 30% - 35%, or roughly 22.5 students per semester, so of the 75% (50 students) who should by all rights fail, take the top 51.5% of that group (again, a group that by all accounts should fail in total) and pass them.

'That's how we keep our jobs', she said ...

This lends a very different perspective on the topic at hand, which is who decides, and on what grounds, who should/should not be in university.

Posted by: Must Remain Anonymous at November 9, 2003 12:25 PM

Manon calls my and John's and Cindy's perspectives "anti-elitist bromides". In 2002, 19.3% of 133.4 million whites in America earned college degrees, as opposed to 11.9% of 19.6 million blacks. According to Manon, this is an ideal situation, because by Manon's reasoning, you see, black people are simply less ready for college than white people and so society really shouldn't rip them off. After all, they'll never benefit from a college education. Right, Manon?

Just wanted to make your racism overt.

Posted by: Mike at November 9, 2003 03:47 PM

Manon--Your arrogant smugness is an embarrassment to the American professoriate. If you can decide who is worthy to be a student, then I'll decide who's worthy to be a professor.

Posted by: John at November 10, 2003 04:24 AM

I think Manon is on target here---I think lowering standards is evidence of a contempt for the working class (a belief that they cannot reach the higher standards). This is what happened in the 1910s and 1920s when education expanded---a fundamental contempt for the working class caused educators to lower standards (read any work dealing with the history of American education---most historians are agreed on this point). What saddens me about this is that people seem to be equating skills which are acquired and one's natural abilities and talents. I think most members of the working class (black, white, Hispanic or Asian American) get terribly shafted on their education in elementary school, middle school and high school (I know this because I went to an urban high school which was 1/3 black and 2/3 white---the whites were predominantly liberals who were committed to education and they forced the school to raise the bar and standards for all students---this unfortunately is very rare in America and was, I think, a unique situation [a school which had mixed races and social classes]). Oddly enough I am calling for standards to be raised across the board (because I believe students can achieve these standards) and I think that these standards should be raised, esp. in four year colleges.

I know people from working-class backgrounds can succeed and achieve high standards if they have the right preparation. My mom was the daughter of immigrants; English was not spoken in her house and my grandmother was marginally literate in her own language (she came from a culture which did not value women's education). My mom was helped by certain key teachers who set high standards for her. She succeeded and went to college (a Seven Sisters college no less)---my grandparents believed firmly in education for boys and NOT for girls so her actions were a triumph. She had every handicap you can think of (she forged her parents' signature on the college application---she was that determined and the determination came because she had some fantastic teachers who believed in her). No, she wasn't black but she did face a hell of a lot of prejudice (she is a Separdic Jew which meant that she didn't even fit in with mainstream American Jews nor did she fit in with Greeks, altho' she spoke and speaks fluent Greek). I look at my mom's story or the story of a friend who grew up working class in a poor neighborhood with bad schools who then went on to MIT to earn a PhD. What saddens me about all of is this is that I see (and again, I hope I am misreading people's posts) a contempt for minorities and a belief that fundamentally these students will not be able to achieve at a high standard. I disagree---I think if you set the bar high, if you push kids and if you provide them with the tools to learn (improve our elementary schools, middle schools and high schools---esp. those which are in inner-cities---if possible, I believe schools should be more mixed with more diverse social classes and races attending them), then students will attend college who are prepared and ready to succeed.

I also agree with Manon and I am sorry to say this but if I am not competent to make a determination about a students' abilities, I really have to ask: who is? Someone must make this determination (and when I have students in a class who can barely read and the class is intended for college freshmen...well, I do think this enables me to make a determination about their ability to succeed in college---yes, I am not qualified to judge their abilities in math or science but I can extrapolate from their work in my class and make a determination as to whether they will succeed in English, Sociology, Anthropology and other related areas). Should there be no standards then? I don't think this should be true at four year colleges---altho' I firmly believe that two year colleges should have much more open-ended admissions and that qualified students from these schools should be fed into four year colleges.

