Jane Haddam’s WordPress weblog

Opening Day Blues

with 3 comments

Well, okay, not opening day.  It’s been about a week now.  But things are off to a roaring start.  Consider, for instance, the text of this e-mail, which I received from a student:

>>>I am a student in your class… I been going to tha class .. So I jus wanna kno can you please email me any homework or miss work so I can get caught up …. thank you ….. 

I’m not making that up.  The only change I made was to take out the name of the sender.  That’s a college freshman, at least. 

I’m going to go back to a theme, and I understand I’m getting repetitive.  The fact that somebody has passed a course in something tells me nothing at all about whether that person has mastered the skills or the material theoretically taught in that course.

It doesn’t tell me how good her teacher was, either, because I am increasingly of the opinion that although there are plenty of bad teachers, there are even more bad students, and the best teacher in the world cannot overcome the drive of a bad student not to learn.

I still say that what bugs me about all of this is the fact that we accept the passing of a course–or a course of study–as “proof” that people are “qualified” to do all kinds of things.  For most areas of work and further education, we don’t even do anything to double check.  The law has the bar exam.  Doctors have med boards.  Accounting has a general exam as well.  Everybody else, we just send out and let them hang.  Or let them hang us.

I’m beginning more and more to think that Charles Murray is right about this–we should abandon our reliance on schools and place the burden of “proving” that our applicants know something on general tests that probe for the specific skills involved.  Instead of inisting that everybody take a class in English compeition, there should be a test in English composition that anybody can take and pass or fail as they are capable.  And if they can pass without having to sit for long boring hours in a classroom with a teacher who writes less well than they do–well, good for them.

Sometimes I feel that the trend in the world in my lifetime has been the institutionalizing of everything–we more and more seem to rely on large institutions to do all our work for us.  I don’t mean taking out the garbage or doing the wash, but making decisions about the human beings we deal with and their ability to do the things we want them to do.

When I was growing up, boys learned to fix cars by tinkering with old ones in their own garages, then by getting jobs in gas stations and watching while guys who did it for a living taught them what to do.  Now we’ve got “associates degree programs” in auto mechanics at the local community college.  I trust the guys who learned in their garages a lot more than I trust the ones toting around paper credentials saying they know where my carburetor is.  And I know I probably just spelled that wrong. 

I’ve always thought that our rage for paper credentials had a lot to do with our attempts to be sure that we are not rejecting people for the wrong reasons–that we are not engaging in racial or sexual discrimination, for instance–but it seems to me that the credentials mania is actually making us less knowledgable rather than more, and less competent at all kinds of things.

And the reality of that shows more strongly every day. 

So it seems to me that it can only be a matter of time before it all collapses. 

I just wish I could see it coming next week instead of next decade.

Written by janeh

January 27th, 2010 at 11:23 am

Posted in Uncategorized

3 Responses to 'Opening Day Blues'

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  1. Can’t they test for credit or challenge for credit or whatever they call it at your place? Some places you can, but there are usually limitations on it for various practical reasons.

    And if you have tests for the specific skills involved, surely you are right back at the fellowship (board) exams for doctors, who do, in fact, have some checks and balances, usually in the attempt by the employer to get someone reasonably reputable to sign a checklist averring that the person in question is competent and not in any nasty legal problems.

    Of course, the current system grew up as a way to avoid having the jobs go to the employer’s nephew, or the kid of someone he know at church or some club etc. There’s also the desire of some people to police their own ranks – to eliminate the mechanics who forget to re-connect the hand brake before returning the car to the customer or the doctor who prescribes vitamin C for pneumonia. And sometimes they want to keep the pool of skilled labour small and the pay high.

    There are lots of good reasons for moving away from the old, learn your trade from Uncle Bob, way of doing things, and in spite of the flaws of the current system, those reasons exist. There’s no real way of knowing if Uncle Bob is really a master of his trade at all. His teaching, such as it is, is available at his whim, only to those he takes a fancy to.

    I’d say, improve the current system by all means, but don’t go back to the old ways of doing things. And if you want to develop and administer really good tests that will identify exactly who can and cannot do everything from treat sick people to fix broken cars, you’d better to be ready to set up an immense and very expensive organization to do the work. It’s not easy or cheap to do testing well.


    27 Jan 10 at 12:20 pm

  2. As much as 30 years ago, my husband assures me, aeronautical engineers who were employed by McDonnell-Douglas were presumed to need extensive training in their jobs, despite various advanced degrees and experience. I know that most places who employ people in hands-on professions train in their own procedures and often in the basics. They do *not* presume that education is sufficient, the function of those employees is too important for them to rely on third parties.

    My son is currently enrolled in a two-year course for airplane engine & airframe mechanic certification with the FAA. He tells me his program is ranked second in the US after the Air Force Academy. After graduation, he fully expects that any place that employs him will give him their *own* training.

    It seems, though, that in the service/ paper shuffling/ management areas, people who come out of college are expected, after being shown where the bathroom and the supply closet is, to just be able to do their jobs. I don’t know why you would expect that even a college degree would guarantee clear communications. Wouldn’t any employer be better off actually *testing* a prospective employee and then training them properly?

    It used to be the possession of a degree proved you could stick with something for four or five years, and not much else. Much longer ago, say 50 years, college graduates could reliably be expected to write a cogent English sentence. Now I’m not sure what it proves.

    The burden shifts back to the employer to test, and where it seems profitable, to train. Every new employee is an investment. That’s why employee retention is a good idea, rather than treating people like disposable, interchangeable commodities.

    My sister has been out of work since last May. She’s got 20 years experience in her industry, but she doesn’t have a college degree. She can’t even get an interview. Here’s someone who genuinely doesn’t need much training to get up to speed, and she’s invisible. Employer priorities are skewed and I think given the poor quality of graduates, they’re going to have to readjust in the next decades.


    27 Jan 10 at 2:23 pm

  3. I only wish I saw “professional organizations” or unions show some interest in policing their own ranks, but that’s off topic.

    Race and other forms of mandated non-discrimination may be one reason no one shows much interest in replacing diplomas with their own testing. What if the wrong people failed the test? A comrade told me of an artillery officer’s course some years back. Since artillery officers had to be able to calculate impact points even when the computer was feeling poorly, all the incoming officers were tested on teh basic math of ballistics. The test was pure mathematics–no opinions whatever–and the answer sheets were marked only with the student’s social security number. The instructors sorted the answer sheets into mathematical ability groups for further training. Then they called out the social security numbers with the ability group, telling the students to fall in with the appropriate group when they heard their SSAN. They never even completed calling the roster, because the ability groups were visibly different–and of course that couldn’t happen.

    I don’t know how close we can get to equality of opportunity, but to insist on both an honest test and equality of result can be a real bear. Insisting on a diploma shoves the burden onto someone else.


    27 Jan 10 at 6:17 pm

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