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To College or Not to College

Friday, May 03, 2013

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Bill Smoot

Bill Smoot grew up in Maysville, Ky., and received his bachelor's degree degree from Purdue University and his doctorate in philosophy from Northwe...

Book Cover - Conversations with Great Teachers
What makes a great teacher? How do teachers connect with students? Why do teachers choose to teach? If you've ever thought about these questions or are interested in learning insight into the world of teaching, Dr. Bill Smoot's book, Conversations with Great Teachers, will interest you.   View Full Blog
Across the country, a lively debate about the value of college has been gathering steam. Long a staple of the American dream, a college education has become the target of skeptical questioning, an inquiry invigorated by rising college costs and faltering job prospects.

One symbol of the skepticism is the Thiel Foundation Fellowship. The brain-child of billionaire venture capitalist Peter Thiel, the Fellowship selects a small number of people under the age of nineteen with promising big ideas and pays them $100,000 over a period of two years to skip college and work to bring their dreams to life. While the Fellowship itself is only an alternative to college, some of Peter Thiel's remarks give it the status of a challenge to college. "Before long," Thiel wrote in The New York Times, "spending four years in a lecture hall with a hangover will be revealed as an antiquated debt-fueled luxury good." Thiel Fellowship recipients are invited to walk in the footsteps of such college dropouts as Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and Mark Zuckerberg--or rather to go them one better; instead of dropping out of college, the Fellows do not attend in the first place. Those three billionaires are not without company; Forbes reports that out of the 400 richest people in the U.S., 63 don't have college degrees. And Dale Stephens, a former Thiel Fellow, has founded UnCollege; his goal is captured in the title of his new book: Hacking Your Education: Ditch the Lectures, Save Tens of Thousands, and Learn More Than Your Peers Ever Will. In a telling statistic from the bottom, Marty Nemko reports that "as of 2012, 53.6% of college graduates under 25 are either unemployed or doing work they could have done without college--retail clerk, receptionist, waiter." In response, some politicians have begun to pressure state universities to become more vocationally oriented. In The New York Times this past week, Frank Bruni reports on such efforts in Texas, Virginia, and North Carolina. He quotes the Governor of North Carolina as saying, "If you want to take gender studies, that's fine, go to a private school."

Questions about the value of college are healthy. They remind us that there are many routes to a successful and fulfilling life; college has no exclusive claim as a means of educating young adults. Gap years, travel or work experience, service work, military service, and independent study can pay great dividends of enlightenment, either before or even instead of college. Many students would get more out of college if they entered with a bit more maturity. As a riff on Mao, we might say, "Let a hundred kinds of education bloom." If Peter Thiel reminds us of that, more power to him.

But one aspect of the current college skepticism is disturbing. Much of the debate assumes that the value of college lies in preparation for the job market. For some, the justification for college boils down to a cost-benefit analysis: the cost of college weighed against the higher salaries paid to college graduates. But this calculus ignores the value of college that lies outside the vocational realm. At its best, college teaches young people to think better, to know more about the world, to be better citizens, to appreciate the arts, to read great literature and poetry, to ponder more deeply what it means to be human, to develop some taste for the life of the mind, and to view the intellectual advances of the past two and a half millennia with awe and respect. The tension between the vocational and the edifying goals of education is as old as the conflict between Socrates and the Sophists. Surely the answer--to the degree that there is an answer--lies in balance. "Nothing to excess." But as the pressures of a faltering economy focus attention on the economic justifications of a college education, it is that balanced perspective that is threatened.

The problems in American education that make it fertile ground for new ideas also leave it poorly defended against bad ideas. The worst of the bad ideas asserts that education--from the elementary grades through high school, private schools included, and on to college--should be reshaped to the perceived needs of the job market. Central to the movement for "21st century education" is the premise that the central role of education is vocational training, especially training for work in high tech. The powerful forces behind this movement are not always recognized.

In "the Billionaire Boys' Club," a chapter of her book The Death and Life of the Great American School System, Diane Ravitch argues that unlike the philanthropic foundations that supported education in the past, the new "venture philanthropists" want not just to support education but to transform it to their own vision. "Their boldness was unprecedented," Ravitch writes. "Never in American history had private foundations assigned themselves the task of restructuring the nation's education system." The influence of venture philanthropists on American education--and on educational discourse--may be the most important underreported education story of the past decade.

Tony Wagner, co-director of the Change Leadership Group in the Harvard Graduate School of Education, has written and spoken extensively about the need to reform American education. His premise is that schools are failing to prepare students for the 21st century job market. He quotes a graduate of the Harvard class of 2010 as saying, "I don't remember a thing from my undergraduate classes - except for Spanish." I suspect Mr. Wagner has cherry-picked this example. I have for over three decades talked with many of my former prep school students who have gone on to college at the Ivies and other highly selective colleges across the country, and I've never heard one of them speak so disparaging of his or her college education.