I find it troubling when I see people saying "the working class, minorities and non-English speaking immigrants can only succeed if we lower the bar." Fundamentally, I think this indicates a contempt for these people. Better to say "let us do everything we can so that these students can achieve at the level of their middle-class and upper-class peers and let us ensure that, having succeeded, poor students are able to get the best education they can." This is undoubtedly much more difficult to achieve but I believe that if we work to reform our schools (and no, I don't believe that means imposing standardized tests---I believe it means heavy duty busing of students from suburban schools to urban schools, to funding our urban schools at the level of, or even higher than, the level of our suburban high schools), this is possible. I share the senitiments of Jonathan Kozel etc. and I believe that we do students wrong when we write them off.

Goals and ambitions are great and I think these should be a factor but this needs to be thought about more broadly. I loved ballet as a kid and dreamt of being a ballerina. I suck at dance---no joke. I doggedly took the classes until I was 18 and dreamt at times, even tho' I was the worst, by far, in the class, of being in the NYC Ballet. That really was one of my ambitions---did the NYC Ballet owe me a slot even tho' I really lack an understanding of rhythm (I am not kidding--I'm slightly tone deaf)? Think about it in these terms.

Oh, one final comment b/c it is something I have always found fascinating. My high school sent kids to Ivies, great colleges etc (Stanford, U/Chicago, Williams etc.). The valedictorian for my year was an African-American girl, the daughter of a single parent. She qualified for free lunches etc. (and I assume, altho' this was never discussed, that her family was on welfare). She beat out kids from middle-class families who went to Princeton, Harvard etc.---she was in my Latin classes, she was frightening in AP classes (consitently achieving 5's, the highest scores etc.). I think had she been in a different school (where expectations were lower), she would never have rec'd the education she got and she would not have been successful. She went to Brown on a full scholarship.

Posted by: Hana at November 10, 2003 09:26 AM

Oh, one final comment: most of my returning students were, I think, people who were readers or intellectually curious at 18. I taught a LOT of women who had become pregnant or married at 18, 19 or 20ish and who were then returning to college in their 30s, 40s, and even 60s. I taught men and women who had joined the military---but these people were, I think, readers or intellectually curious at 18 (at least these people were extraordinarily driven to achieve---which meant that they read books I assigned as well as books which I simply recommended). I don't think everything is set at 18---but I do think that who we are is pretty determined at that age. Yes, of course, there are people who become readers in their 30s but these people are not very typical. And, of course, I believe in second-chances and altho' I mentioned the British system, I don't agree with the European idea of sorting kids out and making absolute determinations as to their futures when they are 11. But I do think that if an 18 year old is uninterested in reading, if he or she is not a good student (and yes, I think I can judge this) or even more, simply, capable of doing college-level (high school level) work, he or she should not be in college. Radical? Perhaps in America.

Posted by: Hana at November 10, 2003 09:51 AM

Hana gives us a lot to respond to. I was rather jarred by her assertion that the problem goes back to 1910. I don't often use the word schizophrenic except in psychiatric contexts, but there's a lot of tension between her conviction that there are a lot of people in college who shouldn't be and who should be booted out, and her anger at our elitist stereotypes of the working class. The model she proposes would seem to lead to a very few highly exceptional (lower**) working class students getting elite educations, and the great majority of them getting nothing.

Backing up a little, though, if she hadn't used the phrase "doesn't belong in college", and had just said that some of her students performed poorly, didn't seem at all interested in the material, didn't work at all hard, and didn't seem to realize that getting a degree was conditional on learning things -- couldn't we agree that there's not much which could be done with these students?

Of course, the motivational problems just mentioned aren't limited just to the bottom-level "urban universities" and community colleges where working-class students end up. Professors in the Ivies make the same complaints, though if someone gets into the Ivies, at least they've passed a basic-competence test (SAT, etc.)

** Actually, the (disappearing) successful working class (steady, permanent fulltime jobs with benefits) isn't mostly what we're talking about. A big (increasing) part of the working class is just scratching by on insecure, low-paid, unbenefitted jobs, and their kids are the ones who are being excluded.

