Monday, February 22, 2016

Should College be a Job Training Camp? Can it be?

Most college educations do not prepare students very well for the job market, or even the realities of living as self-supporting adults.  Should college be more vocational?  Can it be?

One argument raised by lefties about the current college situation is that learning for learning's sake is a laudable goal, and that college should not be a vocational training camp.   There is a nugget of truth to this, as you never know in life what you will and won't need to know later in life, and thus learning things that don't directly seem applicable to your future is not a waste of time.

But the funny thing is, the same lefties who proclaim that college should be all about ivory tower study are the first to proclaim that studying math is pointless, as "you don't need to know this stuff in real life!"

But of course, the opposite it actually true.  Basic mathematics, and by that I mean fractions, percentages, algebra, geometry, trigonometry, statistics, and probability are something that everyone will need to know in life, as they will be confronted with financial (and political) questions throughout their lives that require them to know these basic concepts - if they are to succeed in life.   Similarly, a solid financial education is seldom taught in high school or college, and yet everyone needs to know this sort of thing if they are to succeed.

Sadly, these sorts of "hard" courses are often the first to be chucked in the name of "you don't need to know that in real life".   Meanwhile, the University requires everyone to take a course in diversity studies or gender equality.   And increasingly, the new "majors" offered at Universities are bordering on the bizarre.   I am not sure you need a college degree in "Queer studies" to really understand what it means to be gay - or that such a degree is going to help you at all in life.   But increasingly, more and more colleges are offering "soft" degrees like this, in feel-good studies that require little in the way of real hard work, and offer nothing in return to the student.

But getting back to the topic at hand, should colleges be vocational training grounds?   It is an interesting question and the history of colleges and universities is part of the equation.    When you graduate from college, you are expected to go and find a job, start your adult life, be self-supporting, and find a mate and settle down (or do whatever it is your life is to be about).  In that regard, college is the last thing you do in school before finding a job, so one would think it should at least prepare you in some regard for the world of employment. 

College is that final transition between the world of being some goofy teenager and being a responsible adult.   And a lot of young people struggle with this transition - it is a hard one.  It is the age where mental illnesses manifest themselves, in part, I believe, because kids struggle to make that change from snot-nosed high-school brat to young executive or businessperson.   Part of all of us says, "Gee, how could I ever do that?" - not realizing that everyone else has the same anxieties. 

College should be grooming you for a world where you are expected to show up on time, get your work done, and be respectful and yes, even obedient.  Maybe in the past, college taught this sort of thing - at least the part about showing up on time, doing your work, and whatnot - even if it didn't provide vo-tech training.

Today, however, it seems that college teaches anti-employment - that you are "entitled" to certain things in life, such as safe spaces and freedom from unwanted ideas or hurt feelings.   You are entitled to tap at your smart phone while the professor is teaching.   You have a right to a litany of things, which the college is obligated to provide.   But of course, you are paying the college and they are not paying you, so in a way this makes "sense", particularly today when a declining student body base means that everyone who applies can go to college, and moreover, the colleges have to attract people to stay in business.

Yes, let's talk about that.   Believe it or not, in not-too-distant past, if you didn't have good grades and good SAT scores, you couldn't go to college.   No college would take you, no matter how much money you had.   Well, if you Dad went to the school and endowed a new building, I suppose they might take you.  But some middle-class kid with shitty grades wasn't going to college, period.   It was kind of an exclusive thing.

That changed, starting in the 1960's.  Community colleges sprung up, which accepted just about everyone with a pulse and a checkbook.   When I was graduating from High School, I received an "acceptance" notice from the University of Miami.   It was an interesting letter, as I had never applied to that institution.   These "acceptance" letters back then were mass-mailed out to graduating seniors.   I hear they have changed their "admissions" policy (which back then was the same as the admissions policies on an airline - you pay, you get on the plane).   But it signaled that something new was happening to colleges.

No longer were colleges these sacrosanct institutes of "higher learning" but instead businesses that made money by putting butts in the seats and warm bodies in the dormitories.  Syracuse University, my alma mater is one of those schools where you can go if your grades are not the best, but your parents make a shitload of money.  Don't get me wrong, we had a lot of smart students there.  And a lot of dumb ones, too.   And that's why they were happy to give me a small scholarship when I got good grades - they needed to bring up the average a bit.

