Some Noise About Signals, Education & Other Likely Stories
We’re going to have the best educated American people in the world. – Dan Quayle
Recent discussions here have addressed the purpose and the value of an undergraduate liberal arts education. Purpose and value are, of course, two different (albeit possibly related) matters. Also, it may well be, indeed I believe it to be the case that a bachelor’s degree and the educational accomplishments it putatively certifies serve multiple purposes. Finally, we might conclude that there are two sorts of value in an undergraduate education; namely, its instrumental value and its intrinsic value. That is to say it is at least arguable that there is something per se valuable about such an education irrespective of whether it is a means to any future end.
Some undergraduate degrees are, if not terminal degrees, at least qualifying degrees. That is, even if further study and testing is required for a license, there are bachelor’s degrees in, e.g., education, accounting, computer science and pharmacy that are the only academic degrees required to practice in those fields. Similarly, there are undergraduate curricula which are designed to facilitate the student’s entry into various graduate programs. Medical schools in the United States, for example, require not only possession of an undergraduate degree but a specific core curriculum in the natural sciences and mathematics. There are, in other words, fairly straightforward purposes behind such degree programs and, insofar as students successfully complete them, their primary value lies in being means to a specific occupational end.
That is not to say that there are not ancillary or collateral benefits to such degree programs, but only to say that the primary reasons for pursuing such degrees are perhaps more straightforward than for the traditional liberal arts degree. By which I mean any Bachelor of Arts or Bachelor of Science degree in any of the humanities, natural or social sciences when such undergraduate curriculum is not a per se qualification for specific employment but is nonetheless the likely end of the student’s formal education.
In fact, to say that one has majored or concentrated in one or more of those academic disciplines as an undergraduate is not to say, at least on the American model, that one has become in any sense proficient in that discipline. I mean simply that a B.A. with a major in history does not make one a historian, a B.S. in psychology does not make one a psychologist, and so forth. Again, there are a few exceptions, but in general the student would have to pursue a graduate education specializing in that discipline in order to call himself or to be considered by industry or in academic circles to be a biologist, a mathematician, etc.
Old joke about a university with a notoriously lax academic reputation: “When you drive by the campus make sure you keep your windows rolled up or someone’s likely to toss a diploma at you.”
Some very rough figures (not entirely ex rectum, but based on rather stale data somewhat dimly remembered): Including community colleges, approximately 50% of all high school graduates pursue some sort of post-secondary education. However, only roughly 25% of the age appropriate population ever earns a bachelor’s degree. (Even so, a nation in which one out of every four persons holds a college degree is a nation with, well, a hell of a lot of college graduates.)
There are well over two thousand bachelor’s degree granting institutions in the United States. If you look at any of the various books or online services that describe or evaluate American colleges, you will find that only a very small number of those schools (roughly a hundred) are highly selective in accepting students and that the majority are not selective at all. That is to say that most colleges and universities will admit most applicants with a college preparatory high school diploma and just about any SAT or ACT scores, assuming such tests are even required.
I do not contend that the education a student receives from a non-selective college will be inferior to that which a student at a highly selective college receives. In fact, ironically, the less prestigious schools often have more rigorous course curriculum and grading standards than many elite schools. Nonetheless, as a matter of conventional wisdom, a degree from an Ivy League or similarly selective school will be more impressive to most people than the same degree from a non-selective school.
A high school graduate having gained admission to some accredited college or university, it is also generally believed that some majors are more difficult than others, that the requirements for a major in, say, physics or mathematics are significantly more rigorous than the requirements to major in, say, sociology or English. Again, I am not arguing that this is true. Indeed, many a physics or math major would struggle if forced to study, say, medieval English literature instead. Further, the rigorous study of English literature may, in its own way, be every bit as intellectually challenging as the sciences. I am merely noting what seems to be popular opinion here.
Still, it not only matters whether one went to college but where one went to college and what one studied while there. Colleges and universities have become, largely by default, the primary social stratifying institution in America. Ignoring for the moment the value of the actual education one receives in college, its primary function lies in its signaling for purposes of employment and, arguably, sexual selection.
All other factors being equal (which, of course, they never are), graduation from college signals more ambition and the willingness and ability to learn more challenging subjects and to perform at a higher level than those whose formal education ends at high school. Obviously, such signaling is not always reliable, as there are many highly intelligent and motivated people who, for whatever reason, never attend college and many (some might even say mostly) lackluster college graduates. Still, to a first approximation, an undergraduate education (or, at least, a diploma putatively attesting to same) is useful to employers, not the least reason being it is, to them, a free screening device.
As I mentioned above, one irony of the range of colleges and universities in the United States is that it is almost impossible to flunk out of many of the most elite schools (admittedly, there are some notable exceptions) but quite easy to flunk out of many less prestigious schools, especially large state schools that are required to admit but not required to retain most in-state applicants. By contrast, well over half the graduating class at Harvard every year graduates with honors (at least this used to be true, I cannot say for sure it still is), making it the Lake Woebegone of higher education.