Posted by: zizka at November 10, 2003 12:23 PM

A couple of things: my statements go for the working class and the middle class and the upper class. I pointed out in an earlier post that a kid I knew in high school who had no interest in learning went on to Princeton etc. I don't confine my comments to the working class! Please! I am actually saying that standards should be applied evenly---we should do everything we can to make this possible. I believe in affirmative action; I believe everyone should have a chance; I firmly and strongly believe in HEOP programs (I will be candid and say that I don't think many working-class kids get a fair chance---often their teachers are incompetent, esp. in inner-city schools or reluctant to challenge them). I also said and believe that community colleges serve a purpose in our society as a feeder system for 4 year colleges (allowing students who have not rec'd good preparation to catch up so that they can compete with their peers at a 4 year college).

I am an historian so I do look at all of this from the perspective of the entire 20th century. In the 1940s, many people did not attend college---they became CPAs, they became carpenters, they became businessmen (alas not many businesswomen!) and they entered a range of professions. Suddenly, in 2003, we have decided that people who want to enter these professions should have a piece of paper with BA. I am not sure why these people should have this---especially when they are not interested in learning. I had so many students (from middle-class backgrounds) who were in college because society told them that this is what they HAD to do. In the 1940s, these kids would have gladly and happily (I think) entered the workforce and begun positions at 18 which they would fill at 21 today.

As for the bit about this being a problem with a very long past---yes, this is what I find really troubling. I don't see anyone thinking differently from the way that patronizing social reformers thought in the 1910s and 1920s and I'm really really saddened by that. I believe we fail our students when we do not push them to achieve at the highest possible level. I was never a believer in passing a student who could not do the work but I was a believer in helping students in every way possible (get them tutors, give them help etc.). Ultimately, these kids will have to produce in the workforce and we do not help them when we blindly turn away from them.

I keep thinking, as I am reading these posts, of Ron Susskinds' book about an inner-city school kid (I think the title is A Hope in the Unseen). He also went on to Brown (I don't much about Brown but they must actively recruit minorities). Anyway, the student, Cedric, was extremely bright but he had grave difficulties at Brown because he had never truly been pushed in a way that his middle- and upper-class peers had been. There are, I think, millions of Cedrics out there---these kids are bright; we need to help them achieve their promise. Failing to impose standards, failing to educate them, failing to notify them about their opportunities---this is the greatest betrayal and sadly, it happens all the time in America.

Fundamentally, what I am saying is that: a BA should be worth something; everyone should have the opportunity to apply for a BA whether they are rich, poor or in the middle---but if a student, who is given a good education, cannot make the grade, he or she should NOT be given a BA. This would probably result in fewer students graduating overall but I wonder about this: if we really created an equitable educational system, we would probably have kids from the working class filling the slots at colleges which are taken up by kids from the middle and upper classes who are only getting a degree because society tells them that they must.

Posted by: Hana at November 10, 2003 01:08 PM

Hana -- the first problem with dating the problem from 1910 is that it puts the "good old days" beyond living memory, like King Arthur and Robin Hood. The second problem is that I doubt that anyone who carefully studied the transition between (say) 1900 and the present would say that the earlier system is better. Nobody wants to return to a system educating a 5%-10% elite.

Much of what you say is more or less off-topic. Few or none of the problems you mention, some of which are widely-recognized, would be solved or ameliorated by being stricter with students who "don't belong in college".

The working class, in arguments like this one, plays an ambiguous role. Are we trying to eliminate the working class by making everyone middle class? Produce a better-educated working class? Make it possible for a few of the smartest individuals of working-class origins to rise into the middle class?

Each educational level tends to mark a level of class distinction, so that if everyone graduated from college that would just mean that the middleclass/working class dividing line would have to be placed elsewhere. To a degree, that's happened.

When people complain about being forced to teach people who "shouldn't be in school at all", there's a presumption that otherwise they would have the pleasure of teaching "real students". But more than likely, if the college system is shrunken, it would be the remedial teachers who would be out of a job. (A topic touched on by some here, but with a different emphasis). For some, anyway, being able to teach unprepared and poorly-motivated students is a condition of being able to work at all, rather than an imposition.

