Saturday, September 13, 2008

Our Friend Charles Murray Opines About the Waste (Waste!) Of the College Going Underclass

Citing E. D. Hirsch as an "indispensible thinker" on literacy, Charles Murray tells us that it really isn't worth it for a kid who (quite by coincidence?) "knows that he enjoys working with his hands" to go to college. As usual, he uses some interesting data to make completely misguided assertions. Note, for example, the following excerpt, where we can solve the "misaligned ambitions" of poor and working-class high school students not by helping them achieve their ambitions, or by working to change the nature of professional culture so they feel more welcomed, but by simply shifting them into vocational tracks where they will make more money and be happier.

One aspect of this phenomenon has been labeled misaligned ambitions, meaning that adolescents have career ambitions that are inconsistent with their educational plans. Data from the Sloan Study of Youth and Social Development conducted during the 1990s indicate that misaligned ambitions characterized more than half of all adolescents. Almost always, the misalignment is in the optimistic direction, as adolescents aspire to be attorneys or physicians without understanding the educational hurdles they must surmount to achieve their goals. They end up at a four-year institution not because that is where they can take the courses they need to meet their career goals, but because college is the place where B.A.s are handed out, and everyone knows that these days you’ve got to have a B.A. Many of them drop out. Of those who entered a four-year college in 1995, only 58 percent had gotten their B.A. five academic years later. Another 14 percent were still enrolled. If we assume that half of that 14 percent eventually get their B.A.s, about a third of all those who entered college hoping for a B.A. leave without one.

If these numbers had been produced in a culture where the B.A. was a nice thing to have but not a big deal, they could be interpreted as the result of young adults deciding that they didn’t really want a B.A. after all. Instead, these numbers were produced by a system in which having a B.A. is a very big deal indeed, and that brings us to the increasingly worrisome role of the B.A. as a source of class division. The United States has always had symbols of class, and the college degree has always been one of them. But through the first half of the 20th century, there were all sorts of respectable reasons a person might not go to college—not enough money to pay for college; needing to work right out of high school to support a wife, parents, or younger siblings; or the commonly held belief that going straight to work was better preparation for a business career than going to college. As long as the percentage of college graduates remained small, it also remained true, and everybody knew it, that the majority of America’s intellectually most able people did not have B.A.s.

Note how the BA becomes a "source" of class division, instead of a result of class division.

Just sending this love note out to all those "intellectually most able" people out there in blog land. Pat yourselves on the back. And send everyone else to be a mechanic.


J. said...

Why can't a BA be a source as well as a result of class division? I don't see the mutual exclusivity.

I do agree that there needs to be more work to create equal opportunity regardless of socioeconomic background. But, from what I've read in your chosen extract, Murray is trying to address the stigmitization of being BA-less. That, I think, is also pushing in the right direction.

We don't want to create a future where everyone can have similar opportunities at the start but cannot take certain opportunities because those careers are socially stigmatized. And before we even get to the future, what about the people who don't have BAs and have been working hard thus far? It'd be nice if they weren't penalized for their life decisions with such social perceptions either.

Your commentary seems to be doing more to strengthen the perception that everyone SHOULD have BAs rather than that everyone SHOULD BE ABLE TO pursue a BA.

Aaron Schutz said...

Good points. I don't mean to support the idea that BAs are necessary, or should be in some vague general sense. Nor do I mean to denigrate working-class jobs.

As I said, Murray takes interesting data, and some potentially useful concepts, and then largely transforms them into right-wing talking-points.

For example, of course the relationship between BAs and class is somewhat complicated. But Murray doesn't note this at all. And jumps instead for the clearly incorrect idea that BAs are somehow more a cause of class differences than a result. The fact is that class is a core predictor of who goes to college, and who goes to better colleges. He even acknowledged that the "intellectually able" people who don't go to college don't go in large part because of class (characterized as income). And then he ignores this fact.

It is possible to make a coherent argument about valuing bachelors degrees less, but this isn't it.

Anonymous said...

I am so used to having students who are career focused in their education. I am in a professional school, after all. When I have a grad student who breaks down in tears in my office... not because of stress but just because she's been reading Dewey or Illich or autoethnographic methodology, and I realize that here is someone who is just into learning, I look back at everyone else and see how different they are from me. I went to school to learn things like how to learn, how to make sense of the world and my place in it, how to decide what to do with the next 80 years in a meaningful manner.

That is, to me, what I think higher education should be about. Practical career things should be done elsewhere. But that's not how the world works. That said, I don't think this is an elitist perspective... I was so far down the economic latter that I went to school on needs based government grants and loans. And I think there's always a percentage of the population who from any walk of life will be interested in this path.

I guess we need another level of educational institution... 'the real higher ed.' :)