Today, this process has accelerated.  As I noted before, the demographics for colleges are frightening.   High School graduating classes are getting smaller, and yet college enrollments are up.  Colleges now compete with each other by building climbing walls in the student center or offering dorm room suites that rival hotels.   College has turned into a customer model and indeed, it has become more of an extended-stay four-year hotel than an institute of higher learning.

Many lefties lament that in the "olden days" a college degree was a guarantee of a good job, and yet today, it is a guarantee of nothing, other than a car-loan-sized debt.   But what the lefties are pining for is, of course, the golden age of elitism.   Yes, in the 1940's or 1950's you could get a degree in Liberal Arts and then get a good job in "business".    Back then, going to college, as I noted, meant you were unique.  It meant you had top grades and it meant you were smart.  Getting into college was hard, the studying was hard, graduating was hard.

It also meant you came from money, you were white (likely Protestant), you were male, and from a certain social class.  Yes, back then, the secret fraternity handshake did carry some meaning.   Social connections meant more back then, in an era when "white privilege" really and truly existed.

And in fact, our entire society was structured that way.   The sons (not daughters) of the ruling elite (again, white, mostly Protestant) went to college and became part of management of a company.   And the demarcation between management and labor was a hard line.   

The same was (and is) true for the military - although the racial and gender limits have been erased.   You got accepted to West Point, Annapolis, or the Air Force Academy, and if you graduated, you became an Officer, ready to lead men you've largely never met or mingled with.  And as in industry, often the men you were leading would have more experience than you did.  And of course, "fraternizing" with the elisited men is as frowned upon as is paling around with the hourly workers at the plant.

(And yes, it is possible to "work your way up through the ranks" of a corporation or the military and make that jump from hourly to salary, from enlisted to Officer, but you will always be marked as such and your career opportunities will be limited).

But a lot has changed since those days.  Maybe the military hasn't changed too much in that regard, but the old-school model of "being from the right family" and "getting a good (liberal arts) education" is no longer a recipe for success, but disaster.   And this is probably another aspect as to why many middle-class families are sliding down the economic ladder.  The rules have changed and no one told them about it.

Of course, you can look at this as a long-term trend.   Read any of the novels of Louis Auchincloss or The Magnificent Ambersons - all set at the turn of the Century (early 1900's) when a transition occurred between the "old money" families who largely inherited their wealth and the "new money" who made new fortunes in this new industrial age.   No one told the old money the rules had changed, and slowly, over generations, their wealth dissipated.

Similarly, today, the people making the new money in our economy are the ones who can latch onto this new era of technology and online living.   You needn't be a coder or a computer engineer, but you have to be able to go where the money is.  And the answers of the past are not working anymore.

But getting back to college as vocational training, should it be and can it be?   Clearly, something will be lost if we turn colleges into vocational training grounds - focused on particularly careers or jobs.   Not only that, colleges really can't provide job training as they really have no experience in the job world.   Your learned professor took a job at the University likely because he couldn't hack it in the real world.  Those who can't do, teach.

In Engineering school, we were told, they didn't try to teach us Engineering, but to think like an Engineer.   Few of my professors were actually practicing in their field, developing new designs or theories for semiconductor devices.  The few who were, struggled to find time to teach class and to do research.  It is nearly impossible to do both.   What they could do, is teach you the basics, teach you how to analyze things, and then send you out into the world to create the next generation of technology.

In a way, it is no different than English Lit.   The professor probably isn't writing the Next Great American Novel, but odds are someone in your class just might.   He can't tell you how to write that novel, only how to think like a writer.

In Law School, it was the same bit.   They couldn't teach us all the law on the books.   We had to learn that in practice - and make new law as part of our jobs.   Instead, they taught us how to think like lawyers and with that skill we would learn the job.

There are a few degrees in College, however, that lead directly to jobs with the same title.   Engineering, Law, Medicine, Nursing, and so forth, all lead to jobs with the same name.  And in most instances, these courses of study are either available with - or require - hands-on training in the corresponding field.

Other majors may have related jobs with similar names - but few of such jobs are available in the field, or if they are, they are academic in nature.  For example, if you are going to get a degree in "Anthropology" you aren't going to graduate and then put on an Indiana Jones hat and go to Borneo and study primitive cultures for National Geographic.   Well, a few might.  But colleges graduate more in the field than there are jobs.   Maybe a few more go on to graduate study and then become professors in the same field they studied in (and the circle is unbroken).  But most go on to do "other things" in life, and their college experience is, well, not worthless, but perhaps worth less.

