03 May 2007

What is the Use of College?

A friend just brought to my attention this column Barbara Ehrenreich has written for Alternet entitled "Higher Education Conformity" on why companies insist that entry level emplyees have a college degree. Here is the punch-line:

"It seems to me that a two-year course in math and writing skills should be more than sufficient to prepare someone for a career in banking, marketing, or management. Most of what you need to know you're going to learn on the job anyway.

But in the last three decades the percentage of jobs requiring at least some college has doubled, which means that employers are going along with the college racket. A resume without a college degree is never going to get past the computer programs that screen applications. Why? Certainly it's not because most corporate employers possess a deep affinity for the life of the mind. In fact in his book Executive Blues G. J. Meyers warned of the "academic stench" that can sink a career: That master's degree in English? Better not mention it.

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. Whatever else you learn in college, you learn to sit still for long periods while appearing to be awake. And whatever else you do in a white collar job, most of the time you'll be sitting and feigning attention. Sitting still for hours on end -- whether in library carrels or office cubicles -- does not come naturally to humans. It must be learned -- although no college has yet been honest enough to offer a degree in seat-warming.

Or maybe what attracts employers to college grads is the scent of desperation. Unless your parents are rich and doting, you will walk away from commencement with a debt averaging $20,000 and no health insurance. Employers can safely bet that you will not be a trouble-maker, a whistle-blower or any other form of non-"team-player." You will do anything. You will grovel."

Since I am implicated in the "college racket" (both as a professor and soon as a tuition paying parent) this line of argument strikes close to home. Ehrenreich concedes that College can be enlightening and provocative. And she neglects (here at least) to ask why jobs have to be so thoroughly boring and controled. That, of course, is another, very big question. But the symbiosis between colleges and corporations on this dimension seems difficult to ignore.
___________
PS: You will likely recognize Ehrenreich's argument as a variation on a theme articulated with resepct to elementary/secondary schooling long ago by Sam Bowles and Herb Gintis.

Labels:

12 Comments:

Blogger Emily said...

I've been thinking about this a lot, both as someone recently emerged from college and as someone planning on going into the college-racket. I TA'd a course last term on the Politics of American Education, and while the focus was K-12 education, a number of things applicable to this emerged. Students aren't learning how to work, they're learning how to negotiate. Grades are always up for discussion in their view. If something was not explicitly laid out in an assignment or discussion, and they got it wrong or missed the point, it was the fault of the TAs. And I think a lot of this comes from the state of modern education--the push for testing and AP exams is leading students to be totally inside-the-lines, and expect a certain amount of spoon-feeing. I think this is going to be quite detrimental to the American economy--sitting still is great, but it's not efficient to have employees demanding that management babysit them.
I also think that schools with very big science populations help manage some of the grade insanity, particularly if the professors in that field are tough. My friends were taking exams where they were expected to get half the questions wrong--complaining about an A- or B+ seemed rather petty in comparison, and the presumption that you earn your grade (rather than your grade being granted) seems stronger in that sense.

03 May, 2007 10:27  
Blogger ARConn said...

I've directly experienced this feeling, both while in high school (about grade 11), and also in college (about halfway through my five year stint).

I just knew that the purpose of this 'education' was to turn out cogs for some vast machine that having been started, will build on its inertia until it rips itself apart with its own energy.

03 May, 2007 14:38  
Anonymous Dawei from Beijing said...

Thank you so much for this blog! This is something I've always felt intuitively but to see you articulate it so vividly is extremely helpful.

03 May, 2007 14:49  
Anonymous Dawei from Beijing said...

I also wonder whether Corporations are conveniently using this myth that American education is poor so they can ship out working and middle class jobs out of the country and into the developing world where they can exploit people for pennies a day? (like in China!)

03 May, 2007 15:19  
Blogger Dysterkvisten said...

Her arguments seems far too simplistic and smells like a conspirecy theory. A college degree signals more than college a "ability to obey and conform". It signals ambition and a willingless to learn [which is an important signal for an employer in a field where employees will have to learn a lot of stuff on the job anyway ]; two things that are far more important than abilities to obey and conform.

04 May, 2007 03:29  
Blogger Jim Johnson said...

D. You are right in thinking about underlying causal mechanisms. Bowles & Gintis were peddling a functionalist account and Ehrenreich's journalistic perspective seems patially plausible to me, but then the question is how it actually works. In my experience of high school with my sons, a lot of the conformism is imposed by the Parent's Association which is very, very concerned about any experimentaiton - of course there are laws too that have these effeccts.

