Thursday, October 17, 2013

Easy enough to say

“The notion is, let’s transform higher education into job training,” Bruce Ackerman, a professor of law and political science at Yale, told me disapprovingly.
From here. Those who disapprove must either not have children going on to college, or they are in the top 10%. The notion is also incorrect.

The context of course is college and what it's supposed to be. The argument that college should be one or the other is a bit of a straw man. One is job training and the other would be the lofty and nebulous goal of "education" preferably in the liberal arts tradition. The fear of many including parents and students is that college may have strayed too far to one end without keeping its eye on the other. (I would say more so parents than students since students appear not to have changed much.)

Who bears the greater responsibility of learning what we used to call "marketable skills" (here called job training) - the parent or the school? Should the parent take a hands on role in steering their child toward a marketable major or at least toward learning some marketable skills or is college the time where students should learn to fail - by either choosing a wrong major or learning the wrong "skill"? Of course, this dichotomy is also false.Should the learning of some kind of marketable skill take place in college or outside (either through volunteer activity or extracurricular activity - e.g. college reporter, club web site designer, or through work-study or part-time work)? Again, this either or question is also false. It is the responsibility of the student and/or the parent to pursue all these avenues, but (except of outside part-time jobs), it is the responsibility of the college to make as many of these activities available as possible.

Virginia Postrel's post is worth reading (emphasis mine):
The commentators excoriating today’s students for studying the wrong subjects are pursuing certainty where none exists. Like the health fanatics convinced that every case of cancer must be caused by smoking or a bad diet, they want to believe that good people, people like them, will always have good jobs and that today’s unemployed college grads are suffering because they were self-indulgent or stupid. But plenty of organic chemists can testify that the mere fact that you pursued a technical career that was practical two or three decades ago doesn’t mean you have job security today.
I was lucky to graduate from high school in the late 1970s, when the best research said that going to college was an economically losing proposition. You would be better off just getting a job out of high school -- or so it appeared at the time. Such studies are always backward-looking.
I thus entered college to pursue learning for its own sake. As an English major determined not to be a lawyer, I also made sure I graduated with not one but two practical trades --neither learned in the college classroom. At the depths of the previous worst recession since the Great Depression, I had no problem getting a job as a rookie journalist and, as an emergency backup, I knew I could always fall back on my excellent typing skills. Three decades later, nobody needs typists, and journalists are almost as obsolete.
The skills that still matter are the habits of mind I honed in the classroom: how to analyze texts carefully, how to craft and evaluate arguments, and how to apply microeconomic reasoning, along with basic literacy in accounting and statistics. My biggest regret isn’t that I didn’t learn Fortran, but that I didn’t study Dante.
The most valuable skill anyone can learn in college is how to learn efficiently -- how to figure out what you don’t know and build on what you do know to adapt to new situations and new problems. Liberal-arts advocates like this argument, but it applies to any field. In the three decades since we graduated, my college friend David Bernstein has gone from computing the speed at which signals travel through silicon chips to being an entrepreneur whose work includes specifying, designing and developing a consumer-oriented smart-phone app. 
But it is also worth remembering that today's job market is not the same job market that Virginia or I graduated into. Employers seem to be more reluctant to train and seem to want the ideal worker right away.  Nor does college cost the same in real dollar terms as it did when I was there. It is not surprising that costs is one of the primary drivers for this question. Throw in the double whammy of the recession and it is almost a knee jerk reaction to ask whether all the money for college is worth it.

After all, it may be okay and even acceptable back when Virginia was in school to support herself as a typist and as she points out both typists and journalists today are obsolete. Today's version of supporting yourself as a typist would be either to work as a barista or a waiter or in retail sales. The fact that these jobs are in fact becoming the fall back for many college graduates has not only prompted the debate on acquiring tangible skills in college, the usefulness of college, and whether college is worth it but also the debate on "underemployed" or "mal-employed" or "over-skilled" or "college labor markets".

Both Virginia and Bruce Ackerman in the quote that led this post (and perhaps even myself) are probably reliving the romanticism of our college days when we believed that college is the time to "find ourselves". This meant pretty much doing what we wanted whenever we liked and somehow or other we would come out okay since we have in fact come out okay. There is a danger to this bias since we don't really know what happened to those who did not fare as well. The come back to finding ourselves in life is that it is not so much to "find" but more to "create" ourselves and today creating means being able to not just survive in the tumultuous labor market but to exact revenge by living well. That college was able to allow us to exact our vengeance on life in the past but not as well today is the problem that college students and their parents are facing.

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