And please, bear in mind that not all technical degrees are equivalent in value, in terms of the job market.  There are perfectly useless technical degrees that sound all science-y, but lead nowhere. An undergraduate degree in Physics, for example, really is of no use to the job-seeker.   No one is hiring a "Physicist" with just a B.S. in Physics.   With a graduate degree, you could become a Physics teacher (and the circle is unbroken) or if you went for a PhD, maybe you could become a researcher and work on the Large Hadron Collider or study the universe.   But a mere undergraduate degree is only a stepping-stone.

Similarly, an undergraduate degree in "Mathematics" is pretty worthless, but a graduate degree might get your foot in the door with the NSA or qualify you to teach (and there is a shortage of teachers in this area).

There is a difference between "research" and "Engineering" as the latter is usually applied to specific problem-solving studies and product design.   Time was, a lot of American companies had "research" divisions that did general (as opposed to applied) research.  When I worked at the Very Large Air Conditioning Company, we had a general research division, full of "egghead" PhD's who had very nice offices and laboratories where they would study whatever wild idea came into their head.   The idea was, maybe 1% of this would amount to anything, but that 1% could be the next revolution in technology.

That's all gone now - not a sign of increasing commercialism or anything like that, but a sign of the maturity of an industry where wild advances are replaced with incremental ones.  Also a sign that new advances come from outside sources and not so much of in-house research.   A friend of mine's Dad was one of the researchers there.  He was a bit of an eccentric, and I don't recall in his entire career that he invented anything of use to the company whatsoever.

But I digress, once again.

Getting back to the point, should colleges be vocational training centers?  A lot of lefties would argue that is "crass and commercial" and that college should impart wisdom and knowledge and not "how to" instructional videos.  And in part, I would have to agree with that.   Because as I noted above, you never know how what you learn will apply later in life.   I studied French in school.   One might argue that was a waste of time.   But it has come in handy on more than one occasion (for example, when visiting France) and also in understanding other languages (such as Spanish).   Maybe I didn't learn to speak French very well, but I learned more about language in the process, and yes, it enriched my life.

And that is another aspect of generalized learning.   When you study different things, you do learn what you are good at, what interests you and what you suck at and what you hate.   I love music, but I don't have the natural talent for it or the patience to practice an instrument.   That didn't stop me from studying two instruments and torturing some young music teachers.   Learning for learning's sake can be useful if it tells you not only what you are good at, but what you are bad at.   Learning for the sake of fun, on the other hand, is probably not as useful.

Sadly, Language, like Math, is one of those things that is more and more "optional" on the high school and college curriculum.   I recently had dinner with some nice folks from Italy and Sweden.   They both spoke at least three languages (including English, very well).   And we talked about why Americans can barely speak their own.  To them, we appear to be morons, which puzzles them, as after all, our country is such an economic powerhouse.  How did the idiots end up running the planet?   The whole Trump thing has them flummoxed.

And maybe right there is the answer.   We can't change Colleges and Universities.  The Dean is more concerned about appeasing the BLM folks so he doesn't lose his job.  He wants his perks and retirement and to hang on for a few more years until he can pull the ripcord on the golden parachute.  Not much will change.  The schools will continue to pander to the students and a college degree will be worth less and less.

But as a student, you still have some choices - which school to go to, what to study, what courses to take.  It is a cafeteria of knowledge, and you can fill up with cheap starches (as my brother did, taking "gut" courses in movie-watching) or you can go for something more nutritious - which does not necessarily mean an all-protein diet, either.   Acquire skills, as well as knowledge.   If you are not a science whiz, maybe learn a language (the CIA is always looking for people who speak Arabic or Russian).   Get into a work-study course, where you work in "the real world" as well as in the classroom.   These programs exist.  And oddly enough, they often have spots that are unfilled for lack of applicants.

Because, let's face it.   It is a helluva lot more fun to go to "Sociology" class than "Electromagnetics".  One requires you show up and bullshit for an hour.  The other requires mind-bending hours of homework.

In the end analysis, college is still what you make of it.  It all comes down to choices that you make.