Anyone who does an internet search of "21st century education" will uncover books on education written by people who have never taught but work in for high-tech corporations. There will be nonprofit organizations by the dozens funded by the Gates Foundation or other "venture philanthropists." Tony Wagner's Change Leadership Group at Harvard was an initiative of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. 

As we all work to improve American education, we must honor all the worthy aims of education, the vocational along with the non-vocational. I resist calling the vocational by the label "practical," for what could be more practical than questions about who we are and how we should live. Those questions are essential, and if they are not recognized as such by the billionaires, the billionaires should not be shaping the future of education. 

William Carlos Williams wrote,

It is difficult to get the news from poems yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there. 

Do the politicians and venture philanthropists know what this means?

Posted by Bill Smoot


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Reply tsar said...
Understanding the statistic cited at the beginning of this article is exactly why you should go to college. 63 out of the 400 wealthiest people did not go to college, that means 337 did. To put it another way 84% of the wealthiest people have a college degree. While there are some exceptional individuals 84% of the wealthiest people come from among the 35% of the general population that has a college education, hardly a ringing indictment of the value of college.

05/06/2013 11:42 AM

Reply RT said...
Our education system has evolved into a socially driven means of shaping the culture. It is self-serving and self-promoting. Far too many students in college are socially aware but uneducated.
While as a career counselor I do encourage education, I always ask the basic question of what the person will get out of their education. For many it becomes obvious that while they believe they need to attend college to reach their goals, other methods may actually work better.
We need to look at our Community College, College, and University systems and ask if they are providing education or socialization.

05/07/2013 07:48 PM

Reply Danielle Rivers said...
Very effective things and essential idea you shared with us. I also like to read valuable article to get better knowledge, your article is one of them. Who provide us a some great information.

05/09/2013 01:00 AM

Reply Steve H. said...
You make several great points. If I did not know what I would get out of my education, I would not have had the light at the end of the tunnel to help me complete my education. Moreover, yes, we need to look at our Community College, College, and University systems and ask if they are providing education or socialization. However, I think we already know that most of them are far more concerned that their graduates are socially aware then they are that their graduates are educated in a manner that will be useful.

05/09/2013 02:12 PM

Reply J said...
That doesn't immediately lead me to believe that the reason they achieved success is because of the college education. It is likely they would have been able to do the same thing without ever getting the degree. I assume they simply felt pressured to do the norm when they were 18 years old and went to college because their parents told them to.

I also find it interesting that 3 of those 64 are (were, RIP Steve) among the wealthiest of the wealthiest individuals on that list. They had the guts to shun the norms and do what they wanted, and that's why they have achieved more than most on the list.

05/10/2013 08:00 AM

Reply CB lll said...
If we are limiting the value of a college education to the amount of money one earns we are disregarding so many aspects of what is means to have an education. Being educated means you have diverse perspectives, new ideas, challenging critical skills and so much that is not accounted for when you look at your paycheck alone. While money is important, education is not just about money, is about character, wisdom and understanding of how to earn the money in the first place.

05/10/2013 07:15 PM

Reply MSF said...
One can gain quite a bit from a college education. I am all for enabling a person to become a better human being, appreciate art and gain a better understanding of the world. However, it has become increasingly expensive to obtain bachelors and masters degrees. Many students have to go into debt (some time at en excessively high level) to get these degrees. There have been some examples documented by at least one media outlet where college graduates at the undergraduate and graduate level have not been able to get rewarding jobs that would enable them to pay off that debt. Is it worth it for a society to encourage people to incur a high debt load to obtain an expensive college education which provides no guarantee of gainful employment?

05/15/2013 04:07 PM

Reply Rudy Singh said...
If it were not for college I would be still digging ditches at 50. Yes, I found it necessary to pursue post graduate studies in order to achieve a "sucessful" career, but it was the experience and knowledge from both degrees that led to it. Nothing in life is ever wasted. Un beknownst to me, that "useless" 4 year degree that had me taking any job for 15 years, was preparing for a graduate degree that gave me freedom I never felt was possible. When one makes out well in life it is simply their good fortune. To think that education is solely for a job, is quite communist in thinking - surprising coming from those who have benefited so well from capitalism and the freedom this country has afforded them.

05/16/2013 12:31 PM

Reply EFitz said...
You know, one of the fallacies of so many arguments is that many individuals--often very exceptional ones--assume that what has worked for them will work for everyone else. I'm willing to bet that most of the entrepeneurs who struck it rich were united by a lot more than having dropped out of college. A number of them were brilliant, they had incredible drive, and the ability to pursue ideas and goals outside of any institutional or communal structure--all of which are highly unusual traits. They may also have had parents who could "float" them for a time when they were figuring themselves out.
At the same time, they live in a culture that accepts without question that "success" means being fabulously wealthy--whether or not a person is wise, scrupulous, kind, or makes a positive contribution to society. The money gives them an enormous ability to finance their visions; their success stamps them with credibility. I am grateful not everyone subscribes to this ethic, or we would have no teachers, no social workers, no police or fire fighters. Success can be measured in a lot of ways, and to hold up entrepeneurship as the only model is arrogant and dangerous.

