College con game

Today’s college is yesterday’s junior high, writes Burt Prelutsky on Townhall. Only it costs a lot more.

Millions and millions of 18-year-olds are being herded like sheep to the ivy-covered pens. These are people who have no intention of becoming scientists, engineers, mathematicians, architects, physicians or lawyers. So, assuming they can’t dribble a basketball or run with a football, what the heck are they doing at what we might call trade schools for the elite?

How is it that society decided one fine day that everyone has to waste four years getting a diploma? The truth is, these days a liberal arts education is essentially no education at all. It’s a catch-all that can include such feel-good curriculums as black studies, Chicano studies, and even lesbian studies. There are classes devoted to comic books, science fiction, burlesque, and TV shows of the 50s.

If your child wants a liberal arts education, “give him a library card and wish him all the best,” Prelutsky suggests.

I suspect good students who major in liberal arts get a better education than mediocre students who choose a practical major, such as business. What do you professors think?

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Comments

  1. Perhaps we should distinguish between “an education” and “job training”, to make things clearer?

    The good student who gets a liberal arts degree will probably get a better education in the old sense of the term than the mediocre student with a more practical degree (and, heck, like Mr. Prelutsky says, plenty of people would probably be better served without a 4-year diploma at all, but a year or two of vocational training or apprenticeship).

    But the mediocre student might well be better off in practical (and maybe even non-practical) terms, especially if the liberal arts degree is in one of the fringier departments like those mentioned; at least someone with a proper English degree should be able to write and spell, which is a significant advantage, by all appearances of modern general illiteracy.

    Education ain’t everything, after all.

    (Full disclosure: I have a completely useless Bachelor’s degree in Philosophy, and work outside of the Academy (ie, in the real world, doing work utterly unrelated to my degree), so I don’t have a personal stake in this.)

  2. Kurt Winkelmann says:

    Your view of the quality of today’s college education depends on what you think a college education should provide. If a college education should help a student understand the world and actively participate in it through politics, a profession, and interactions with others, then today’s college education is designed to do much of that. Technology, business, and cultural diversity all play prominent roles in our society and so our students should be encouraged to learn about those subjects. An understanding of Western culture and traditions is still important but so are many other things. Yes, students can spend their tuition money foolishly and avoid learning important subjects, but that is their choice which they will likely regret (assuming they are educated enough to realize it).

  3. I’d have to agree that college is largely what you make of it. A well designed liberal arts education will leave students with some of the key skills employers say they want – the ability to write, speak and communicate ideas to others. Ideally, it also forces students to make choices and experience the consequences of those choices – to plan a course of study – to really think about what they like and dislike.

    In truth the best thing you can learn in college is the ability to learn – the information its self will most likely be obsolete in a few years. But the discipline to choose and complete courses, the ability to navigate a bureaucracy and the willingness to live up to your instructor’s idea of what is quality work (rather than rely only on your own judgement) will serve you well in the workforce.

    That said, a degree without any kind of experience in the workforce is virtually useless – no matter what your major. So another rather neglected (but crucial) part of college is getting internships and hands on experience in different areas that relate to your career goals.

  4. The biggest problem of liberal arts degrees is for above average students who are not focused. Because of grade inflation, degrees in the humanities and some social sciences are not very challenging unless the student is self-motivated. The lack of grade pressure and structure can mislead a student as to what his strengths or weaknesses really are. The advantages of degrees in the sciences are their tight structure and informative grading. A student can learn something that everyone in the field must know, know he learned something, and gauge his ability relative to others in the field.

    At one time, structured liberal arts degrees provided the same opportunity for bright non-techies. But that is increasingly a rarity in top colleges. Most have such wishy-washy “distribution” requirements that it is possible for a student even in a top Ivy to slide simply by making strategic course selections that give a guaranteed B or A- with little work. Moreover, there is so little of a true core that majors in the same discipline might have studied wildly different topics. The same cannot be said for nurses, engineers, and accountants.

  5. “good students who major in liberal arts get a better education than mediocre students who choose a practical major, such as business. What do you professors think?” I’m not a professor, but I think these ideas from renowned business consultant Michael Hammer are thought-provoking.

    Dr Hammer clearly intends his defense of the liberal arts to apply to courses with intellectual rigor, not the soft & squishy pseudo-entertainment stuff.

  6. That said, a degree without any kind of experience in the workforce is virtually useless.

    I disagree. I graduated with a degree in aerospace engineering. The companies I interviewed with didn’t expect previous experience in aerospace: there were only a small number of intern jobs available (at least then) in any case. Obviously, those who graduate from med school have no previous experience practicing medicine.

    As for the larger question, I think, like Sigivald above, that it depends on what being “well educated” means. My engineering degree had zero time for liberal arts and I’ve spent decades making up for that. On the other hand, some liberal arts programs leave the student completely unprepared for a real job.

    I think that “well educated” is now a lifetime/lifestyle thing, rather than a result you can expect from four years in college. There’s just too much to know and you really are ill-equipped to be a good citizen these days if you don’t have a good mix of BOTH liberal arts and practical knowledge.

    It’s no good to be able to quote Plato from memory if you can’t formulate a good Google query, spot suspicious statistical claims, locate Iraq on a globe, reiterate the basic history of the 20th century and so on. You might very well be able to make good conversation at a party, but you probably can’t cast good votes on contemporary issues.

    The opposite is equally true. It’s fine if you know the mathematical formula associated with the Golden Mean, but kind of lacking if you can’t connect it up with ancient architecture and natural history.

    Above all, I think “education” in the 21st century should be something considered a life-long activity. The idea that anyone can leave the university with an adequate grasp of our modern world is foolish in the extreme.