Posted by: zizka at November 10, 2003 03:36 PM

So, we should charge students $100,000 so academics can have jobs? I genuinely don't follow that reasoning.

Also, as an historian, I don't and never would advocate a belief in the good old days---these never existed. However, educational standards shifted in the 1910s and 1920s as a result of a belief that the working classes could not perform at higher levels. Please, read the history of education (there are a lot of books on the subject! I can recommend some if you want). I think this shift was idiotic as it short-changed our whole society. I find "credentialing"---passing students through a system when they lack ability or the motivation---a very strange way of approaching education. When I lived in Britain, my British friends constantly ragged on me, saying that an American college education was the equivalent of a British high school education. This was even a joke on that show, Futurama. What is wrong with saying that a college degree should have some meaning?

I guess we are going to have to disagree on this one. But I must confess it makes me glad I left academia. I really don't want to be a part of a system that makes me give students a degree whether they have earned it or not. I really feel sorry for the kids who have earned one---it's meaningless in our society.

Posted by: Hana at November 10, 2003 03:52 PM

And I don't think saying that we have to re-think our entire educational system is "off-topic"---the level of the education we can and do provide at our colleges is directly linked to the quality of education we provide in our elementary etc. schools. Our entire society is discussing this problem and people (at least where I work) see the whole problem as intrisically linked. You cannot suddenly impose high standards at college when most American kids are not challenged at a lower level in their education.

My belief about racially mixed and socially mixed schools is linked to my own experiences (where I saw inner-city kids succeed at high levels) and also from what is happening in Cambridge Mass. This is the approach taken by the school district---we'll see how it works but the fact that it is being implemented in a school district in one of Mass's largest cities may indicate that I am not completely nuts (or off-base).

Posted by: Hana at November 10, 2003 03:58 PM

Much of what you say is more or less off-topic.

That's pretty snotty. Are you denying the problems she mentions exist? She obviously cares deeply about people getting a real education, whatever background they come from; your last paragraph seems to imply you're more concerned with job opportunities than the function of education. Which is fair enough, but don't attack Hana for having a different perspective.

"Hey, if we stop building these unnecessary highways and dams, union members will be out of a job!" Yeah, but...

Posted by: language hat at November 10, 2003 04:23 PM

It was explained to me today that the following two paragraphs are indicative of a grade somewhere between a C and B-.

I am still shuddering. Please read:

In his essay "Unnatural Killers," John Grisham claims causal links between the Oliver Stone film "Natural Born Killers" and the case of Ben and Sarah, two teenagers that went on a heinous murder rampage. Throughout his essay, Grisham argues that today's films imapct a determining, negative influence upon today youth, particularly in Ben and Sarah's case. Grisham blames Hollywood's irresponsibility of showing gruesome, bloody films, like "Natural Born Killers" that promote murder and violence as being a thing to do. Grisham's thesis is plausible argumenting in justifying Ben and Sarah's actions, however, Grisham underestimates many factors that serve cause to Ben and Sarah's strayed behavior.
Though many adults and critics would agree with his argument of violent films and their negative affect on people's mentalities, adolescence in particular. Grisham fails to support his claim with factual and proven information. Besides Ben and Sarah's case, Grisham presents no other similar cases that would prove his claims consistent. As counter argument to Grisham's claim of violent films producing violent mentalities for their viewers, Richard Rhodes presents facts in his essay, "Hollow Claims About Fantasy Violence." Though Rhodes presents reliable institutions such as the American Academy of Pediatrics and the National Institute of Mental Health agreeing with Grisham's claim of the link between entertainment and violent behaviors, Rhodes also presents the fact that there is an inversion to the rise of television ownership and decline of homicide rates not just in the United States, but in other countries as well.


I would not say this individual doesn't belong in university -- that's going too far. But the sugestion that I am required to give this a grade somewhere between a C and a B- is an entirely different matter.

