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Is College Worth It?

Time for another LogicChecker, this one based on an editorial that appeared in the New York Times a couple of weeks back, one that addressed a perennial question in higher education: Is it worth it for as many people as possible to get a college education?

I’d like to analyze this piece (reproduced below), written by Columbia University linguistics professor John McWhorter, in the context of background knowledge.

In a previous series on information literacy, I talked about the centrality of background knowledge when trying to think critically about a topic. The methods you have been learning about on this site, such as translating, organizing, and evaluating arguments, are vital if you want to think clearly and systematically. But if you don’t have any idea about what you’re thinking about, technique will only get you so far.

It so happens that I have a fair amount of background knowledge on the subject of alternatives to college, based on a project I did many years ago on Massive Open Online Courses (or MOOCs), a technology once put forward as a way to break us out of the cycle of endlessly rising college costs by providing courses from the fanciest schools to anyone in the world for free. That led me to a year of writing on what college is supposed to mean, and why it costs so much.

McWhorter’s background includes attending Simon’s Rock, a private school that became a subsidiary of Bard College, one of America’s great, experimental liberal arts colleges. Much of his argument draws from a manifesto written twenty-five years ago by Leon Botstein, President of Bard, entitled Jefferson’s Children: Education and the Promise of American Culture, which breaks from conventional-unconventional wisdom (which usually asks whether or not every graduating 12th grader should go to college) by proposing that schooling end at 10th grade.

In his piece, McWholter claims that 10th graders are ready (or can be made ready) for college-level work immediately and are, by extension, ready to immediately enter the workforce as an alternative to college.

The evidence he provides includes historic examples of sophisticated people in the age group we’re talking about (16- and 17-year olds), the availability of many options for college-level (and life-long) learning outside of expensive colleges and universities, as well as his own experience being thrown into college-level work after 10th grade as a student at Simon’s Rock.

In addition to pointing out all of the problems commonly discussed regarding higher education (cost, debt, students not taking advantage of their time at college due to careerism or other factors), he also makes an important point that the reasons we claim college is so valuable today (such as providing an onramp to high-paying jobs) are the result of decisions we have made as a society to prioritize college for all, even without demonstrating that people do better at their jobs and career with a college degree under their belts.

I’ll leave it to you to parse those arguments and put them into structures you can evaluate based on factors like validity and soundness. But for this analysis, I’d like to point out that the author’s background knowledge provides him a foundation to build his case around, while also creating potential boundaries on his perception of the issue he is discussing.

By way of analogy, most of the people I interacted with during my MOOC project who were trying to break the stranglehold of traditional colleges over higher education came from the world of technology, which is why many of their proposed solutions were tech focused.

For example, once it was clear that MOOCs were not going to take a wrecking ball to traditional colleges and universities, the media moved on to another tech player – Minerva University – as the next breakthrough that would change everything. (In fact, the print version of an article that put Minerva on the map included the requisite image of a wrecking ball shattering an ivy-covered wall.)

Now Minerva (and MOOCs, for that matter) are extremely interesting alternatives in and of themselves, even if they may not single-handedly solve all of the cost and equity issues related to higher education. But my main point is that the background knowledge of those who created and used these solutions, or covered them in the media, inclined them (us) towards thinking about the benefits of tech-enabled education versus potential limitations or drawbacks.

In McWhorter’s case, he went to a remarkable high school (Simon’s Rock) that was connected to a remarkable college (Bard) where remarkable people attended, taught, and ran the place. This background knowledge confirmed to him that 16-year-olds (including the writer and his peers) could handle college-level work, which also implied readiness to enter the workforce at that age.

As someone deeply involved with education at all grade levels, I would challenge the notion that his experience is scalable across K-12 education, public and private. It may be that the expectations we have for high-schoolers are holding them back, but from what I know about today’s school systems, it seems like we have not yet managed to get enough students to learn by 10th grade everything they’re supposed to know by 10th grade, much less gotten them ready to move right into college-level work or work work.

