Sunday, January 19, 2014

Propaganda And Education

The powers, drawbacks, and limitations of the American educational "system" have been one of the livelier topics among the Internet Commentariat in recent weeks. Part of that stems from Professor Glenn "Instapundit" Reynolds's recent book on the "new school" (which, by the way, isn't his only emission on schooling). But at least as much arises from the ever more common observation that "higher" education, in particular, is proving to be a negative-return investment at a time when altogether too many young persons are dubious about their futures.

One aspect of the discussion I find distressing is the emphasis on the connection (or lack thereof) between a college education and "jobs" or "careers." A great deal of the criticism of American education stems from the weak correlation between one's acquisition of a college degree and one's subsequent occupational attainment. There appears to be a widely held assumption, explicit more often than not, that a college education's primary purpose is to ready those who pass through it to perform economically.

In historical terms, that's a very recent emphasis. And there's a very good chance that it's at the heart of what's "wrong" with American higher education.

Prior to World War II, it was generally assumed that college was for personal and intellectual development -- a passage among scholars from which the young adult could gain acquaintance with "the best that has been thought and said" (Matthew Arnold). There were a few "technical" schools that awarded college-style degrees, but these were widely regarded as colleges in form more than in substance. The model to which all higher education aspired was the "Great Books" approach of the University of Chicago under its presiding genius, Robert Maynard Hutchins.

The colloquially named "GI Bill" of 1944 appears to have been the start of the refocusing of college education on occupational outcomes. That few colleges or universities were oriented in that fashion didn't trouble FDR or his "Brain Trust" in the slightest, but then, few matters of fact ever did. The New Dealers knew that the huge mass of veterans returning at the conclusion of the war would have a dislocating effect. That mass repatriation threatened their economic program, which had "revitalized" the nation's economy by stripping the labor force of 12 million young men and shipping them off to Europe and the Pacific. (Compare this to their farm strategy of forbidding or destroying production to raise the prices of dairy and agricultural goods.) Clearly, something had to be done to postpone the foreseeable impact of the returnees on employment and wages.

Deflecting the returning GIs into non-employment channels was the only imaginable course. Higher education looked good for two reasons:

  • It consumes four or more years, giving the New Dealers time to think up something else;
  • Graduates are unlikely to enter the agricultural and industrial trades that buttressed the New Deal politically.

So the Administration began a propaganda campaign about the economic advantages of a college degree. They highlighted the economic distinction between college graduates and those not so blessed, implying that a college education would open the doors to richer economic vistas. But men with college degrees tended to have higher personal incomes and net wealth than those without mainly because they came from wealthy families. Their time in college was intended to prepare them for the sort of society they would enter as fledgling captains of industry, mainly by meeting and becoming well acquainted with the scions of other wealthy families.

Classic watch-the-cart-pull-the-horse political sleight of hand.

The American economy in our time has proved unable to absorb as many college graduates as our colleges and universities are turning out. This is partly because of the economy's overall weakness, of course, but it also stems from the disinclination of a young adult with a degree to "work with his hands:" i.e., to enter the labor force as a tradesman, a factory hand, or some other variety of manual laborer. The college experience prejudices the graduate against "menial" labor in several obvious ways and in one not-so-obvious one: the cost of four or more years earning a degree can seldom be defrayed on a blue-collar income.

Yet the skilled trades are precisely where the economy lacks sufficient participants. Who among us has not quailed at the sight of a plumber's or electrician's invoice? No, they don't get rich even at the rates we experience today; they're not busy enough for that. But skilled tradesmen do well enough to support themselves and their families in acceptable comfort. More, as they tend to be self-employed, few of them worry about "being let go."

Factory hands, in those fields that still employ them, are also doing well compared to college graduates. They earn adequately, though their estate isn't as enviable as that of the skilled tradesman. They do face the possibility of obsolescence due to automation, but those threats can often be kept at bay by collaborating with the automaters: contriving to augment the impact of automation with human input and collaboration. Many employers prefer this approach to automation, and not merely for its impact on "the bottom line."

No one is doing any such thing for the costly-to-employ college graduate.

My last point for this morning is a sad one, which is regarded with distaste by most commentators on the subject: Not everyone can benefit intellectually from a college education.

It's non-controversial among cognitive scientists that innate aptitude for abstractions and abstract reasoning is non-uniformly distributed among humans. The foofaurauw over The Bell Curve was entirely a matter of outraged political correctness. No one wants to admit that half of us, at the very least, are dimbulbs to whom the higher reaches of thought will remain forever inaccessible; it strikes us as "unkind." Yet what greater unkindness could there be than guaranteeing the benefits of an advanced education to someone who lacks the mental horsepower required to grasp and exploit it? This is cruelty disguised as compassion: a rather frequent visitor to the mental landscape of the Left.

Every government intervention in education at any level has implicitly denied the inherent intellectual inequality of persons. The consequences have been dire: an educational elite corrupted by political forces, millions of misdirected young persons, massive personal and public debts, and a sense of having been betrayed that's become pandemic among American youth. But then, politicians don't do things for our benefit, but for theirs.

If American higher education is to regain its luster, it must shed its pretense of universality. But its propagandists, and those whose fortunes have been built upon the lie that "college is for everyone," will be very hard to dissuade.


agraves said...

WW2 changed everything. All monarchies destroyed, all colonies on the verge of destruction, mass immigration of poor blacks from the south to northern cities which benefited greatly (see Detroit, Philly, Chicago, etc). The military especially was changed for the worse. Col. Hackworth laid it out: from brown shoes to black shoes. The shift from real patriots not in it for the money to corporate climbers and ticket punchers who today make large salaries with benefits, full medical for family, etc. When I was in Vietnam I made $90.00 per month which included combat pay. Given all this what we have lost is our civilization, everything we fought for is being denigrated and removed from memory. Alex

Joseph P. Martino said...

I spent 2 semesters as a visiting professor in the School of Engineering at Marmara University in Istanbul. My Department Chairman had obtained his PhD at an American university. He once remarked to me that the big difference between American and Turkish engineering students was that American engineering students were familiar with the use of hand tools. That was true when I went through engineering school. I doubt it's as true today, and we're the worse for it.

Wolfen Jaeger said...

It's likely the exact opposite these days.