04 May, 2007 08:22  
Anonymous Dawei from Beijing said...

Dysterkvisten, I think it is actually your argument which is simplistic. An ability or willingness to learn has nothing to do with going to a Uni. The average paper pusher job in corporate America does not require you to learn a whole lot aside from a basic skill set that can be learned by anybody-case in point, middle management jobs are now zooming to Chindia where people with no college degrees are doing the work that requires MA in America. I work with guys who went to harvard business school and they spend their day making excel charts. I also know very sharp guys working in prestigious investment banks with just a high school degree making high six figures-over six figures if you count their yearly bonus. The best a college experience will give you is a social network of people who might end up being very successful. Sitting in a core chemistry class, however, doesn't prove you have an ability to learn, it just shows you can withstand boredom and conformity, as the author suggests.

04 May, 2007 12:32  
Blogger Ric Caric said...

Thanks a lot for this. I've been telling my own college students that the fundamental skill they've learned in 14 years of schooling is "sitting still" and this provides the first written idea of this that I've seen.

04 May, 2007 21:41  
Blogger stanco said...

Just a few random thoughts... I think there's a whole lotta truth in the "sit still proposition." That said, when I started doing just that in the city college system in NYC back in the day of '73- all I had to pay for was registration and books! And I did learn a whole lot my first two years- particularly in a class entitled- Rhetoric!

Those days are long gone. Now too many enter college without the necessary skills, or the necessary finances, only to graduate virtually clueless of anything other than their chosen field of study, and even then, woefully ignorant of the responsibilities and consequences of their chosen profession.

05 May, 2007 02:25  
Anonymous Dyster said...

Dawei, you wrote:

"I think it is actually your argument which is simplistic. An ability or willingness to learn has nothing to do with going to a Uni."

I quite agree with you. I've been a university teacher for ten years, and of course I know this. I wasn´t saying that either in my previous (poorly spelled) post. I was saying that spending X amount of years in "Uni" s i g n a l s various things to a future potential employer; things that actually might have nothing to do with your education (one of these things m i g h t be willingness to conform, but might also be signaling the things I mentioned in my post and/or signaling that you might be a sociable chap/chic etc.

Whatever the mechanism might be; I think that Ehrenreich is basically right: it is not the skills we aquire through our education at college/university future employers are interested in.

05 May, 2007 08:49  
Anonymous D said...

Dawei, when you write:

"I also wonder whether Corporations are conveniently using this myth that American education is poor so they can ship out working and middle class jobs out of the country and into the developing world where they can exploit people for pennies a day? (like in China!)"

...you are illustrating som sloppy thinking and not paying attention to theory-building. This kind of pinkie-conspiracy thinking is of no use for serious left intellectuals trying to figure out how the workings of capitalistic system affects the individual firm in choosing an individual employee.

05 May, 2007 12:38  
Anonymous Dawei from Beijing said...

"...you are illustrating som sloppy thinking and not paying attention to theory-building. This kind of pinkie-conspiracy thinking is of no use for serious left intellectuals trying to figure out how the workings of capitalistic system affects the individual firm in choosing an individual employee."

Thanks for the reply! Let me try and make my point clear. I certainly do not want to suggest that there exists a conspiracy to purposefully rob the American people of jobs. My argument is the following-American corporations, especially the tech sector, have been saying that there exists a dearth of qualified persons to fill their needs. This supposed dearth, in turn, is blamed on the American education system. Using this as an excuse, American companies are coming to Chindia because, supposedly, in Chindia there are many highly qualified people. However, these so-called highly qualified people hired in Chindia usually don't even have a college degree-speaking English is usually enough to get a job with an American firm. Superior job training is provided on site as American managers work carefully with their Asian counterparts to create the model employee. Therefore, I think American corporations exploit the idea of a failing American education system with the purpose of hiring abroad at a fraction of the price. In reality, the quality of the American education system should have nothing to do with getting a good job because most jobs, even supposedly specialized jobs, can be learned on site by virtually anyone who is serious and motivated. I'm saying this as someone who went to an elite Uni and works with people from elite Uni's-the idea that you need an MBA from an elite school to be an investment banker or risk manager, for example, is silly but it works in two ways. First, American corporations can continue to exclude people outside of their circle by perpetuating the notion that the better the school the more qualified the person; and second, they can make false claims about a dearth of qualified workers in America so they can hire abroad on the cheap.

05 May, 2007 17:31  

Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home