Educated, to what end?

A college degree might be entirely unnecessary. So argued Charles Murray in the NYT over the weekend. A radical thought when it seems like we’ve reached the point, here in the rarified world of DC, where graduate and/or professional degrees are the staus quo.
It’s a provocative notion, in theory, but I find his argument lacking. He vacillates between a couple different rationales, which undoubtedly undermines any persuasiveness he might have had in focusing on one core point.

Some thoughts on the points he seems to make (and subsequently, well, “unmake”), in no particular order…

There’s too much of a premium placed on ivy league or elite institutions — Agreed, 110%. I went to a state school after being accepted elsewhere for a variety of reasons. Internships, networking, and plain old initiative can do wonders for career advancement, regardless of the name on your degree. Murray mentions “stripping away the halo” of going to a prestigious school, which almost makes me think he’s mistaking his real argument against intellectual snobbery for dismissing a college degree writ large.

The majority of people don’t have the intellectual heft to succeed in any college setting — Oh, please. Taking the above point into consideration and admitting we aren’t all going to Harvard, I find it difficult to believe the “average” high school graduate can’t sustain a passing GPA at a run-of-the-mill state school. The statistics he cites are flimsy and don’t do much of anything to support this point. If it’s truly the case that the average person can’t hack it, we should be deeply mortified about the state of our public education system — and the answer to that failure, our failure, isn’t, “oh, well, then they shouldn’t go to college.”

Certification tests should take the place of a degree as the bar by which to judge readiness to enter the workforce in a given profession — Maybe if we were all going to work on an assembly line in a factory or something. In a service-sector based economy, it’s difficult to quantify such a thing. A liberal arts education in whichever field one happens to choose at least guarantees a basic level of mathematical proficiency and facility with the spoken and written word, which is what one’s generic office or retail employer is looking for anyway.

College is prohibitively expensive — Noooo kidding! I was lucky in going mostly on scholarship because there is no way my mother could have afforded it while working two jobs just to keep food on the table and a roof over our heads. That yearly tuition at some of the better schools is higher than my current salary is kind of mindboggling. There should definitely be greater investment in community colleges (btw, DC should get on this instead of debating it every year or two) and government supported financial aid programs.

Ultimately, this is all irrelevant because the “bachelors as minimum education requirement” is a sea-change of sorts that isn’t just going to be rolled back — particularly as the job market gets tighter in today’s economy. Education is a good thing, it makes us better citizens, promotes understanding and tolerance of the world around us (vital in a globalized world), and creates a safety net of sorts in one’s professional life regardless of the career one pursues. All of these are good things. Telling people otherwise strikes me as the impractical sort of idea that could only be cooked up in the world of academia (said by a woman who works at a think tank and aspires to be entirely overeducated).


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