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Is Education a Waste of Time and Money?*

Those of us in higher education have become used to criticisms of our work.  Recent polls have shown decreasing public confidence in the value of education and even the recent tax reform bill had provisions that were implicitly critical of higher education.  But some of the recent criticism comes from a surprising source: inside the academy itself.

Bryan Caplan, a George Mason University economist, has written a book whose title succinctly describes his criticism: The Case Against Education: Why the Education System is a Waste of Time and Money.

This criticism is particularly surprising coming from an economist because one of the most robust research results in economics is the positive impact education has on earnings for individuals and on GDP growth for countries.  (See here  and here  and here)

Caplan’s basic argument is that a college degree serves primarily as a signal to employers of the types of traits a potential employee will bring, such as “brains, work ethic and conformity,” rather than providing any real skills that will be useful on the job.  Caplan writes that, “the only marketable skill I teach is ‘how to be an economics professor’.” In short, Caplan believes there in little value added in higher education.

Caplan starts from a pessimistic and ungenerous premise about students.  “Most kids are philistines—they are that way deep in their souls.”  Therefore, he asserts, education is wasted on them.

While not every 18 year old is worldly and cultured when they enter college, surely they should be allowed the scope to grow and develop intellectually, emotionally and spiritually.  Education is all about hope and possibilities.  The transition from childhood to adulthood is a powerful and important time in the lives of most people, and a four-year college experience is often an important part of that transformation for young people.

This lack of confidence in education also comes from Caplan’s view of education as a rote process.  He says, “Most of the stuff [students learn], right after the final exam, they’ll never need to know again.”  Needless-to-say, this is not how most faculty approach their subjects or their interactions with students.  While students invariably forget specific details from courses, most faculty would argue that education changes the habits of mind and skills of students. Education can improve critical thinking skills and research skills, as well as writing and communication skills – all widely applicable in the job market and providing a payoff over a lifetime.

Caplan focuses almost exclusively on what happens between the professor and student while paying little attention to the significant learning that takes place outside the classroom.  Athletes, student journalists, musicians, student senators and volunteers all gain valuable skills through their extracurricular activities.  Furthermore, the informal interactions in residential settings also provide students with opportunities to learn from peers who have had other kinds of experiences or upbringings or hold different worldviews.  The ability to listen and learn from others clearly benefits both the individual and ultimately society as a whole.

Are we in higher education successful in transforming all students equally?  Of course not.  Could we improve our teaching and add more value?  Certainly.  But to suggest that the whole educational enterprise is just a charade, that clever students “go through the motions” and cynical faculty play along simply to signal job readiness to narrowly self-interested employers is an assessment that is deeply at odds with the experience of most educators and students I know.

I suspect that most students with college-educated parents will pay little attention to criticism such as Caplan’s, having experienced within their families an educational reality that is rather different from what he describes.

I worry most about another group who may hear criticisms such as Caplan’s. He sends exactly the wrong message to those students and families who have not had the experience of college in their past.   For students who are capable and ambitious, not attending a four-year college prevents them from achieving the well-documented economic benefits that accrue to degree holders over their lifetimes, to say nothing of the many other personal benefits of higher education.

Caplan’s general thesis is certainly a view to be considered and some of his criticisms are fair, but I trust an application of sound critical thinking and some informed research will persuade students and their parents that a college degree is still an exceptional investment.

*A version of this post was published in the St. Cloud Times on February 25, 2018.

Reflections on a Liberal Arts Education: Part III

What Google Learned

Among the tech companies, Google is probably the most famous for its rigorous hiring process.  As Cathy Davidson, the author of The New Education: How to Revolutionize the University to Prepare Students for a World in Flux, writes:

Sergey Brin and Larry Page, both brilliant computer scientists, founded their company on the conviction that only technologists can understand technology. Google originally set its hiring algorithms to sort for computer science students with top grades from elite science universities.

Obviously this algorithm would fill Google with STEM graduates at the entry level and presumably those employees would eventually become the successful mid level and top management in the organization.

True to its DNA, Google decided to use data to analyze how well its hiring algorithm was at producing successful employees.  Davidson writes:

In 2013, Google decided to test its hiring hypothesis by crunching every bit and byte of hiring, firing, and promotion data accumulated since the company’s incorporation in 1998. Project Oxygen shocked everyone by concluding that, among the eight most important qualities of Google’s top employees, STEM expertise comes in dead last. The seven top characteristics of success at Google are all soft skills: being a good coach; communicating and listening well; possessing insights into others (including others with different values and points of view); having empathy toward and being supportive of one’s colleagues; being a good critical thinker and problem solver; and being able to make connections across complex ideas.

This list is very much like the skills and experiences that are touted by residential liberal arts colleges: critical thinking, communication, living and learning in a diverse community, and synthesizing ideas. I’d also note that some of the Benedictine values we emphasize at Saint John’s University and the College of Saint Benedict map nicely onto this list: respect for individuals, hospitality and the importance of community.

