Thursday, May 26, 2011

Automotive Education

I have got to stop getting my car fixed at the local dealership.

This has nothing to do with the quality of service I receive there. They do a fine job with my car, as far as I can tell.

Nor is it the fact that it isn’t even my dealership, since my car is a Pontiac and they don’t make them anymore. The place I bought it dried up and blew away even before the official announcement of that fact (it now serves a dual function as a monument to the automotive industry’s death spiral and – around Halloween time – a costume shop), so this place ended up saddled with us Pontiac drivers. You can tell they’re not all that pleased about it but then neither am I, so I figure that makes us even.

It’s not even their stubborn refusal to put signs up anywhere so you know where to pull in. The dealership is a large off-white building surrounded by squadrons of vehicles and pierced by any number of doors, openings, passageways and avenues, none of which have any indication as to whether or not you should be pulling into them for service. I spent a good quarter hour circling the place like a vulture this morning before I finally picked one at random and – eventually – got some directions to the proper opening. This happened twice before I managed to get to the actual proper opening, but so it goes.

No, the reason I have to stop doing that is that every time I go there I am forcibly reminded that a surprisingly large percentage of my fellow Americans are idiots.

I know.

It’s not like this is news to anyone who pays attention, but for some reason it becomes a lot clearer when I’m waiting for my car to be fixed. I don’t know why.

Last time I was there I spent half an hour of my life that I will never get back listening to a guy tell me that the Constitution had an explicit clause in it referring Americans directly back to the Bible for any political question not covered by the Constitution itself. What can you possibly say to convince someone who believes something that stupid that they are mistaken? Whatever it was I never found it and I’m sure he continues to think that I am the weird one.

This time it wasn’t any of my fellow denizens of the waiting room, all of whom were admirably wrapped up in their own affairs and thus too preoccupied to impinge on mine. No, this time it was CNN.

Now, I don’t really like watching CNN. I don’t even go to their website. I find that their definition of “news” to be a bullet-point list of everything that is wrong with journalism in America today, from their obsession with the activities of people whom a proper society would either ignore or institutionalize to their casual substitution of snark for analysis to their persistent refusal to recognize their own political spin to their utter fascination with nifty images that don’t really add up to information in any meaningful way.

They don’t usually make stuff up out of whole cloth though, which puts them one step ahead of Fox News, so I suppose there is that to be grateful for.

But there I was, trying to read my book while being blared at by one anchor (definition: a large heavy object whose main function is to impede progress) after another blathered on about one nonstory after another, and eventually the whole train-wreck awfulness of it began to exert its bitter fascination and I had to stop and watch.

I think the blathering that finally did it for me was their Big Investigative Report (which, as far as I could tell, amounted to putting the question up on their Facebook page and then reading the answers out loud a half hour later) on the burning issue, “Is College Worth It?”

They tried very hard to tell us that it was not – they had some b-roll footage that sort of made that point and they were determined to use it no matter what – and when the Facebook responses mostly took the opposite side they did their best to dismiss them as cute but not really on point, one after another as they read them. And then the b-roll footage appeared. Rinse, lather, repeat.

This is what news is these days? The forced molding of random input into the pre-determined shape of a desired outcome? On a question that more than anything else reveals to the world how much these people fetishize their own ignorance?

Apparently so.

There are two problems with the whole setup for this little affair.

First of all, it was clear that the anchors (see definition, above) were conflating two very different questions into one.

To begin with, there is the question – “is a college education worthwhile?”

This is an outcome-based question. In order to answer it you need to know where people are before their education, where they go after, where similar people without such educations end up, and whether the difference is important and by what criteria. And no matter how you slice it, the answer is almost always “yes, it is worthwhile.”

It’s worthwhile from an economic standpoint. A college degree still counts as an entry form for most high-paying jobs. You can argue whether it should or not, but that’s not as important as the fact that it is. And yes there are high-paying jobs that don’t require a degree, but in point of fact on average a college degree is worth about $900,000 more than a high school degree over a lifetime and a Master’s degree about $1.2 million more. That’s not chump change, and not even the most outlandishly priced private university charges enough to make that not cost-effective.

It’s worthwhile from an intellectual standpoint. Whatever economic fruits a degree will bear, there is also the fact that – at least in theory – a student will learn a few things while in college. And it’s not just information. Information is why there are reference books. College is about learning what to do with information. They will learn to think critically, analyze responsibly and challenge their preconceived notions with new ideas. They will be exposed to new ways of looking at things, new things to look at, and new ideas about themselves and their place in the world. And the point is not necessarily to change their mind about anything so much as it is to have them think whatever they end up thinking for better and more soundly-based reasons.

It’s also worthwhile from a cultural standpoint. Students at universities are often exposed to different sorts of people, ideas, cultures and activities than they would have been otherwise. With any luck this will teach them not to confuse “normal” with “familiar” the way most people do. It’s not guaranteed – certainly a lot of students never make that leap and there are quite a few places in this country that call themselves universities that actively discourage this sort of thing– but it ought to happen if you do it right.

Yes, you can do all these things without a college degree. You can make lots of money, firm up your intellect and widen your cultural exposure in other ways. Lots of people do – I can name quite a few and I’m sure you can too. But statistically you are more likely to do so with one. And that makes it worthwhile.

But there is also another question that got folded into this one by the CNN anchors without them acknowledging it – “is college for everybody?”

And the answer to that is a resounding no.

