When education equals product – part 3 (conclusion)

A University should be a place of light, of liberty, and of learning.
– Benjamin Disraeli

time change
As I bring this discussion to a close (for now), I find myself referencing an unlikely source for my lead-in. I happened to be on Facebook over the weekend and dropped in on an ongoing discussion regarding Daylight Saving Time, a topic that has stirred increasing controversy over the last few years. United in their frustration, the contributors wanted DST banished, largely – at least according to their posts – because it interfered with sleep patterns, necessitating an unwanted adjustment from which they never quite recovered. The fact that such an adjustment had to be made twice a year simply compounded the misery.

As it turns out, I am the contrarian in this regard: I like the time changes. I agree that they throw your sleep patterns out of whack for a period of time, but I enjoy the ritual and the connection it has to seasonal changes. Amidst a winter such as the one we have “enjoyed” this year, anything that tells me we are approaching the end of winter and the onset of spring is welcome indeed. When I think of these time changes, I consider them as a kind of social ritual, not unlike Christmas, Easter, and whatever other days on the calendar have a common social import. So, from my perspective, I want to hang on to the time changes. I now know that a significant constituency exists on Facebook that disagrees with me and I’m okay with that.

What I am not okay with is the more pronounced objections that we hear of in more conventional media settings, i.e., newspapers, television and radio. There the focus tends to be pretty much exclusively on the economics of the change. Statistics are rolled out suggesting that any perceived savings are just that and nothing more: perceptions. In truth, so the argument goes, it would be cheaper to leave the clocks alone. Case closed. By now you might be asking how does this connect with my earlier reflections on the business education symposium I attended?

university 1
In both cases, any discussion of the issue inevitably swings to a consideration of the current and always dominant preoccupation with “economy”. As I’ve indicated, when it comes to Daylight Saving Time, I don’t care about the economics of it; I value the “ritual”, you might say, because it represents something that has value for me beyond dollars and cents. You might as well try to quantify a sunrise, a sunset or the pleasure of rocking an infant to sleep in your arms.

University, and “education” in general, as concepts, are rooted in a similar kind of idealism. Products of the Renaissance and a key to the emergence of what most of us might call the modern world, universities were rarely regarded as places people went in order to be able to find a job. These were the redoubts of those tasked with thinking about the world and humanity’s place in it. As time went on and the various disciplines began to define themselves more clearly, practical applications in the sciences began to be found for scientific discoveries especially. As I’ve suggested in an earlier blog, university was not regarded as essential for employment when I was leaving high school. By 1975 (my graduating year), it had become a preferred route for many; still, it was more an option than a necessity.

university 2
Over the course of the last 40 years, that has changed dramatically. Now, the need for some form of post-secondary education has become a given for most. Community and private colleges are well-suited for such a demand. Both offer programs that are very skills oriented. Everyone is clear on why you are there: employment upon receipt of your diploma. I’m sure we’ve all known people who chose the “tech” route following high school graduation, most of whom have gone on to very successful careers. Few who attend such institutions experience the handwringing common among undergraduates at university as they approach the receipt of their Bachelor’s degree. Virtually all of them expect that further study and accompanying debt will be needed before gainful employment can be realized.

Few universities want to talk about how the university model has failed to adjust to this changing reality. In conversation with one of the young people attending the business education symposium, I spoke about the role of a university “fellow”, essentially someone who is granted a salary (stipend, if you prefer) in order to free him/her to pursue research without other obligations, such as offering courses, interfering. This represents the exceptional but the ordinary circumstance of professors and the granting of degrees holds to a model that I, personally, believe in but one that is singularly unsuitable for programs that purport to be designed to provide job opportunities upon completion.

Universities were imagined as places where the learned could gather so that knowledge might be deepened and greater understanding of a plethora of concerns might be achieved or, at least, studied. As such, they were forged out of a Renaissance ideal of the emerging human being, one who was noble, capable, and to be admired in his/her own right without reference to divinity’s approbation. And so the quiet, forested campus with majestic buildings was born, a monument of sorts and a kind of metaphor for the conduct of the university: quiet, reflective, long-term, free somehow of the demands of the larger world.

university 3
Need I say that that has changed? Universities are now viewed – as is virtually everything else – largely in light of what they can or cannot contribute to the supply and demand imperative of the marketplace. Personally, similar to my preference for Daylight Saving Time, I prefer the older conception. But reality for business and other programs increasingly precludes the university being regarded as the hallowed halls of academe. When it costs as much as $100,000 or more to obtain an undergraduate degree that offers a shaky guarantee of employment (now your primary reason for attending in the first place), the “customers” understandably want some kind of guarantee that their money is being well-spent. If universities continue to be driven toward a model that sees them as job training facilities, they will no longer be universities in truth. And that would be a sad day for all of us.

