Wednesday, May 02, 2007

What is a College Degree for Anyway?

Last week my student PW had the following to say about attendance policies:

I'm going to point out the obvious and say that I have a slightly different opinion than everyone else so far. I am not an advocate for attendance policies, but not because I don't think they help the student out, rather because there are certain classes taken at college just to fill the schedule. I am not a hard core academic, I believe life is about having fun and college is about growing up. I am not a philosophy major/minor, nor do I really feel that I get that much out of philosophy. I have taken 2 of your classes because they seem more interesting than some of the other one's offered, they fit in my schedule, and I am more interested in the history of thought than world history. I don't think I should be punished for this either. I am not expecting to get an A, I just want to get the credit, learn a little, or be challenged on something I believe in. But the bottom line is, there are some nights where I am going to opt to have a few beers instead of doing an assignment or maybe skip class to play a round of golf. I am a senior and going to graduate school for biology, a field that I find more useful to my personal life so as such I will allocate more of my time to those classes. Philosophy is interesting, but I don't really find it useful for me. I am never going to be one of the great thinkers of the world, I just don't want to be. I want to be a family man living life to the fullest which for me means playing hard and hardly working. I have always found the phrase 'find a job that you love' interesting because I want a job that allows me to do what I love. The students that are truly driven will go to class and put in the hours and get that A - good for them. But that might not always be me, and I don't think I should be punished for it.
I was reminded of his post today as I read Barbara Ehrenreich's piece "Higher Education Conformity" on Alternet (hat tip: IsThatLatin). Ehrenreich is musing of the real value of college education for future employment:

The pundits keep chanting that we need a more highly skilled workforce, by which they mean more college graduates, although the connection between college and skills is not always crystal clear. Jones, for example, was performing a complex job requiring considerable judgment, experience and sensitivity without the benefit of any college degree. And how about all those business majors -- business being the most popular undergraduate major in America? 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 (my emphasis).
I have been known to make this very same point to audiences of parents, future students, or prospective majors. My aim is always to sell the value of a Liberal Arts degree, which is not, primarily, vocational training, but rather "character building" (for lack of a better descriptor). A LAC degree will hopefully make you an interesting person, a life-long learner, an out-of-the box problem solver, and foster civic commitment. It isn't about job training.

This seems to be the focus of my student PW above: "I am a senior and going to graduate school for biology, a field that I find more useful to my personal life so as such I will allocate more of my time to those classes. Philosophy is interesting, but I don't really find it useful for me." The idea here is that the value of courses is measured by how they will pay off for one's future career. (Btw, if this is your approach to education, I honestly cannot fathom why on earth you would spend $46,000.00 a year to attend an elite LAC like my college, especially if you are largely wasting the experience by shunning all of the amazing opportunities you would have for such a price tag because they are not directly relevant to your career goals.)

However, Ehrenriech is not so interested in defending the value of a good education, as I am. Rather, she is asking us to consider whether the real reason that empolyers now require a college degree is to ensure a docile, subdued, and obedient workforce:

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.

Before reading her piece, I would've said High School (especially in the era of NCLB) is the place to breed a docile, obedient work force. However, her "indentured servitude" point is interesting. A debt ridden workforce cannot afford to buck authority, can they? I will also add that in a conversation I had with a recent graduate about his job in a cubicle in a major corporation, he bemoaned what a waste his education was. He majored in Economics and yet what he was doing did not require 1/1oth of what he learned in college (forget about what his Philosophy minor did--probably made him start questioning authority!)

So, what interests me about Ehrenreich's piece is that she is not poo-pooing the life of the mind, in the way that PW is above, but she is putting the lie to the value of a college education for a better skilled workforce. A college degree, the argument goes, is a valuable only insofar as it tames the human animal (to sound Nietzsche-like).

If that is what I am doing in the classroom, then, well, just shoot me now.