From The Chronicle of Higher Education:

Students respond more profoundly to cultural imperatives than to market forces. In the United States, students are insulated from the commercial market’s demand for their knowledge and skills. That market lies a long way off — often too far to see. But they are not insulated one bit from the worldview promoted by their teachers, textbooks, and entertainment. From those sources, students pick up attitudes, motivations, and a lively sense of what life is about. School has always been as much about learning the ropes as it is about learning the rotes. We do, however, have some new ropes, and they aren’t very science-friendly. Rather, they lead students who look upon the difficulties of pursuing science to ask, “Why bother?”

Success in the sciences unquestionably takes a lot of hard work, sustained over many years. Students usually have to catch the science bug in grade school and stick with it to develop the competencies in math and the mastery of complex theories they need to progress up the ladder. Those who succeed at the level where they can eventually pursue graduate degrees must have not only abundant intellectual talent but also a powerful interest in sticking to a long course of cumulative study. A century ago, Max Weber wrote of “Science as a Vocation,” and, indeed, students need to feel something like a calling for science to surmount the numerous obstacles on the way to an advanced degree.

I think the first paragraph is particularly insightful. It’s unfortunate that we live with the consequences of decisions that we made before we knew what those decisions would really mean. I say this as someone that took the vocational route and who was raised amongst the children of engineers many of whom went on to become engineers. When we talk about practical and impractical majors, we sometimes forget that at the time these decisions are made, they are entirely practical. You have the option of spending 15 hours a week with a bunch of people that are likely to have the same backgrounds and interests as you and another 30 hours a week studying on subjects that interest you… or you can spend a lot of time with something really difficult surrounded by a lot of people with whom you have quite little in common.

Of course there is the argument that these kids aren’t thinking ahead, to which I say “Yep.” That’s all part of a larger problem where a substantial chunk of college-bound students spend the five years prior to going to college gaining more and more “adult rights” without adult responsibilities. There’s really not that easy a solution to this part.

In the meantime, my solution remains a sliding tuition scale for different majors which provide more here-and-now motivations for students (with academic scholarships thrown in so that the least academically marginal have more flexibility), an idea deeply unpopular with most non-blog people I’ve discussed it with.

Anyway, from the above paragraph forward the article descends into standard anti-PC “kids are ruined by good self-esteem and a sense of entitlement” stuff we’ve all heard a million times before and already agree or disagree with.

Category: School

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14 Responses to When Frivolity Is Practical

  1. Peter says:

    Another solution takes advantage of the fact that many college students rely on federally guaranteed student loans to finance their educations. The federal authorities who administer the program could make loan terms and availability vary according to the marketability of the subjects being studied, for instance more money could be made available for people studying electrical engineering than for those studying literature. This would present other problems, especially fairness – students affluent enough not to need loans would be unaffected – and there’s also the issue of those who change their majors. Still, it might be a start.

  2. David Alexander says:

    One could argue that the real problem is that we have a pool of students who in previous generations would have completed high school and gone off to real jobs, but need to go to college to meet minimum requirements for employment. The various liberal arts majors are essentially ways of giving average to slightly above average working class and lower middle class college degrees. To a certain extent, I probably qualify under that group, and I’m going for a political science (or urban studies) degree for personal reasons related to self-esteem and because it’s required for any salaried white collar civil service position that isn’t a de facto customer service position that involves public contact. Otherwise, my choices are limited to playing with trains since I’m much too weak and fragile for heavy duty blue collar work, and I’d end up killing people as a nurse…

    In short, people major in liberal arts because they’re too stupid for harder majors, but they’re smart enough to finish college. The an alternative solution may simply be to restrict financial aid for liberal arts majors who attend expensive private colleges, and if necessary, expand public colleges to cope with the influx of these students.

    Another interesting reform would follow Quebec’s CEGEP system where high school ends at the equivalent of our junior year, and the senior year of high school and first year of college would take place at separate institution to serve as a transitional phase between high school and university.

  3. Webmaster says:

    From the article:

    Microsoft, said Gates, can’t find enough top-quality computer scientists who are U.S. citizens or already have the right visas.

    I hear this a lot, but every time you look at the situation, what’s actually happening is that they’re not able to find said “quality” individuals who are willing to work for peanut wages. The H1-B has become one of the most abused visa categories largely because a H1-B holder is pretty much forced to work at $20-30k under standard market wage; plus, a H1-B visa holder isn’t likely to jump to another company, since quitting or losing employment means they lose their visa.

    In other words, it’s to Gates’ (and other companies’) benefit to try to get more H1-B workers even though the workers are available in the US (and I’ve applied to them numerous times), simply on the basis that the H1-B workers are more easily controlled and manipulated.

    That being said, I too believe that colleges are mis-focused, and I work in a college, so my view is rather first-hand. Part of the other problem, though is that these kids we get coming in have coasted pretty much their entire school career, being able to get away with a relatively low level of academic skill for the grades they were given as schools try to lower the bar to meet graduation numbers.

