Wednesday, May 02, 2007

The value of education.

Barbara Ehrenreich, whom I normally like, has a weird little article on Alternet here. The background of it is that Merilee Jones, who was dean of admissions at MIT, lied about her academic credentials 28 years ago when she was hired. Thus, despite doing, by all reports, an excellent job, she was fired. Ehrenreich uses this as a jumping off point to -- criticize employers who place a higher value on paper than skills? No, sorry: to blame the academy:
But there are ways in which the higher education industry is becoming a racket: Buy our product or be condemned to life of penury, and our product can easily cost well over $100,000.
I hate the idea that a degree is a product, as I have said many times before. More than that, though, in this case I object to the claim that the academy is to blame for the "racket". I mean, really, how many professors have stood around corporate HR departments, forcing reps to hire only those with degrees? My money is on "none". The problem, really, is not even corporate, nor is it with employers; it's broadly social: there is a stigma attached to not having an undergraduate degree. Even if you're a skilled tradesperson, making six figures a year, you're somehow broadly seen as having settled for less. (I admit, I wouldn't want to do a plumber's job, because of the "ick" factor involved with sewage; but, then again, would a plumber want to do mine?)

The odd thing about this article is that while Ehrenreich sees that college isn't the only way to acquire important skills, she blames this on (as said) the academy, and employers wanting drudges and the desperate. No, seriously, she says that:
My theory is that employers prefer college grads because they see a college degree chiefly as mark of one's ability to obey and conform. ... Or maybe what attracts employers to college grads is the scent of desperation.
She also ignores the possibility that a college degree is not only socially worthy, but also a shortcut way of sifting through a stack of applications. Figuring out who has the skills to the do the job is time-consuming and difficult, and immediately culling everyone without a degree is a big time-saver. I'm not saying it's right, but it's certainly comprehensible from this perspective; the sinister conspiracy Ehrenreich sees is just bizarre. (Perhaps I'm missing the point and she was just joking?)

Incidentally, it's not just sour grapes on her part. She has a PhD in biology from Rockefeller University. So... I'm at a loss.

I'm equally at a loss to explain the viciousness with which Stephen Moss attacks Oxford here. He calls it an "exam factory", mocks the short terms and lack of detailed examination of topics. He also suggests that 18 and 19 year-olds should do something other than go to university, and that humanities can't be taught in universities. It's pretty stupid, really, and looks like little more than a case of Garbage In, Garbage Out.

Universities aren't to blame for people who have bad educational experiences. There is such a thing as a mismatch between the person and the institution, and institutional clout isn't always the best way to decide where to go. Every undergraduate degree is pretty much equal, unless you're planning on graduate work (and even then, I think reputation effects get a bit exaggerated). If you're not studying something you're interested in, then that's really up to you to change; if your profs aren't challenging you enough, there's no rule that says you can't do more than you're required to. University is, when it works, an unparalleled opportunity to have access to people who know a hell of a lot more about something than you do. If you don't take advantage of it, why is it supposed to be the university's fault?

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