December 21, 2004

Let Them Eat Sheepskin

I have a number of friends who went to Ivy League schoolsFrom an early age, they knew to play up to their teachers; they knew in the third grade that those little "A" and "B" tokens on their report cards were what really mattered in life.

And I periodically get into discussions about education, including my belief that too much of American secondary education is focused on the "college track". In American high schools, it's the college-bound kids that are considered the success stories. And in many cases, they are - which has the unfortunate effect of creating huge meta-clicque, with the establishment favoring the kids who are pursuing the college path (which, indeed, was the path chosen by most of their teachers, most of whom will have to maintain the motivation to get a Masters degree during their careers.

"So what about the kid who has a genius for working with his hands? The kid who doesn't care, for the moment, about polishing the teacher's apple, but loves tearing down engines or building things? The kid who has a talent for taking care of people, doing daycare, cooking great food - things that are noble, useful, needed skills that demand people with drive and passion, but don't require a college degree? Why should we look at at their not joining the paper chase as a "failure"?

My Ivy Leaguer friends look at me with the look a steer gets when you whack it on the noggin. "But if you don't drive them toward college, you're in effect discriminating against them". Er, no, you're just not setting up the college path as the best path there is. That's it.

They look at me like I'm wearing a pointy hood.

Matt Yglesias - a Hahvahd guy - riffs on a David Adesnik post on the subject.

The piece, called,
College For Everyone, starts:

David Adesnik asks an interesting question -- what if we did something good and liberal and made obtaining a college degree near-universal? By and large, I think this would be an excellent thing for many of the reasons David cites. This would have a dynamic effect on the sort of jobs that exist in America and allow a larger proportion of the population to have better jobs. Still, it's worth noting that there are certain sorts of non-tradable unskilled jobs that would have to get done anyway. You can't outsource janitors or construction workers or landscaping, etc. Now in the context of a workforce that was, on the whole, extremely well-educated and productive these jobs might just become higher paying.
The problem being that if you jam someone who's primarily a "doer" rather than a "thinker" or, as often as not, a "paperwork and process maven", and jam them into college, they are not going to be especially well-educated or productive - any more than if you put Matthew Yglesias, Hahvahd graduate, into chef school and told him that no other path through life was of as much value.


On the other hand, you might have a replay of the European situation where rising productivity (and a robust welfare state) made it hard to find people willing to do these jobs for the customary low wages, and instead of paying higher wages the governments chose to simply import unskilled labor.
Yglesias exhibits a conceit that he shared with my other Ivy-league friends; the idea that all jobs you don't get into from the college track are all basically the same.

And we all know college graduates in Psychology or less-vital Humanities who are working at Blockbuster, and who ten years after college are busy selling shoes; you might not know the people who went to work, or to vocational school and are making more money than the bottom 40% of lawyers, working as airline mechanics - or the ones who earn perfectly fine, sometimes excellent, livings as LPNs, daycare providers, carpenters, chefs, mechanics and a zillion other things that can't, and won't, be shipped overseas anytime soon.

That would be okay, too, from my perspective. It's often not realized, but allowing immigrants into the developed world to work for what are low waged by developed standards but high ones by developing world standards is one of the more effective ways to ameliorate global poverty. But if immigration to the US were to rise substantially in this way, there might be increasing pressure to do what Europe did and turn the immigrants into a helot class of "guest workers" rather than full-fledged citizens-to-be. That, in turn, could have many of the bad consequences we've seen from Europe's illiberal immigration regime.
Right. Which means the "Educated" class in this country needs to learn that "Lack of a degree" means neither "uneducated" nor "Helpless in today's economy".
The other thing to note about education, of course, is that while upgrading the workforce does excellent things to improve the economic outlook for future people it does almost nothing -- indeed, can in some ways be harmful -- to current adults. When Bush answersed outsourcing questions during the debates with reference to the need for better education, he was sketching an appropriate policy response for the long term, but being completely insensitive to the problems these dislocations cause for people who face economic distress right now. To some extent, there's less you can do for currently-existing people than for hypothetical future-people, but that's not an appropriate excuse for doing nothing.
But is college better than nothing? Certainly if you're wired that way, and if your passions and interests and curiousity drive you toward the academic life (to the extent that college is, in most places, still academic), but that accounts for about half the popularion.

