Saturday, August 15, 2009

Too often, a college education is purely academic.

You may have heard about Trina Thompson. Unable to find work, the young woman is suing her alma mater, the Bronx's Monroe College, to recover the $70,000 she paid in tuition. The story inspired me to write an opinion piece, which ran in the New York Daily News this past Thursday.

Mindful of the Thompson case, and the preparations underway on campuses nationwide to receive a new crop of not-so-bright-eyed freshmen, I thought I'd provide some further thoughts here. We'll start with two scenes from my own encounters with academia.

Scene 1: During a decade of guest-teaching at three different colleges, I served as everything from a lowly adjunct (they were nice enough to omit the lowly in the actual course listings) to an "endowed chair" (that one alway
s made me smile) to writer-in-residence (a position that's a lot bigger on cachet than it is on cash). In theory, the latter two posts entitled me to full faculty privileges. In practice, my one privilege was watching my tenured colleagues leave their offices at regular intervals for meetings at which my presence had not been requested. Anyway, during each of my college appointments I saw the same drama play out as each spring semester drew to a close: Suddenly realizing that jobs might come in handy, graduating seniors performed an exhaustive survey of the market but were unable to find any openings requiring intimate familiarity with Beowulf. Knowing that I was a published author and erstwhile magazine editor, they descended on my office in a panic. Though I did my best to help, their abilities invariably were a poor fit with the mainstream publishing market I knew so well. Somehow the four-year education that had done a superlative job of equipping them with their airy attitudesI once had a student tell me he'd "settle" for a job at The New Yorker, and he wasn't kiddinghad not imparted the nuts-and-bolts skills that underlie paying positions in writing and editing. What kind of skills? How 'bout, for starters, a working knowledge of proofreading symbols? In all the reading and workshopping of each other's work, no one had ever felt it useful to teach them that? Nor had anyone told them that there aren't necessarily jobs that allow each graduate to pursue his singular "creative vision."

Scene 2: In 1988 I wrote a piece about the Berkeley economics duo who dreamed up "portfolio insurance," the now-discredited computer-trading program that was said to seamlessly, invisibly hedge an investor's bets; later, the tactic was itself deemed to have helped catalyze the Crash of 1987. During an interview with one of the professors, Mark Rubinstein, I asked about the irony of it all: How did he feel when he saw the market imploding and it occurred to him that his "failsafe" investing strategy might have had something to do with it? "Oh, we were having a great time!" he blurted. "We couldn't wait to see what would happen next!" Millions of Americans were losing billions of dollars—and these two goofs were having a great time. To them, the tumultuous events of October 1987 were like a giant lab class. Seldom will you hear a more striking statement of academia's detachment from reality.

Criticism of the ivory tower is nothing new. But from a quality-of-education standpoint
having observed the college experience from multiple vantage pointsI see the problem as follows. At best, academia provides students with an abstract "knowledge base" that (a) in most cases has been taught, with only minor updates and adjustments, for years and (b) is seldom connected up to its real-world applications. Even in the ever-evolving hard sciences, little effort is made to tailor the syllabus to present (let alone future) employment opportunities. You won't hear a curriculum-development chairperson ask, "What's the job market going to look like in five years? Let's prepare graduates for that." It's just not how academics think. (No, college may not be vocational school, but vocation is not a dirty word, either. And yet it's spoken in faculty loungeswhen it's spoken at allwith the same inflection most folks use in saying Ebola or, lately, death panels.) College also gives short shrift to the critical differences between theory and practice, the law of unintended consequences, the ways in which elegant theoretical models must be flexed around little things like human nature, and so forth.

At its worst, this mentality degrades into outright scorn for post-graduate success. In my own discipline, writing, I found that my academic peers despised popular consumer magazines like People and Good Housekeeping—the very publications that offer the most jobs at the highest pay. While at Muhlenberg College I drew a stern closed-door rebuke from my (female) department chairman for teaching a lesson rooted in a story* I'd written for Playboy. The story had nothing to do with naked coeds
it was about deception and double-dealing in the organ-transplantation industry, and we got quite a bit of press over it. But my chairperson was livid over the fact that (a) her writer-in-residence had done a piece for Playboy in the first place, and (b) he'd had the temerity to bring the magazine to school. (After all, we wouldn't want to corrupt today's delicate, virginal college students.) Maybe it also irked her that Playboy had paid me for that one article a sum equivalent to what she earned in three months of teaching. She would've much preferred that I train my students to write for obscure literary journals with names like Zephyr of the Ephemeral Consciousnesswhich, often, don't pay contributors at all!

(And we won't even get into the myriad imperatives that have elbowed their way into the college zeitgeist that have nothing to do with education per se: e.g. political proselytizing, the selling of "diversity-based agendas" and other forms of social engineering, etc.)

Whether by design or not, academia's estrangement from the real world is institutionalized in its hiring practices. Administrators boast of their "high percentage of PhDs on faculty," as if that statistic alone guarantees a superior education. Trouble is, there's a certain kind of person who becomes a PhD, and it tends to be a person who
wellsees the world as a giant lab class. Moreover, the emphasis on PhDs keeps out not just the intellectual riff-raff, but also instructors whose stints in the trenches may have led them to different conclusions about the ingredients of success. This can have the effect of actually grooming students to fail. "One reason teachers leave the profession after only a few years," observed Pennsylvania’s Governor's Commission on Training America’s Teachers in the executive summary of its final 2005 report, "is that the real issues they are dealing with were not taught to them in the university." A student of mine put it more colorfully: "A zoology professor can tell you everything about the origin of a species. But a zookeeper can tell you how to avoid getting bitten."

There is nothing sacrilegious about ensuring that young people who go deeply into debt to finance their education have some reasonable prospect of repaying the loans
—ideally by finding employment in their chosen field of endeavor.

