Questioning educational patriotism

Lisa Kramer

Lisa Kramer is a contributing contributor at The League of Ordinary Gentlemen.

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42 Responses

  1. This says beautifully something that I’ve been trying to say for a very, very long time.Report

  2. gregiank says:

    I’m the first person on my father’s side to attend college and the third on my mothers. Going to college was an expectation of me for my parents. And i’m fine with that. They both wanted to attend college but didn’t or couldn’t. Going to college was a part of doing better then they did and being able to make my own life. Both my parents were just mad avid readers. They devoured the old sunday NY times when it was really thick, they read classics, travel, fiction, just about any darn thing. They were both well educated in a non-formal sense. I wasn’t raised nor do i see education, especially college, as solely vocational school. Education, like reading, is its own reward.

    I find the complaints about an “aristocracy of brains” and stratification to be weak. People will be as educated as they want to be. You can force somebody to go to school and they will refuse to learn and people will read and learn and find a way to go to school if they really want.

    I think we are just spoiled with the intertoobz and tv nowadays. We have all this info at our fingertips. For so long people who wanted to learn or be educated couldn’t. Libraries were limited, they couldn’t go to school past HS, books were not easily available at the mega Barnes and Nobles or Amazon, and there was not wikipedia.

    Does any of that imply that formal ed is everything, no and i don’t think anybody really says that. Those darn teachers are always complaining, and rightly, when sport, arts and extra’s are cut. Formal educators seem to want to provide a well rounded education.Report

    • Mark Thompson in reply to gregiank says:

      @gregiank, I don’t necessarily disagree with any of this, but I think it elides the fundamental question – is the (let’s call it what it is) marketing of college as the sole avenue to achieve success and improve one’s lot deceiving people into believing that they need or want more education than they really do? If it is, then there becomes a real need to push back against that marketing.Report

      • Michael Drew in reply to Mark Thompson says:

        @Mark Thompson, Hm, could education, even college education, itself be a thing that will deceive (convince? *gasp* teach???) a person that he wanted more of it than he thought he did?Report

      • Simon K in reply to Mark Thompson says:

        @Mark Thompson, Its not really a deception because unfortunately employers are depending increasingly on college degrees to filter applicants. Many things where the relevance of the degree is quite questionable relative to practical experience – most computer programming, say, or physical therapy, to name two things I know a little about – are almost impossible to actually get started in unless you have the degree. And of course now nearly everything requires a four year college degree, increasing numbers of things require a masters degree or higher. Lots of entry-level management positions require MBAs now, where it used to be commonly accepted that MBAs were more appropriate for people who already had some experience of business, and of course the relevance of an MBA to actual day-to-day management is even more tenuous. In some cases this has even come to override considerations of experience – the Kauffman foundation, for example, which promotes the venture capital industry, does not allow anyone into their internships unless they have an post-graduate degree. You’d think commercial experience of some kind might be a tad more important, really.

        I’m not quite sure what’s going on with this. It obviously shows an unwillingness or inability on the part of employers to apply their own tests of ability. Probably they don’t want to invest time and resources in training people who don’t have the requisite ability and will to learn, and those things are extremely hard to test for. You can test for general intelligence, but that tells you remarkably little. But its still hard to see why that’s important in, say, a supermarket branch manager.Report

  3. Michael Drew says:

    It’s easy to say this once one has overcome her personal problems with formal education and availed herself of the benefits of gaining a postsecondary education. College graduates can (and do) work in factories; moreover there are plenty of college degrees (which I believe are very worthwhile in themselves nonetheless) that prepare a person for little else in terms of remunerative work. The reason our industrial base has fled our country in not because we are all too highly educated in liberal (or management) arts or have lost the skills to do manufacturing; it is plainly because of changes in the global economy. These changes force us to adjust to them regardless of how we feel about the plots of Frank Capra movies, and the only way we will do that is if we make our newer generations aware of what skills and products will provide them with a decent life. Mourning a lost economic past, or, unbelievably, romanticizing a lack of education (formal or otherwise – and if we are going to make a public attempt at education in this country, then the results of that by definition will be “formal”), does nothing to make that happen. Education – to include the formal variant – is an essentially unalloyed good in society that has inherent value to the person, as well as instrumental economic to society, and indeed I believe it ought to be assumed that each person has the right to the best education he or she can sustain with her maximal ability and efforts and that society has the obligation to work toward removing structural barriers to this goal. NOne of this is to prejudge efforts to reform the structures and practices of our existing educational institutions; no one should defend a decrepit, broken system of formal education. But a reformed, more responsive system of public education (and corresponding/competing private institutions) will still be “formal” education. We should “formally” educate our youth, in the sense that a model in which young people should be exposed in systematic ways by professionals (both experts in the specifics of learning as well as subject matter experts) to the knowledge held by the broader society just is the way a society educates its young people – formally. A life, even one spent making widgets, is better when it has at least been exposed to the broad knowledge and art of mankind. It’s worse when it has not.Report

