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Monday, April 19, 2010

Is college a scam?

My son has recently been saying he thinks college is basically a great big scam. He's basing his opinion on his impression of the teachers at his high school, the type of kids who get good grades, and what he sees of college graduates.

The teachers at Johnny's high school, like most, preach political correctness -- which pretty much equals factual incorrectness. Johnny is very interested in history, and when he discusses it with kids (like his sister) who take AP history courses, it quickly becomes apparent that they have no real grasp of it, and know only what it takes to get good grades. And Johnny has known (or known of) plenty of college grads who spout a lot of nonsense.

It has long been said that the main benefit of an Ivy League education is being able to say that you went there. Going to an Ivy League college doesn't mean you learned anything special while there. It simply means that you are smart enough to have scored well on the SATs and hard working enough to get good enough grades to have gained admission. So when an employer shows preference to someone who went to an exclusive college, he is essentially rewarding that person for having performed well in high school. Employers do need some sort of sieve to distinguish among potential employees, and this is probably not a bad one.

It's also been said that one of the main benefits of going to an exclusive college is that you get to hang out with other smart people. There may be something to this as well.

But this post is about the nature of the actual "education" you get at college. Universities are stocked with professors who will happily teach you such "facts" as, Marxism is good and capitalism is bad. Or that people of color are good and white people are evil -- and that there is no difference between the races when it comes to intelligence. Or that men and women are only different because they are brought up differently. Most importantly, colleges teach you that if you are empirically observant and digress from this thinking, you are a bad person.

Getting a diploma from a liberal arts college is a little like getting your degree from your church, where they taught you that Jesus was immaculately conceived, walked on water, and rose from the dead. Or from your mosque, where the "professors" teach you that seventy-two virgins await you in heaven if you blow yourself up in a crowd of nonbelievers.

It should be said that there is substantial variation between college majors. Someone who goes to college to study engineering, or physics, or applied math actually learns something useful. In general, the further away from the hard sciences one gets -- the more likely one's education is to be a matter of indoctrination rather than actual learning.

At best taking a course in a soft subject teaches you how to toss the bull; but that's for the most part an innate skill rather than a learned one anyway. I majored in psychology, a particularly squishy subject. I took classes in social psychology, Freudian psychology, and the psychology of humor, every last one of them utterly worthless. The same can be said by pretty much anyone who majored in a "soft" subject like sociology or political science. And how much of this can be used on a job anyway?

(The counterargument to this is that one shouldn't be so crass, that much of learning is worthwhile for its own sake. This may be so, but it still doesn't mean one needs to go to college to acquire this knowledge.)

After college, I got an MBA in finance, arguably a harder subject. But I still did almost all my learning for the job on the job. Given which, if you were an employer on, say, Wall Street, and wanted a resourceful, tough employee who could get a job done, whom would you rather hire, a Cornell grad with a degree in anthropology or a Delta Force operator?

It often occurred to me while I was in college that I could just read the books assigned for courses and save my parents a lot of money. To actually listen to some pompous professor drone on about what was in the books was pretty much a waste of money. And time. My parents were paying $6000 a year for my education, at the time a lot of money. For just a couple hundred dollars I could have just read the books, and I probably would have absorbed them better without the distraction of the lectures.

But then I wouldn't have been able to swim on the college team -- an important part of my college education. Or meet all the pretentious idiots I did.

There is another fact that those who put too much stock in a college education tend to ignore, and that is that truly intelligent people never stop learning after college. Those who talk about where they got their "education" are sort of implying that that's where their education stopped. And that they really aren't all that smart.

Another indicator of the value of a college education is the number of kids who go to college to major in drinking beer and partying, with studying a distant minor. Of course, given the nature of what they're taught, they may have right attitude.

Someone ought to open up a college which actually teaches usable real world skills: how to lie convincingly, how to read people, how to manipulate, how to seduce, how to be good at sex, how to fight (lethally), how to structure a prenup, how to invest, how to acquire sensitive information. Such a college would be a tremendous success. It's certainly a safe bet that the students' attention would not waver the way it usually does at most colleges.

Yet another knock against a degree from a fancy college are the skewed entrance requirements. The primacy of athletic ability when it comes to college admissions makes all jocks somewhat suspect. Racial set-asides are even more pernicious. The first thought most whites or Asians have when meeting a black who has a fancy college degree is, aha, affirmative action. The black may be smarter than them, but that makes no difference: the same conclusion will be reached.

Older men used to say they went to the college of hard knocks; it was actually a cliche around forty years ago, though you don't hear it anymore. I used to dismiss this as a lame excuse for not having gone to college. But the older I get, the more I realize, that college is just as good as any other. (On the other hand, having attended that particular institution is no guarantee of intelligence either.)

I actually went to college with the vague idea that it would actually somehow make me smarter. My son is far wiser than I was at the same age.


Anonymous said...

Truly excellent post John (and Johnny). I don't know where to begin on I won't.

John Craig said...

Guy -- Thank you very much for making THAT comment.

Anonymous said...

should be published in every high school and every parent should read this, write more ....

John Craig said...

Thank you very much. That post actually pretty much covers the main reasons college is sort of a scam, so I'm not sure what else I'd write. I suppose I could go on about the kids of courses that "scholar-athletes" take at big time sports schools (bowling for credit, etc.). I suppose there are other things to talk about, but this blog is geared towards people with ADD (like me).

John Craig said...

Kinds, not kids.

Anonymous said...

"Racial set-asides are even more pernicious. The first thought most whites or Asians have when meeting a black who has a fancy college degree is, aha, affirmative action. The black may be smarter than them, but that makes no difference: the same conclusion will be reached."

David Cameron recently made a big scene about the fact that there was only one black student admitted to Oxford University as a fresher in the past year. It wouldn't surprise me if there will suddenly be way more blacks at Oxford in the next few years. It reminds me a bit of when Labour was in power in the 00s - they made a huge scene about how Oxford was admitting so many from upper-middle class backgrounds (mainly because they're more likely to apply), so the college dons started suddenly being biased towards poorer students. I met a girl who studied music at Oxford and was from a modest background, and I couldn't help wondering if she'd gotten in due to affirmative action. Don't get me wrong: this girl was brilliant - ten times cleverer than me - but I nevertheless couldn't help wondering...

- Gethin

John Craig said...

Gethin --
You are, as always, correct: that stigma will always be attached to those who might have benefited from AA as long as AA exists.