Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Right Wing Desire to Eliminate College

See this article in the Wall Street Journal by an American Enterprise Institute Scholar arguing that we should substitute exams for college.

Outside a handful of majors -- engineering and some of the sciences -- a bachelor's degree tells an employer nothing except that the applicant has a certain amount of intellectual ability and perseverance. Even a degree in a vocational major like business administration can mean anything from a solid base of knowledge to four years of barely remembered gut courses.

The solution is not better degrees, but no degrees. Young people entering the job market should have a known, trusted measure of their qualifications they can carry into job interviews. That measure should express what they know, not where they learned it or how long it took them. They need a certification, not a degree

Of course, this is part of a long-term right-wing effort to eliminate "liberal" college educations.

At the same time, this equates college with "skills," ignoring any broader educational component.

In fact, however, there is good evidence that the real impact of college is the reverse. Except in specific fields, it's not skills but culture that is the key effect of college. College is where people intensify or gain middle-class culture. And it's this "middle-classness" that allows individuals to work effectively in middle class settings.

The growing lower tier of colleges for the working class are likely much less able to initiate people into middle-class culture. They focus on "skills," which are, of course, important, but aren't the key characteristic that will give people entree to the higher level of middle-class jobs.

I'd be interested in research on the difference in the return for investment for schools like the "University of Phoenix" or "Lower Iowa University" or "Lakeland College" vs. more established traditional college experiences. A useful study would eliminate the "non-traditional" programs in such colleges/universities, and would differentiate between students from working-class vs. middle-class backgrounds. My bet is that the return on investment for those at the bottom of the economic/cultural ladder in these "skill-based" schools is significantly smaller than for those closer to the other end.

In other words, just like the promise "if you stay in high school and graduate you'll do better" the "if you go to college you'll be much more successful" promise is much less true for those who most need the benefits of these.


merv said...

Interesting post and ideas... As an English instructor who has taught in technical, business, and large University settings, I'm amazed at the qualitative difference in the classes, as dictated by the different departments... What concerned me most was the transfer students-- those students going to a two-year college only to get the prereqs out of the way, whose plan is to transfer to a four-year University. Their freshman writing experience will be SO different from their counter-parts at the 4-year place...

Anyway, that led me to pursue a Social Foundations Ph.D. instead of an English Ph.D. (I'll just be starting in the Fall)... That issue and the one you raise seem closely connected-- I'll be attempting to answer some of these questions in my research down the road...

Aaron Schutz said...

Interesting. I also started in English and then ended up in foundations.

Anonymous said...

Sounds familiar. I switched from English to critical pedagogy for my phd as well (since I have no idea what you mean by foundations I'll assume it is the same). I have a colleague who just started her phd at an ivy league education school.

I have found that many degree completion students from 2 yr colleges are more capable and engaged than students who started in the 4 year, but that may be particular to my field. The idea as I've understood it was "Hey, college wasn't too hard... let's see about the next level?" and with some of our students it has continued into grad school.

I think that 'business' has been upset with liberal education for the masses ever since they saw what it did in the 60s.

What is interesting to me is that whoever did the research in this article doesn't care about all the other articles that talk about how 'business' needs a creative and flexible workforce able to learn new things. They now want certified drudges it seems.

I've always been one for delinking learning from the instutionalized experience of schooling, and I'd prefer to find a new home for the certification process. Which makes me sound like them. But I was thinking that if people just want a bit of paper, let them study and pass some test. If they want to learn how to learn, they can spend time in the universities that are no longer degree mills, and are places of learning and inquiry. Much smaller now.

The problem with that is that you are back in the marching morons scenario where most people assume that passing the test has anything to do with understanding, and only a few know that they're engaged in meaningful learning. Oh, wait... that's what it's like now. Doh!

Anonymous said...

Aaron completely misrepresents what Murray is saying. Murray is not saying that we should do away with college. He says that it's far better for the economy and for individuals if there were better and more direct assessments of competence. What Murray fails to acknowledge is that the economy already has its own way of identifying and rewarding the skills it needs.

Aaron works at a college and he likes postmodernism and critical theory and other useless exercises that no one would want to pay for and anything that he thinks is going to rock his boat he will try to discredit as a right wing plot or whatever.

Jane said...


"...useless exercises that no one would want to pay for"?

Such glib, "I speak on behalf of everyone outside the university" comments are obviously just silly.

Here are just a few counter examples:

I have a relative who's a nurse. She got her current job (in the private sector) in large measure because she was so well versed in issues of diversity (grounded solidly in critical and feminist theories. And she's pretty clear that she wouldn't have chosen those courses herself, but once there, learned what she'd been missing).

Some of the hottest architects on the planet now are grounding their work solidly within in post modern theories. A young person who knew the "stuff" on the architecture exam but who didn't have a solid understanding of the intellectual bases for the designs making international news would never make it in any respectable firm.

I have another relative who works for a Fortune 500 company. She's being encouraged to get much more training in the significance of social media for branding, and any number of scholars (Henry Jenkins, Dana Boyd, Micheal Wesch) have written about how the emergence of new media can be understood only within postmodern frameworks. You can learn how to set up a Facebook page, but going beyond personal networks (as corporations are increasingly wanting to do) requires understanding why and how Facebook operates within changing (postmodern) times.

So, I guess that one of my concerns about proposals for competency testing is that perhaps they're being made by people who still understand knowledge to be decontextualized "facts" and are missing some of the broader intellectual movements that are shaping (or explainng) every day life and that are valued in the market.

The professions that control licensing (architecture, nursing, engineering, law, medicine) are pretty adamant about the value of degrees, and thus continue to require them.

It's curious that someone working in a think tank seems to think that he knows better.

Anonymous said...