Google did further research in 2017, employing anthropologists and ethnographers, and found further support for the importance of soft skills:

Project Aristotle analyzes data on inventive and productive teams. Google takes pride in its A-teams, assembled with top scientists, each with the most specialized knowledge and able to throw down one cutting-edge idea after another. Its data analysis revealed, however, that the company’s most important and productive new ideas come from B-teams comprised of employees who don’t always have to be the smartest people in the room.

Project Aristotle shows that the best teams at Google exhibit a range of soft skills: equality, generosity, curiosity toward the ideas of your teammates, empathy, and emotional intelligence. And topping the list: emotional safety. No bullying. To succeed, each and every team member must feel confident speaking up and making mistakes. They must know they are being heard.

As a result of its research Google has broadened its hiring model with the goal of including humanities majors, artists, and even MBAs, candidates that the STEM-heavy organization had previously viewed with skepticism, at best.

None of this is particularly surprising for fans of the liberal arts.  The philosophy behind a broad based curriculum emphasizing exploration of the humanities, arts, natural sciences and social sciences is that such an education both makes students more successful in their major field of study and better prepares them for the diverse and changing world they will live in.

What Google’s research suggests is that even technology and science companies that embrace the liberal arts find themselves more successful and better at understanding the needs of their customers and the changing marketplace.

This worldview is shared by another highly successful tech company that is a neighbor of Google’s in Silicon Valley.  Steve Jobs famously said of his company, “It’s in Apple’s DNA that technology alone is not enough — it’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the results that make our heart sing.”

Reflections on a Liberal Arts Education: Part II

Technology and the Liberal Arts

Technology and the liberal arts are sometimes characterized as being at odds with one another.  (Though, of course, the liberal arts are more accurately called the liberal arts and sciences.)

STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and math) are often touted for their practical, vocational opportunities while the liberal arts, especially the humanities, are often caricatured for their supposed lack of applicability.  “What are you going to do with a degree in philosophy, English, art history……?”  (See here , here , here and here )

Such simplistic characterizations of STEM or the liberal arts are neither realistic or helpful when thinking about education either for individuals or society.  A well-educated person needs to know something about both sciences and the humanities, almost regardless of their vocational choice.  Society and the economy obviously benefit from all fields of knowledge and, maybe most importantly, from the interactions between fields.

I was reminded of this important point, among others, when reading The Innovators by Walter Issacson, a fascinating history of the digital revolution from Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace to Steve Jobs and Google.  (Issacson also wrote a recent biography of Jobs.)

At first blush, the digital revolution might seem to be all about STEM, but Issacson’s thoughtful and “tenderhearted history”  draws some important lessons that are relevant for students and educators across all fields.

First, throughout the book Issacson considers the relative importance of lone wolf inventors/geniuses versus collaborations and teams in bringing about the digital revolution, and he comes down firmly on the side of the latter.

First and foremost…creativity is a collaborative process.  Innovation comes from teams more often than from the lightbulb moments of lone geniuses.  This is true of every era of creative ferment.

Furthermore, Issacson writes:

The digital age may seem revolutionary, but it was based on expanding the ideas handed down from previous generations.  The collaborations were not merely among contemporaries but also between generations.  The best innovators were those who understood the trajectory of technological change and took the baton from innovators who preceded them….The most productive teams brought together people with a wide array of specialties.

Second, Issacson also makes an interesting observation about how collaborations best succeed:

Even though the Internet provided a tool for virtual and distant collaborations, another lesson of the digital-age innovations is that, now as in the past, physical proximity is beneficial.  There is something special…about meetings in the flesh that cannot be replicated digitally.

A lesson that residential educational institutions live out every day, with students working and playing together.

Finally, Issacson concludes with the most important lesson of the digital revolution: even as computing machines get faster, more versatile and increasingly powerful, people bring an irreplaceable element to the human-machine symbiosis. Quoting IBM research director John Kelly, “The machines will be more rational and analytical.  People will provide judgment, intuition, empathy, a moral compass, and human creativity.”

Humans think different.  Issacson writes:

Human creativity involves values, intentions, aesthetic judgments, emotions personal consciousness, and a moral sense.  These are what the arts and humanities teach us—and why those realms are as valuable a part of education as science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.  If we mortals are to uphold our end of the human-computer symbiosis, if we are to retain a role as the creative partners of our machines, we must continue to nurture the wellsprings of our imagination and originality and humanity.

In 1959,  English novelist and chemist C. P. Snow famously wrote of the divide between “Two Cultures,” the arts and the sciences. Issacson’s powerful history of the digital revolution reminds us of the continuing need to link those two areas of intellectual endeavor for the thriving of individuals and the betterment of society, which is what a great liberal arts education is all about.

By |February 2nd, 2018|Categories: Higher Education|0 Comments