May 23, 2008

Who needs a college education?

There’s a growing consensus that too many people are walking around with bachelor’s degrees, but is the problem with degree inflation that most people are just too dumb for college?  Charles Murray seems to think so:

The fourth-grader who has trouble sounding out simple words and his classmate who is reading A Tale of Two Cities for fun sit in the same classroom day after miserable day, the one so frustrated by tasks he cannot do and the other so bored that both are near tears. […] There is much more to be said about these harms (and I have said it, in a book that will appear in a few months). For now, it is enough to recognize that educational romanticism asks too much from students at the bottom of the intellectual pile, asks the wrong things from those in the middle, and asks too little from those at the top.

So does Ross Douthat:

. . . we ought to become vastly more flexible in our understanding of what constitutes an ideal post-high school education, and what our high schools should be preparing their students for – which means more vocational education, more shop class as soulcraft, and fewer attempts to pretend that everyone can read Hamlet, or score above the national average on the Math SAT.

This question used to be framed as the choice between Socrates dissatisfied or a fool satisfied.  In the context of the higher education debate, it sounds more like this: Does everyone need a liberal arts education, or are a loving family and honest work enough for most people?  Is critical thinking about big questions properly understood as a pastime of the elite?

On these questions, Murray and Douthat have picked the wrong misconception to attack.  The modern mistake isn’t in thinking that every man needs some way to exercise his intellect; every man does, whether he reads Dickens for pleasure or not.  The real error is in thinking that a liberal arts education is the only way to cultivate a philosophical mind.  When the anonymous author of “In the Basement of the Ivory Tower” complains that his students don’t understand that “[r]eading literature at the college level is a route to spacious thinking, to an acquaintance with certain profound ideas,” can he be sure that it’s the “acquaintance with profound ideas” that they disdain and not just his favored path to it?

Some forms of low art don’t have any intellectual content, but there’s a lot of middle ground between dance music on one hand and Shakespeare on the other.  A man who has an opinion about Humphrey Bogart has given serious thought to existentialism, even if he didn’t know to call it that.  You don’t have to deconstruct James Bond and Indiana Jones to see that, if both of them are “heroes,” heroism has to be something complicated.  If you have a working knowledge of “cheatin’ songs,” you’ve confronted the power of the flesh over good sense, the perversely noble stoicism of the sacrifices that adulterous couples make, and the way that infidelity destabilizes a marriage in ways that the guilty party could never have foreseen.  A lifetime with George Jones is as educational as four years with Wittgenstein.

Speaking as someone whose undergraduate years are not far behind her, my guess is that the real problem with demanding a B.A. of every white collar worker isn’t that it makes the intellectual demands of economic advancement too high, but that it forces too many people to undergo something that is more of a middle- and upper-class rite of passage than a real education. Still, even if higher education did exactly what it said on the tin, it would still be condescending for liberals to think that everyone is meant for the college track, and it would still be a mistake for conservatives like Murray and Douthat to imply that “not meant for college” and “too dumb to think philosophically” are synonymous.

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