When education equals product – part 2

In the room the women come and go
Talking of Michelangelo.

– T.S. Eliot, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”

value 4
At the event I referenced in my last post, a young man, during the question period, made a claim which I now include in my list of current, clichéd observations and comments: “we are the most educated generation in the history of the world”, or something to that effect. Please don’t get me wrong: I’m not trying to disparage the young man and his offering. I’m simply using his assertion as an example of how public discourse easily avoids real scrutiny when the opinions expressed run in concert with the reigning orthodoxy.

The second topic of my opening comments (the first having been credential creep) was what I have dubbed the “positivity myth”, more for convenience sake than for any inherent value. I’m trying to capture a sense of a phenomenon we see in so many arenas in our modern world, one where certain things, while they might be subject to certain mild criticisms, are held to be essentially unassailable truths. And the irony is, they may very well be either true or expressions of admirable aspirations.

The problem I have arises when someone (usually me) tries either to challenge or to qualify such “truths”. Not the least among those truisms would be any configuration that asserts the value of an education. If my theory is correct in any way, if you are reading this, somewhere inside a little voice is saying: “surely he isn’t going to say that education isn’t important?” Even to countenance such a thought might make you uncomfortable. Hopefully, my concern re education has been made clear even if certain of the specifics may yet require explanation. That, after all, is my persistent premise: we live in a world too ready to accept the pat answer, the clichéd solution, or the comfortable optimism of the purveyors of modern positive-thinking, self-help mantras (I’m thinking of the Deepak Chopras, the Tony Robbins, and others of a similar ilk).

So this young man’s claim to being a member of the most educated generation in history would ordinarily be a throwaway (others heard later would include “government has a role to play in education”, “we need to foster innovation and creativity”, “strategic investments in education will pay dividends”, etc.), but I found it provocative in light of my interests so I challenged his claim on the most basic of grounds: what do you mean? In other words, what underlying assumptions are you making regarding the educational attainments of previous generations, the quality and/or relevance of whatever education you attained, and other factors too numerous to list?

After a pause, the young man smiled, nodded some form of acknowledgement and I moved on with my comments. As the discussion proceeded throughout the morning, the cavalier use of the word “education” became all the more apparent. Whether we know it or not, when we find ourselves in such public forums, any number of unstated assumptions are in play. Foremost in an environment such as the one for this symposium stands the meaning of education. Just about everyone assumes that we don’t need to spend any time defining such a commonly used word; we KNOW what education is – let’s move on.

valie 2
Lacking a clearly defined, agreed upon definition presents a problem in its own right. When any challenge to such a “positive” assessment of our current situation conflicts with the constant demand that we be positive in all we do, how is it possible to pay real critical attention to matters at hand, whatever those matters might be? People commonly applaud such empty statements as “we need to invest in innovation”, as though simply making declarative statements equals actually providing a thoughtful approach and/or solution. Those same people will usually turn away from or dismiss any reasoned critique as though providing such a thing is inherently negative and, thus, counterproductive.

This reality stands in the way of the apocryphal “adult conversations” which we are frequently reminded we are in need of. I say apocryphal because I’m struggling to recall an occasion where one actually took place. As a general rule, our modern determination to avoid the controversial – to be “politically correct” – prevents such conversations from ever getting off the ground.

value 4
Such a conversation, if we were to have one regarding education, would need to begin with determining just what it is we are talking about. We can no longer afford to muddle along thinking that we all possess a common understanding. My experience at the symposium last week brought that home to me. If education is little more than a place where you are made ready for a job market, why do we need universities? Surely training programs with a far more targeted approach would serve us better?

Somewhere in the back of most people’s minds lingers an image of education – particularly university education – as a “higher pursuit”, the value of which goes beyond simple job preparation. Whether we are fully aware of it or not, that presumption is increasingly being challenged as universities and their defenders lose their ability to articulate just what those higher values might be. If they cannot find some way to reclaim the higher ground, universities – especially smaller ones such as UNBSJ – will be more and more servants of a mindset that says training and education are synonymous. It just so happens that I disagree with any such suggestion as it exemplifies especially well the dangers inherent in oversimplification.

