Monday, April 30, 2012

What Are We Teaching?

Marty:            It’s just that another year has come and gone and I’m still doing the same old thing.  Stand over here, trot over there.  Eat some grass.  Walk back over here.
Alex:               I see your problem.
Marty:            Maybe I should go to law school.
—Chris Rock as the voice of Marty the Zebra, and Ben Stiller as the voice of Alex the Lion in Madagascar

Let me say first that college isn’t for everybody.  I don’t mean that as some sort of elitist/racist snobbery—there are plenty of white kids from wealthy suburban families boozing it up as frat house legacies who have no business darkening the door of a university classroom.  What I mean is there are a large number of undergraduate students who lack the desire, scholastic skills, and/or mental horsepower to perform in a college environment.

That said, something about the modern U.S. academy is to a large degree failing our young people in terms of preparing them to function in the real world.  Case in point: a new analysis of government data by the Associated Press reveals that 54% of college graduates under 25 were unemployed in 2011, compared with 41% in 2000.  Many more are underemployed, working outside their field of study in jobs that simply don’t require a college degree. 

As tuitions skyrocket, stories abound of students incurring hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt only to find that at the end of their four years (or however long it takes), there is no job for them to earn the money to pay those loans back.  Typical of these stories is that of Michael Bledsoe, a 23-year-old Seattle resident currently working as a barista for a little better than minimum wage.  “I don’t even know what I’m looking for,” he says, explaining that his job search has dwindled from sending three or four resumes a day down to a current pace of one every couple of weeks.  

The story's implicit undercurrent is that there must be something dreadfully wrong with the economy—presumably that something is George W. Bush's fault and only Obama can fix it—for this to be happening.  But what’s interesting here is the study makes the shocking observation that your job prospects coming out of college have a great deal to do with what you chose to study.  There is good demand for college graduates in hard sciences, education, and health, but not so much for those with degrees in the arts or humanities, and the more esoteric you get, the worse your prospects.  Mr. Bledsoe, discussed above, is surprised to learn there aren’t many employers looking for someone with a degree in creative writing (one wonders if his prominent nose ring and nearly dime-sized aboriginal ear piercings might also be contributing factors).

Who knew?

This got me wondering just what courses of study our universities are offering these days.  Looking through the on-line materials for the University of Texas at Austin, I see some gems such as:

Communications Studies  Texas tells prospective students that this major “prepares a student for . . . any job involving interaction with people.”  In other words, we don’t know how, but this major prepares you to do anything.  Really?

Bachelor of Social Work  According to Texas, this major provides the training for students to seek “an exciting professional career and land employment in many different public and private work settings.”  Which ones?  Again, this gives so little specifics that it basically says nothing.

American Studies  This major “is always changing and can accommodate almost any interest or idea . . . If you can dream it up, there’s probably a place for it in American Studies . . . American Studies is so broad, it’s great preparation for work or graduate school.”  I think they could have left out the “work” part.  This looks essentially to be a major in attention deficit disorder.

Texas also offers the obligatory palette of ethnic/sexual orientation self-contemplation majors: African and African Diaspora Studies, Asian-American Studies, Mexican-American Studies, European Studies (I assume this is somehow something different than “History”), Hebrew Language and Literature (not to be confused with the separate Jewish Studies), Islamic Studies (not to be confused with the separate Middle Eastern Studies), Latin American Studies, Scandinavian Studies, and, of course, the ubiquitous Women’s and Gender Studies.  Not just to pick on Texas, I can report that similar offerings appear in the student catalogue at my alma mater, Rice University, and even at the venerable Harvard (which offers classic courses of study like “Urban Education and Leadership”—apparently at the Yard you can actually major in Barack Obama).  One suspects that the menu is very similar at virtually any other American university.

How did we get here?

Somewhere in the Spockian move to shield children from all negative outcomes and encourage them to be and do whatever makes them happyregardless of how impractical or unproductive it might bewe seem to have developed a collective assumption that all you have to do is show up at a college and do your time however you please, and the American Dream will be handed to you as your birthright.  And, of course, Obama is now playing to that assumption as a vote-driver, upping the ante to all but promise that not only will it all be handed to you, but the government will pay for it. 

Let’s understand something.  The idea that in America you’re free to be anything you want to be does not include the idea that society is obligated to make it work for you.  Nobody owes you a college education; certainly not one in whatever perverted art form (apparently vandalizing someone else’s pro-life demonstration by covering it with thousands of condoms now passes as the serious college-level study of art, right up there with welding toilet parts into random shapes) or narcissistic navel-gazing you and a tenured professor manage to agree merits a B.A.  And nobody owes you a job when you get out.  Just because you find Atlantean Language and Literature fascinating doesn’t mean anyone else—other than the professor who taught you—does.  More to the point, your interest in that subject doesn’t make you valuable to a prospective employer.

We’ve discussed this before.  Jobs don’t exist as a matter of constitutional right, and they don’t exist because government creates them.  Jobs exist because someone who owns a business (typically for profit) has a task they need done.  My guess is there simply isn’t much demand out there for someone with a degree in “Museum Studies” (a real major at Harvard).

No, I don’t consider college simply a trade school.  And yes, there is merit to broadening one’s mind for its own sake.  If your life won’t be complete until you’ve spent four years studying the great works of Esperanto, ancient Eskimo ice painting, or social justice and the Yeti, go for it.  But when you borrow $100,000—often from the federal taxpayer—to do it, you need to have a plan for how you’re going to pay it back, because that’s the agreement you made when you borrowed it.  Don’t come to me as the surprised victim of a grand conspiracy by the 1% when you find yourself six figures in debt and unable to pay it back because no one will hire you with a degree in Hyphenated-American Urban Lesbian Studies.

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