To create a stronger argument, the writer would have to provide more examples of his recommendations working in situations beyond the unique one he experienced or provide explanations as to how his proposed solution would work that are as concrete as his description of the problems he is hoping to solve.

Before assigning the writer a dumbbell rating, I should point out that both he and I are far less influential than others who also use their own background knowledge regarding college to establish policies, some of which relate to trillions of dollars in spending.

For example, the political leaders and policy makers who have advocated for every student being given the opportunity to attend college likely had idyllic college experiences consisting of four years at a brand-name institution, possibly followed up by graduate or professional school at equally prestigious institutions, leading to a successful career.

Given this, why wouldn’t they want everyone to have the same wonderful experience (even if that experience is one only a fraction of actual college graduates have, given that it does not include those who attend community colleges, commuter schools, online programs, or other places not usually used as sets in college-themed movies).

So Bravo to Professor McWhorter for bringing an alternative most of us have never thought of before to the table. But just three dumbbells for his argument, which needs a lot more backing up before it is as convincing as it is intriguing.

Original Article

College Became the Default. Let’s Rethink That.

John McWhorter

New York Times, April 5, 2022

I graduated from Rutgers University in 1985 and recently had occasion to visit the campus. I was struck, just as I was decades ago, by the contrast between the look of the dormitories built early in the 20th century like Ford Hall (1915) and Hegeman Hall (1922) and that of the great many put up after World War II such as Frelinghuysen Hall (1956) and Mettler Hall (1964). University campuses tend to harbor that kind of contrast between the doughty old ones and the midcentury-modern-ish new ones. Often, the proliferation of the latter allowed the schools to accommodate a vast increase in the student body in the wake of the G.I. Bill after the war.

It was then that the idea really started settling in that the prescribed path in America is to go to college after high school. In 1940, only about one in 20 adults had completed college (today it’s closer to one in three), and that wasn’t thought of as a tragedy. By contrast, a White House fact sheet on President Barack Obama’s education agenda once proclaimed, “Because economic progress and educational achievement go hand in hand, educating every American student to graduate prepared for college and for success in a new work force is a national imperative.”

The question is why we can’t just prepare students for the work force. Why do we assume that people need four whole years of further education after high school? One answer comes from Leon Botstein, the president of Bard College. He wrote an underattended manifesto about what American education should be, “Jefferson’s Children: Education and the Promise of American Culture,” which is 25 years old this year. Before Rutgers, I attended Bard’s subsidiary Simon’s Rock (now Bard College at Simon’s Rock), but I would be singing this book to the skies even if I had never known Bard, Simon’s Rock or Botstein.

The upshot is simple: The idea that in our society the ordinary trajectory after high school is to attend another four years of school has become arbitrary, purposeless and even absurd. Botstein noted, “America has a more elaborate educational system that spreads over more years, reaches more people and ends up with results for the entire population that are worse than those countries with educational systems that are explicitly not democratic and on the surface offer fewer opportunities for advanced education.” This model, he argued, is hardly what we would choose if asked with no experience how things should go. He argued that the model of high school we currently use is from a time when teenagers were, on average, less intellectually mature than they are now. Botstein proposed instead that childhood education can stop at 10th grade and that the education kids get during that year be a richer one than kids typically get today even going up through 12 grades.

Simon’s Rock takes kids from 10th or 11th grade and jumps them right onto the college track — what the school calls “early college.” That means Rockers (as we call ourselves) are technically high school dropouts. I, for one, have no high school diploma and never took the SAT. (I invite my detractors to have fun with that fact.) As the school’s website makes clear, when a student applies, what Simon’s Rock is looking for is “not a set of numbers but an expression of your character, ambitions, imagination and intelligence.” Put another way, the idea is to respect the minds of young people, rather than assume that they are for some reason unburnished until the magic age of 18.

We should also understand that just as some kids at 16 are ready for a college education, just as many kids at that age are ready to take their places in the working world. Most of us today would have a hard time articulately justifying why people must spend four years taking about 40 courses in this and that before becoming executives, administrators or fund-raisers.

