Thursday, July 08, 2010

Yes, College Is Overrated! But So Is . . .

McNewspaper today asks the nonmusical question, Is College Overrated? The answer comes from an honest high school teacher, one Patrick Welsh, whose answer is yes.

Welsh notes the obvious, which rightly ought to be noted. Many students who go to college these days are ill prepared, having failed to attain the skills needed for higher learning in high school. And many of the jobs that college students will one day hold require preparation different from what they'll receive in college, including technical training in such things as plumbing, electricity, HVAC, and the like.

Working in the middle of this noncontroversy, SWNID affirms these self-evident truths. The push to provide wider access to higher education is utterly laudable but rife with pitfalls. Yes, students from families that have never attended college deserve the opportunity to do so. Yes, nearly everyone can potentially benefit from higher education. But those students who aren't prepared or motivated for college ought not be induced to attempt it prematurely. The twenty-first century career path has many forks, allowing anyone--from late adolescent to senior adult--to get new education for any worthwhile purpose. Letting people in on that secret and then letting them decide how to act on it is surely a better plan than indoctrinating adolescents with the college-or-failure false choice.

But we'll also push back on a response to observations like Welsh's. SWNID is personally tired of the hackneyed refrain that college doesn't prepare people for the ominous Real World. We hear this from a loud minority of folks in the Christian religious sphere, who complain that their own or someone else's ministerial education was bad training for actual ministry. And we think it's bunk.

Here's why. College education means listening, reading, writing, problem solving, thinking, evaluating, planning. Those are the very things that folks do in responsible, real-life occupations.

The stuff folks read, think about and write about in college are real-life situations, whether in the present (social and behavioral sciences), the past (history), imagined but realistic worlds (fiction). the natural world (sciences), or what can be generalized about all of them (philosophy, theology). Oddly enough, the only major academic discipline that we can name that doesn't connect to the Real World directly is mathematics, and who is complaining that math's very important indirect connection to the real world is irrelevant?

Significantly enough, our own little academic discipline, biblical studies, tidily combines just about all the kinds of thinking noted above, making it truly the queen of the sciences and the Ultimate Study of the Real World. Argue with that proposition at your peril, gentle readers!

So since when is learning about and practicing thinking about real life a bad preparation for real life? Yes, some courses taught by some profs are disconnected, but those are failures and largely, we insist, the exceptions. We can say that because over time people who consume the educational product stop choosing disconnected stuff, which in turn becomes extinct. Darwin was right about that.

But, says the naysayer, everything important that I (the standard by which all things are judged) learned was stuff that I learned outside of college. We challenge that on a couple of fronts. One is "everything." That's an exaggeration of the kind that one who paid attention in college would know not to make. The other is whether the naysayer would have been as able to learn outside of college if the naysayer had not learned at least a little bit in college. Granted that learning the lessons of higher ed isn't confined to higher ed, we ask whether anyone who wants to learn those lessons will be better off for having done it my way exclusively.

So, we gently ask that folks who reflect on the higher-ed landscape kindly limit their use of the following tropes:
  • IHEs are run by people who don't know the real world. Yes, many academics live in the ivory tower. But take a close look and you'll note that the rule of the game is survival of the fittest, and fitness means saying something that lots of people care about over time. A few in higher ed get rewarded for being obtuse; most who get rewarded did something real to get their rewards.
  • IHEs are mired in theory, not practice. Yes, practice is not well learned in the classroom. But practice is not well learned apart from theory. The best IHEs force a blend, and the trends are all toward extramural experiences--service learning, internships, co-ops, field research--that deliberately engage the actual stuff in practice.
  • IHEs are mired in the past. Yes, if you're recalling what you studied when you were in college versus what you're experiencing now. But check your IHE: we bet they've moved on as well. Good IHEs don't go in much for fads: that's the manifestation of their critical-thinking mandate. But they do go in for research, which keeps taking them to new places. For every prof who paddles around in shallow trends, there are several curmudgeons who stay in the timelessly deep end of the pool, which remains perpetually current.
  • IHEs are too expensive for what they produce. Now, we think you might have an argument there. Just be careful in how it's applied. It's not the producers who have demanded ever more comfortable learning environments, living arrangements, and recreational opportunities. It's not the producers who have demanded access at all places and times imaginable. It's not the producers who have demanded services for every imaginable deficiency that students bring with them. And it's not the producers who have subsidized the arrangements with grants and loans that have driven up demand so that prices inevitably go up (see "economics, behavioral science of"). They've simply cooperated for their own self-interest. The key in this case is for the student to be thoughtful about what she actually needs--admittedly a hard task when the student needs the education to develop the critical and reflective skills necessary to answer that question well.
  • The most successful people didn't get college degrees. See Gates, William, et al. Sure, that works fine if you're a genius. For the less exceptional, we have colleges.
Higher ed is rather like Mark Twain's father: underappreciated at one stage of life, granted grudging appreciation later. It's about as overrated as the storied School of Hard Knocks. Compare, reflect and learn, class.


Martin said...

I agree with almost everything you say here. Doesn't that make you feel special? I think too many kids out of high school go to college just because they are expected to or don't know what else to do. To not get a higher education is somehow seen as less noble. That's too bad. Also, many who would go to a college or university a bit later in life would probably bet better students.

As for Christian higher education, I wish that anyone going into paid ministry would be required to work in a non-paid ministry kind of job for a time. It might change their outlook a little when they see what it is like two work a full work week and still be expected to attend all weekly church events and volunteer one's time.

Jon A. Alfred E. Michael J. Wile E. SWNID said...

We scorn all in ministry who complain about the pressures and time commitments and how hard it is on them and their families. We also think they'd benefit from time in an honest job. We are at a loss to name a time and a place when whining is tasteful, but ministers' whining about their hardships is about the least tasteful.

Aaron Burgess said...

Before entering college everyone should be forced to read the Yale Report of 1828 which is a defense of the classical curriculum. (You can read it here:

"The two great points to be gained in intellectual culture, are the discipline and the furniture of the mind; expanding its powers, and storing it with knowledge."

Higher education institutions ought to introduce students to intellectual culture.