Thoughts on Education – 2/22/2012 – Getting a liberal arts education

Back to thinking about education after a couple of days doing other things.  I’ve been trying to get something up here every day, but things have been so busy over the last couple of days, that I’ve been taking a quick way out a couple of days.  So, I want to get back into thinking about some of the big educational ideas out there.  There have been a few articles on getting an education, largely about getting a liberal arts education, that have passed through my Evernote, so I thought I’d bring them together here.

I wanted to open with this chart.  It comes from a short article here.  I don’t even really need to say anything about it, but I will anyway, as the chart is certainly provocative:

I guess the questions out of this are, what does the SAT really test and what does looking at a standardized test tell us about student progress.  The first I learned from a summer of teaching for Princeton Review, which is that the SAT tests you on your ability to take the SAT.  That’s about it, since if you know the tricks of taking the SAT, you can do well regardless of your actual knowledge.  I can only guess that the fact that SAT scores increase as you go up in income probably reflects the greater availability of SAT prep courses as you go up in income.  Or even sadder, maybe it’s that our whole education system is set up to help the richest succeed overall, so what knowledge that is tested on the SAT is more likely to come from the wealthy.  On the other side is, of course, the question of how well a standardized test actually measures student ability or progress.  Increasingly we come to rely on these high-stakes tests, but do they actually test ability, or do they just test access.  In other words, if you are rich and can afford to send your kids to the best private high schools, are you more likely to do well on the SAT tests because of that.  I don’t know the answer, but I suspect it’s a combination of all of this.

Then comes two articles on what value there is in the education that students get out of the college they go to.  This discussion apparently followed out of a previous article about the ties between Wall Street and the Ivy Leagues.  I’m not so interested in that, but I thought the further discussion about the liberal arts degrees and their relevance today were interesting.  Of course, my own background as a history major makes me even more interested.  I like this paragraph as a starting point from the first article:  “Let’s say you’re a history major with a specialization in 18th century Europe from Yale. It may be that, from the economy’s perspective, your time at Yale taught you to think, research and write, which are all skills that can be used in a wide variety of upper-management positions. But that’s not what you think your time at Yale taught you. You think your time at Yale taught you about 18th century Europe. That’s what you spent all your time studying. That’s what you got graded on. And that’s why you’re nervous. There aren’t all that many jobs out there asking for a working knowledge of the Age of Enlightenment.”  We talk about these skills that we expect our students at a community college to come out with, but I never really thought about the fact that students might not see or value those skills, as it is not obvious that is what they are really learning.  It’s really a question of perception here.  As Ezra Klein notes, “. . . it’s a problem that so many kids are leaving college feeling like they don’t have the skills necessary to effectively and confidently enter the economy.”  While he is discussing high level education, I think there’s a similar problem at the community college level, as students are even more skills focused at that level.  They want to know explicitly what the value of their education is.  Simply telling them that learning history will be valuable in the long run doesn’t do much for them.  Yet, when you point to these skills — the ability to read, write, think, evaluate, argue, and so forth — they don’t see those listed in the jobs they are seeking, even if those are the skills that employers might really want.  I’ve heard this described before as college being short-hand for employers that a graduate has these skills, but that doesn’t help the actual graduate get a job if he or she does not know that they are valuable for that reason rather than for the degree they have.  I think this is something we need to emphasize more from the college perspective, but I think that employers also need to be more open about it.

Following in that vein, there was a similar article discussing the results of a concentration on a liberal arts education.  Daniel de Vise states – “We tend to offer some – typically our more disadvantaged, low-income populations – a more limited education that may prepare them for jobs for two or three years before they need to be re-trained. Meanwhile, we tend to offer others – disproportionately a more privileged group – a lifelong, liberal education that appreciates over time, preparing them for entire careers, and for jobs that may not even exist yet in our rapidly evolving economy.”  We certainly go with the first side at the community college level because that is what we see ourselves as, as much technical trainers as transfer teachers.  We do think of ourselves as teaching transfer students in the standards, but the reality is that many of our students are even pursuing a degree for the work advancement that it can bring.  And this article comes back to that issue of skills.  What he calls “liberal education” is at the center of the transfer of those skills from the Klein article earlier, in that a liberal education delivers an ” education that focuses on the development of capacities such as writing, effective communication, critical thinking, problem-solving, and ethical reasoning. These skills are practical, transferrable, and essential for the life-long learning that we all need if we are to thrive in a world that is complex, diverse, and ever-changing.”  He warns against taking away that education in focusing in on technical education in fields that might not last or in training that will have to be renewed soon.  Again, I think we need to emphasize these skills more.  And, I guess I’m pointing to myself here, as I never really make it all that apparent that these are the valuable skills in the whole process.  I know we get caught up in the specifics of our subjects, but delivering a course as simply learning history or english or math or whatever will never be as valuable to a student as learning skills for the real job market out there.  As well, if our students graduate or transfer only knowing that they have accumulated the correct courses to graduate, then they will not see the value of what they are learning.  Of course, as I noted above, if employers aren’t honest about what they want out of a college graduate, then those skills won’t be seen as valuable either.  They need to be explicitly sought in the job market for it to be relevant for me to tell students that they are learning these valuable skills. It has to be a circle starting somewhere, I guess.  But should it start from my end or from the employers?

On the theme of a degree telling employers something, this article on the value of a graduate degree is also relevant.  As noted, a master’s degree or higher “signals to employers that recipients can complete a demanding program and that they have already been vetted by an institution.”  It denotes a set of skills rather than a specific skill.  While nothing in this article is particularly groundbreaking, it really just extends the last two I’ve discussed here into the graduate realm.  Of course, the value of the graduate degree does vary by field, and I found their graphic to illustrate this well:

This, or course, shows that for me, there was a bump for getting my degree, although certainly from a lower level to start and a lower gain as well.  Also, as noted a master’s degree is quickly become a standard rather than an option.  This is true for me.  So, regardless of the skills that I’m supposed to have learned from my degree, I simply had to have it.  I could not have gotten my current job without a master’s degree, regardless of what skills I actually gained.  And this, of course, is the other side of all of this I’ve talked about today.  If the degree is a symbol of skills learned, then we have to be teaching those skills.  I think I am, but are we all?  Does every college education show those skills?  Just something to think about.

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About Scott Williams

I am an educator, community-college instructor, thinker, husband, parent of four, student of life, player of video games, voracious reader, restless wanderer, and all-around guy.

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