Saturday, June 04, 2011

The Value of an Education

Louis Menand, in the New Yorker, reviews, somewhat doubtfully, two books on the use of a college education, doubtfully more about the books than the value of a college education, but in the course of his disputation answers a question that one always is confronted by, not only from students, but every semester when selecting course material, and more so if you actually look at the cost of the stuff

Soon after I started teaching there, someone raised his hand and asked, about a text I had assigned, “Why did we have to buy this book?”

I got the question in that form only once, but I heard it a number of times in the unmonetized form of “Why did we have to read this book?” I could see that this was not only a perfectly legitimate question; it was a very interesting question. The students were asking me to justify the return on investment in a college education. I just had never been called upon to think about this before. It wasn’t part of my training. We took the value of the business we were in for granted.

Eli has some opinions on the matter previously expressed, but Menand's essay, although not a complete answer contain major sections of the complete answer as to why college exists and why you should but the textbook

I could have said, “You are reading these books because you’re in college, and these are the kinds of books that people in college read.” If you hold a certain theory of education, that answer is not as circular as it sounds. The theory goes like this: In any group of people, it’s easy to determine who is the fastest or the strongest or even the best-looking. But picking out the most intelligent person is difficult, because intelligence involves many attributes that can’t be captured in a one-time assessment, like an I.Q. test. There is no intellectual equivalent of the hundred-yard dash. An intelligent person is open-minded, an outside-the-box thinker, an effective communicator, is prudent, self-critical, consistent, and so on. These are not qualities readily subject to measurement.

Society needs a mechanism for sorting out its more intelligent members from its less intelligent ones, just as a track team needs a mechanism (such as a stopwatch) for sorting out the faster athletes from the slower ones. Society wants to identify intelligent people early on so that it can funnel them into careers that maximize their talents. It wants to get the most out of its human resources. College is a process that is sufficiently multifaceted and fine-grained to do this.

College is, essentially, a four-year intelligence test. Students have to demonstrate intellectual ability over time and across a range of subjects. If they’re sloppy or inflexible or obnoxious—no matter how smart they might be in the I.Q. sense—those negatives will get picked up in their grades. As an added service, college also sorts people according to aptitude. It separates the math types from the poetry types. At the end of the process, graduates get a score, the G.P.A., that professional schools and employers can trust as a measure of intellectual capacity and productive potential. It’s important, therefore, that everyone is taking more or less the same test.

I could have answered the question in a different way. I could have said, “You’re reading these books because they teach you things about the world and yourself that, if you do not learn them in college, you are unlikely to learn anywhere else.” This reflects a different theory of college, a theory that runs like this: In a society that encourages its members to pursue the career paths that promise the greatest personal or financial rewards, people will, given a choice, learn only what they need to know for success. They will have no incentive to acquire the knowledge and skills important for life as an informed citizen, or as a reflective and culturally literate human being. College exposes future citizens to material that enlightens and empowers them, whatever careers they end up choosing.

In performing this function, college also socializes. It takes people with disparate backgrounds and beliefs and brings them into line with mainstream norms of reason and taste. Independence of mind is tolerated in college, and even honored, but students have to master the accepted ways of doing things before they are permitted to deviate. Ideally, we want everyone to go to college, because college gets everyone on the same page. It’s a way of producing a society of like-minded grownups.

If you like the first theory, then it doesn’t matter which courses students take, or even what is taught in them, as long as they’re rigorous enough for the sorting mechanism to do its work. All that matters is the grades. If you prefer the second theory, then you might consider grades a useful instrument of positive or negative reinforcement, but the only thing that matters is what students actually learn. There is stuff that every adult ought to know, and college is the best delivery system for getting that stuff into people’s heads.

