Less, not more, Education?

11 04 2011

I wonder how well our current mindset about education in the U.S. really serves our needs. We seem to overdo it a bit in thinking that more education, by which we mean more time spent in educational institutions, is better than less. While there are many careers that genuinely demand a great deal of education, there are many that do not. Most people end up in careers for which a solid high school education would be ample preparation.

Yet, many of those jobs, especially those thought of as ‘professional,’ expect those filling them to have a college degree. The breadth of education they get in college is, supposedly, ideal for making them more flexible, critical, and creative. As more and more people go to college for these reason, however, the nature of the college environment itself changes. As class sizes swell, there are fewer occasions for college classes to provide the sort of direct teacher to student encounters that are needed to sharpen students in this way.

The emphasis on getting more people into college also helps conceal some glaring inadequacies in primary education. Many primary schools suffer from crippling economic shortfalls, creating a situation where too few teachers are provided too few resources to deal with large classes of students. While there are notable exceptions to this practice, those exceptions are themselves a problem. Education shapes career opportunities, so this leads to a situation that facilitates financial (and, subsequently, political and social) inequality.

Ironically, I think part of the problem with the college system lies with the liberal arts model that justifies its capacity to produce creative and flexible minds. It creates a situation where students are expected to take courses outside a field to which they are dedicating themselves.

To accommodate this, departments offer a bevy of introductory courses which will be swollen with students filing course requirements. These very courses, supposedly the basis for college’s efficacy, become driven by standardized tests and programmatic lectures. To the extent that more personal contact occurs, it tends to be with TAs who are often just beginning to acquire expertise in their field.

The most central disciplines in the liberal arts become the most problematic. The average doctoral degree in those fields takes seven to ten years to complete, despite the fact that coursework in those fields is completed in the first three years of study. The dissertation occupies the remainder of the doctorate education. Considering that most students go on to teaching positions, rather than research position, we should have grave concerns about making this one of the major requirements for teaching at the college level.

Even for those who will likely pursue a research-driven career, they don’t seem well served by writing a research manuscript so early in their careers. Moreso than in other fields, research in the liberal arts is driven by the quality of interpretation rather than the execution of a discrete research study. The quality of interpretation is likely to improve as familiarity deepens. Scholars writing later tend to produce better, more thoughtful works. It would be far better if the dissertation process occurred later, as part of a college professor’s career track, than as part of their educational track.

This doesn’t mean that younger scholars shouldn’t be writing. There are many outlets for scholarly engagement. There are established journals through which work is vetted beforehand and discussed afterward. The internet, too, provides a vehicle for scholarly publication that, with care, can be used for discussion and development.

Worse, during the time spent pursuing the doctorate, most graduate students are employed at their home university (or nearby colleges) for extraordinarily low salaries and virtually no benefits to teach. These jobs, necessary for the student trying to complete doctoral work, subsequently serve to undercut the chances of employment for those who have completed their dissertation.

Even when employed, the bulk of cheap graduate student labor combined with the number of graduates looking for jobs serves to suppress the salaries of graduates. As teaching pays less and less, teachers are forced to teach more and more or supplement their teaching with other forms of work. Overworked teachers are not going to have the time to read, think, and write thoughtful works that deepen our understanding.

All of this makes it sounds like I’m against a liberal arts education, doesn’t it? I’m not. The values endorsed by supporters of a liberal arts education (critical, historically informed, engaged thinking)  are values I strongly endorse. I think we start too late to inculcate them properly, though. College is not the ideal situation for introducing these skills; primary schools are.

Rather than emphasize preparing students for college, primary education itself should be tasked with preparing students for life. In a complex and dynamic world like ours, the ‘liberal arts’ approach is preparation for life. That is because, at root, a liberal arts education helps students learn how to learn, how to be adapt to the present without simply abandoning the past.

I don’t think we need 12 years of primary education to do that, though. A well-structured and well-staffed educational system could provide the fundamentals of an education for living in 9 or 10 years. The last 2 or 3 years of primary education could then be replaced with vocational training. For some, especially those looking to teach, this might look like an extension of the shortened liberal arts driven primary education.

For many, though, it would be targeted to practical skills, be it computer programming, financial administration, plumbing, carpentry, or car repair. Those vocational schools could be structured more on the model of a workshop where practical experience would take center stage.

They could also serve older individuals. They would provide those already working in their fields with a chance to catch up on recent innovations or broaden their expertise. Those making major career shifts would  find targeted educational support there. That also creates a situation where established professionals mingle more often with those preparing to enter their profession.

*   *   *

Obviously, I’m speculating. Any concrete solution to the problems facing the educational system will surely be more complex and will have to take into account the broad disparities in education in the U.S. as well as take a serious estimate of the resources available for change. Those resources aren’t just financial; they include teacher and student readiness and political will.

Speculation’s virtue lies in helping re-envision how we can change. By shifting the emphasis away from higher education, I want to highlight the importance and potential of primary education. A vigorous commitment to primary education could provide most of the educational resources to students that we presently expect our colleges and universities to provide.

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