I'll be flamed for this, I'm sure, but nevertheless as I read this sample I find the analogy to a kid walking into her mother's closet to play "dress up" fairly apt. When she's done layering on gobs of gaudy purple eye shadow and candy red lip stick, she appears wearing her mother's clothes, except the bra is on backwards and over the dress. At 6 this is called cute. At 18 it is called a tragedy, and in reference to the cited passages above, a distinct sign of the failure of the secondary education system. (the student in question informed me that s/he never received lower than a B+ in an English class ... and was shocked that I gave the paper (which does not get any better than what I cited) a D)

But no, this between a C and B-.

I wondner what an A looks like ...

Posted by: Must Remain Anonymous at November 10, 2003 05:57 PM

Must Remain Anonymous: Without any context, your fussing over grades doesn't mean much. What was the assignment; was this in class or out of class; what level is the course? There is no pure "A" or "C" in the world. Grading is a function of local contexts.

Hana: As Ziska notes, you are all over the place, which makes response difficult. I would agree we could do with significant educational reform, especially in our high schools. But we might not agree on the focus of that reform.

Your appeal to history strikes me as selective. I'm the world's authority on the history of freshman English in California. I agree that many significant developments occurred in the late 19th and early 20th century in higher education. But mostly it was a case of increasing access for business, technical and agricultural studies (which were never part of the university until about 1880s) which changed the nature of the curriculum. Curiously, majors were invented about the same time that the College board was created. And, coincidentally, that's when remedial English came to the universities. My sense of history is that every time access is increased a lot of people yell about falling standards. One of the groups gaining access in that period was women. You wouldn't claim they lowered the standards, would you?

It's probably a good thing you've left universities because you seem very confused about the role of an individual faculty member and the standards created by the faculty as a whole that decide degree requirements, prerequisites and the like. We happen to agree that clear standards and high expectations should be made of every student. Students who don't meet those requirements fail a course. But you don't get to decide they leave college because they fail your course. Sometimes a course failure is what it takes for a student to get serious. Some students will come back and do well after failing a course.

If your institution does not have appropriate admission standards or effective post-admission placement systems, then that is work the faculty must carry out collectively. You've never described your efforts to improve the standards at your institution, just your inclination to decide some students were ill-prepared.

I trust your new line of work rewards broad claims and scatter-shot arguments.

Posted by: John at November 10, 2003 07:52 PM


Not Wharton.


1. University of Pennsylvania (Wharton)
2. University of Chicago
3. New York University (Stern)

Posted by: visitor at November 10, 2003 07:59 PM

Hana, what was off-topic was your apparent belief that the way to help the "working class" is to kick them out of college if they're not prepared. "Off-topic" was a rather polite way of putting it.

The debasement of education ca. 1910 probably (I'm guessing) consisted of the a big reduction of emphasis on the classical languages. I'm a classicist of sorts, but when education democratized, an education designed to train the gentry to be parsons and military officers became inappropriate.

I specifically deny your point that the laxer pace of American education is necessarily a bad thing. Those who get a good education in Britain or Germnay get a better education that those in even the elite schools in the U.S., but many are excluded from education there (my sources complain about it), and Americans who get the second and third chance often do very well, including many people I know. Part of the whole problem is that education in the US is sort of a mark of elite status, and sort of not (where it's more unambiguous in Europe).

I do not actually believe that schools should be kept open just to provide jobs for teachers. Just that teachers of poor students shouldn't complain about their students too much if they continue to teach them. (Doesn't apply to Hana, as I see).

As far as writing skills go -- this is a pretty explosive topic. Why do literate women, even with M.A.'s, often end up as secretaries? Because they can write and spell, and their bosses (capable as they may be) just can't. A lot of tech people are also unable to write, and some scientists.

When education democratized and pluralized, one thing that happened is that people ended up being highly trained in something without being able to write well. It's not just the underclass; writing is now a specialized minority skill. And not one that is highly valued.

I just don't see that there would be any improvement if fewer people went to college. My guess is that, calculated over the whole population, Americans today are better educated than they were 50 years ago. Maybe not well enough but just because the need for literacy and numeracy is much greater.