Some people – like the ones described a couple paragraphs above – don’t need college to do any of those things. They can exercise their economic options, intellectual development or cultural exposures by working in the corporate world, forming their own entrepreneurial enterprises, traveling on their own, joining the Navy, volunteering for their communities, or any number of other such avenues.

And you know what? More power to them.

If they have the discipline and the fortitude and the resources to do stuff like that – to focus on those things, to appreciate them when they arrive and take advantage of them when they do – then really they don’t need college. They can do it on their own. These people are not nearly as common as they like to think they are, but they’re out there and I tip my hat to them.

Other people really are not cut out for higher education. Academic work is a very specialized skill, and not everybody has it or can develop it. There’s no particular shame in this – I can’t fix my car, and I don’t see why I should expect that everyone in the world can write a research paper. I see a lot of these students, though – they’re told they have to go to college and they go and they fail. In an economy with a shrinking manufacturing sector, I wonder where they will go. They’re not stupid, but college is not really for them.

Still other people can handle college but they have obstacles that get in the way. Some of those obstacles are self-inflicted problems – they’re not mature enough, they don’t work hard enough, they don’t take it seriously. And some of those obstacles are simply things these people have no control over at all – family crises, medical emergencies, things like that. College is not for them, not now, and they tend not to last very long on a campus. These folks very often get past those obstacles at some point, however, and they mature, they work, they resolve their emergencies and crises, and they turn into people who do quite well in college.  And then it does become worthwhile for them.

So you have to keep those two questions in mind. They’re different. College is definitely worthwhile, but it isn’t for everyone.

The second problem I had with the CNN report was the basic attitude behind it – crisply articulated by one of the interviewees on the b-roll – that the real point of the story wasn’t whether college was worthwhile so much as whether education in general was worthwhile.

We live in an era that prizes stupid.

We live in a culture where to be a trained intellect is to be an outcast, a figure of suspicion or derision, and where ignorance is a badge of honor.

It doesn’t seem to be working very well, but not many people really care. And that worries me.

By going to college, students learn to question assumptions. They learn that other cultures and other people do things differently, that theirs isn’t the Only True Path, that things have in fact been different in the past and will be different in the future, and that people who claim absolute authority or moral purity are a dime a dozen and worth even less than that.

Educated people are by definition dangerous people to those who would rule a complacent herd, and when we denigrate the entire idea of education we lose one of the foundational principles of the republic.

Who are the new bad guys in America? Teachers. And now students. And that’s not a good sign for the future of my country.

Next time I’m going to go to my regular mechanic.


Ewan said...

on average a college degree is worth about $900,000 more than a high school degree over a lifetime and a Master’s degree about $1.2 million more. That’s not chump change, and not even the most outlandishly priced private university charges enough to make that not cost-effective.

Taking this in isolation, I was surprised to find how clear this is. A quick Google suggests that the cost to me of an annuity paying $30k/year over my remaining life expectancy of ~40y is about $600k. It's possible, perhaps, to find a college experience that would cost more than that, but it's probably one that carries an above-average expectancy in terms of future earnings anyway. [Granted, it gets more complex when I have to borrow the money to fund the education, assuming that someone will lend it to me.] On the other hand, I can imagine that in not too many years, the rate of tuition increases may in fact make the statement false for some colleges.

No bigger point; just good to confirm that at least for now the math backs up the advice to go to college.

David said...

The numbers are surprising when you see them presented as starkly as that. It all adds up.

My guess is that tuition increases won't ever eat all that up simply because a rising inflation will lift all boats.

The one big point I didn't get around to making in this post is the vital importance of that income gap in creating the middle class after WWII. With the GI Bill and other encouragements to go to college in place, both enrollments and the middle class - the heart and soul of the American economy and political system - expanded. That's worthwhile too, I think.

Janiece said...

David, you made the point about the unintended consequences of the WWII GI Bill before I could. It's one of the reasons I supported Senator Webb's rework of that program for WOT vets - it's not just good for them and the right thing to do - it's good for all of us.

And I read your commentary regarding achieving success without a degree with interest. I flatter myself by thinking I'm a member of the group that has succeeded "on my own," and yet I still see value in formal education, not only in a general sense, but for myself.

From my perspective, the problem with being self-educated is that there are gaps - you don't know what you don't know. Without a structured environment where I'm forced to take coursework that I wouldn't necessarily take on my own, I know I'd be ignorant on a variety of subjects that have contributed to my ability to think critically.

Many of my classmates and professional peers don't understand why I continue to take classes in spite of my professional success. Perhaps my efforts are self-indulgent - achieving my educational goals won't increase my salary, or contribute the sum knowledge of humanity, or result in a promotion (since I don't want one). But I enjoy it, and the structured learning environment suits me. And I suppose that's good ensough.

David said...

@Janiece – I think you’re right about there being gaps with self-education, if only because there’s nobody forcing you to study things you don’t want to study. You can do that in college too, but it’s harder.

I think the reason you keep taking classes is that you fall into the category of people for whom college wasn’t worthwhile when you were 19 – from reading your blog I get the impression that you would not have been happy there as a traditional straight-from-high-school student – but that you’ve changed enough since then that it is worthwhile to you now.

One of the reasons I love the campuses I teach at now is that they are full of non-traditional students like that. I’ve even been there long enough to see some of them succeed the second time around, after they’ve gone away and come back. It makes my day.