* This is not from the actual magazine, so there are typos and such. Clearly someone typed it out and uploaded it, which is technically a copyright violation. But it's useful here.


Chad Hogg said...

I loved the Thompson article when I first saw it. As you admit, the purpose of college education is not preparation for a specific career. At one time the broad range of knowledge and experience that it provided did put graduates into a limited pool of people qualified for a number of occupations, but rising enrollment means that that pool is now much larger than the number of job openings.

Unfortunately colleges in general, and apparently Monroe especially, have been encouraging this expansion by advertising their services as the ticket to a successful and lucrative career even as this becomes less and less true.

That the average quality of American institutions of higher education has undoubtedly decreased over the last century, I would disagree that they are subpar compared to their international competitors. At least, this has not been the experience of the people I have known who chose to study abroad and it does not explain the large number of international students who choose to come to the United States.

I cannot explain the dropout rate that you mention; nor does my anecdotal evidence confirm it. I know personally perhaps three dozen people who have completed a Bachelor's Degree in the last 10 years and only one who started but did not finish. How does this study count students who transfer from one institution to another or who require 5 years to finish their degree?

The colleges and universities with which I have been associated have not had a department of writing, but of English [literature]. If this is the sort of place that you have worked, then I am not surprised that they have preferred that their students publish in literary journals than perform journalism. That is not saying that writing for Good Housekeeping is not worthwhile or difficult, but that it is an entirely different discipline.

Requiring that teaching faculty hold doctoral degrees may not make a great amount of sense when completion of that degree typically does not indicate any skill or training whatsoever in the practice of teaching, but it is an easy metric to calculate and tout. I will say that my post-graduate study has definitely prepared me to be a much better educator than I could have been before it, although much of that is due to my own initiative.

I think what your student says is insightful. Indeed, people need to be trained by zookeepers on how not to get bitten. In fact, we may need far more people to be trained by the zookeeper than the zoologist. But some people need to learn about the origin of species if we are to have any hope of making progress in the field. Colleges are the place where zoologists teach, and if people primarily want to know how to avoid being bitten, then we need to encourage them to enter apprenticeships or other situations that are designed to impart that kind of knowledge.

Cosmic Connie said...

Notwithstanding Chad’s excellent points about the legitimate role of academia, I have to say that whenever I read a post like this one, I don’t feel so bad that I completely skipped over “higher education.” I can be an underachiever quite well without a college degree, thank you very much. :-)

I’m reminded of two other blog posts written a few months ago that really stuck with me. The first one, which is perhaps only marginally relevant to this post, is from “anti-guru” and frequent SHAMblog participant Steven Sashen, who wrote last spring on the whole “do-what-you-love-and-the-money-will-follow/follow-your-passion/find-your-purpose” mindset that is so fervently embraced by the conspicuously enlightened crowd.

Not only does Steven make some excellent points about the arrogance and illogic of this way of thinking, but he also links to a fantastic TED talk by someone else mentioned in a recent SHAMblog discussion: Mike “Dirty Jobs” Rowe. It’s definitely worth your while to follow the link Steven provides to this talk, in which Rowe discusses (among other things such as castrating a lamb with one’s teeth), our cultural “war on work.” Despite our egalitarian ideals, we’re still an elitist society when it comes to Maynard G. Krebs’ most dreaded four letter word, “WORK!” We look down our collective noses at the folks who do the dirty work, not only because it’s…well…dirty…but also (thanks to the influence of the SHAMsters on our lives) because the people who do this work are clearly not “following their passion.” Some of them end up wealthy anyway, but more often than not, the breakthrough that leads them to wealth is just dumb luck or accident.

Even so, most of the working-class types are not living on Easy Street, which is where the gurus tell us we should all aspire to live. But we can’t just blame the gurus; our institutions of higher (l)earning have always pushed the idea that education will prevent one having to get one’s hands dirty.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not implying, nor is Rowe, for that matter, that everyone should be a sheep farmer or a plumber (come to think of it, plumbing seems to be more recession-proof than ghostwriting and book editing). What I am saying is that I agree with the points Rowe made in his talk about our attitudes towards work. I also think that you, Steve, have made several valid points about the usefulness, and lack thereof, of a college education these days.

The second blog post more directly speaks to the college-ed theme. This is from "Panda Bear," an M.D. whose writing I thoroughly enjoy (and I do hope he writes a book some day). Holding forth on “edumucation and other things,” he writes, “In fact, if there is a bigger scam than higher education or one supported by such a collection of self-interested grifters (who nevertheless bask in public adulation) I have yet to hear about it.”

And then there's this: "A modern university is a self-perpetuating bureaucratic octopus, growing bloated as only an organization with unlimited access to public money can, and requiring only one thing: a steady supply of warm students shoveled into the front end to be kept in the mill as long as possible."

Almost makes you want to go out and buy one of those faux-degrees, like several of the big-bucks New-Wage gurus have done.

Cal said...

I say blow the whole concept of higher education as it currently stands right now. What gets me is I got a million solicitations to donate money to the school I attended, and they also gave my name to a credit card company so I could have the logo of the college on my card. Why would I want that? But, on the flip side, they never partnered with any investment firms to help me save for retirement, or any educational expenses for kids that I may have.

But what really galls me is that many of these Ivy League schools or other elite institutions are crying poor-mouth when, despite their investment losses, they still have outrageous endowments in the billions of dollars. And these schools will still have major donations from their powerful alumni.

I wanted Obama to win and he did. But I hope this country does not degenerate into you have to be from an Ivy League institution to be POTUS (the last four have Ivy connections) or a Supreme Court justice. I don't think that's the hallmark of a "democracy".