    • @Michael Drew, But isn’t there value to informal education (apprenticeshipes, on the job training, etc.), too, and indeed isn’t there value in obtaining that informal education sooner rather than later once one has reached a certain level of maturity? Moreover, if someone graduates from college and goes on to a job where college really isn’t (or at least shouldn’t be) terribly relevant, is that person better or worse off than the person who simply goes straight into working that job?

      I simply do not know many people who are in jobs where their college degree helps them even a little in the actual performance of their job (as distinct from the fact that employers may somewhat arbitrarily require a college degree as a prerequisite for the position). Given stagnant wages for most such positions, it likewise does not seem that employers are paying a premium for that college degree….which means that many of those who obtain college degrees are actually worse of economically than they’d be had they not obtained such a degree.

      Even for some of those who do wind up in a field related to their degree, there’s an added issue of whether they’d be further along in their career if they had been able to just do an apprenticeship right out of high school.

      Finally – and this is my favorite point of Lisa’s – economic competitiveness (and really, economic dominance) should not be the be all and end all of educational policy. There is more to life than the amount of money one makes or GDP one produces.Report

      • gregiank in reply to Mark Thompson says:

        @Mark Thompson, I’ve hired people for entry level positions who didn’t have any of the appropriate formal education. They all worked out great. They also, while they worked for me, decided to go back to college to finish their degrees. I gave them credit for life experiences which were strong positives for them. But when i hired them i had to put in extra time teaching them certain concepts and basics that anybody with a formal ed would have had. There is gold to be found people with less traditional backgrounds but it does require more up front training. Oh and i also had the strong backing of my boss. Without that it would have been harder for me to hire non-traditional candidates.Report

      • Michael Drew in reply to Mark Thompson says:

        @Mark Thompson, Well I’m not sure which point you’d prefer I’d respond to – that education doesn’t help people and nations adjust to a changing economy, or that it isn’t the point of education to serve those ends. Your points seem to be at odds.

        Moreover, I don’t know where you get the idea that I either discount the value of informal learning, or that I value formal education so highly only because of their supposed value for individual or national economic competitiveness. I say that education has inherent value, that it’s an unalloyed good, and that it improves life no mater how one ends up supporting oneself and one’s family. I also happen to believe it will be critical to our people’s ability to adjust to, anticipate, and fit into a changing economy. Can it guarantee that wages will rise and middle-class jobs won’t continue to bleed overseas? Of course not. But formal education gives many more people than , and also to learn would otherwise have it the chance to learn both specific skills that might be valuable in fast-changing service-information, as well as (potentially) the broad awareness of the trends that drive that change that can allow them to anticipate it and innovate in response. But even if none of this were necessary, I would still think that the development of the human intellect for its own sake is a good unto itself, indeed that it is arguably one of the few things that can purport to salvage human existence from fundamental meaninglessness, but that because it is in its essence a project of personal growth and requires effort, we want to give young people (and the most potential for learning and growth, as well as the opportunity to define our future selves most fully, exists when we are young) as much opportunity as we can to undertake that project at that time, and encouragement while doing so. This is the role of formal education. In a basic way, then, I believe that society itself, now that it has (in many places) alleviated the pressing concerns of nutritional subsistence, shelter, security from outside threat, and the like, exists to further the intellectual, moral, and artistic growth of the human individuals that make it up. So I most certainly agree that we don’t do education merely for economic competitiveness; it just so happens that it furthers that important end as well.

