Thursday, August 11, 2005

The Value of a College Education

Noting the journalistic success of the late Peter Jennings in spite of having had no college education, Ronni Bennet (Time Goes By) discusses a “college bias” that exists in America today and is feeding an attitude of ageism that prevails in current U.S. hiring practices of qualifying or disqualifying job candidates on whether or not they have completed a college education – a practice that, of course, naturally slants in favor of the young.

She writes:

Again and again, during this last year of job hunting, one of the first questions I was asked was which college I attended and the conversation ended abruptly - "we only hire college graduates" - when I told them I have no degree.

This is a mistake of magnificent proportions. Don’t get me wrong. There are some career specialties where college and graduate degrees are essential. Medicine comes to mind. Rocket science. The law. Engineering. I’m not so sure about computer science; kids seem to absorb that in the cradle these days, but I could be wrong.

What I am not wrong about is that 50 years ago, a high school education was at least the equivalent of a bachelor’s degree today. …. Yes, I understand that the amount of knowledge has increased exponentially since then and even without the decline in educational standards, young people would probably need another four years of study today to be ready for the real world. But that requirement cannot and should not be applied to older workers.

Ronni goes on to indict the arbitrariness of human resource departments, a relative lack of awareness for the history of education in the U.S., and a culture steeped in ageism for the injustice of denying (college and/or job) credit for non-academic learning to those who have in other ways established themselves with expertise of various kinds.

I agree that non-academic learning receives less credit than it might rightfully be given, and I celebrate those institutions where efforts are being made to correct that oversight, awarding credit – however little – for learning done outside the academy. I agree, too, that it is a mistake (though I think “magnificent” somewhat overstated) to disparage the value of aging/aged workers or, for that matter, to dismiss any worker out of hand simply for the lack of a degree. I know Ronni is right on point in arguing for resistance to ageism in any form anywhere, and I applaud her efforts in this campaign, but I take issue with what I see as an underlying contention in her discussion of “degree bias.”

When it comes to a college education, it isn’t just that “the amount of knowledge has increased exponentially” in the last fifty years, it is that knowledge has become unmoored from a stable sense of knowing. Put another way, knowledge is “on the move,” and the pace is increasing at the speed of digitality. An education today – a good education – is less about the know what and more – much more – about the know where, know how, and emerging networks of knowing, all this with the understanding that knowledge itself “moves.” The difficulty for every learner is in coming to terms with the inevitable and undeniable movement of knowledge in such a way as to come to see that investments made into previously stable values must increasingly be updated (put in motion) in order to maintain/establish “value added” in the network age.

Will this be true in all cases? No. Times and measures of time sweep with a broad brush; there are always exceptions, but the value of a college degree today is fast becoming the measure, not of knowledge, but of a willingness to be conditioned for a global community/workforce, “rewired” to function on increasingly more intense frequencies of knowledge that are infinitely data-divisible and consequently endlessly expansive. Any desire to preserve the value of previous investments is natural, understandable, and a real force in the economic well being of a nation, but the pace of cutting-edge-innovation is what defines and secures the American “dream machine,” and the pace of information is picking up as the world flattens.

In a week and a half I will begin my third year of doctoral study at Purdue University. The work is overwhelmingly challenging. I came into this venture with the capital of a full and successful career in teaching, and I’ll tell you plainly: I have never worked so hard in my life as I have to work in progressing through this degree. Are there those around me who invest less in their efforts to complete the work? Oh, yes, but that can be said of any endeavor, right? What I know of my colleagues, my fellow students, and my instructors – those delivering college educations – is that they are genuinely invested in the strength of their scholarship, the success of their students, and the responsibility they know themselves to bear in safeguarding and prospering the intellectual wealth of a nation.

Do they know more than an “unlettered” yet conscientiously self-taught person? I have not met one person among them who would say she does. Are they smarter than their friends and neighbors? Again, no, and you would find no argument from any among them. Diversity in “ways of knowing” are celebrated. What I know of them, however, and what I hope of myself, is that they believe themselves responsible to do their jobs: not only to acquire knowledge as it is but to labor in the production of knowledge and to infect as many others as are willing with the fever for engaging possibilities – a fever that will compel them to let go of the stability of knowing in exchange for the possibility of what only might be found in the flux.

Stepping into the flux should not be demanded of anyone – regardless age, but it must be remembered that as the pace of knowledge increases and the world flattens to global communities and markets, there will be less and less call for the value of skills and commodities that stand still. No doubt about it: picking up the pace – especially to the level being demanded of “players” in the game today – is a kick in the crank that I sure didn’t know to expect. I brought the accomplishment of more than fifty years of success, both personal and professional, to the venture of continuing education; it should have been a “piece of cake,” and though in many ways there is currency in the value of years I own, the bottom line is that “we’re not in Kansas anymore,” and the skills I brought with me, though an asset in foundational ways, were in serious need of a tune-up.

A college education is about equipping individuals not just to do what has been done before or even to do what is happening today; a college education is about the task of re-tooling an individual, honing in them a vision for dreams, and equipping them to "run with the lions" at the pace of tomorrow. That's the value of a college education, and the welfare of a nation depends on it.

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Brenda said...

Of course I agree with you, fully believing in a university education and the way it opens one's mind not only to the new information technology and circuits but to skepticism, to a life lived without as many superstitions. But not everyone has the opportunity to go to college, and so a university education also structures and maintains class divisions, which is very problematic. And into this pot pourri of responses, I'm also proud of you, working on a doctorate...

Tamar said...

I am grateful for this post. Am not sure why I did not comment about the original over at Ronni's site but I appreciate your words here and am in full agreement.

Thank you for this.