Posted by: zizka at November 11, 2003 08:48 AM

My guess is that, calculated over the whole population, Americans today are better educated than they were 50 years ago. Maybe not well enough but just because the need for literacy and numeracy is much greater.

This may not be a ground breaking or profound addition to this thread, but ... a tenured professor I know said of his daughter, who is now in her 2nd (?) year at Yale, that while she and her friends "know more information" than he did at the same age (he's around 50 now), she and they are far less prepared -- both intellectually and academically -- for college, or for life in general.

One of his undeclared subtexts here, I think, is that in his day, when perhaps fewer high school grads went to college, there was also a more homogenous standard that could be applied across the board.

I do not actually believe that schools should be kept open just to provide jobs for teachers. Just that teachers of poor students shouldn't complain about their students too much if they continue to teach them. (Doesn't apply to Hana, as I see).

Agreed. However, having taught at both "Small Elite Liberal Arts College" and "Big State U.," I believe there are some striking issues/problems that cut across the obvious class and quality of secondary education divisions that often distinguish students at ELAC and BSU. While ELAC students tend to be a bit more polished in their writing and expressive abilities, their polish is often rather empty in content. That is, to be somewhat hasty about it, they tend to write lovely "book review" essays lacking much in the way of critical acumen. At their best, their papers seem to undertake elaborate defenses/proofs of the farily obvious feature of the plot: "Hamlet is an anxious figure." At BSU, to again speak broadly, there tends to be little of the polish found in the students at ELAC, but at the same time (in my experience) these students are more inclined to reach for a more critically aggressive mode of interpretation and explication.

Now, I grant that the arguments proposed by BSU students can often be rudimentary and unsophisticated, and rife with clunky, awkward, and just flat out wrong word uses. And they can often mis-interpret, and they are not long on nuance. But it's the impulse to BE critical that I am emphasizing. The ELAC students, for the most part, lack it, while the BSU students maybe have it too much.

To inch towards a re-formulation of this anecdotal observation in terms of class, ELAC students seem to be saying 'why would you even ask that kind of question', while BSU students tend to have no truck whatsoever with that kind of critical quietism. But (and this is probably a big 'but'), BSU stundets are handicapped from the outset as a result of their limited means of expression, their poor facility with the language, and a general lack of intellectual patience. And it takes a lot of convincing to get them to see that HOW one presents oneself in fact IS important, and unfortunately many never get there. I suspect, finally, that this resistance is an issue of class, a continually reinforced anti-intellectualism, as well as immaturity.

Posted by: Chris at November 11, 2003 10:40 AM

Zizka: And this is my final comment because this has become really idiotic. As I support HEOP programs (do you even what these programs enatail?), as I support affirmative action, as I support heavy duty recruitment of minorities, I find the charge that I want to throw all students who cannot perform out of college ludicruous; I am saying that when a student is given tutoring, a good education etc. and still cannot make the mark, then he or she should re-consider what he or she is doing. Not everyone posesses the ability to succeed in college (just as not everyone possesses the ability to succeed in the arts, music etc.). My view is this: "give people every opportunity (and start by reforming lower level education) and if the student cannot make the grade, then, he or she should not be in college."

Re-reading my posts, I understand that it is possible to infer that I support a British or European system in which 4% or so attend college. I actually don't. Unlike you, I believe (as I have repeatedly tried to say by giving constant examples---a technique I picked up while teaching) that many American students can reach a higher level of achievement and that they can perform college-level work but as the system currently stands, this is not possible (reading this site, I cannot help but believe that many professors sincerely believe that calling students to account and asking them to do college-level work would be tantamont to endorsing the American class structure---this is a leap, in my book but okay...). I actually don't want a return to the 1890s (altho' I am a woman and women were, at that period in history in the United States [don't know abt Canada] out-performing boys and receiving, on average, more years of schooling---THIS IS A JOKE, OFF-TOPIC I KNOW!!). I want a system where students receive an education which has meaning, I want a system where students who are not capable of doing the work do not need to spend 4 years (and however much money) getting a BA which has no meaning. I think---and call me an idiot---that many American students are not being challenged and that if they were to be challenged, they would meet that challenge and surprise all of their teachers.