        I also don’t see where you can infer that I don’t value informal or job-specific education from the fact that I value formal liberal education. As you say, in nearly every case there will be a gap between even the most technical educational programs and the requirements of a particular job. Every job requires job-specific learning, and we learn new skills in each job we have that increase our value in the labor market. Moreover, neither academic nor vocational learning exhaust the spheres in which informal
        education takes place — every day each of us is engaged in an informal education about how to live life.

        As to whether it makes sense for a given person to undertake a liberal education or a vocational one at a given age, that clearly is up to each person. Of course there is value in doing either — or both. It seems to me that it makes more sense to seize the opportunity to widen rather than narrow one’s horizons at an earlier age, as the pressure to specialize will always be there, whereas the opportunity to pursue learning for it’s own sake lasts only so long as you can make your talents convince someone to finance the endeavor. But to each his own.

        And each does get to pick his own. Yes, colleges market themselves, but the allure of a liberal arts education at a top college is not a function of ingenious marketing schemes; rather it is a real phenomenon of what we value in our culture. It isn’t for everyone, but it ought to be for anyone with a desire to give it shot (if not at the most prestigious institutions, then at one that offers comparable programs). It’s not as if we don’t have a vocational college system in this country; indeed it’s not as if Obama’s encomium wasn’t twinned on the same day with a high-profile event to highlight Jill Biden’s initiative in just that area. But if you look at the curriculum for an incoming first-year student at your local community or technical college, guess what: there will frequently be a liberal arts component to it, so much do we value those subjects. Students have choices in the United States, including stopping school after the twelfth grade and finding an apprenticeship program. Many do just that; four year college remains a minority choice. Do some students elect that choice because it is simply the assumed path without considering whether it is truly the path they want to take? Of course. I would be very happy to see a gap year become the norm for graduating high school students to allow people to more fully explore their options. But even if it did, my guess would be that the vast majority of those who achieved academically at alevel that would allow them to do so would eventually choos to attend an institution of (formal) higher learning. Because they know it is likely to have a salutary effect on future earnings, yes. Because it remains the socially nomrative choice for those for whom it is a possibility? That too. But i would suggest that in most cases as well, people (not unlike Lisa) will come to realize they want to participate in an intensive community of learning where the highest levels of knowledge are developed and discussed and see what there is to gain from it – i.e. they want to learn. Kids are kids – they party and drink, I did too. But when I go down to campus, i see people a lot like who I was – people who don’t have a strong sense of how they will fit into the world when they’ve moved on, but who for now feel that learning is a valuable enough experience to give their (more or less) full attention to – regardless of how well it ends up paying off in dollars and cents down the road. I can’ really imagine what it is that someone who has taken the trouble to get herself there could be losing by spending the few years she planned on spending, and if she feels for whatever reason she is wasting her time, she can certainly stop wasting her money before the next semester starts as well. If the cost of encouraging a lot of kids who otherwise wouldn’t have thought it was for them to embrace learning for its own sake in the collegiate environment is causing a few of them to try it out and find they made an error, I think that is a more than acceptable trade-off. After all, how else do we know for sure what is or isn’t right for us if we don’t try things? And anyway, who decides to go to college because of an advert, or a speech by the president for that matter?Report

  4. MFarmer says:

    Very good. There are many ways to receive an education — attending classes in a system of state-run education in pursuit of a diploma
    aren’t necessarily the best. One of the most illogical criterion for job acceptance is a diploma, when in reality all that matters is whether you can perform the task you are hired to perform. One of silliest boosts to self-esteem is simply getting a diploma, regardless of whether the education was comprehensive or beneficial to the person’s over-all make-up.Report

    • Marc in reply to MFarmer says:

      A simple problem is that a college degree has become a shorthand for “Focused, able to show up on time, follows directions, and understands English” (the last becomes more true as the law makes asking directly about language skills illegal) even if the skills for the degree don’t match the job particularly well. Sometimes that shorthand is wrong, but it’s generally right, and reliance on it increases both as a companies size increases, and thus HR workers are filling more jobs, and as the overall economy decreases and more people are applying for the jobs available. It’s easy enough for a company to interview all five applications for the one job they have and determine from there that one of the applicants would be ideal even in the face of lacking education. When it’s 500 applicants each for 10 jobs, there’s no way that person is even going to an interview. This is just a basic big system problem that won’t go away. Something is needed to thin the crowd, and until that something exists, employers will ask for the diploma.Report

