Wednesday, 16 May 2018

What is a degree for?

Recently I ran across a interview about higher education, where the interviewee was suggesting that Higher Education was a waste of time, resources and investment. The interview was about a book that the interviewee had written, "The Case Against Education: Why the education system is a waste of time and money". The argument was that "public education is waste of time and money and we should stop investing in it" because "the payoff for education isn’t really coming from learning useful job skills. Nor is it coming from students savoring the educational experience. Rather, most of what’s going on is that people are showing off — or, as economists call it, they are 'signaling'. They are trying to impress future employers by showing how dedicated they are" (Illing, 16 February 2018, citing economist, Bryan Caplan).

That's an argument I haven't heard before: education as 'showing off'. I do think that completing an undergraduate degree that tells an employer that you can stick at something for 3-4 years and get it done. Tenacity. Perseverance. Completer-Finisher. But I don't think that this is 'showing off'.

Putting aside my doubt about the validity of the 'showing off' statement, I feel that Mr Caplan's argument has another flaw: that the job of higher education is solely to make us employees. He also thinks that we should all pay for our education, right the way through from Kindergarten. He thinks that "Kindergarten through 8th grade tends to serve as a daycare center for kids while their parents are at work. The educational waste really becomes a problem in high school because at that age kids could be doing something far more productive, like an apprenticeship or a vocational school" (Illing, 16 February 2018, citing Bryan Caplan).

Wow. Early learning is day-care. Being in secondary school is why people are no longer doing apprenticeships. Crikey, talk about an 18th century approach to education. I was amazed that Princeton published it. OK: I am probably being somewhat unkind, as Mr Caplan does imply that some students will be "savoring the educational experience", but the main thrust of his argument seems to be an economic one, and not a developmental one.

Funnily enough, I don't think that 'day-care' and 'vocational training' present valid arguments either. Nor do those who sign up apprentices think this way. The minimum age is 15 to begin an apprenticeship here in New Zealand, requiring a dispensation to get out of school a year early. There are some sound reasons why we don't want younger people going into apprenticeships: there is good evidence that our brains do not fully understand consequences until we are 18 or more (Moffitt, Poulton, & Caspi, 2013). Health and safety, customer service, process and procedure, and self-directed learning all tend to be better understood if we just hold off the start by a couple of years to get a little more maturity.

I did my degree for interest. Yes, I assumed I would find a job, but primarily, it was so I had some training in something that I was interested in. In my view, higher education is there to train us to refine our thinking, our curiousity and to develop an understanding of what professionalism looks like in our field. For me, a degree is to teach us to learn, not to create drones who can get a job.

If my summary of the article is correct, then Mr Caplan's argument is that the sole purpose of higher education is to get work. I assume an educational and economic fail on his terms would be if we didn't get a job in our field.

In my view, an educational fail is if we don't develop life-long learning...  that and the understanding that no learning is ever wasted. Quite a different philosophical approach.

Hmm. I wonder what Mr Caplan's qualifications are...



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