Posted by: bkivey | 15 June 2010

“We Don’t Need No Education. . .”

In the Sunday paper of 13 June the lead story concerned the struggles recent college graduates are having in obtaining employment commensurate with their educations and debt. The poster child for this story is a young woman who finished school in three years (entirely possible in the quarter system) and who completed two majors and two minors in that time. That’s an impressive amount of work. If I was going to work that hard (and I did) I’d want some marketable skills when I got out. This young woman spent three intensive years and, I would guess, amassed a fair amount of debt studying  . . . International Studies and Sociology with minors in Nonprofit Administration and African Studies. Hmmm. It is axiomatic that if one wants gainful employment one does not pursue majors with the word ‘Studies’ in them. Nor does one expect to obtain employment in a ‘soft science’ like sociology or psychology without an advanced degree. If I were an employer I would look at that resume and think that this person doesn’t actually know how to do anything that’s going to make money.

The story says that she “. . .took challenging courses.” A person from a technical background might be forgiven for looking at her majors and thinking “Like what?” In fairness I looked up the International Studies major at her alma mater, the University of Oregon. Like a Sociology major, International Studies consists of a small number of core courses and a lot of electives, none of which appear to be overly difficult. One of the electives is Grant Writing, which, to judge from the local Craigslist, is a skill much in demand in Portland. So there’s that.

One telling bit of evidence that argues against the rigor of her chosen courses of study is the business courses offered, as electives, are not open to Business and Accounting majors. I suspect that is because they are not rigorous enough, and I base that suspicion on an experience I had in school when I was pursuing a math minor. At the time one needed 15 hours of upper division math courses for the minor and there was a 300-level course offered in the College of Education for teachers. I was assured by those who had taken the course that if I had already completed the engineering math sequence I could pass the course with my eyes closed and get an easy three hours toward the math minor. The College of Science closed that loophole before I could take advantage of it precisely because the course lacked rigor. So I was forced to spend another three hours developing proofs and probably better off for it.

The article does list the majors that are finding employment and they’re pretty much the ones that always show up on lists of employable graduates: Accounting, Business, Computer Science, Engineering, and Mathematics. The fact is that except in the best of economies one needs to have some skills that employers can use to make money. Although it might offend the sensibilities of some, employers aren’t looking for people who can discuss the relative merits of social theories, they’re looking for people who can enhance the bottom line. It is far better to get an education that one might not be entirely passionate about but does allow one to gain employment than to pursue a passion that will allow one to be passionate between shifts at a minimum-wage job. You can always go back to school.

And you don’t even have to go to a four-year college. It is one of the mysteries of American society to me that we so undervalue the trades. In the time it takes for the average 18-year old to complete a college degree, that same person can go to trade school and be well on their way to journeyman status, if not through the apprenticeship entirely. At that time they will be making money that is usually at least as good and very likely better than they would be making as a newly-minted college graduate. There is something very satisfying about taking a bunch of parts or raw material and turning it into something useful, and those jobs aren’t going to China. Again, one can always go back to school. I took that route and at least two of my college professors worked their way through their undergraduate degree on the 8-year plan as tradesmen.

There are very few professions that have a ticking clock: mathematics is one, theoretical science another, music possibly a third. In almost every other profession the quality of work is little affected whether one starts at 22 or 32, and a good argument can be made that it is enhanced when starting later. During my time in school I met a few young people who knew exactly what they wanted to do and were well on their way to doing it. That’s great. But I met many more people who had no clue what they were doing and were only in school because they didn’t know what else to do. I don’t think the “Go to college” mantra serves most folks especially well. College campuses aren’t going anywhere. Perhaps as a society we need to assure young people that options like trade school and the military are at least as valid as spending more time in a classroom.


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