    I would love to see the rise of more trade schools and apprenticeship programs to replace college degrees, but that takes a fundamental shift in culture and unfortunately, we seem to think “college degree = success” because every misfocused hr/marketroid puts a college degree requirement into every job ad.

  4. trumwill says:

    Peter, that’s not too far from what I had in mind.

    David, there seems to be this idea that liberal arts majors are people that flunked out of more rigorous majors, but that’s not what I saw. I saw people that weren’t giving much thought to their future. A lot of upper-middle kids not much unlike myself, actually, except with parents that didn’t steer them the way that mine steered me.

  5. David Alexander says:

    I suspect your upper middle class upbringing may provide a different perspective. In contrast, I grew up amongst the proles, and for many proles, a college degree is presumed to be the ticket out of “prolehood”, and that any degree will do. Some just lack the business sense for accounting, marketing or finance, or the intelligence for computer science or engineering, or the creativity for arts programs, but they need a college degree to get them over the hump, hence why liberal arts majors are popular at “directional” colleges.

    I would love to see the rise of more trade schools and apprenticeship programs to replace college degrees

    In America, college degrees are so connected to being middle class that restricting the number of degree programs would be political suicide. Even if we gave college diplomas for majoring in plumbing and other skills, the middle class will eschew such jobs due to their blue collar nature.

  6. Spungen says:

    Devil’s advocate: What’s the evidence that we need more or better scientists? Are there science jobs that are going unfulfilled? The only people I know who work on that side of the brain are either aerospace engineers, or computer programmers/technicians. Both are complaining about jobs drying up and/or going overseas.

    The more science degrees we pump into the market, the more salaries go down, right?

  7. ? says:

    Spungen makes a good point about the demand for working natural and physical scientists not being equal to the hype. I’m a little surprised about engineering, but either way, the market should clear at a particular salary level. My main concern would be a structural incongruity between engineering education and the skills employers actually want to buy.

    But that said, there is no inherent moral reason why engineering should pay more that political science, or plumbing for that matter. On the assumption that these differential salary levels reflect market demand, I have no problem with using student aid to incentivize students to pursue the higher-paying professions, as long as the students so incentivized have the mental chops for the program.

    Indeed, I myself was thus incentivized in that my scholarship only paid for an engineering major, not withstanding that I both enjoyed more and performed better in my humanities/polysci courses.

  8. ? says:

    Blast! The Name field ate my ? (Phi).

  9. Kirk says:

    How about just ending tuitions subsidies, period? Other than the G.I. Bill, which is a payment for services rendered, there is absolutely no reason for taxpayers to get soaked just so people can attend college.

  10. David Alexander says:

    Indeed, I myself was thus incentivized in that my scholarship only paid for an engineering major, not withstanding that I both enjoyed more and performed better in my humanities/polysci courses.

    That’s why I ended up fleeing computer science and engineering. I sat in my calc, chemistry, and physics classes in frustrated at my inability to learn the material*, while my liberal arts classes were islands of sanity in an insane sea.

  11. trumwill says:

    Spungen, the “computer science” market is dried up compared to the heyday of the 90’s, but in the current economy it’s a better ROI than just about any BS or BA major that I can think of. The jobs are out there. A lot of the frustration in the computer market is that a lot of us were promised a whole lot more when we decided on our majors.

    For the non-vocational sciences, I don’t know. My ex-roommate got a degree in physics and was able to immediately find a good job at a chemical plant. The fact that he had studied the wrong science seemed to matter less than that he had the chops to get a tough science degree. So I’m not convinced that those opportunities aren’t out there, too.

    Phi, I don’t want more kids to go into science and technical fields because they’ll make more money doing it. The more do it, the less magically money-making they’ll be. Rather it’s for the rather snobby reason that I believe that someone that has majored in computer science is better able to contribute to the economy than someone that majored in political science.

  12. ecco says:

    It’s interesting to hear that engineers think the sciences are doing well. Most scientists I know, myself included, tend to regard engineering as the easier place to do well. I know it could be a grass is greener on the other side scenario. However, I think engineering education does a better job at surveying what skills are useful in business and how to design something that someone would want to buy. Design or something that would be useful in business is something you rarely see in the natural sciences. That makes the jump to industry somewhat difficult. Different fields have it somewhat easier depending on demand.

  13. ? says:

    Trumwill: I concur, and I should have specified that that salary considerations are relevant primarily as a “price signal” (Bobvis: help me out here) of the actual economic contribution.

    But I would also align myself with Kirk’s proposal to eliminate education subsidies, although I am fully aware that the middle class wouldn’t stand for it, given that we’ve come to consider college education a de facto entitlement. In the mean time, using subsidies to align incentives with economic demand may be our most realistic option.

    On the other hand, arguing against myself, this wouldn’t free us from political manipulation, as when, for instance, “Women’s Studies” departments protest their “rational basis” share of education subsidies (zero).

    What a muddle.

  14. trumwill says:

    I’m afraid that I can’t get on board with ending all educational subsidies. Almost everybody I know went to public college (which is, of course, subsidized) and most of them could not have afforded private school tuitions. I think that a lot more would be lost than gained by returning college as the province of the wealthy.

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