  5. Lisa Kramer says:

    It’s kind of nice to sit back, read the comment debate and let Mark make all the points I want to make in much better ways than I could make them.Report

  6. North says:

    Lisa your thoughts are excellent and superbly worded and I agree with almost all of it but I do wish to take exception to your wording and premises in item #4. Would you please stop reading the obituaries over the American manufacturing system. It’s a meme I find kind of galling.

    America produces half the manufactured goods on the planet. In absolute terms it also produces more manufactured goods of greater variety and complexity than it ever has in its own past. No, America no longer produces like 90% of the worlds manufactured goods but that’s because the rest of the world has grown up out of abject poverty and war bombed rubble. They’ve got us outnumbered.

    Now admissibly manufacturing doesn’t employ the proportional legions of people it once did. There’s more of us in general and we manufacture with a lot of robots and really high paid jobs. I grant that but I really feel it’s an inaccurate characterization to call American manufacturing moribund just because we let the Chinese make the plastic wigits for our happy meals. I can understand the sentiment but frankly we really need to face the fact that the middle class American manufacturing golden age of the mid last century was a historic aberration; one of many rippling distortions caused by the conclusion of the most epic conflict in human history. I just don’t want to give aid and comfort to, say, the trade restrictionists who’d like to try and put us on the path towards another world spanning early century war.

    Otherwise, however, everything you wrote is boffo.Report

    • Simon K in reply to North says:

      @North, People repeat this all the time, contrary even to the evidence of their own eyes. It seems to be an all party vice too – a conservative colleague went off on the decline of American manufacturing while driving down US-101 along the Peninsula once and all I had to do was point out the window and say – “What do you think all this stuff is?”.Report

    • Sam M in reply to North says:


      But I am not sure people are necesarily referring to aggregate outputs, or even our relative global standing. Rather, when people where I am from talk about a moribund manufacturing sector (well, they use words like “shitty”) they are referring to OPPORTUNITY.

      I am not that old, having graduated in 1991. I went to college. But during the summer I worked in a brake factory. I made $11 an hour. The guys I graduated with who did not go to college started at $14 an hour in that plant, to train, until they got bumped to $22 after a year or so.

      That plant is closed now. At other plants, the starting wage is now $8 an hour. Meaning a 43 percent decrease in less than 20 years. You can make the same amount making sandwiches at the local convenience store.

      Sure, some jobs like welding or die setting pay a lot, but we are in a rural area where we have no vo-tech and no trade schools. The plants won’t train you, so when one of the high-paying jobs opens, they either ship someone in or it stays open. When enough jobs stay open long enough, they close the plant and move it somewhere where they can find some skilled workers.

      In the meantime, in order to give the kids a leg up, the educational system makes kids who have no interest in college go anyway and struggle for six years to get a degree in history or womens studies. Anyone who refuses is labeled an idiot who “wasn’t college material.”Report

      • Robert Cheeks in reply to Sam M says:

        @Sam M, This is one of the better ”comments” written here at the League in quite a while! Insightful, accurate, direct!Report

      • North in reply to Sam M says:

        @Sam M, Sam, you’ll find zero objection from me that education in the States is being neglected at the sub-college level which I believe makes up the latter half of your post.

        To the former half I don’t know what answer can be posited. People will do it more cheaply somewhere else than they used to be able to. As I said before, the golden era of manufacturing came about in a historic economic anomaly; the American industrial system being near unscathed in a world where all the other economies had been blown back to the Stone Age. How can we bring that back? We can’t short of some kind of war or worldwide disaster. Trade restrictions just would put manufacturing in the same boat as the idiocy of American sugar production where we pay sugar farmers a subsidy so they can make us pay twice as much for sugar as anyone else in the world. On top of the economic distortions of protectionism we’d also be setting ourselves up for wars trade wars at first and then possibly real wars later on.
        I mean the middle class manufacturing jobs you describe were great but the conditions in which they endured were unusual.Report

        • Sam M in reply to North says:


          Fair enough. But the frustrating thing for people here who want to work in blue collar jobs (and they desperately want to) is that the plants need highly trained workers. They advertise for them all the time. People want to do the work, and would get the training if it were offered, but it’s not offered. And it’s not like we aren’t spending money to educate people. The school district spends a lot of money. It just doesn’t (and in many important respects can’t) focus the money on programs that would benefit local people and local industries. So we have a whole bunch of AP credits available, but no real way for someone to learn how to operate a lathe or a CNC machine.