  7. (Full disclosure: I have a completely useless Bachelor’s degree in Philosophy, and work outside of the Academy (ie, in the real world, doing work utterly unrelated to my degree), so I don’t have a personal stake in this.)

    I’d say that, unless your philosphy courses didn’t improve your writing or thinking, any work you do is related to your degree. The same holds true for any decent liberal arts degree (and “decent” here means “quality of courses combined with attitude and work of student”).

  8. Hey, what do people have against science fiction? 🙂 I used to think that most science fiction is utter crap and…well, that’s still true. But that’s also the case for any literature out there. I took an SF course just for the heck of it (I had finished with all the required classes for my English major) and it turned out to be one of the best classes I took. Science fiction is more than pulpy L. Ron Hubbard-esque stories. We didn’t read Battlefield Earth or the next Star Trek novelization. Instead, we read Frankenstein, Dracula, and The Time Machine, along with short stories by authors such as Vonnegut, Ellison, Pohl, and Bradbury (among other works). All respectable authors.

  9. Ivory–“the best thing you can learn in college is the ability to learn – the information its self will most likely be obsolete in a few years.”

    Did someone invalidate Ohm’s Law while I wasn’t looking? Do Newton’s laws of motion not work anymore? Have Shakespeare’s plays been suppressed? Has medieval history become irrelevant?

    The idea that one can “learn how to learn” without actually learning anything substantive is pernicious. See my post Thinking and Memorizing.

  10. Walter E. Wallis says:

    A degree proves you were high class enough not to have to go to work.
    Ask yourself, was my education valuable enough that I would have gone even if I received no certificate evidencing my having attended?

  11. Tom Galloway says:

    Depending on what/how the courses are taught, both science fiction and comics are very valid topics for courses. Science fiction is fundamentally different from other types of literature in that it is the literature of ideas and their repercussions. A good sf story will make you think about the society it introduced you to, consider whether it is scientifically accurate/feasible, and how forthcoming technological advances will affect society.

    As for comics, in addition to being one of the few art forms primarily created/developed in the US, along with jazz (yeah, cave paintings and illustrative tapestries are precursors), it is an art form that merges pictures and words…each of which is separately considered a valid field of academic study. And it’s not as simple to create comics as outsiders think; almost every pure novel/short story writer who has no experience in screen or play writing has considerable adjustments to make when writing comics, and almost none, regardless of the amount of their literary experience, hit the ground running when writing comics.

    Books by Will Eisner (Comics and Sequential Art) and Scott McCloud (Understanding Comics and Making Comics in particular) are read and on the shelves of many graphic designers, user interface designers, and others, as aspects of comics apply to them. Scott was an invitee to a recent Science Foo Camp, and regularly gives talks at research institutes and design firms.

  12. Walter E. Wallis says:

    Amen on science fiction, but whoever decided that SciFi and Fantasy should share a shelf known little about either. I suspect this dichotomy was known even to the Greeks with their God out of a machine.

  13. Even programs that “just teach you how to learn” must teach you how to learn. That means they must be willing to certify that SOME students have not learned how to learn. Once again, grade inflation rears its ugly head. If poorly performing students were more likely to get C’s and F’s, then even the most “frivolous” subjects could be configured to provide useful training and helpful signals for employers. All you need to do is readjust the curves so that grades in the humanities see the same distribution as in engineering or math or economics.

  14. Edge, that assumes that humanities courses have curves. Grades have distributions, certainly, and frequently are bell-shaped (or double-humped), but a curve requires that a certain percentage of students be given A’s. What if no one in the class deserves an A?

  15. wayne martin says:

    > But nobody has ever explained to me why the cost of a liberal arts
    > education has gone through the roof and clear over the moon… The
    > only things they use are books, and the price of paper hasn’t gone up
    > all that much.

    Stanford Board of Trustees sets tuition for 2006-07:
    http://www.stanford.edu/dept/news/pr/2006/pr-tuition-022206.html

    The undergraduate tuition rate was set at $32,994, a 5.75 percent increase from $31,200 this year
    General graduate student tuition also increased to $32,994, or 5.75 percent.
    The tuition for the incoming class of MBA students will be $43,380. The tuition for second-year MBA students will be $41,340.

    College Prices and Costs (2002-03):
    http://nces.ed.gov/pubs2003/2003171.pdf

    Private 4-Year: $18, 273.
    Public 4-Year: $4,081.

    And as we say a few postings ago, the 4-Year completion rate for State schools here in California was only about 10% (+ or -). Given the increasing costs, and decreasing quality, all-in-all, it would seem that there is a crisis in the land of higher education.

  16. Walter –
    1) My degrees represent ten years each of independent part-time work.
    2) Fantasy and Sci Fi have basically merged, with Fantasy requiring more verisimilitude and consistent albeit different laws, and Sci Fi requiring less consistency with the actual universe and more realistic people. Science Fantasy (ie Star Trek and Star Wars) is the biggest chunk of the category now.

    That said, learning Science Fiction or Horror or film noir is more useful education than learning, say, Chaucer and Melville and Beowulf. At least for purposes of creating literature that will actually be read.

  17. Andy Freeman says:

    > If a college education should help a student understand the world and actively participate in it through politics, a profession, and interactions with others, then today’s college education is designed to do much of that.

    “Designed” is an interesting word. It appears substantive but doesn’t tell us what actually happens.

  18. As much as I enjoy ragging on the humanities these days, I really have to be fair and say that “liberal arts education” can cover a whole spectrum, depending on what university you attend, and what your major is (and of course, what your major department is like).