When education equals product

“But when they began handing out doctorates for comparative folk dancing and advanced fly-fishing, I became too stink in’ proud to use the title. I won’t touch watered whiskey and I take no pride in watered-down degrees.”
― Robert A. Heinlein, Stranger in a Strange Land

credential four
I was a panelist at an event I attended this past Friday and I warned the organizer who invited me that I wasn’t entirely sure what I could contribute. Nevertheless, not one to turn down an opportunity to share certain views publicly, I went as unprepared as one could be. I had no notes, no opening statement, not really any expectations. In order to have the latter, necessity demands that you have some sense of what it is you are facing.

The occasion was a meeting held at UNBSJ concerning the future of business education, a subject in which, as I said (and shared very clearly with all those I attendance) I make no claims to having any expertise. I wasn’t surprised to encounter a number of familiar faces when I arrived. Having spent the last number of years involved in politics, I’ve met many people who look to the university as an integral piece of any plans either for sustaining or for improving Saint John’s viability as an urban centre. Fortunately (for me), I was the last panelist to present so I had time to listen to others and formulate something to say. It didn’t take me long to realize the approach I would take, largely because so much of what I was hearing related so well to an element of the larger problem I have been pursuing in earlier offerings here at unabsolutedotcom.

All three who preceded me brought business experience to the discussion, whether that experience was as business owners, executives in companies or in other roles. Considering that three subsequent keynote speakers had a similar mix of backgrounds, as well as considerable academic experience, I might have expected to be out of my depth.

Credential creep 1
Again, fortunately, I was well-served by the very thing which has occupied so much of my time here, namely, a lack of clarity when it comes to just exactly what it is we are considering. Listening and making notes for myself, I detected what I choose to call “muddiness” in our considerations of “business education”, the same muddiness that I believe is so much at the root of problems with “education” at large.

Time and again, speakers, as well as those asking questions, returned to the specific needs of the workforce, those needs being described primarily in terms of prospective candidates’ attributes or – to use an especially popular term these days – competencies. These recruits should be innovative, creative, adaptable critical thinkers. Who wouldn’t want such people as part of the workforce? I can only presume that business schools offer courses in accounting and what might be termed the more “practical” elements of the evolving university program while, supposedly, engendering the other qualities.

Credential 2
When it was my turn to speak, I chose to focus on what has been called credential creep. If you are unfamiliar with the concept, consider the following. When I was attending high school in the mid seventies, graduates could choose to forego university in favour of direct entry into the workforce without too many concerns. Going to work for a local firm or pursuing a trade from the ground up were perfectly legitimate choices. We probably all know someone who started working at _____?______ right out of high school, worked there all his/her life (maybe still there), and will retire soon if that hasn’t happened already. We all know how much that scenario has changed.

A contributing factor easily overlooked amidst the many technological and other changes over the last forty years or so is the value of that high school diploma. Back in 1975, when someone presented you with one, you could be fairly confident that it indicated the holder had certain fundamental abilities. He/she could read and write well enough, do some basic math and think for him/herself. Few would take that as a given these days.

I think it was in the 80s that universities began offering writing courses to make up for deficits in students’ work. While no one really talked about it publicly, it was clear to professors that students were leaving high school lacking certain fundamentals. Thirty plus years later, a high school diploma guarantees very little, except in the case of those students who have always excelled and whose abilities are evident no matter what system they operate in.

The new bottom line is the Bachelor of Arts and, even then, from an employment perspective, many, I suspect, would not take even an undergraduate degree as proof of competence. Students not looking to pursue professional designations at the graduate level, or academic work for its own sake, increasingly look to community colleges as the preferred path. How often do you hear people disparage the value of a B.A.?

credential 3
Similarly, in business, I asked the question re the B.B.A. In light of the many demands that “interested parties” seem to be making of graduating students, how much practical value does a B.B.A. have? My concerns were echoed by one of the students in attendance who was preparing for graduate work. We certainly hear comments about the value of a “Harvard M.B.A.” I can’t recall any occasion where someone remarked on the B.B.A. someone just received received (even if it was from Harvard). Credential creep (and the escalating cost of making it even to the top of the first ladder) threatens the relevance of university courses and programs in a world that more and more associates universities with job readiness. Personally, I’m not sure those two interests intersect nearly as well as might be thought. (to be continued)