          So yes, China is beating the crap out of us in a lot of ways, but such is competition. What frustrates people more is when local plants want workers and local people want to do that work, but there is no way to get the education required.

          It’s not as cut and dried as all that, but the fact remains: I know guys who own factories who are completely unable to fill the highest paid positions they offer. All while the local unemployment rate hovers around 13 percent.Report

          • North in reply to Sam M says:

            @Sam M, Sounds like an educational problem for sure Sam. Perhaps there should be some kind of change that gives serious support, both financial and cultural, to trade schools and apprenticeships etc…Report

            • Sam M in reply to North says:


              The interesting thing here is that people in my region want a return to 1958, when blue-collar jobs ruled the day. And it’s fashionable to insist that ain’t gonna happen. Except it is. We’re sitting right on top of the world’s most productive natural gas field, and someone just figured out how to get after it. We’re talking 200,000 jobs over the next 30 years or so.

              So ever since I graduated in 1991, there’s been a long, slow shift from training to “education,” from local jobs to brain drain. From valorizing manual labor to missing it to dismissing it. Now it’s back, and all of a sudden they will have to reconvince people that swinging a hammer is just as important as sitting through four years of composition classes. Given an actual choice, how many will really choose “work”?

              Are we going to like what we find when we get back to 1958? Gonna be lots of kids making $60,000 right out of high school, buying big trucks and marrying their high school sweethearts. Manly men with muscles and callouses and scars and heavy eyelids.

              I’m interested to see how it turns out. And how long it takes until we have a local Breece DJ Pancake complaining about how dehumanizing it is to work that way.Report

            • @Sam M,

              I would posit one theory for the lack of interest in certain manufacturing jobs – ADD. Kids today are subjected to constant stimulus in the form of the internet, video games, media, etc. It makes them hungry for a diversity of stimuli. Sitting on an assemblyline insert Bolt A into Hole B just isn’t going to cut it for many of them. Now skilled trades may be a whole different story. I have a friend in Colorado who is currently training with a company to function as a mechanical engineer on wind turbines. Skilled trade, no 4-year degree required and it’s interesting as hell. Jobs like that are a good alternative for over-stimulated kids that don’t want to go to college but still want a career that gives them intellectual satisfaction as well as financial stability.Report

            • North in reply to North says:

              @Sam M, I am confident that plenty of the locals will enjoy the work if it is available Sam M. And plenty will move there to fill in for those who don’t.

              As to if we’ll like the people? Why wouldn’t we? People marrying their sweethearts and earning 60k out of highschool? Good for them. I am confused as to why anyone would find that a problem?Report

          • Simon K in reply to Sam M says:

            @Sam M, Seems like there’d be an opportunity for a small vocational skills school. Interesting question is wh doesn’t that happen?Report

    • dexter45 in reply to North says:

      @North, Where are you getting your numbers”Report

      • North in reply to dexter45 says:

        @dexter45, Mopstly from memory Dex but I went a-google sniffing at your inquiry. My half of the world statement was a touch over the top. The US produces more in absolute terms than anyone else in the world but not half of overall world output. The US also produces more per capita than anyone else in the world except Japan. Otherwise looks about right.Report

  7. Lisa – I love point #4 – so true. I am in favor of anyone that wants a college degree getting one and in many professions a college degree, ANY college degree, will help you advance. With that said, there are a lot of enjoyable skilled trades that don’t need a degree and we’re wasting people’s time by pushing college so much when they might be a lot happier as a carpenter or electrician.Report

  8. Scott says:

    The point isn’t that, “that greater educational opportunity is the silver bullet for the future of the country as a whole and each individual who benefits,” the point is that what educational opportunities there are have to be maximized. That isn’t happening right now and isn’t going to happen as long as the NEA holds up meaningful change to protect their members jobs.Report

  9. E.C. Gach says:

    I graduated last spring from a well established research university. I now work in a used bookstore. I make minimum wage.

