Obama’s speech, and college education

This article is in no way a criticism of Barack Obama’s position on education, I only mention his name as I just heard his speech after his South Carolina primary victory. My comments are a critique of the conventional wisdom that we need to spend more money to provide college educations to more students – a view espoused by both Republicans and Democrats.

 I think we have too many colleges and college students!

 The great failure of our educational system is at the secondary school level, our colleges are having to provide basic skills that have been neglected at the high school level. It is an improper form of argument to use personal anecdotes to prove a point, but in this case I think I must resort to that approach. When I entered college in 1953 the admission requirements were greater than the graduation requirements of most colleges of today. Except for those applying to the engineering program all applicants had to have a reading facility (the equivalent of about 2 years high school study) in 2 foreign languages and one ancient one. They also had to have a facility with mathematics through algebra and plane geometry, and a certain level of knowledge of English literature and general history. This applied to those who would study a science in college as well as those who planned for the liberal arts.

 In the fifty years since my graduation I’ve been shown papers from PhD candidates in various fields which had a complete lack of coherant sentences. (Oops, right now Hillary is speaking of college education – tomorrow it will be a Republican). I agree that we need an educated populace to both continue our leadership in technology, and for the benefit of the individual citizens. But I do not agree that the solution is more college education.

 In the summary of the year in the year book of the Princeton class preceding mine the writer spoke of hitchhiking a ride to the college (we weren’t allowed cars, hitchhiking was a necessary skill for PU – although there were no credits given). The truck driver dropped him off at the college and asked “are you a student here?”. When the answer was “yes” the next question was “what trade are you learning”. In that day and age when one could wonder the value of studying the old philosphers it was a question that caused some introspection. Is college a place where one learns to use the “mechanical tools” for success – or is it a place for advanced learning?

 Let me set up another controversial proposition. I think the GI Bill, after WWII, may have been a net negative to the country, and for all future vets. There are many, including some prominent jurists, who benefited from the GI Bill – and who might have had no education without it. But I also saw others, in my summer jobs while in college, who were in jobs that could be performed by a high school graduate. Not everyone is capable of higher learning, but the proliferation in the fifties of GI Bill college graduates lowered value of a college degree. (May I emphasize that this is not a criticism of all GI Bill collegians, many were proper college material). The result was that the corporations, with a glut of college graduates to choose from, placed a college degree requirement on low level clerical jobs.

 The good old Law of Unintended Consequences! The college degree requirement relieved the high schools of the need to provide basic skills. The number of colleges proliferated, and they needed students to fill their rolls, the admission requirements deteriorated, the high schools had less incentive to educate in the “three Rs”.

This may sound like an elitist manifesto, but it is not intended that way. College should not be a “trade school” even if the trade is high finance. A classmate of mine, who is one of the most successful financiers in the country, majored in philosophy and wrote his senior thesis on Emmanuel Kant. College should be a place of learning for those who want it, high schools should provide all the basic skills for success. It is a denigration of the student to say that he/she can’t learn at that age.

I hold no brief for the European system of education where students are aimed toward traditional trades or higher education by testing at age 12, and then again later. The “pre-selection” allows no room for the “late bloomer”. I like the flexibility of our system where one can gain basic skills later in life (through GED exams, etc.) and come back to the higher learning. Theoretically a carpenter can study and later go to Med school, although I’m not sure why a good carpenter would really want to (but my godfather was an engineer who went into medicine by hard work at a later age).

 We have lost, in some sense, the value of learning. I am not financially successful – but I consider my life to be a success. These days, in my retirement, I do woodworking and make musical instruments – at a point in my past I had a brief career in music as a performer. Perhaps, had I not gone to college (and particularly Princeton where I was taught nothing, but given the opportunity to learn from the best in each discipline), I might have been a woodworker, or a rich star in music. But I wouldn’t swap that education for anything – I turn a lovely piece on my lathe, then play a tune on the harp or lute I’ve built, then pull out a book on history or philosophy or science. I confess that I boast, I happen to have the facility to do those things.

 We let down our children when we don’t give them the primary and secondary school education that will allow them to seek their own level, and to make the best use of their god-given skills. I wonder often about the WWII vet I watched at an insurance company (coming full circle back to my earlier comment) whose job was to read applications and stamp them “refused” or “for review”. “Refused” was for obvious errors, all else was passed to higher authority. Eight hours a day of that, with no ability to advance (as he wasn’t really intellectually qualified) must have been a “downer”. The same man might have had a talent for working with wood, or for growing things – but the “conventional wisdom” put him in a dead end job.

May I again emphasize that I use Obama’s name in this only as a “tag” as he is far from being alone in the view that college education is the “be all, end all” for success. I believe our failure is not so much in not providing college as it is in not providing education. Primary and secondary school should be our emphasis, let college be for higher learning.

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