I also want to add my voice to those asking whether being "prepared to go out into the world" should be so narrowly focused on vocational skills. Of course I want students to learn some things that they can truly use; that give them practical tools for real-world work. But I also want them to know something about the world they will be living in--what impacts they make on the environment, what other cultures and peoples they will interact with, how to make discerning judgments when they vote or serve on juries. People speak of the intangible qualities imparted by education as though they were luxuries graciously bestowed on students so that they can enjoy life as well-rounded people. Of course they do make life more enjoyable. But we should think of the benefits of education instead as the qualities the _society_ needs to cultivate in order to have a functioning democracy--one where you might _want_ to live and spend all that money in. I also want a world replete with artists, dancers, actors and writers--not one where so many squelch those gifts because the arts are scorned as "impractical luxuries." And should those artists and writers not be educated and know something about the world they portray? Don't they have some of the best gifts possible to imagine alternative visions of the world? to offer incisive social critique and the kind of work that stops us in awe and reminds us of what is really important?

05/22/2013 10:47 PM

Reply IRC said...
I definitely agree with the socialization part of our educational system....So we graduate from USC, Harvard, etc., I believe in "knocking out that interview" for the career you want, experience and who you know definitely plays a vital role of getting your desired outcome(goal) . The degree does create a networking family and truth being, an imbalance between experience and education-GO VOCATIONAL!

05/23/2013 02:30 PM

Reply Rob E said...
We don't train people well in the practical skills at any level. How many of today's young folk know how to balance a checkbook or how to keep track of ATM withdrawals so their checkbook will balance - and they won't run out of money? How many have learned home skills like basic maintenance and repair, shopping for a contractor, cooking (vs microwaving)? These can & should be taught in and out of secondary schools. That's life training - how to survive 101.

As for job training, there are many paths that work - reflecting the range of jobs as well as the personal preferences and skills of employees (future and present). One of the best ways to learn a job has been & continues to be - being employed. There one learns by experience, by spending time learning and doing, by working with the actual equipment, software, and tools (instead of the second-hand & frequently outdated technology available in our schools). On the job one can learn from mentors. It's how we used to do things, and even with modern technology it is probably the most "practical." But employers, especially larger ones, don't like having to pay for educating their employees. It takes away from the bottom line. So they are turning our schools and colleges into employment mills - that someone else has to pay for. In order to get a "good" job one is expected to go to a training ground college and go into enormous debt - keeping them in jobs that pay just enough to cover the debt and keeping them locked into the employers/industries that shirked their training roles in the first place. Modern version of owing your soul to the company store.

For one moment, though, let's look at education. E-D-U-C-A-T-I-O-N may occur anywhere and any time. It is not the exclusive product of colleges and universities, nor is it guaranteed to happen at such an institution. There are so many definitions of "education" but mine aligns pretty closely with Mr. Smoot's. "At its best, college teaches young people to think better, to know more about the world, to be better citizens, to appreciate the arts, to read great literature and poetry, to ponder more deeply what it means to be human, to develop some taste for the life of the mind, and to view the intellectual advances of the past two and a half millennia with awe and respect." (Except that college's role does not have to be limited to the young.) As a nation and a world we need citizens who are aware of their community and the context of our world. We need them to be able to think and to value each other. This is not the role of technical education or job training wherever it occurs. Learning to think, to share, to bring something of value about oneself to the discussion - that is something that can reasonably occur in a higher education setting. It gives people a start on a lifetime of being a member of the larger community. The value is in giving access to time and resources to help grow self- and other knowledge - for the sake of our lives, our souls, and our world. Pretty amazing.

05/24/2013 09:14 AM

Reply MSF said...
Many people have argued quite well that an education should not just be a training ground but a place to be a better human being who able to make a contribution to society. I am all for that. Why does it have to cost so much money to get this eductaion? Many people are being saddled with an enormous amount of debt that will be extremely difficult to payoff (if not impossible).

05/24/2013 03:55 PM

Reply Miss D said...
I am deeply concerned about this recent “college isn’t worth it” media blitz. To me, it smacks of more political right leaning propaganda and makes me question just “whose” interests they are serving because it is surely not the youth of America. I mean, has there been any other time in American history that our so-called leaders actually claim they want “dumber” citizens?

It brings to mind the late great George Carlin who said, “They want people who are just smart enough to run the machines and do the paperwork. And dumb enough to passively accept all the jobs with lower pay, longer hours, reduced benefits, no overtime and vanishing pension.” In short, “They don’t want well informed, well educated people capable of critical thinking.”

College is not for everyone to be sure—and not something to rush into either. Kids and their parents need to take a well-informed look at the all of the options before taking out gargantuan loans that bind you for life. But absolutely none of this means that an education is not valuable or that you shouldn’t borrow money to finance it; it just means you need to consider getting the best education you can AFFORD for what it is you want to DO.

05/27/2013 04:13 PM