Sure, you might worry that they wouldn’t be educated enough for those roles after completing the 10th grade, but here’s some more about Botstein’s hypothesized 10-grade curriculum: The dream is that students would be steeped not in memorization but in thought. They would be indoctrinated in neither sugarcoated celebration nor radical pieties. Rather, they’d be taught the importance of having open and moral minds with a curriculum rich in text and chronicle.

As a demonstration of what young minds are capable of, consider that in the past, Americans without formal postsecondary education could be better educated in some ways than college graduates are today. The eloquently composed letters from modestly educated soldiers during the Civil War are a famous example. Another one that I have always kept in mind is that in the 1830s, in a diary entry that became public when he was tried for the murder of a courtesan, a teenager wrote: “Most youths at 17 or 18 years of age take a pride in boasting of their amours, of their dissipations and of their wild exploits; I have, however, no taste for such exposures.”

I know it sounds idealistic that high school sophomores could start productive workaday lives as if they were 22-year-olds. But venturing what seems far-fetched is a part of what sparks progress, and books like “Jefferson’s Children” stand as prophecy. It’s true that the way things are now, a college degree means higher earnings and the unemployment rate for those with degrees is lower than for those without. One is not allowed into most of the highest-paying careers without a bachelor’s degree. But that’s just it: In this hypothetical America of the future, where public education is about presenting young adults to the world after 10th grade, the idea is that the stewards of these lucrative positions — the people doing the hiring — would be more open to applicants without degrees. Much of what makes this sound so strange today is a mission creep in what high school and college are supposed to be for.

College should be something some kids choose out of personal predilection. When I was at Rutgers, I lived in Demarest Hall, which for decades has been a quirky outlier dorm, with each hallway dedicated to investigating and celebrating special-interest subjects such as German and the performing arts. It has an especially progressive social atmosphere. Junot Díaz set much of his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao,” in Demarest at a time not long after I was there and captures the place perfectly. It was a whole building where almost everybody actively wanted to be doing this college thing.

But it was hard not to see that this wasn’t true of many other college kids at that time. Even as a young student, it was hard for me not to notice how many of my contemporaries were just marking time until they “got that piece of paper,” as some would put it. Yes, they were smart and capable. But they were largely jumping through hoops: It seemed that they might have been better off just getting out there and doing what they wanted to do, without four years of expensive preparation only diagonally related to what they were going to spend their lives doing. Half the students seemed to be majoring in economics and not because they had a special interest in the Laffer Curve but because they saw it as a major that would help them “get a good job,” as many would say. Did society need to put all those students through that exercise?

I don’t mean to imply that kids like that lacked curiosity or weren’t “college material.” The question was what the college mission, as constituted by then, was even for. Nowadays especially, if you want to know about nearly any subject, you don’t have to have a college professor teach it to you. At least not live, in person and as part of a rigid credentialing requirement: College-level education is more readily available today than it has ever been because of online sources. Companies like the Great Courses (which hosts some of my lectures) are ubiquitous. There are countless podcasts about countless subjects available at the push of a button, whereas 40 years ago, when I was an undergraduate, books, periodicals and maybe PBS or NPR probably constituted most of your options. It’s a new world out there.

True, in-class instruction, with its required attendance and the availability of professors for questions, has its advantages, as does the experience of spending four years interacting with a wide range of people. But the question is whether those advantages are so very important as to justify continuing to think of college, including the expense and debt involved, as a default American experience. There is no sacrosanct reason for keeping students in high school through 12th grade, much less for enshrining eight further semesters of formal education as something we quietly pity people for having done without.

We think of four years of high school and four years of college as normal because it’s what we know. But we could be a society of solidly educated people if we improved and bolstered public education while reclassifying a college education as a choice among many. Call this a pipe dream — I realize it wouldn’t happen overnight. But I suspect quite a few would see Botstein’s idea as valuable if we rolled back the tape and started over. That kind of hypothetical is invaluable to assessing where we are and where we might like to go.


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