Skills or education?

By | November 21, 2014

It’s pretty well documented that the best and best paying jobs available to new graduates go not to those who demonstrate any particular set of skills, but rather to those who have attended a relatively small and select number of undergraduate colleges and universities. See Chronicle of Higher Education, “Brown and Cornell are Second Tier” for elaboration. The same is true for the top business schools; once you get in (either because you’re a great guy or because your father went there), grades and academic performance are notably less important than the contacts you make and the opportunities that open up as a result. In a presumably “meritocratic” economy, educational pedigree has come to vastly swamp educational accomplishment. Essentially, education has become a branded enterprise, like snowmobiles and Froot-Loops™.

One main reason that employers hire based on brand name rather than skills is that for most jobs at the entry level to the administrative tier there really aren’t any specific “skills” needed, at least not ones that can’t be learned by a trained monkey in a few days. The things that matter are a thoughtful mind, reasonable social skills, a willingness to listen, a certain degree of general knowledge, working familiarity and comfort with technology, enough ambition to want to advance but not enough to enable sociopathy, and a sense of community.

All these are likely to be found in graduates of the brand name institutions, because this is what those institutions recruit for out of high school. The brand name schools generally know enough to let these students marinate for four years in an atmosphere of just enough knowledge (supplied in part  by those top scholars they have), but they also know enough not to try to teach very many specific “skills”. It’s not that the brand name students learn anything particular from those top scholars at their schools – it’s just that they are good kids to begin with, and don’t get spoiled with specifics. So they go out, use their innate talents to learn in their organizations, get good enough to rise up, and thus validate the pattern of hiring from the brand name schools. It’s a racket of sorts, but one that benefits the players in it.

Unfortunately, this game systematically disadvantages those who are not players – that is, students and institutions outside the brand name circles. Many of the kids may be just as good as the player kids, but they didn’t get picked up by the game, largely because they didn’t come from backgrounds where they could be readily identified. These second, third, and fourth tier institutions generally can’t compete on the basis of networking, so they often emphasize specific kinds of skills training, using lots of tough exams and strict grading standards to enforce a presumed “intellectual rigor”. It’s often a lot harder to get through one of these programs than it is a top-ranked school.

Real intellectual rigor is an attitude toward ideas and their application that’s much less instrumental than the learning of specific skills. It’s cultivated not as much by exams as by dialogue with professors, student colleagues, and other informed people. It is demonstrated less by a list of courses taken and passed than by an ability to material from one context to material from others, and to create new insights that don’t derive directly from any one context – in short, to think and behave creatively.

It’s widely claimed in many faculty circles that intellectual rigor can only be achieved through dialogue with research-oriented tenured professors in traditional face-to-face college and university settings. But we simply don’t have the social resources domestically or even more so, internationally, to support such a system in this rapidly changing world where both traditional and new fields of study increasingly interact and change and technology increasingly mediates information exchange and even the meaning of “knowledge” is evolving. Something has to give.

Various forms of technologically mediated education will happen, and the traditional FTF classroom will become, despite our nostalgia for it, just about as obsolete as the peripatetic sage drawing circles in the dust with a stick or the academically gowned and mortarboarded scholastic lecturing to a crowd of young clerics about epicycles. It is certainly possible to have serious intellectual exchanges in online classes; I’ve done it in many classes in a wide range of fields and at several universities. Mostly, it depends on the professor and the students. Do they want real dialogue enough to work for it?

Educational technology is like any other tool. The very best hammer in the world won’t hit a nail by itself, and won’t help you much if you don’t know about gripping it right and gauging speed and striking power and distance. A very powerful tool like a pneumatic nail gun can even be lethal in uneducated hands. On the other hand, a mossy rock will do a dandy nailing job when held and swung right. Even the best technology won’t enable exchange and therefore rigor if the instructor doesn’t want it to, and even the worst technology won’t impede it if the will to rigor is there.

Broadening access to high-quality education through intelligent applications of technology and new forms of pedagogy and andragogy is a necessary step back from a dangerous social brink. The kinds of education and access to knowledge and social networks currently enjoyed by those in elite institutions ought to be available widely, with skills training returned to the workplace where it belongs. We need many different tiers in higher education, not just two or three. And we have to see education as a lifelong process to be pursued in many different ways at different times, not something ending after scoring one or two degrees.

The long term effects of elite games of all sorts are socially pernicious – an increasing bifurcation of society into a small group of haves and a larger group of have-nots. If game players come only from the haves, and only a part of them, then the rest become have-nots. But as long as the game is transparent and unacknowledged, far too many students, parents, institutions, bureaucrats, politicians, and even analysts will continue to preach “skills” as a way out of have-nottery. Until we really understand the consequences of these games for education, and the potential ways to escape them, we’re on a one-way ticket to social hell.