08
Oct
12

Higher-ed bubble watch, north-of-the-border edition

One of these days I’d like to use the very same title for a blog post about postsecondary inflation in Alaska, just to fuck with people.

Anyway, the Globe and Mail is running a pretentiously-titled feature on postsecondary education in Canada called “Our Time To Lead”.  It features this rather exhaustive discussion of our higher-ed bubble:

As per the standard template for these stories, it leads off with a Special Snowflake who shuns the sciences for an Arts degree, claims to find that “it’s more important to be happy than financially secure”, and “always thought of [an undergraduate education] as knowledge for the sake of knowledge.”  Cue juxtaposition with a multicredentialed graduate whose Master’s degrees in History and Education can’t get him a job as a schoolteacher in Toronto, so he’s folding towels at a gym alongside teenagers he’d like to be teaching.  And, of course:

And to think, he says, he once looked down on high-school friends for heading west after Grade 12 to land jobs in the oil industry.

“I thought they didn’t understand the importance of university. Now, I see them beginning a phase of life I wanted to have right now,” he says.

You know what they say, guys: Syncrude’s always hiring.

You will find the list of complaints that follows to be tediously familiar:

  • Students saddened when they don’t feel “challenged” or “engaged” by two hundred-seat first-year lectures taught (variously) by distant, distracted, research-focused professors or harried, harassed, and underpaid adjuncts and TAs;
  • Faculty frustrated with undergraduates who arrive ill-prepared, who can neither construct a sentence nor factor a quadratic, and who “prefer to amble leisurely through a four-year degree like consumers ordering an education to go”; and
  • Employers exasperated with graduates who present themselves without critical communication and problem-solving skills.

We’ll charitably look past the juxtaposition of undergrads who see university as a temple of Higher Learning, rather than a crass skill-factory churning out employees for consumption by the Great Corporate Maw, and those that complain that they’re not being taught relevant job skills.  Perhaps those two sets of students are independent.  (Perhaps, if you were in the second set, you even know what it means for two sets to be independent — although if you’re anything like the comp-sci undergrads alongside whom I suffered you probably don’t consider set algebra to be a relevant job skill.  If that’s the case, then God willing, your DBA will drag you out into the parking lot and beat you with a rubber hose like your Intro Databases prof should have.  Look: Now even I’m complaining about Universities These Days.)

The verbiage that follows contains an eloquent anecdote in support of the signaling theory of education:

The head of a trucking company told Dr. Weingarten that he hired only university grads as truckers. The cab of a truck is complicated, he said, as are the logistics of warehousing. In any case, “if I have two students come to me, both prepared to be a truck driver and work for x amount of money, and one of them has a degree, why shouldn’t I hire the university grad?”

Why indeed?

It also points to a rather compelling story about the inflation of the higher-ed bubble, at least on this side of the 49th (opening caveat obviously excluded), which begins with this delightful piece of omphaloskepsis:

“Whom does the university serve – the students, their families, the faculty?” asks Ken Coates, the Canada Research Chair in Regional Innovation at the University of Saskatchewan and co-author of Campus Confidential, which explores how the system’s failure to manage a growing student population has eroded the quality and value of a degree. “As long as they are publicly funded institutions, shouldn’t we be focused on how we serve society as a whole?”

Are universities — and/or university educations — designed or expected to serve “society as a whole”?  We surely shovel enough public funds at them.  (Sorry, homeless people, Ken Coates needs a Canada Research Chair in Regional Innovation!  Maybe we’ll build you a shelter next fiscal year.)  Indeed they are, as Canada’s fourth most-beloved Prime Minister, Lester B. Pearson, would tell you:

[T]he loftier ambition of liberal education has always been to create citizens who are well-read, critical thinkers, strong communicators and civically engaged – the qualities Mr. Pearson lauded when he told the students that a degree called on them “to serve their country” and not themselves.

(It is perhaps too lofty an ambition of journalism programmes to create writers who can use the Oxford Comma properly.  We’ll let that pass.)

This is a bit of a creepy ambition to rabid individualists like me — it reads like a tepid Canadian mandate to transform malleable, putty-like young adults into a rather diffident set of New Socialist Men.  But have a read at another Pearson sound bite:

“Will the emphasis on wise and unhurried teaching and research be replaced by the demand and the dimensions of a knowledge economy?”

Maybe the best way to serve your country rather than yourself would be to forego that taxpayer-subsidized four-year vacation in the Land of the Liberal Arts and pick up a B.Sc. and a good job in that knowledge economy, eh hippy?  It brings to mind this admonition from P. J. O’Rourke’s commencement address:

Don’t chain yourself to a redwood tree. Instead, be a corporate lawyer and make $500,000 a year. No matter how much you cheat the IRS, you’ll still end up paying $100,000 in property, sales and excise taxes. That’s $100,000 to schools, sewers, roads, firefighters and police. You’ll be doing good for society.

How many people are willing to chain themselves to a seventy-hour work week in order to “do good for society” by bumping themselves into the highest tax bracket?  Some sacrifices, especially the chronic and banal, are too great to make for an abstract ideal.  Fuck civic virtue.  But don’t let’s pretend that you’re serving your country by studying Keats and Kant rather than Kronecker and Kepler.

There’s a less theoretical and more immediate benefit to shovelling people into post-secondary institutions, too: It keeps them out of the unemployment numbers.

As James Côté, co-author of Lowering Higher Education, points out, the government’s postsecondary cheerleading solved the supply problem of youth labour by parking them on campus. But it failed to plan for how graduates would find work related to their field of study. Canada has one of the highest graduate underemployment rates among Western countries, swelling the ranks of Keats-quoting baristas.

The classical education so beloved by fictional terrorist Hans Grüber, and which is the inspiration for if not the fact of many modern Bachelor’s of Arts curricula, is an aristocratic relic.  It’s a nostalgic throwback to a class and age when gainful employment was considered vulgar rather than laudable.  It, along with with the marked diaeresis, should perhaps be reëxamined.

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2 Responses to “Higher-ed bubble watch, north-of-the-border edition”


  1. October 9, 2012 at 07:16

    [T]he loftier ambition of liberal education has always been to create citizens who are well-read, critical thinkers, strong communicators and civically engaged

    I’m sure I don’t mean it like the person who said it did, but I’m ok with those goals. That set of adjectives would handily describe Ben Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and Thomas Paine, after all. And Lysander Spooner and H. L. Mencken, for that matter. :D

    • October 10, 2012 at 19:53

      Frankly, I’d be happier if people were far less civically engaged. Civic engagement tends to translate into coming up with fantastic-sounding ideas for how to spend other people’s money. I think Mencken and Spooner at least would agree — and they’d probably be annoyed to be thought of as “citizens” rather than “individuals” or “people”.

      The broader problem with those goals is that they’re rather far removed from the things they’re used to justify. Hence the following Underpants Gnomes problem:

      1. Thousand-word essay on Thomas Aquinas
      2. ??????
      3. Critical thinking skills!

      I could just as easily claim that putting the right error bars on the charts in your CHEM 120 lab report teaches critical thinking skills, because look, I’m getting you to think about the limits of your data and sources of uncertainty! (Actually, I probably have claimed something more or less isomorphic to that on this blog at some point or another. I’m not saying it’s right, but it’s a fun claim to make. Hell, at least a study of experimental error would give you a fighting chance against the next bolus of science-journalism bullshit to drop down from, I dunno, Mark Bittman’s face-anus.)

      I realize you’re being a smartass, and I applaud that, believe me. But universities and governments are lying to kids and taking their money, and it pisses me off.


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