    My friend also attended a different but similarly well established research university. He too graduated this spring and is starting at 40k editing reports for a foreign firm that employs many people who don’t speak English as a first language.

    I can, with confidence, say that whatever my economic predicament is, it’s my responsibility and my fault. I didn’t do enough internships while in school, didn’t network as well, etc. Academically I excelled. Great grades, great relationships with my profs, many free seminars and book discussions. So while I could turn around and say, college didn’t prepare me for the real world, that would be silly. Most schools where most students go have career offices, they have internship programs set up with local employers or summer ones abroad and around the country. I knew by my senior year that I was choosing to take certain classes because I knew they would be interesting/challenging, and not necessarily because they would help me sell myself to the various HR departments scattered around my metro area.

    So on the one hand, yes, if you go to college, expect to have your hand held, go through the process and come out the conveyor belt with a good job waiting for you, then yea, it’s a shell game. But on the other hand, if you are fortunate as I that your parents have good credit, and so you’re able to take out cosigned loans to afford your nearest state school, then in my experience and the experiences of all of my friends has been that there are plenty of resources to be taken advantage of if finding a respectably paying job on the other side is your objective.

    I can also sympathize with those of you who snark-a-ly mention women’s studies, art history, and other humanities degrees. Unless one uses those courses of study as a time to perfect some specific skills, like writing, editing, public relations, data analysis, etc., then yes, you will struggle to find a job that even indirectly utilizes what you studied.

    But on the more technical end, I wonder how a country competes economically with a country like China, which is turning out ever higher numbers of engineers, with an army of associates degree trained working class.

    And yes, economic competitiveness is not the end all. Perhaps a liberal arts degree aimed at community involvement, service, civic duty, and so on wouldn’t be such a bad thing then.

    And great post by the way. This is a topic that is overly addressed but never from the right perspectives.Report

    • Trumwill in reply to E.C. Gach says:

      @E.C. Gach, if you don’t mind my asking, what was your area of study?

      You bring up a *really* good point about using the resources available. Both in terms of peers and the university itself. I look back and wish I had taken advantage of a lot more than I did.

      You’re absolutely right that in order for college to be worth it, you have to do more than just go. You have to be ready to take advantage of it.Report

      • E.C.Gach in reply to Trumwill says:

        @Trumwill, The exact title of the major at my university was “Communication and Rhetoric.” It was a highly “academicized” version of what people normally think of as communications. Very focused on theory, analysis, and less on office communication/PR (though they did offer a course in both of those areas).

        Going into my senior year I had five to six open slots because I had already satisfied all the requirements for my degree (of course anyone who has looked a major’s “requirements” knows that those are really the bear minimum for someone who is supposedly specializing in that area). I knew I could register for classes in web development, graphic design software, PR communication, etc. But instead decided to take some upper division philosophy, literature, and global politics classes. In fact, the “Great Books” class I opted into was probably the most formative class related experience I had throughout 4 years in college.

        Still, writing critically about the Iliad is not a talent that even indirectly translates into a workplace skill, and no one should have any doubts about that.

        But even for those people who want to major in something esoteric, there is still plenty of time in college to pick up the more economical skills Mike mentions if they choose to.Report

    • @E.C. Gach, “Unless one uses those courses of study as a time to perfect some specific skills, like writing, editing, public relations, data analysis, etc., then yes, you will struggle to find a job that even indirectly utilizes what you studied.”

      This is good advice and it’s what I’m telling my kids. Picking a major and a dream career is a solid plan but you have to have a Plan B, C, & D if that career path doesn’t work out. People have to think about majors in more 3-dimensional terms and their resumes need to reflect that. In addition, it’s smart to develop other marketable skills while in college. Profficency with lots of different software programs, organizational abilities, etc. My own experience was that I basically stumbled into this formula and I’ve been lucky in my career. I certainly didn’t have a Plan B when I was in school but I lucked into one when my dream career didn’t offer the opportunities I thought it would.Report