These claims are so fanciful as to be almost self-parodying.

Richard said...

As someone commented in the Dewey post, many like to parody or reject "postmodern" thought because they are too busy or lazy to actually read the texts. Certainly claims like Lyotard's that "science is just another discourse" are ripe for critique, but many other insights from the loose collection of individuals we place under the rubric seem to play out more and more in our quotidienne existence.

For example, when an Alaskan Senator says that his opinions are as valid as a scientist when it comes to global warming, this is right out of the PM playbook. The entire 2000 recount seemed to fit perfectly into discourses of both deconstruction and revisionism. And the Republican party has certainly existed in a ahistorical vacuum for many years now, rewriting history to fit their tidy, but largely false, recounting of America and its decline while they arguably precipitate it with increasing acuity.

I think the point of the article, though, is that conservatives have been trying to instrumentalize knowledge at all levels for many years now -- to eliminate any time for people to actually think. They want capable, skilled employees that don't rock the proverbial boat. They have started to succeed with No Child Left Behind, which regiments schools and takes away time to think or learn anything except content and decontextualized facts, and are now attempting to bring this logic to universities with increasing success.

One of the best ways to maintain social cohesion and a society dominated by market ethos is to stop people from being autonomous, creative thinkers that use knoweldge and science to question, critique and offer alternatives to the present order of things. "Postmodern" thinkers have been very effective at showing the ways science, schools and other social institutions have abetted capitalism and the domination and control of the many by the elite few. Universities for all of their shortcomings were established to be institutions of INDEPENDENT thought and learning. While it is clear they have always served interests beyond this mission, I would like to think that they provide a space for more than training the workforce of the future. Have we forgotten that woebeggone ideal we call democracy?

James Horn said...

Well said, Richard, but in arguing for the value of PM, you also note that Republicans have co-opted a core postmodernist faith that truth can simply be made up by anyone, even Ted Stevens. So that now the totalizing metanarrative of the science-driven dominant elite becomes the anarchic mutterings of non-scientific dominant elite. Everything has changed except the dominant elite, and there is nothing I have found in the overstuffed and private postmodernist dictionary that is going to affect that.

If you ask me, and you didn't, the Postists dug a vast hole they could not climb out of, and now the right wing is simply bulldozing it over. Perhaps it is time to return to some of the old modernist discarded metanarratives. Maybe we should begin with the one you mention, the one the ironist "elites of non-elitism" (Marquard, 1989) discarded in favor of untrammeled, grandiose insipidity.

Here's to democratic memories.

Dan Willingham said...

"Young people entering the job market should have a known, trusted measure of their qualifications." Well, sure. Employers would love that. But how will it be developed?

The statement that "a bachelor's degree tells an employer nothing except that the applicant has a certain amount of intellectual ability and perseverance" may be true. I don't see how the elimination of degrees is a move foward.

Anonymous said...

Richard said ...

"Postmodern" thinkers have been very effective at showing the ways science, schools and other social institutions have abetted capitalism and the domination and control of the many by the elite few.

Ever hear of Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot? I guess the Postmodernists just missed that.
Horn said ...

So that now the totalizing metanarrative of the science-driven dominant elite becomes the anarchic mutterings of non-scientific dominant elite.
If this isn't self-parodying gibberish, I don't know what is.

Richard said...

The postmodern theorists started their critique with totalitarian states and fascism. Read for example Anti-Oedipus by Deleuze and Guattari and the brilliant introduction by Foucault. Science was clearly used by many dictators as the legitimating force behind their inhuman acts -- Hitler used Eugenics and the superior race theory and Stalin capitalized on a misreading of Marx's theory of capitalism as a scientific justification for his reign of terror under the rubric of "modernization." I would say these examples only further legitimate their critiques of science and the revelance of their ideas to analysis of the 20th century and the continuing problems of science today.

Much "post modern" discourse is slef-parodying because they have to rely on the very metanarratives they are trying to dismiss. But this does not make all of their ideas either absurd or useless. I believe here is much truth in their challenging of the idea of absolute truth, and the argument that all knowledge is both imbued with power and bias and socially-situated. I think there is a responsibility to understand anything we decide to critique.

Chernevog said...

Immensely dumb idea. In the area where I live, they still have LPN and registered nurses who do not have A.S. or B.S. degrees and the errors caused by the fact that they only have their medical based training, and do not know how to speak well, or communicate well in writing leads to all kind of errors. Too many to really be acceptable.

This is applicable in any professional field. A business that has employees who do not have at least college level training in speaking and writing the languages they have to communicate in could easily cost a business, or investors, millions or even billions of dollars because a report was not written concisely.

I have witnessed innumerable mistakes in writing. Even having some sort of knowledge of history is not irrelevant in many fields either. Been "well read" is not at all a negative thing in most professions. I have seen too many people in the business arena, as well as in the medical sciences, as well as in the field of civil engineering, people who worked in Public and Business Administration without degrees, who have wasted a lot of time and money trying to reinvent the wheel, when the sort of wheel they had come up with on their own, had already been tried, and failed in rather expensive and time consuming ways.

The right wingers tend to make superficial arguments of these kind almost cyclically, and then they end up returning to requiring some sort of standard educational certifications.

In my own profession I have seen this occur too many times to mention. The upper administration would eliminate the educational requirements for the professional level positions, and rely on TESTING for hiring people for these positions, and when the inevitable catastrophe occured, they would cling to their assertions that the testing was working fine, but inevitable when the costs of the mistakes that this caused started skyrocketing, they went right back to requireing the professional college degrees, in my profession, the Masters degree.

I have seen this sort of "experiment" done art least three times in the last 40 years, and no rearrangement of tweaking of the system ever worked. The requirement for college always ended up being brought back.