I have been called elitist for advocating this model which I find really amazing. I have been told that I am going off-topic when I suggest that education as a whole needs to be reformed (you cannot build a strong house on a weak foundation). These comments, as well as the belief that we are fighting class divisions by grade inflation, are not even worthy of discussion. We disagree. Period. Nothing more to say.

Posted by: Hana at November 11, 2003 11:37 AM

I don't know if anyone has brought this into the discussion, but here are some interesting statistics that play a role in the whole push for college...
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics for 2010 projects that 22% of jobs will require 4 years of college and 9% of jobs will require an AA degree or technical training. I suspect that the percentage of jobs requiring a masters or doctorate are even less.
My question is: why do we continue to unquestioningly push college on kids, redesign the high school curricula for college while pushing the "less deserving" kids to the side, and try our darndest to insist that enrollment in advanced algebra will save us all, when there won't even be the jobs available when these people graduate?! What we have happening is educational inflation, particuluarly at the 4-year level. Why do you think so many people enroll in graduate school? They can't use the degrees they already have! This is not about elitism. It's about reality. The reality is that the decent-paying jobs are fewer and far between, replaced by low-wage service industry jobs. Even the tech jobs are being exported overseas, and the you-know-what is starting to hit the middle-class fan, so to speak! At first it was just a problem in the manufacturing realm, but now many white-collar jobs are vanishing in the U.S. I have yet to see academia address these inconsistencies.

Posted by: Cat at November 11, 2003 01:05 PM

God, this is becoming addictive but I feel so irritated by this that I want to respond to John and comment on "Must Remain Anonymous."

I had students who were writing at a level so far beneath what Must Remain Anonymous has quoted here that it isn't even funny. My students did not know how to structure paragraphs (the one paragraph essay was common); they did not understand capitalization; they did not know how to use commas; they did not understand the difference between a dependent clause and an independent one etc. I did try repeatedly to get my colleagues to discuss this and to be more rigid in setting our major (I was an untenured faculty member and so I really didn't have much power and I certainly had NONE with which I could confront the university). I was told that correcting students' papers and returning them with a sea of red ink would "cripple their self-esteem." Really! I was also told that the Writing Lab (staffed by undergrads) would address all of the problems and that I needed to stop fussing about this. When I suggested that we ask students to submit a portfolio of papers from their classes during their final year, my idea was dismissed as a "nice idea but fundamentally impossible to implement."

I cannot believe, in view of complaints I heard from faculty in the English, French, Philosophy and Anthro Deparments, that I was alone in my views. I also feel, foolishly I know, that a student who can not write a sentence and who is unprepared to work on learning how to do this, has no place in college. Call me elitist. Call me unfair to assume that a student who cannot perform at a basic level in my class probably performs at an equally low level in an English class, a Philosophy class etc. These fields require students to have the same basic skills---so when a student demonstrates a lack of these skills in my class, I foolishly assume he or she demonstrates a similar inability in other classes. God forgive me for making such an extrapolitation.

I had no impact whatsoever on admissions and in my years at the school was unable to launch a campaign to address this problem (I'm dazzled that you think I had that much power). I did and do, however, welcome changes such as that proposed by ETS which would advocate that students taking the SATs be required to write an essay (which would demonstrate, once and for all, how poorly American students write).

What kills me (and amuses me) is that the undergraduates one year picked me as "Their Favorite Professor." I had a reputation for being really tough (apparently---I was told this) but I think students must have actually liked this. As one poster commented I actually cared deeply about education. Participating in a system which sold a product called a BA but did nothing to educate students was really painful to me.

