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Well, to start, I want to say that I  didn’t mean to imply that the phenomenon  I was talking about–the tendency to do end runs around institutionalized systems of credentialing–was inherently American or inherently capitalistic.  It just is, and I think it’s an enormous advantage when we’re operating in a world where so many advanced industrialized countries seem to be held hostage by their credentialing systems.

I read through a number of European publications every week, and about a year and a half ago I ran into an article in Der Spiegel about the looming collapse of elementary education in Germany.  Americans, the magazine wailed, were able to face this same problem a couple of decades ago and make real changes.  Why was that?

Well, that was because American parents, frustrated at watching their children flail around ill served by whole language reading programs and “new math,” opted to take their kids out of the public schools and put them in private schools or parochial schools or home schools with different approaches to education.  That put pressure on the public schools to ditch what wasn’t working, and at least in some states (like mine) phonics was back in no time at all.

But the problem with defining this as a search for “results” is that it doesn’t quite get you where you want to go.  Whether or not the system you’re working with gets “results” depends on what its goals are.

People outside schools and universities tend to define “results” in education as “the vast majority of students will learn a, b, and c.”

The problem with that as a definition of educational goals is that it makes an assumption that is almost certainly not true–that the students in those schools want to learn those things, and that even if they don’t, it’s possible to make them.

We’re coming to the end of another term, and  I think I can say with confidence that even in most colleges these days, at least outside the top twenty, most students have no interest at all in learning what we’re requiring them to learn.  They resent it, and resist it, and see their job as getting credit for courses with as little imput as possible–and as little knowledge sticking with them to clog up their brains when it’s over.

Before we can ask whether colleges and universities are getting results, we have to ask what it is they’re trying to achieve.  And here’s the thing:  I think what they’re trying to achieve is being successful credentialing organs, places where lots of students lay down their money to get a piece of paper saying they’re certified to do whatever it is they’ve come for, or at least certified to tell an employer that they’re diligent, responsible and capable of carrying out assigned tasks with a decent amount of accuracy.

Because, by and large, that’s all employers are looking for from the degrees they insist on having before they hire.

That’s why, I think, it seems that all colleges and universities are looking for the same student.  When their job is not to teach anything in particular, but to certify that some young people are better than others at following certain kinds of rules, then of course there’s one kind of student their aiming to enrol.

Teachers know one thing that the general public refuses to accept–you cannot force a student to learn anything he doesn’t want to learn. 

This is true not only in the Humanities, and not only in h igher education.  When you have a room full of kids who don’t want to be there, see no value in what they’re being told they have to learn, and resent the entire process, what you get is what we have not only in American high schools, but in many American colleges as well.

Certainly some teaching methods work better than others, and some students learn more easily with some methods rather than others–all things being equal.  But all things are not equal. 

I can require every high school student to pass a course in civics before he’s allowed to graduate.   I can even require an exit exam so that I’m sure he knows what I want him to know–the structure of the federal government, the way the electoral college works, the provisions of the US Constitution, whatever–on the day he walks up to get  his diploma.

What I can’t do is insure he will retain this information six months later.  

And most of the time, I can’t even insure he knows it when he’s passed the course or the exam.  You’d be amazed at how well students can resist understanding what they don’t want to learn, and how good they are at finding ways to reproduce what looks like right answers on tests and quizzes while they’re still being clueless.

Personally, I think the American university system is collapsing, and that it’s going to go down in a smashing heap of dust a lot sooner than Robert thinks.  If it lasts in its present form for another twenty years, I’ll be surprised.

But I don’t think that’s because it’s not getting “results.”  I think it’s getting the results we’re asking of it. 

The problem is that it’s no longer serving any sensible purpose, and the results we’re asking of it are dysfunctional and wrong.

The first thing we have to do is accept, up front, that college degrees, and even high school diplomas, are not materially significant guarantees of any kind of employment-related “merit.”

If candidate A has a college degree and candidate B does not, candidate A is not necessarily more qualified for the job they both want.  That we pretend that he is, that he has learned something significant to his employment by spending four years hacking his way through College Algebra, English Composition, and  Multicultural Perspectives on Food.

And high school is worse.

One of thte problems with a meritocracy is this:  in a world where most jobs do not have immediately obvious measurable outcomes, we need a way to decide who “merits” the new job or promotion.

Real measures of merit are often squishy, especially on the lower levels of a ladder of responsibility.  They’re also very hard to document. 

High school and college attendance, and graduation, are very  easy to document, so instead of looking at real measures of merit we take these instead.

And by doing that we wreck any chance we have to offer widespread opportunities for real education, decrease the competence of the total pool of people we’re willing to hire, and generally make a mess of things.

