Skill Sets for Hire

“In a culture of disrespect, education suffers the worst possible fate—it becomes banal. When nothing is sacred, deemed worthy of respect, banality is the best we can do.” — Parker Palmer, The Courage to Teach

I stumbled across a blog this week by an investment advisor, Mike Shedlock, entitled “Mish’s Global Economic Trend Analysis.” He had written a post which revealed that for the first time ever a majority of the unemployed have some college education. Shedlock called the price of an education preposterous and gave us five solutions to dramatically lower the cost. These included killing the student loan program, cutting all state aid to colleges, increasing competition by accrediting more online universities, and busting the teachers union once for all. But the one that really caught my eye was this:

“High school counselors and parents must educate kids that there simply are no realistic chances for those graduating with degrees in political science, history, English, art, and literally dozens of other useless or nearly-useless majors.”

After I stopped fuming and running through a long list of ad hominem arguments against this blinkered Philistine, I tried soberly, reflectively, and sympathetically to think like him. I didn’t get very far. As far as I can see he believes in education solely for its instrumental value in getting a job. After that. . . .what? But education and learning are as different as a job and a vocation. 

I’ll give him this: the cost of education is scandalous, no question about it. The value of a college education these days is certainly disputable, and the efficacy of four to six years of the college experience toward getting a job is harder and harder to justify. But I balk at eliminating most majors in the humanities and social sciences. Simply because they may not score a direct line between subject and object is no reason to dump them. More often than not they become portals to many other opportunities.

I’ve often told my students that the grand purpose of college is to learn how to learn. Content and subject matter is certainly important, but what matters more is the ability to take in new information and make something of it. That’s what we should be teaching as students are learning English, history, art, political science, biology, accounting, and philosophy. Any of those subjects affords us the possibility of learning what it means to be human, how to adapt to changing circumstances and what to live for. Do they lead to jobs? Of course they do. Nothing we learn is wasted if we know how to use what we’ve learned. 

But people like Shedlock are hammers looking for nails; they seem to believe that if you’re not supplying then the only alternative is to demand. And the Demanders, as we’ve so clearly seen recently, are the losers, the muppets, the dimwits who deserve to be ripped off by the smartest guys in the room.

Trying to imagine a curriculum built around Shedlock’s restrictions all I could come up with was math, science, and business. Those would be the majors that would lead to jobs in health care, industry, investment banking, and insurance. Since there would be no community colleges there wouldn’t be computer technicians, security or law enforcement, paramedics, plumbers, carpenters, electricians, nurses or cyber-security. State universities, many of them major research centers, would wither away, taking with them a plethora of important and necessary disciplines. And of course, there would be no designers, advertisers, or journalists. 

But there could be doctors trained online by the University of Phoenix or physicists with certificates from one of the many Massive Online Open Courses (MOOCs) recently touted by Thomas Friedman in The New York TImes, a scenario in which 100,000 students take a course from, say, Stanford or an accredited for-profit university based in the Cayman Islands. Multiple-choice software-graded exams do the heavy lifting and students around the world can help each other when the teacher is asleep. 

I’m still trying to figure all this out. I have no doubt that online universities will continue to have an important place in the education of millions. They may even come to be the norm. And the industry that is Higher Education will need to re-vision its mission for learning instead of trying to become the Disneyland of Skill-Set Training. Above all, we need to remember that the unexamined life, as Socrates said, is not worth living. According to some, those who examine life are not worth hiring.

3 thoughts on “Skill Sets for Hire

  1. I agree that higher education is very expensive and I also agree that learning is about how to learn among other things. Humanities and social sciences are very important and as important as engineering (engineers have been unemployed at every downturn) or medicine or the other applied sciences. A college education should produce cultured free thinking individuals, who are needed to fulfil all the jobs that do not require science, maths and business or a vocational and technical education. The labour market has always been cyclical and enrolment in majors have lagged behind that cycle.
    Parents need to be educated to raise children that can cope with the competitive environment of this decade and the decades to come, not on the technical aspect but the moral issues facing them.

  2. OUssama, I agree, and I'd add that chasing the labor market cycle can be disastrous for universities, since it takes so long to set up a degree program and get it running. That's another reason why the humanities are needed because they cost little in overhead, they can adapt students to changing times, and they provide the insights for making decisions in life.

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