Saturday, November 19, 2011

The Religion of Education

In the world of liberal pieties, education can solve all problems.

When they speak like this, liberals are not talking about vocational training. They are focused on higher learning that brings out everyone’s mental best. They want to teach students to exercise their minds by thinking about great ideas. Somehow or other they think that everyone can become brilliant.

Defenders of traditional liberal arts education insist that we need all learn to think great thoughts. Then, and only then, can we garner success in the world and have a good life. They also believe that an educated citizenry is necessary for good democratic governance.

It’s a great idea, better in theory than in practice.

More often than not liberal arts curricula teach students to think, but not to do. It would be somewhat justified if students were learning the great ideas from the great books. More often than not, they are learning to mouth liberal platitudes, the better to fit in on Martha's Vineyard. Worse yet, they do not learn how to do a job, how to function within an office environment, or how to produce goods and services.

STEM courses are the exception, but most of the students who  thrive in these courses are of Asian origin. They are doing well, and becoming desirably employees, because they have ignored the religion of American education.

Educators lobby for education. They want to convince the public that education is the best way to spend public money.

In their minds there is nothing that education cannot do. They believe that education will save the nation’s soul, eradicate inequalities, and create social justice.

How many times have you heard that all adolescent sexual problems will be cured by more sex education? How’s that one been working out?

And how many times have you heard that we can solve the problem of bullying if children all learn how bad it makes other children feel?

A noble sentiment, indeed. But, how smart do you have to be to know that bullies do what they do because they really want to inflict pain.

In a socially mobile nation like America, people have been told that education is the ticket to middle class prosperity and the good life.

If you believe in mind over matter, if you believe that changing your mind can change the world, if you believe that higher education is the key to overcoming poverty, injustice, inequality, and most of your sins, then you belong to what I would call to the Church of Educational Felicity.

Now, people are starting to understand that higher education saddles young people with crushing debt while preparing them for non-existent jobs.

Writing in the Los Angeles Review of Books Steven Brint concludes that education has become a secular religion. It's proponents might see themselves as hard-headed atheists but they have found a new god to worship.

Brint’s analysis is on point: “Education is as close to a secular religion as we have in the United States. In a time when Americans have lost faith in their government and economic institutions, millions of us still believe in its saving grace. National leaders, from Benjamin Rush on, oversaw plans for extending its benefits more broadly. In the 19th century, the industrialist Andrew Carnegie famously conceived of schools as ladders on which the industrious poor would ascend to a better life, and he spent a good bit of his fortune laying the foundations for such an education society. After World War II, policy makers who believed in the education gospel grew numerous enough to fill stadiums. One by one, the G.I. Bill, the Truman Commission report, and the War on Poverty singled out education as the way of national and personal advance. ‘The answer to all of our national problems,’ as Lyndon Johnson put it in 1965, ‘comes down to one single word: education.’”

This means that the worst thing you can do is deprive a child of an education. Not just any education, but higher education, preferably in the liberal arts. Our religious fervor is largely responsible for the higher education bubble.

When you declare that being educated is like receiving God’s grace, you cannot quibble about the price.

This means that too many young people who have no real need for higher education are attending America’s colleges.

Brint describes them: “Our colleges and universities are full to the brim with students who do not really belong there, who are unprepared for college and uninterested in breaking a mental sweat. Instead of studying, they spend time talking on the phone, planning social events, chitchatting about personal trivia and popular culture, and facebooking. Faculty members demand less of these students, according to Babcock and Marks, both because they are incapable of doing more and because they will punish faculty members with bad evaluations if they are pushed to try harder. The students often consider courses that require concentration “boring” and “irrelevant.” They argue and wheedle their way into grades they do not deserve. The colleges, out of craven financial motives, do not squarely face the fact that not all of their students are “college material.” Worse, they cater to ill-prepared and under-motivated students, dumbing down the curriculum to the point where a college degree is worth less, in terms of educational quality, than a degree from one of the better high schools. Institutions at the tail end of academic procession are, as David Riesman once put it, ‘colleges only by the grace of semantic generosity’.”

Universities must maintain the illusion that they are offering something more than a holding pen for students who would otherwise be crowding the job market or otherwise causing mayhem.

So they inflate grades. How better to convince children and their parents that they are learning something?

In its turn, this produces credential inflation.

Brint explains: “Our system is one that provides opportunity to obtain credentials, but lacks responsibility for employment.”

It has not produced social equality, but, he continues: “credential inflation: the condition in which higher levels of education (or distinctive brands of education) are necessary to 'buy' standards of living previously associated with lower levels (or generic brands) of education. As workers attain the bachelor’s degree, middle-class incomes become associated with the attainment of master’s or first professional degrees, and access to truly powerful opportunities requires attendance at an elite institution.”

It’s about status more than skills. Brint explains that education is not going to solve social problems because it is not teaching people the skills that the economy requires.

In his words: “One reason that education cannot solve problems of inequality is that most jobs do not in fact require high levels of education. Far from becoming a society of hyper-rational and high-powered ‘knowledge workers,’ as theorists of post-industrial society predicted, the United States is becoming a society of hospital orderlies, cashiers, compliance officers, and computer technicians — to judge by its fastest-growing occupations. College educated professionals and managers constitute just 15 percent of the work force. If the size of the professional-managerial stratum is relatively fixed, the educated children of the well-to-do will find ways to keep all but the most determined children of the working classes out. They will size each other up by comparing the quality of the schools from which they graduated, how articulately they can discuss current affairs or their summer travel experiences, and how they navigate any number of other cultural checkpoints.”

Obviously, there are bright spots in the mist. Yet, if education has become nothing more than a gatekeeper to the higher social strata, it is failing its task.

Liberal arts courses can serve a highly useful purpose. You cannot learn about ethics in an engineering course.

Yet, this assumes that the liberal arts are still in the business of  transmitting great ideas. And it assumes that those who attend the courses have a reason to be there, beyond the need to acquire a credential that they can presumably ride to fame and fortune.

More of often than not, in today’s America, that is not the case. American education can certainly be fixed. First, we need to lower our expectations about what education can do for the nation. Second, we need to cease believing that education is a secular religion. Third, we need to have a debate about the practical value of different levels of education, and get over the idea that advanced education is for everyone. Fourth, we need to see educators get over their own dogmas, like self-esteemism and political correctness.



David Foster said...

Good post. I do think education has become a religion, and one effect of the credential-worship has been to seriously inhibit social mobility. Just as the requirement for an aristocratic background once inhibited the full use of many talents in a society, the requirement for a bachelor's degree for a factory shift supervisor or an MBA for a bank region manager or an Ivy League degree for a lawyer or investment banker is now having a similar effect in America.

It is ironic, because a big part of the justification for the huge increases in ed spending over the last many decades has been that it was supposed to *increase* social mobility.

Micha Elyi said...

At the root of America's fascination with college are the so-called affirmative action and equal opportunity statues.

The nation is still doing penance for black slavery and the century of legislated second-class citizenship imposed on blacks that followed emancipation. Only when all forms of state-sponsored racialism, race-slavery, Jim Crow and AA, are stricken for the law books with America's national penance for racism reach a just end.