North Western Winds

Contemplating it all from the great Pacific Northwest

Education inflation

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I suppose that I have, through my own prose, become something of a sourpuss on the subject of education. In my defense I must say that if I really didn’t think it was valuable, I wouldn’t bother. I do think it valuable, and that’s why it’s a topic that I seem to come to again and again. Today, via Blimpish, I came across a new English blog, Stmbling and Mumbling. Stumbling would appear to be an economist of some sort. In his posts Educating the Stupid and Signaling in Education, he observes that universities have grabbed on to expanding their base as good economics. More students, more tuition, more leverage on the government for tuition subsidies. I suppose that’s all fine and dandy if – if – all those students really are better off for all the time and money spend on their degrees. I suspect that at least some are not and Stumbling backs me up. Too many people with a degree is inefficient and inegalitarian, he writes:

Inefficient, because the more people that have a degree, the weaker is the signal that someone has the sort of ability that an employer really wants. That increases the chances of poor hiring decisions.

Inegalitarian, because if mere possession of a degree doesn’t send a strong enough signal about ability, employers will use other reasons to hire people. These factors – “a good attitude”, “will fit in” – are likely to discriminate against able people from working class backgrounds. That’ll reduce social mobility.

I would speculate that this situation is not entirely due to money. That’s an after effect that helps perpetuate it. What’s really going on here has everything to do with class. We seem to be losing our grip on the idea that you can learn yourself a trade, make good money and lead a healthy, happy and above all -a respectful life. It’s a good thing to make an effort to find talented youngsters from all classes and encourage them to think about whether or not university is for them. I’m not disputing that. Where we go wrong is when this good step metamorphs into a “no child left behind” kind of vision, where every child in the land must, absolutely must, have at least a BA or he will be a miserable and unfulfilled human being.

When we stop looking to universities as centers of excellence, I think we are all poorer for it. Some schools will continue to be centers of excellence and the upper class kids are the ones most likely to know which ones they are. So will their best potential employers. The larger mass of the population will see schools turn out graduates whose quality is not what is hoped for. The university degree declines in value and students waste time and money. They could have been earning and – this is important- they could have been learning on the job. It’s a mistake to think that all learning, or even the “best and most valuable” learning takes place in a classroom. For some, an apprenticeship would be much more engaging and rewarding. It would also be shorter, leading to a quicker turnaround from study to money. If you’ve been watching the new season of the Apprentice, you’ve seen how well uneducated but experienced workers can compete with those whose experience is more classroom oriented.

I don’t say any of this to deny or degrade what people do in university. I do think, however, that university should be a place for the really bright, regardless of class. It is not being used properly when marginal students are pressured into going, in the hope that somehow just being there will tap into the real genius that has been hiding so deep that no one ever saw any hint of it in high school. Parents being parents, you can understand why they tend to think this way. An objective outside view would be valuable. A respected apprentice program should not be seen as a consolation prize. We have many kinds of minds. The ones that repair helicopter engines are no less valuable than the ones who design them. You can’t fly safely without them both.

I once made similar points to a mom (who’s daughter really was terribly bright) and she countered by telling me how high students grades had to be to even get into university today. A “B” was barely good enough. I think what I’ve outlined here explains that. If every child has to go to university, there is tremendous pressure on teachers give out the kind of grades that will allow that. And teachers, being university educated themselves, are pretty bad about advising any other kind of educational route. The result is grade inflation. That “B” might only be as good as a “C” used to be, with the result that students are beating themselves up to get less and less of what they really need, which is a proper assessment of their skills. If they have that, they can plan their future accordingly, as can universities (as centers of excellence and not as high school part two) and employers (holding a degree really does signal an above average thinker, writer and speaker). Grading on a curve, anyone?


Written by Curt

March 17, 2005 at 5:50 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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