As for my pulling scattered information from different periods, I am pointing to ONE period and saying that standards were lowered in reference to concerns (by Progressive reformers in the US) that the working class could not achieve higher standards. I made this comment b/c I constantly see in other people's statements a reluctance to believe that their students are capable of high quality work (I was attacked, if you will remember, for being "elitist" for advocating this and I felt that my attackers shared the sentiments of Progressive Era reformers). I am saying---and saying it in every way I know---that raising standards will not cause the working class to drop out en masse (I think that is an extraorinarily elitist belief)---I am saying that SOME kids (from all classes) will drop out when they cannot do the work. I am saying also that perhaps this is a good thing as a college degree should have some meaning.

Teaching students who had been taught by professors and teachers afraid to enforce standards was not, I am afraid, for me.

Posted by: Hana at November 11, 2003 01:34 PM

Hana, when I said you were "off topic", one of the things I was saying is that it was hard to know exactly which of the many points you made in your series of voluminous communications to respond to.

Perhaps I shouldn't have taken your objections to the 1910 Progressive reform as so central as I did, but when you swing that wildly it definitely catches peoples' attention, and broadens the scope of your criticism so far that people who are trying to deal with something a bit more more specific and local will tend to object to what you say (or ignore it). Rightly or wrongly, I concluded that what you would have preferred is that they had offered the same elite education as before to a slightly larger but more meritocratic and diverse elite.

At my second alma mater (the self-described "urban university") students (some students) often preferred the demanding teachers like yourself to the ones walking through their jobs. And eventually, a lot of students DO end up deciding that "college isn't for them", but it does set peoples' teeth on edge when "students who shouldn't be in college" is highlighted as one of the main problems with the system. And again, we never really knew what proportion of your students you were talking about, but it didn't sound like it was as small as 10% or even 20%.

Posted by: zizka at November 11, 2003 04:18 PM

The problems are related and weirdly I believe in calling a spade a spade. Some students should not be in college. Sorry. But that is my point. And I do think the system is damaged by these students (and the professors who indulge them).

And speaking of putting people's teeth on edge, your comment that we should fund remedial education for the sake of PhDs who want to be able to claim the title of professor was, I sincerely hope, a joke. Talk about a comment to set people's teeth on edge. Please tell me it was a joke.

Posted by: Hana at November 11, 2003 05:30 PM

I'm amused that this blog-community is largely OK with "You probably shouldn't go to grad school even if they'll let you in" but breaks out in sniffy-fits at the suggestion that some students shouldn't go to college, even if they would be let in.

Seems to me that Hana's main historical point is that one of the biggest Progressive education reforms was only ambiguously good for the working classes it purported to help. (This doesn't rule out their acting in good faith.) Assertions of good intent and anti-classism shouldn't hold water with someone who believes she has evidence that those don't suffice.

In an ameliorating mood, I think many of these arguments only go one step in the game, argue about the results of an education-system change as though it wouldn't change anything else in society; which, if large, it would.

Posted by: clew at November 12, 2003 04:20 PM

In general in the educational debate, the 1910 reforms are thought of as the golden age which we have lost. The thing that allowed immigrants at CCNY to get Nobel Prizes even if they still talked funny. And quite rightly so, in my opinion.

That's one of the reasons that Hana has got so much flak; she's all over the map.

Hana, what I said was: "I do not actually believe that schools should be kept open just to provide jobs for teachers. Just that teachers of poor students shouldn't complain about their students too much if they continue to teach them. (Doesn't apply to Hana, as I see)."

My point was that occasionally someone seems to think that they'd be teaching good students if it weren't for all the bad students. But in truth, if you're teaching bad students, if they leave you won't be teaching at all.

Posted by: zizka at November 12, 2003 04:39 PM

I suspect this post has grown a bit cold, but let me just thank Hana for her persistence and for her support of my position. I think Clew hits it right on the head, too, when he notes the "sniffy-fits" so many posters here go into when anyone so much as breathes the possibility that not all of the people attending our colleges and universities should be there. Calling the people who suggest such things "arrogant" and "racist" and "elitist" and "embarrassing" (adjectives drawn from a number of responses to Hana and myself here) isn't very helpful, is it? This approach to legitimate debate has marginalized your position very severely in the larger culture wars. A different approach would be better.

Posted by: manon at November 14, 2003 08:08 PM