His View: College degrees and the uneducation of America

My OpEd ran in today’s Moscow-Pullman Daily News. Enjoy! 

When I was a child, we had Vocational-Technical schools that were trade schools for students not bound for college. They provided vocation-specific training and skills (carpenter, mechanic, electrician, plumber, painter, welder, etc.) for entering directly into the workforce. These schools would help place their students with employers or in apprenticeship programs.

I attended a graduate school faculty meeting where there was a discussion between two professors about whether it was appropriate to train students to use software tools. One professor was born, raised, and educated abroad, and his position was that when you start teaching how to use specific tools, you have shifted from education to training, and it is not the university’s place to train but to educate.

His perspective was challenging. In college I learned to code in half a dozen different programming languages, learned to use a dozen different engineering and statistical software products, and am a certified systems administrator on multiple platforms. I could have acquired all of those skills without attending college.
 
Eleven years and six college degrees later, I may be well trained, but I am certainly not well educated. Never once in my life did I have to read the books that shaped western history: “The Epic of Gilgamesh,” Homer’s “Iliad” or “Odyssey,” Virgil’s “Aeneid,” “Beowulf,” Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales,” Dante’s “Divine Comedy,” nor any Cicero, Shakespeare, Goethe, or Thoreau. I never read foundational history works from Herodotus, Thucydides, or Plutarch. I never read any philosophical works by Plato or Aristotle. As a math and physics major, I never heard of Euclid’s “Elements” nor studied the philosophy of science. Can an American be educated yet never read the Bible, the Bhagavad Gita, the Koran, Confucius, or Gandhi?

In continental Europe, there is a sharp distinction made between training and education. It is common to have different primary and secondary school tracks for different vocations. Germany has a three-track system: Gymnasium for those University-bound; Realschule for white-collar jobs; and Hauptschule for those in the trades and blue-collar jobs. Being educated was about teaching students how to think about life, and introducing them to the history of their people and culture. To approximate that continental education today, it would require taking language, history, literature, philosophy, art, music, etc. Other than a traditional liberal arts degree, you would have to build your own major to do that.
“When will I ever use this?” As an educator I have heard that question thousands of times, and it underscores the fact that Americans think of universities as being high-end, job training factories.

A debate is underway about intermediate algebra as a college requirement. The question revolves around the notion that non-STEM majors will never need algebra to do their jobs even though algebra teaches students to think logically. Unfortunately, logic and logic classes are long gone from college requirements.

When did universities stop educating students and become job training factories? Well before Boise State offered degrees in welding or Idaho State University offered programs in “nail technology” (manicures, pedicures, extensions, and sculpting).
 
Apple CEO Tim Cook says that half of Apple’s U.S. employment last year consisted of people without four-year degrees. Parents, students, and employers are beginning to realize that you do not need an expensive four-year degree to be an excellent employee. Many employers find that graduates do not have much-needed skills for the workforce, and they can get better, more relevant and cheaper training elsewhere.

If high school graduates want to pursue a trade, do so outside the educational-industrial complex. It is unconscionable to pay $100,000-150,000 in tuition/fees/room/board, take out crippling amounts in student loans, and end up eligible only for minimum wage jobs. Often, they could have gotten better training in three months for $5,000.