Written by janeh

May 12th, 2009 at 9:03 am

Posted in Uncategorized

12 Responses to 'Results'

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  1. How do you get the employers to NOT require certification for irrelevant ‘education’? Doing so doesn’t merely allow the employer to document that they had some objective criteria (however irrelevant) for whoever they hired or promoted, it makes it extremely easy for them to reduce a large pool of applicants to one that will take them much less time and money to trawl through, while not noticeably changing the quality of the skills possessed by the person they hire.

    A prolonged shortage of labour might change things. Employers who can’t find people with the right pieces of paper will hire people without them.


    12 May 09 at 9:42 am

  2. Sure, Cheryl, but the thing about requiring a degree is, that it often IS an indicator of who will do well in certain jobs. I have five people working for me. Two of them have college degrees – one in English and one in political science, which I mention just to point out that neither of them majored in business or anything that’s a specific preparation for working in industry. Both of these guys do a great job, and one day one or the other of them will end up with my job.

    The other three all struggle to some degree. None of them can write a clear and organized document without help: not audit reports, trip reports or even a decent, polite and professional business letter or e-mail. One of them does fairly well in most aspects of her job, but when I try to get her to work on her written communication skills she doesn’t really understand what I want – and I’m having trouble getting her to see what’s wrong with the crap she writes.

    The other two are severely limited in their ability to do the job. One has a fair amount of common sense and actually does okay as long as I don’t expect strategy (he reacts well to things that happen but doesn’t plan ahead all that well) and his writing skills are horrific, even worse than the woman described above.

    And the fifth person is circling the drain and I will probably have to terminate her by fall because she is completely unable to even comprehend why she’s not doing what she was hired to do.

    Arguably she should never have been hired at all (she was hired by my predecessor), and she needs a job that has clearly defined rules that she can run to for guidance when she doesn’t know what to do. She has zero analytical skills, no strategic skills, and no comprehension, after five years of coaching, of what she lacks.

    So how do I weed these people out? On the surface it looks to me as though requiring a degree actually works – the two guys who have them excel at their jobs. Now, I know that’s assuming a correlation that may not be there. But it appears to me that people who’ve managed to get through four years of college can at least assemble an English sentence, which the other three can’t do, and in most cases they can put the sentences together into paragraphs and even whole papers. I’m not looking for these people to write “Living Witness” (which, by the way, is on its way to me from Amazon). I just want professional communications that aren’t embarrassing.

    How else do I ensure that I’m going to get that?

    I understand Jane’s problem with the whole system, because to great degree I share it. An education should be an education and not job training.

    But if it works as a weeder-out of basic illiteracy, at least, then I’m going to require it for new hires.


    12 May 09 at 11:34 am

  3. “But if it works as a weeder-out of basic illiteracy, at least, then I’m going to require it for new hires.”

    Isn’t that what high school is for?

    We’ve just moved the basic requirements of literacy, organization, time planning and critical thinking up to the college level. What’s next? Basic requirements for consideration for employment become a Master’s or PhD.

    We’re already there in education, pretty much. Teachers go for the higher degrees because they get a better salary.

    But as to having to have *more* education just to get a resume read, that’s sad.

    My sister, who has nearly 30 years of experience in construction industry administration and materials purchasing, cannot find a job after being downsized. She doesn’t have a degree, and so probably doesn’t make the first cut in a lot of places. Our system is broken.


    12 May 09 at 1:02 pm

  4. I read a lot of “,ilitary fiction”. Occasionally, you find an author who has been in the military and has thought about the experience. Then I notice off hand comments which start me thinking.

    Example – One reason for having Junior officers is that someday we will need new Senior officers.

    Or – An officer’s job is to direct violence, enlisted men are taught to do the violence.

    I fear this applies to civilian life. Any complex business will work only if employees follow the rules. Innovation and inititive are not really wanted at the Junior level but are needed at Senior levels. But Seniors have to come up through the ranks.

    I don’t know of any way around the problem of the different skills needed at employee and senior manager levels. But the schools must get the fundamentals correct – reading, writing, arithemetic, clear thinking, basics of science.

    Lymaree, I moved to Austral from the US in 1971 after being out of work for a year. The job ads specified “Need A, B, C, D”. If you had A,B,C,E, you were underqualified. If you had A, B, C, D, and E, you were overqualified. So your sister isn’t alone.


    12 May 09 at 1:39 pm

  5. Lymaree, if high school would produce graduates that had those basic skills I’d be happy to hire them. But I’m not seeing it. No, you know, I’ll bet that’s not true. But the ones who do manage to learn the stuff I need in high school are the sames ones who go on to college.

