Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Went to College... Got the T-Shirt...

(My wife just piped up: "No you didn't." About the T-Shirt, that is....)

I saw a very interesting article by Steve Sailer that I thought I'd point out, entitled The College Paradox: Not Everyone Gains By Higher Education. Hat tip goes to John Derbyshire, via this post.

I'm not sure I agree with the whole thing; I'd put my level of agreement at somewhere between two-thirds and three-quarters. Sailer's thesis is that not all kids are college material, and society has to find a place for them. He argues that the American K-12 school system doesn't actually handle this reality well.

He argues, ironically, that this problem comes from the magnificence of our system of upper education. By just about any measure, the elite American colleges are the best in the world. Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Stanford, MIT, Berkeley, and so forth, have reputations as being unmatched by pretty much any other universities in the world, with the possible exceptions of Oxford and Cambridge. But precisely because these schools are so dominant in our academic system, the wordviews popular at these schools--including attitudes about the purpose of learning, and the proper structures and methods of educational institutions--have permeated our entire academic system, all the way from Kindergarten (and even earlier, I'd add) on up. This hasn't happened to the same degree elsewhere in the developed world, in part because the universities in other nations don't have the same cultural prestige.

The trouble is, the worldviews and attitudes that one finds at these elite institutions can be pretty self-serving.

Consider the institutions of vocational training: apprenticeships, trade schools, and the like. How are these institutions seen by people who live and breathe the academic life at our elite universities? Frequently, you'll get the attitude expressed that, "Well, these are acceptable options for those unfortunates who can't cut it in a real academic setting...."

This is how Sailer's article expresses this attitude (facetiously):
"How can you permanently crush a 10-year-old's self-esteem, indeed, his very reason for existence, by telling him that he isn't smart enough to graduate from college? How can any child survive the ignominy of hearing that he will soon be able to put his books aside and start learning from master craftsmen how to build mighty machines? What kind of boy could tolerate being told that while the smarter children will be spending another decade or two huddled in the library, he will be getting paid to make Porsches?"
Furthermore, there exists the egalitarian idea that everyone should ultimately be able to find a place at a college somewhere. The idea is out there that only college can truly provide a well-rounded educational experience; that those who learn their trades in anything less may have low-level skills, but have missed out on all the culture, on all the art, on all the exposure to the great ideas that float through the air in institutions when large numbers of smart people come together with the goal of learning. And it is especially seen as the case that the most intelligent people in society would be absolutely wasted if they were to go into the trades; that the smartest should get the best education possible so they can make the best of their gifts, and that education invariably comes from the universities.

The results, when this kind of thinking is diffused throughout our educational system, is that vocational opportunities become few and far between. It is viewed as somewhat unseemly that high-schoolers might want to go work at a for-profit company, or in a small business or partnership, when they should be concentrating on finishing their studies. After all, their futures depend on it....

Sailer points out that not all kids are cut out for the academic life. For many people (and I've increasingly been seeing myself in this group), desk work is not particularly satisfying. And it's important to note, this is not just true of those on the low end of the I.Q. scale; I'm sure most of us have known people who were very smart, but who simply rebelled against the demands of their academics and just checked out.

For that matter, there have been plenty of major figures in the history of our country who never went to what we would recognize as a university, who were instead in the trades. Benjamin Franklin, who is widely recognized as a genius, was a printer by trade--and by choice. George Washington was a planter and a land surveyor. Paul Revere was a metalworker. (In fact, the modern company Revere Copper Products, Inc., is a direct descendant of the company he founded).

I'm not all that certain that it's a good idea to take all the smartest people out of the trades. For that matter, I'm not all that certain that we've actually succeeded in taking all the smartest people out of the trades, despite our best efforts. There are plenty of people out there in jobs we consider low-prestige who are really smart, and plenty of people who went to the universities who, um.... aren't.


So I said that I agreed with between two-thirds and three-quarters of the article. What about that last bit?

Well, I guess I'm still a bit more egalitarian than Sailer is. I do not see the "elite" universities as being "above" the rest of us, actually. True, they can produce great scientists and scholars; but they can also produce a lot of wasted academic effort, and scholars who are self-deluded into thinking they understand the real world better than those who actually work in it. And as far as actual education goes, often the less-elite universities put more effort into educating the undergraduates. I attended San Jose State University, which is considered a mid-level college. I had the opportunity to visit Berkeley on occasion. I would much rather enroll in a beginning physics lecture in the former rather than the latter, because at San Jose, it's actually taught by the Professor (instead of an aide), and the classes are smaller--allowing for more questions and answers, and more one-on-one time as needed.

Furthermore, I see "education" and "schooling" as being two completely different phenomena, which usually overlap--but not as much as they are purported to. If any literate person has a desire to learn and know, that person can take the time to become an expert on his or her own initiative--classrooms optional. This being so, it's not necessarily the case that people who attend vocational schools wind up merely "trained" as opposed to "educated". I myself have previously written about how I started reading the great literary works of Western Civ on my own time, only after I was out of school.

And while I think there's something to be said about the Realschule/Gymnasium tracking system in use in Germany (which Sailer appears to approve of), I do rather like the fact that in America, those people who have the gumption and will to do the work can change the direction of their lives. That is, if someone was raised by a blue-collar family and trained into a blue-collar career, if that person (as an adult) so desires, he or she can often--through hard work and sacrifice--change careers, change social standing, change "class" (if you don't mind the term). One of my former co-workers started work at the company as a janitor, then got transferred to be a security guard, then got transferred to work on Software Configuration Management (which involves making sure code changes are properly tracked and documented), then got his degree in computer science and got a job as a software engineer. None too shabby, I say. And I like that these kinds of things can happen in this country.

Nevertheless, I think that Mr. Sailer's argument should be taken seriously. I think the trend toward getting everyone in college is not necessarily good. And I say this not because I think people aren't "good enough" for college--I happen to think that college isn't always what it's cracked up to be, and that the trades are more valuable to society than we often acknowledge. (And their wages seem to reflect this fact--have you seen what self-employed plumbers and electricians make?) I think we should be putting more resources into making vocational opportunities for high-school-age kids, like long-term apprenticeships starting from younger ages, internships, and trade schools. And yes, that will occasionally mean getting young people out from behind their desks and into environments where they can start making stuff.

I suspect there are a lot of kids who would go for that in a heartbeat.

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