Tuesday, January 06, 2009

This Guy Thinks the B.A. is B.S. for Many Students

I read an interesting article by noted scholar Charles Murray, who has an unusual suggestion for President-Elect Obama for improving education past the secondary level:
[H]e should use his bully pulpit to undermine the bachelor's degree as a job qualification. Here's a suggested battle cry, to be repeated in every speech on the subject: "It's what you can do that should count when you apply for a job, not where you learned to do it."

The residential college leading to a bachelor's degree at the end of four years works fine for the children of parents who have plenty of money. It works fine for top students from all backgrounds who are drawn toward academics.

But most 18-year-olds are not from families with plenty of money, not top students and not drawn toward academics. They want to learn how to get a satisfying job that also pays well. So my beef is not with liberal education, but with the use of the degree as a job qualification.
I'm not sure that I'm on board with this yet, but I'll let him speak his piece. Murray continues:
For most of the nation's youths, making the bachelor's degree a job qualification means demanding a credential that is beyond their reach. It is a truth that politicians and educators cannot bring themselves to say out loud: A large majority of young people do not have the intellectual ability to do genuine college-level work.
Hmm. Is he slamming young people as a whole, or is he saying that college-level work has become too geared towards the likes of MENSA members? Or that high schools aren't doing a good enough job preparing people for college (perhaps because of their overemphasis on standardized testing)? Or that the students themselves aren't prepared? It could even be that old favorite test answer, "All of the above."

Murray does provide an answer of sorts:
I'm not thinking just about students who are not smart enough to deal with college-level material. Many young people who have the intellectual ability to succeed in rigorous liberal arts courses don't want to. For these students, the distribution requirements of the college degree do not open up new horizons. They are bothersome time-wasters.
But is it really bad to take a few courses that aren't in one's major, in an attempt to actually open up said horizons? Is broadening oneself no longer a good thing? (If nothing else, specializing in just one thing seems to be putting all of one's eggs in a single basket; what happens if the area in which you specialize becomes obsolete?

Something would obviously have to take the place of the B.A. degree; employers wouldn't likely hire a large amount of people straight out of high school. So what's Murray's solution?
Discarding the bachelor's degree as a job qualification would not be difficult. The solution is to substitute certification tests, which would provide evidence that the applicant has acquired the skills the employer needs.

Certification tests can take many forms. For some jobs, a multiple-choice test might be appropriate. Today, many computer programmers without college degrees get jobs by presenting examples of their work. With a little imagination, almost any corporation can come up with analogous work samples.

The benefits of discarding the bachelor's degree as a job qualification would be huge for employers and job applicants. Certifications would tell employers far more about their applicants' qualifications than a B.A. does, and hundreds of thousands of young people would be able to get what they want from post-secondary education without having to twist themselves into knots to comply with the rituals of getting a bachelor's degree.
Sure, I'm biased here, because I teach college. But besides that, I think there's a certain value to having a buffer period between high school and the working world, because many valuable lessons are learned along the way: How to live away from one's parents, how to manage money, how to get along with a variety of people in a situation that's often much less homogenous than the high school "bubble." And I'd also be interested in seeing exactly how Murray expects people to gain those skills without college; are vo-tech schools going to just suddenly sprout up all over the country?

And call me idealistic (although I know full well that this idea is often out of sync with reality), but college is a place where people should be able to learn to think, to reason, to solve problems (since those things don't often happen in high school anymore, thanks to the aforementioned standardized tests). What will substitute for this type of experience if fewer people go to college?

I think the jury's still out on this one. But I'll be honest--as a professor at a two-year school, if this idea were to expand the role of schools like mine, I wouldn't complain too much (he says, in a rare fit of near-selfishness). But I still think there should be something in between high school and the workforce.

What think you? Feel free to add a comment.

It just became harder to jack a computer: This is a cool story--a laptop belonging to the Ft. Worth Independent School District had been stolen recently, but they got it back because it was fitted with Lojack technology just like the kind used to recover stolen cars.

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