We need to:

  1. De-stigmatize vocational education, apprenticeship, and on-the-job training for non-academic-track careers in the eyes of the educational establishment
  2. Encourage more of our society to seek further development of everything that makes them a person - their minds, their skills, and whatever it is that drives them and, incidentally, puts food on the table and pays the rent.
  3. Make primary and secondary education better; there's no reason that people shouldn't know what they need to be good, productive citizens, whatever their vocational choice, well before they graduate from high school.
College is a fine thing; I graduated from one. Are my friends who went through vo-ed and now work as plumbers and policemen any less important than the Harvard poli-sci grad? To say the least, no.

More kids need to know that.

Posted by Mitch at December 21, 2004 02:08 PM | TrackBack

I feel I should point out that, at least in Minnesota, police officers trained here require four years of college education combined with two years of skills training. Granted, officers can still come from out of state and take reciprocity exams, but if you're training in Minnesota, you're getting some of the most rigorous training in the nation.

Posted by: Ryan at December 21, 2004 02:46 PM

Here is the crux of the matter; most of the college education you get is an instruction in thought method. Sure, for some sciences such as medicine, you get gross anatomy and such. I have known a great number of people who found college not to their liking and have struck off on their own. They needed no refinement to their thought processes. My Mother for instance. She left college to raise some hellion children for 20 years. Now, she is back in the public sector as a VP of Trust Funds in a bank. Did her two years of biology schooling get her there. Not likely.

Posted by: mdmhvonpa at December 21, 2004 03:01 PM

Couple things: First off, my 27 yr old son is a Deputy Sheriff having started out as a Police Officer here in Minnesota-born and bred. He went to two years at a Tech School and 3 months Skills Training. His job consists of things none of us want to know about let alone be confronted with day after day. Of course, I think he's a hero!

Secondly, I have a grandson (7 years old) who fits the description Mitch started out with...a doer, a kid who can work with his hands. He is growing up on a farm in ND and what that kid can't do with machinery and the like from since he was two years old....but, reading? Like pulling teeth. My daughter homeschools this year mostly because the school seems unable to accept the fact that not everyone is the same. He is learning to read, but not at the same pace. Are there kids in the class who could wield a Phillips-head screwdriver at 18 months? Bet not. But, they can read better and so they MUST be better human beings. It's very frustrating.

Also, I see college graduates that can't spell their way out of a paper bag (some of them are teachers...good God...)...have no idea where some countries and even states are located on a map. What the hell were they learning for 16 years?!!

Thanks for this wonderful post Mitch. It resonates!

Posted by: Colleen at December 21, 2004 06:19 PM

You raise so many questions, one being, why do so many jobs want that sheepskin? Do elementary school teachers really need a degree, for example? Why can't they be apprenticed like other professions, weeding out those that truly aren't cut out for the job?

Posted by: R-Five at December 21, 2004 09:56 PM

I'm a retired physician. I have a story for anyone who expresses less than complete respect for non-degreed lines of work, I think I picked it up somewhere on the net or in a magazine:
A doctor had a plumbing emergency at his home in the middle of the night on a holiday weekend. Somehow he was able to contact a plumber who agreed to pay a emergency house call. The plumber showed up, twisted a wrench, and fixed the doctor's problem, all in 5 minutes. He then stated his bill, $120. The doctor protested, saying, "I don't charge my patients anywhere near that, and I'm a doctor!"
The plumber calmly replied, "I didn't charge my patients that much when I was a doctor, either."

Posted by: tresho at December 22, 2004 05:15 AM

Good Subject....Mitch.

I have always noted the snob appeal of a college education by the upper classes, but see a lot of them, so to speak, pumping gas....

I have only had high school and some of the trades and own my truck, house and looking for more farmland to buy while the college-educated types go off to a the south of France or The Village so they can hear their boho jazz or art, live off their trust fund, and become perpetual students.

Give me a beer drinking mechanic or a man with a mind to do things everytime.

Farmers, laborers, craftsman, the people that do things are the REAL America (probably the Red America, also).

Posted by: Greg at December 22, 2004 08:32 AM

Now, I want to make sure I put a few more things out there. For some people, college IS a great thing. And college returns some benefits; college graduates tend to spend less time unemployed. And for others, college is something that fascinates them later in life.

