Bob Herbert, columnist for the NY Times, writes on Aug 7 some oft-heard views about the downsliding of American education. The central complaint for this has come to be represented by the percent of the population with a college education. President Obama waves this figure around often. By that metric, the US is now 12th in the world. This is said to be evidence of the need for quick remedial action, if not actual panic.
The basis of the panicky reaction is that we're not able to compete in the world. Other countries are outpacing us. Industry will falter -- geez, we might even produce fewer investment bankers!
But is that the right reaction? Or is this a misrepresentation of the real problem that we face?
College degrees have progressively become items of status display, and our society more credentialist. You need a degree to get jobs that pay more than minimum wage, you mention your degrees at parties (and groan at the insistence by which others there make sure you know of theirs). Actual achievement sometimes takes a back seat to this kind of score-counting.
At the same time, colleges and universities have progressively become industries, advertising and reinforcing these attitudes about how important and necessary their product is, and doing their best to lure customers. Even online quasiversities are doing a land-office business.
But the real problem is the lack of earlier education, and lack of stress on the importance of training, at young ages, of people for many of the jobs for which there is a real demand. Not all of them require what we think of as a 'college' degree. With proper reform of K-12 we would 'need' a lot fewer college degrees.
A college degree is not so obviously what its image, carefully fostered by the university industry, makes it seem. Many if not most college degrees involve rather minimal formal or rigorous training. Classes have become increasingly events to entertain student-customers, attendance dropping or not rigorously insisted on, students majoring in the softer or more quick-money based subjects, remedial courses for the unprepared, and the core technical parts of many subjects (perhaps what industry most needs, but harder to learn and teach) have been watered down to suit these poorly K-12'ed students.
If you want properly trained, industrious graduate students, you'd better recruit them from China or India. Don't bother with Americans, especially black, Hispanic, or Native Americans who've been through our public education system. They simply aren't up to speed or aren't interested, and they won't help out on your grants nearly as 'productively'. And, again partly because of our poor investment in K-12, we're not investing nearly enough in those parts of our society at the college level either -- not to mention that as the cost of college continues to increase, its accessibility to the poor continues to decrease.
Of course these are generalizations and there are certainly exceptions to each of these issues. Every class in every college or university has skilled, interested students. But what we need are more people with more technical skills, including computer programming, mathematics, electronics, manufacturing technologies and the like -- even repair and maintenance. Some of these require post-high school training, or even college degrees (if the college insists on rigor, but not all of them do).
The post-WWII boom in US college training occurred in a day when colleges and universities had much higher standards, and had only been enrolling a small fraction of the population. Perhaps also, and debatably, a broad liberal arts degree prepared you for analytical thinking and hence all sorts of not purely technical employment. But colleges were not just tuition-mills; they didn't hesitate to flunk out students who didn't measure up.
By the time one was a senior, s/he was at least something of an expert in her major field, and often broadly knowledgeable beyond that. It wasn't Nirvana, of course, and there's a ton more to learn now, in the case of science particularly. But the weakening of standards is at least as important as the number of degrees.
In genetics, molecular, developmental, and evolutionary biology various skills are important. Among them are statistical tools and understanding of probability. So much is now computational, that mathematics and computer programming should also be part of life-science majors -- and indeed students should learn at least some of this in high school. But many upper level students even at good universities claim they chose to study biology so they wouldn't need to do any math. Try teaching them as seniors!
It's even true that standards for getting a PhD or other higher degrees have declined widely if not universally. Getting, or keeping, a faculty job rests ever more heavily on bean-counting and formal credentials: number of publications, lists of 'research', amount of grant money brought in. Yet it is trivially easy to show how little most published research is cited by anybody but the authors and their friends. Meanwhile, in many 'research' universities, teaching is given lower status relative to career advancement and, you guessed it, getting grants and paper-counts more.
Higher education is important in the age in which more of our lives hinge on science and technology, on interpreting research data and acting in 'empirical' ways ('evidence based medicine' for example), and on rigorous education, in classes you can actually flunk if you don't do the work well or show up to class. We do have a real need for higher education, but skill and ability can come along in many forms, and many types of school.
And that means we need to be training teachers in real subjects, not just bulletin board technique and counseling -- and paying them better, so that better students choose to become teachers. That is a major part of our problem.
Every system has its false fronts, and it's always easy to find real faults because they always exist. If our national needs could be served by making college mandatory, they might be satisfied if the standards were higher. But if the standards were higher, we wouldn't need to rely on, much less idolize, formal credentials, like college diplomas. And we wouldn't think we simply needed more of them.
The university industry might suffer, for example, by having to shrink while tech schools grew and K-12 received more of the nation's education funds. But every industry can become self-satisfied and bloated, and the college industry is that way these days. So it's misplaced to simply say we need more college-educated citizens. Just delete the word 'college' and you're closer to the truth.
Here we've not mentioned any of the over-arching objectives of college education: exposing students to things they'd never think of otherwise and hopefully enabling them to be better citizens or having more richly edifying lives. Those are lefty political considerations, perhaps. We happen to believe in them, but they are partly beside the points we want to make in this blog, which is about science.