Jane Haddam’s WordPress weblog

What Works

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So–Lymaree thinks the system isn’t working, Robert and Mary think it is.

I think it sort of is.

First, Robert is of course right–to a large extent, the purpose of demanding a degree has nothing to do with anything the applicant has learned, and everything to do with the fact that a meritocracy needs to at least appear to be making gatekeeper dcisions on a rational (objective) basis.

And we in the US have spent all the decades since WWII trumpeting the importance of “education” to getting a good job.  A good job meant, back then, something white collar rather than on an assembly line, something with the possibility of  moving up a hierarchy instead of something “dead end.”

In those days, the skills Mary is looking for were taken care of in high school, so that what a student needed was a high school diploma to qualify himself for training in various trades–and high schools had vocational courses

It’s true enough that hiring somebody with a degree means you’re more likely to get the kind of skills you want than hiring somebody without one, but this has less to do with what the person learned while studying the degree than with what he was already able to do.

And in a climate where close to sixty percent of the people who graduate from high school go on to some form of secondary education, almost everybody at least minimally competent at what used to be high school level work will have gone on somewhere.

But the problem is that some of the skills employers want are really important to them, and the degree no longer guarantees they’ll get those skills.

Running remedial seminars in writing and communications for businesses is the hottest ticket in academia today.  With the exception of a very few schools near or at the top of the heap, the fact that a kid has a degree no longer guarantees that he can write a comprehensible sentence, never mind a paragraph.

And that’s as true of majors in the hard sciences and math as it is of any other kind of major.

Obviously, businesses would need another sorting method, but it seems to me that a lot of those are possible–national exams run by private companies (like the SATs are now), or exams set by the businesses themselves.

I think a bigger issue is the fact that we do not want to accept that some people are not going to be capable of doing work beyond a certain level. 

And that’s one of the problems with meritocracies.  Traditional hierarchical socieites give individuals their places in the stream based on lots of different factors (birth, caste, whatever), almost all of which say nothing at all about the intrinsic worth, or even relative talents, of any such individual.

Meritocracies, however, sort people by what is supposed to be an objective method, and that method only “feels” right IF it’s the case that anyone who tries for the top can get there.

If some of us are born less capable than others, if some will never reach the top no matter what they do, even if they do everything right, then the legitimacy of a meritocracy is intrinsically in question.

So what we do is hide the embarrassing fact that some people do not seem to be able to grasp some things no matter what they do–by grade inflation, by dumbing down the curriculum, by a dozen different methods meant to hide the fact that some people are not learning what we’ve set out for them to learn.

Which is, by the way, how we got into this mess.

And I don’t know how to get us out of it.  I really don’t.

I know that the system as it exists is counterproductive.  I think a real education–that is, an education in the liberal arts (ALL of them, including the hard sciences)–is immensely valuable for anybody who can handle it.

But I don’t think such an education is a prerequisite for being good at accounting, for instance, or even at making movies. 

Right now, we’re wasting the time of thousands–tens of thousands–of people every day, and not only are we not approaching a more educated workforce, we’re actually making the workforce less educated than it would be otherwise.

I’m more and more of the opinion that schools are toxic to the kind of education I want people to have–that they actively discourage people from engaging in the Great Conversation, and on top of that they leave the impression that there’s nothing in the Great Conversation that would even be interesting to look into.

And, as I said when I started this, I’m more and more amazed at how many people who become truly extraordinarily succesful have not had standard educations, and how many of those have a better overview of the liberal arts (humanities AND social sciences AND natural sciences) than most graduates of even good universities.

But I think that bit where businesses have to send their new hires out to learn how to read and write means the end is a lot closer than Robert thinks it is.

Written by janeh

May 13th, 2009 at 2:19 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

2 Responses to 'What Works'

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  1. Jane wrote

    >A good job meant, back then, something white collar >rather than on an assembly line, something with the >possibility of moving up a hierarchy instead of >something “dead end.”

    There is a problem. Almost all jobs in a hierarchy are dead ends. A company of 100,000 employees has 1 CEO, 1 director of Engineering and 1 Chief Financial Officer. Moreover, the higher one goes in a hierarchy, the less one has to do with the actual business of the company.

    I’ve seen this in engineering. Someone who likes hands on engineering gets “promoted” to management and spends his/her time doing paperwork and supervising people. The higher they get in the hierarchy, the less engineering they do. The result is promotion of good engineers turns them into mediocre managers.

    My parents went to university in the early 1920s. That was when 1% of the population went to university. That is probably too small a number. But I can’t see any good reason for 30% of students to go on in education. I’d rather see more apprentices. Australia is in a recession but we apparantly have a shortage of skilled carpenters, bricklayers and automobile mechanics (among other skilled trades).

    I’d like to see much less emphasis on Universities and more on 2 year community colleges teaching trades.


    13 May 09 at 5:59 pm

  2. Jane, I’m not sure I’d say that I think the educational system is working. I think I’d say that I’m using one piece of it as a way to help me evaluate potential employees.

    I do think you’re right about people not wanting to have to acknowledge that individuals have limitations. I think it’s because a lot of people dont’ recognize the difference between equality of opportunity and equality of results.

    And it makes a mess, one that I’m embroiled in now because I have one person in my department who is so clearly unable to do the job she was hired to do – it’s painfully obvious. But I have to go through this laborious process of documenting every little detail of her shortcomings, give her a series of warnings, and follow this long process in order to move her out.

    And meanwhile there are lots of smart people out there looking for jobs that could walk in and be more effective from day one.

    It drives me nuts.


    14 May 09 at 12:47 pm

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