Well, perhaps there’s some truth to that. In a sense, mere admission to elite schools serves the same signaling function that graduation from non-selective schools serves. Moreover, excluding the idiot children of wealthy and powerful people and other “special admits”, the average freshman at, say, Stanford or Duke or Princeton has already demonstrated a high degree of aptitude and diligence by having amassed the credentials such schools require for admission.
Washington Post education reporter Jay Mathews has argued, probably correctly, that high school graduates with the same high grades, test scores, etc. who attend less prestigious schools do just as well, on average, as those who do. No doubt, this is because high achieving high school students will, on average, continue to be high achieving college students and subsequently, again on average, high achieving adults, as well. Thus, while it is certainly possible to skate through an Ivy League school, the overwhelming majority of the students at such schools will continue to be the same high achievers they were in high school. After all, there’s always graduate or law or medical school to consider, or those plumb Wall Street training programs, or politics or, well, something next.
This, by the way, raises an interesting bit of irony. Once a university develops the sort of reputation that permits it to be highly selective in its admissions standards, it will manage to retain that reputation only if it manages to attract and graduate the sort of high achieving students who, in effect, subsequently justify that reputation. Short version: elite schools do not so much create successful graduates as merely attract students who will, in any case, be successful.
See, the sad thing about a guy like you is in 50 years you’re going to start doing some thinking on your own and you’re gonna come up with the fact that … you dropped a hundred and fifty grand on a fucking education you could have got for a dollar fifty in late changes at the public library. – from Good Will Hunting
Notice how little any of this has to do with education, per se, let alone the non-signaling value, if any, of that education. To invoke a rather hoary conceptual dichotomy, something can be either instrumentally valuable or intrinsically valuable. We can, of course, take the position that everything but, say, happiness or satisfaction or, for you Aristotelians, eudaimonia is merely instrumental in that it produces whatever ultimate good one prefers. Such reasoning strikes me as precariously close to tautological, but I won’t quibble the point here. Instead, I’ll simply claim that there are things which it makes sense to call intrinsically valuable regardless of their instrumental value: life, love, health, beauty and, yes, knowledge strike me as likely candidates. Your mileage may vary.
I would contend, in fact, that the satisfaction of knowledge and understanding is its own reward apart from how well it facilitates landing that next job or getting to the next rung of whatever ladder one seeks to climb. (As variously ascribed to Lily Tomlin or William Slone Coffin, even if you win the rat race, you’re still a rat.)
My own decidedly traditional liberal arts university used to market itself as providing an education “for a living and for a life.” ** On balance, that’s not bad. If viewed not as the process of accumulation of information but as the process of intellectual formation, as a process that opens intellectual (as well as employer’s) doors, the value of an undergraduate liberal arts education becomes readily apparent. Is it the only means to that end? Of course not. You don’t need to go to college to learn “critical thinking skills” or research skills or to gain an appreciation of Shakespeare or organic chemistry or the ontological argument or calculus or Turing machines or price theory or evolutionary psychology or Kant or the Bible as literature or non-Western culture or Herodotus or, well, you get the picture.
But it helps. The battle cry of my undergraduate cohort was “Relevance!” We wanted classes that were relevant to the world in which we found ourselves, not classes in dusty ancient history or Elizabethan theater or symbolic logic. We were, in fact, ignorant sumbitches. Because if you’ve reached your twenties and haven’t figured out that conflicts begun in ancient Greece and Rome are still being played out across the world, that Shakespeare’s grasp of the human heart is as relevant today as ever, if you haven’t grasped both the value and the limits of deductive reasoning and so on and so forth, then you’re in no position to decide what is relevant or not to the world in which you find yourself. Maybe you could use a bit of guidance, a bit of externally imposed discipline, a bit of nudging in educational directions you might otherwise not have taken on your own, in delving beyond the surface in at least one or two subjects or disciplines. Maybe, just maybe.
Of course, as Chico Marx in a skit once replied when asked to use “horticulture” in a sentence, “You can lead a whore to culture, but you can’t make her think.” Education, higher or not, isn’t for everybody.
It seems to me unlikely that the institution of higher education will survive the 21st century as it exists today. Never mind their putative original raison d‘être, since medieval times it has made logistical sense to cluster scholars and the tools of their trade in close quarters where students come to learn. Brick and mortar campuses are, however, less and less necessary for many, albeit certainly not for all, educational purposes as the economies of distance learning come to over weigh its currently perceived inferiority. But is an online lecture from a noted scholar at Yale or Caltech so substantially inferior to the same lecture from the same scholar heard in a campus auditorium? Maybe, maybe not.
Perhaps in the not very long away future actual physical attendance at a college or university long enough to earn a bachelor’s degree will be understood as merely a high-end luxury good for the most wealthy and privileged. Which, ironically, is how it was often understood for all but those who aspired to certain learned professions as late as the early 20th century.
Then again, in those days the phrase “high school education” wasn’t an oxymoron.
** My undergraduate alma mater also prints its diplomas in Latin but, in recognition that the overwhelming majority of its graduates wouldn’t know an ablative from abdominal gas, includes a handy 3×5 card with the English translation. O tempora! O mores! (Whatever that means.)