    And so I’m back where I started. Where does your sister live? I may be hiring a buyer this fall…


    12 May 09 at 2:43 pm

  6. My sis lives in Sarasota FL, Mary.

    I have a question, though. Even though she has 30 years experience, would you even *look* at her resume if she doesn’t have a degree? That’s what I’m talking about. People talk about using the degree as a first rough filter. So never mind if you’ve been *doing* the job for however many years, some snotnose with a degree gets an interview, and you get the circular file.

    It’s a really bad time to be 50 and downsized without a degree.


    12 May 09 at 6:27 pm

  7. Lymaree, there is never a good time to be 50 and out of work. :(

    On the sunject of education, I’m beginning to wonder why we have 4 year universities. Why not have 2 year community colleges and then transfer to a university for the last 2 years?

    And why go directly from high school to university? There is something to be said for spending 2 years working before going on in education.

    Back when I was an undergrad, the best students were ex-military using the GI Bill of Rights. That was shortly after the Korean War.


    12 May 09 at 8:22 pm

  8. By the time that I had been out of college a couple of years, I concluded that the main reasons that employers required college degrees were the facts that earning the degree demonstrated 1) an ability to learn and 2) the willingness to stick to something difficult for a long period of time. In some fields, like the sciences, students really do need to remember what they learned (the physicist who doesn’t remember that e=mc2 is not going to get far.) In others, like the humanities, it seems to me that what a student really needs to retain is a general overview of the field, and a pattern of critical thought and analysis, so that they can continue on their own (it takes a lifetime to really absorb what amounts to the whole of humanity’s history and thought.)

    It seems to me that generally people retain the knowledge that they find interesting, and I doubt this has changed over time. If they start out, for whatever reason, interested in science, for example, they’ll retain what they learn in science classes, maybe math classes, and forget most of what they learn elsewhere. If they’re interested in stories, they’ll retain literature classes, maybe general humanities, & so on. If they’re not interested in anything, well…

    Other than natural affinity, the only way I know of to change that is essentially by contagion. When I was in college, I was stuck taking a class in International Economics, a subject in which I had pretty much no interest. However, the teacher obviously loved the subject, & was able to explain it clearly & enthusiastically, and able to relate it to things that his class of undergrads might be able to understand. By the end of the class I found it interesting, too, got a good grade, and have found the knowledge I gained useful in understanding things I probably otherwise would not. He was not the only teacher I had like that, but they’re rare, and it probably only works on students who have at least the capacity to be interested to begin with.

    If kids have reached high school or college without an interest in learning *anything*, it may be too late. I think really the place to start getting kids interested in learning has to be with the parents, before the kids even begin school. If the parents aren’t interested themselves, the kids generally won’t be either. And if the parents are only interested in education in order to get a job (no matter how important the job is to your survival) the kids will learn that attitude, too.

    How you get parents who apparently aren’t enthusiastic about learning to convey an enthusiasm for learning is beyond me, however.

    Lee B

    12 May 09 at 9:14 pm

  9. Lymaree – if she had the experience I was looking for, yes, I probably would. I have built a preference, but not a requirement, for the degree into the job descriptions in my department.

    I do know that some companies don’t permit that flexibility, though. And unless it’s an engineering job or something with specific requirements, it can be counterproductive.


    12 May 09 at 10:11 pm

  10. Sadly, the system as it now is works. Large corporations and government have a way of sorting people which does not depend on individual judgement, and so is less likely to provoke lawsuits. Colleges and universities are paid vast sums of money and aren’t–outside of the hard sciences–held accountable for their students actually learning anything, and a government educational bureaucracy has a system involving spending vast sums of money–which is a good thing if you’re an educational bureaucrat.
    Yes, it costs taxpayers and students huge sums without giving them anything in return but a piece of paper, but everyone with any influence over the system already has the piece of paper.
    This could easily go on another thirty years. Being expensive and pointless just isn’t the same thing as being doomed.


    13 May 09 at 5:11 am

  11. Robert, what would you suggest as a better way? I’m asking seriously, not snottily. :-)

    Evaluating people who apply for jobs is extremely difficult. Add to that the litigious culture and it’s hard to know what to do. If I could hire everyone as temp to hire and let them show me what they can do, I’d be glad to give anyone who seemed intelligent and reasonably literate a chance.

    But the applicants for this kind of job aren’t going to accept temp to hire, for the most part.

    What to do?


    13 May 09 at 1:42 pm

  12. Jane seems to have hit the jackpot with this topic!

    Robert, do you include engineering as hard science? I have the impression that at least some engineers are required to have state licenses.


    13 May 09 at 1:51 pm

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