Mass movements, grass-root movements, invariably act as revealers of important societal matters that are seldom discussed. Frequently, that which is revealed has nothing to do with the movement’s declarations or with its goals. The publicity the media has given to the “Occupy” movement of the second half of 2011, and the revulsion conservative commentators have expressed against it, have shown one big thing: Americans don’t understand what colleges and universities do to or for young people. Curiously, the misapprehensions of members of the Occupy movement and those of their conservative critics often match closely. Any number of 25-year old have been displayed on television lamenting that there were not jobs corresponding to their particular degree. At the same time, talk-show host Rush Limbaugh, an aggressively proud college dropout, reviled movement members for choosing stupid, useless majors that could not possibly procure them work.
The laments and the reviling are based on the same fallacy. I will explain what the fallacy is presently but, first, my credentials to address the topic: I taught at the university level for thirty years of which 24 were in the Management department of a business school. I am a sociologist by trade, with a PhD from a good university. I have several years of experience in business, including as an occasional employer of young people. Early in my life as an illegal immigrant I had a large number of bad jobs.
Here is the fallacy: Contrary to what appears now to be a widespread perception or impression, with some very important exceptions, an undergraduate degree, a BA or a BS, do not prepare one for a particular career, for a particular field of endeavor. First the exceptions: Most or all engineering degrees, any degree in nursing, bachelors in Accounting, for sure, and possibly in Finance. I think that’s it.
Now the blinding truth. Graduating with a given major often requires only a handful of courses in or connected to the major. Often this is only five or six courses out of more than forty college courses. In most schools, there is no requirement at all that the student do more than pass the required major-related required courses. Grade inflation being what it is, this means that the student may know no more, or even know less, than the average well-informed person with no such major under his belt. The best students may master the basic technical vocabulary of the relevant field, perhaps twenty terms in all. It’s also fairly common for the best students in a given major to be aware of the canonical tests in their chosen field. So, a major in Sociology (like me) would know something of Max Weber, of Karl Marx, and perhaps of Durkheim. The average Sociology major thinks Weber is a barbecue. The very best departments also expose their good students to some of the important tools of their discipline. This exposure does not imply fluency in those techniques at all, only recognition. Finally, to my knowledge, undergraduate students who major in a normal academic discipline are not able to read its scholarly periodicals nor are they expected to be. This means that whatever little they know in the field upon graduating will soon have become obsolete.
It follows from this shallow journey that satisfying the requirements of a major does not imply a particular competence pertaining to any business field or industrial activity. A degree in Biology does not qualify one to do biological work except perhaps for the Federal Government, as a park ranger, and then only after passing a qualifying exam. Similarly, a major in Marketing does not mean that the holder can “do marketing” for a company (except insofar as marketing includes sales). The completion of a Theater major will not give your daughter a part even in a local production and a Communications major corresponds to no slot in any newspaper. (In fact, I would bet that there are more communications majors graduating every year than there are positions in all media together.) As a former teacher of Management, I assure you that that major certainly does not make one a manager. And a Psychology major almost always implies only a young woman with identity issues. Even the undemanding field of education requires that its workers take additional courses beyond their major. Undergraduate studies – with the exceptions above – do not supply occupational competence. This requires an advanced degree.
How do my cynical statements stack up against the belief that college graduates make more money over a lifetime than others? This is a complicated issued that was well reviewed in the Nov. 19-20 2011 of the Wall Street Journal (Bialik, Carl. “College Does Pay off But It’s No a Free Ride.”) To make a long story short, the figure of an extra cool million dollars over a lifetime is a naive exaggeration and misinterpretation of raw facts. Yet, there is little doubt that the acquisition of a college degree, on the average, corresponds to several extra hundreds of thousands in a lifetime. So, the question remains, what is being financially rewarded there if not occupational competence?
Obtaining a college degree is a sort of obstacle course against oneself, against one’s inner child. It requires a degree of perseverance, the realization that it’s important to get up in the morning, some attention to events – tests – scheduled by others in disregard of one’s internal clock, the obligation to perform – to some extent- in tasks one would not chose freely. (They are called “assignments.”). Every major also requires that one get one’s drinking under control. Finally, earning a degree, any degree, in any major, imposes the ability to retain, at least for a short time, material one finds boring. In other words, a college degree is a sort of certificate of adult middle-classness. There are also some fringe benefits. College graduates often but not always, have read more books than high-school graduates, frequently four or five, sometimes ten. Although the level of literacy is low among college graduates in general, there is a fair chance it’s higher in your average college graduate than in the average high-school graduate.
The best college graduates, those with high GPAs (3.0 GPA, minimum although in many schools, the cut-off point would be nearer 3.5) even develop a critical sense. I was rendered so pessimistic by my experience in an expensive university, by my exposure to the bottomless ignorance, to the perverse credulousness of undergraduates that I keep losing track of this fact: Yet, good college graduates, with any major, are liable to be more critical than others. I am not sure about the source of this miracle. It’s a mystery how my politically correct, conformist former colleagues manage this small miracle, or if they have anything to do with it at all. Yet, every so often by happenstance, I bump into an intelligent, well-read person who did not go to college. Almost every time, I find quickly that this autodidact is incapable of absorbing, even of considering, important troves of knowledge that are beyond common sense. One brilliant man whom I knew well could never accept the logic of statistical sampling. He believed that representing a large number by a small number had to involve fraud. Similarly, many self-taught bright people are closed to the logic of natural selection. Although my evidence is completely subjective, the conclusion is inescapable: In some cases, a college education opens mental doors that nothing else opens. Smart people who did not go to college appear to be stuck cognitively in the seventeenth century. In addition, they often seem to me to be uncommonly stubborn. (That’s another story.)
These few but important virtues are what employers, especially large corporations buy. They use the college degree as a basis for the bet that recruits are trainable because they have middle-class values, or sort of do. They make the further bet that a few college graduates possess enough criticality to be able to make small decisions on behalf of the organization. So, with the exceptions named above, a college major nearly never directly confers any skills that draw remuneration. By contrast, there are many non-college courses of training that do exactly that and with a high degree of certainty. Those would include such things as certificate courses for dental hygienist and plumbing apprenticeships, both of which require less time and cost less than the pursuit of any college major. Interestingly neither of these well-paid occupations seems to make one a middle-class person forever the way a college degree with the lowest possible GPA seems to do.
And then, of course, if you have the personality of a Steve Jobs or of a Bill Gates or of any number of entrepreneurs you probably should not go to college for long.
Addendum on 11/25/11: I often say that writing is thinking. So, I thought about the topics of this essay during Thanksgiving. I realized that if I were again an employer of young people, I would in fact pay attention to majors. I would look at majors not because of what they would tell me about graduates’ competences but because of what they might tell me about their character and about their imagination. The handful of Classics (Greek and/or Latin) BAs and the more numerous Philosophy majors would be high on any list of mine. English majors I would also consider on the off chance that they had learned how to write a little and because writing is thinking; see above. I would also look briefly at foreign language majors with no family background in the relevant language. I mean Spanish majors without immigrant parents or grandparents from Latin America. To those, I would give a one-sentence on-the-spot test. 98% would flunk; I would think seriously of hiring the 2% who didn’t.