I graduated from college. Doubt I'd want to have done anything different (although I frequently wish I'd have gone to college elsewhere - but that's another post).

There are plenty of great red-staters and conservatives that have PhDs in comparative literature (well, a few anyway); lots of liberals work as mechanics. But the point is, I think it's the left, especially the part of the left that works in the educational academy (as well as ivy-leaguers like Yglesias) that think college is an early-life pass-fail marker for measuring if one's life is worthwhile.

Posted by: mitch at December 22, 2004 09:04 AM


Give the kid some assembly manuals, and he'll learn to read. Or probably better, books on how things airplanes and bridges are built or invented. He'll problably out pace his peers in no time, if he is reading what interests him instead of what teachers want to cram in him.
(I have a nephew like this).

[i]most of the college education you get is an instruction in thought method[/i]

I disagree, knowing how to learn and think is essential for a college education. But you won't learn those things there. you had better come prepared with that skill or pick it up fast. That is what happened my first two years of college.

Posted by: rick at December 22, 2004 09:27 AM


Give the kid some assembly manuals, and he'll learn to read. Or probably better, books on how things airplanes and bridges are built or invented. He'll problably out pace his peers in no time, if he is reading what interests him instead of what teachers want to cram in him.
(I have a nephew like this).

[i]most of the college education you get is an instruction in thought method[/i]

I disagree, knowing how to learn and think is essential for a college education. But you won't learn those things there. you had better come prepared with that skill or pick it up fast. That is what happened my first two years of college.

Posted by: rick at December 22, 2004 09:27 AM

From an early age kids are labeled as Gifted & Talented, or as Everyone Else. GT kids grow up equating good grades and behavior in school as success, and as predictive of future success. For some professions this is true: Law, Medicine, etc. For these folks good performance in school often translates to future professional success. For others, the opposite is true. After 20 years in school as a top performer they find themselves ill-equipped for the real world where rewards are given for doing rather than thinking.
How many of our most successful people dropped out of school at some point?
I sincerely believe that my success in playing the game of school hindered my progress post-school -- and that now at the age of 38 and after a hard-knock apprenticeship I finally have reach the level I should have years ago. I first had to shed the sense of entitlement of a 'good' education. Hey world, it's me, Mr. A student! Reward me, not the guy who dropped out (but worked his ass off while I was playing drinking games at school)!
Mitch is right. Kids need to be told that there are many paths to success, and many types of success... and that all require more hard work than book learnin'.
My kids have many years to go until they reach college age. But at that point I'd love to see them take a few years first and wait until they have a clear idea of why they are going and what they are trying to accomplish before starting.

Posted by: chriss at December 22, 2004 11:22 AM

One of the interesting things to me is how many jobs nowadays require a bachelor's degree for the candidate to even be considered--no matter what his experience may be. I found it surprising that one of the comments featured a woman with no degree who had risen to a VP slot in a bank.

I'm on the search committee for an executive director job with a non-profit agency. She wouldn't have made the first cut in our screening--because she had no degree.

So tell your kids: a bachelor's degree is the admission ticket that gets you in the door. The rest is up to you.

Posted by: M. G. at December 22, 2004 02:20 PM


As you said, "a bachelor's degree is the admission ticket that gets you in the door." While this is probably correct for executive, "white collar" types of jobs, is a plumbing company going to hire a plumber with four years of experience in plumbing or someone with no experience in plumbing but a B.A. in History? Maybe the history degree would make a good advertising manager (or whatever) for that company, if that's the type of job you want, but there are also those that prefer to work with their hands doing physical and real things rather than with ideas, paper, and numbers - those of us that would rather wear jeans and a t-shirt to work rather than business casual. Dependant upon what field he/she is in, a college grad will possibly have a higher lifetime earning potential than a non-college grad, but personally, I would rather not work behind a desk, in an office, in a nice "comfortable" room. So why spend $50,000 on college so that I can do something I don't really want to do? So that I have the potential of earning more money?

Basically what I'm trying to say is that a college degree doesn't necessarily open up ALL doors to you. It may open quite a few, but there are still quite a few locked up.

Posted by: Jason at July 6, 2006 04:58 PM
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