Which brings us to a particularly noxious piece of deadwood who is proud of it, one David Rubinstein, who got tenure at U Illinois Chicago back in the days and has proceeded to defraud. Like any good grifter, Rubiinstein likes to brag about it. This matter has been taken up at Andrew Gelman's blog,
After 34 years of teaching sociology at the University of Illinois at Chicago, I [Rubinstein] recently retired at age 64 at 80 percent of my pay for life. . . . But that's not all: There's a generous health insurance plan, a guaranteed 3 percent annual cost of living increase, and a few other perquisites. . . . I was also offered the opportunity to teach as an emeritus for three years, receiving $8,000 per course . . . which works out to over $200 an hour. . . .
and the situation pretty well summarized by one of the commenter, clayton
The travesty, it seems to me after reading the article, is that Rubinstein is essentially admitting to not doing his job because no one can make him -- and he thinks it's an indictment of the system and not him.
and another of the commenters, Russel Almond, who moved from industry to academia, compares the two, making, among other points
4) Teaching is harder work than the pure research job I had before. Students are more demanding than my bosses ever were. My 4 hour intro stat course takes me about 8 hrs/week in prep time, 1/hr week (average) in face to face meetings with students, 8hr/week in grading (if I delegate this all to the TAs I don't get feedback on how my students are doing). 2--4/hrs per week in coordinating with TAs and other instructors. TAs can't be simply left to do the grading on their own, they need to be carefully supervised to make sure that they are providing correct and useful feedback! I might be able to cut some of that prep time once I get into a better rhythm.

5) On top of teaching two courses, I am also supervising 6 PhD students. I also need to sit on committees for other peoples students.

6) On top of that I'm supposed to be spending about 1/2 my time on research, and 5% on other service.

With all these things taken together, I find myself with less time to spend with my family than before. Note, I have not yet gone through my first summer. . . . . .

8) A big advantage for me has been the freedom to pursue my own research project. In industry, my favorite projects were often given low priority by management. On the other hand, if I can't find funding for these, this influence my chance at tenure.

Personally, I enjoy both teaching and mentoring grad students. I think it is important work. So the upshot for me is that by moving to academia, I'm paid less, working harder, but have more flexibility and am having more fun.
Reading this together with the Menand essay, makes perfectly clear that functioning departments, colleges and universities depend on peer pressure to enforce standards. This is admittedly easier to do in departments where external support and space are needed by faculty for their academic work. Especially in non STEM departments there is little to be done about psychopaths like Rubinstein once they get tenure, but normal people can be shamed, and motivated people can become extraordinarily productive as faculty. The goal of faculty, Chairs, Deans and Provost must be to build such a society in their university. The goal of Presidents is to hire Chairs, Deans and Provosts who build such a society while they are out there raising money to support the students and faculty.


tamino said...

I'm firmly in the second camp, that the importance of education is what students actually learn. It's value isn't just to make them more "productive" citizens! It's to enlighten them in such a way that they can enjoy, and exploit, the things that really make life worth living.

And the value of that cannot be overestimated -- it's even the biggest contribution to making them better citizens. Let me illustrate.

My mother was a public shool teacher (high school) for 33 years. Once, while visiting my old hometown, I went for a drive, and happened to be exceeding the speed limit. I was stopped by a police officer. When he saw me through the open window of my car, he said "I know you! I went to high school with you. I had your mom for English class."

Then he said (this is a quote, not a paraphrase), "If it weren't for your mom, I wouldn't be on this side of the badge -- I'd be in Raiford prison today."

Those who live in Florida probably know that Raiford is the state's most hard-core prison, for murderers and rapists and career criminals. Because of *education* -- and I don't mean learning facts, I mean coming to know what makes life worth living -- he was spared a life of misery (for himself and others), instead becoming a public servant. Those books he was "forced" to read in English class contributed little to his understanding the techniques and vagaries of law enforcement, but they made him aware of why it was worth doing.

THAT is the value of education.

Whenever I overhear people complain about the cost of public school, I quote Mark Twain: "Every time you stop a school, you will have to build a jail."

David B. Benson said...

I recommend reading the histories of Oxford and Cambridge.

n-g said...

Over here in Texas, a think tank called the Texas Public Policy Institute has been pushing higher education reforms such as separating teaching from research, compiling balance sheets for individual faculty members, and providing teaching awards solely on the basis of student evaluations (called SLATE). These ideas apparently have the backing of the governor, who has been appointing Regents who share his views.

There's way too much going on for me to summarize here. Suffice it to say that their views of the role of higher education do not correspond to either of Menand's possibilities. A good resource is . The faculty had been critical of the Chancellor for trying to implement these reforms, but then the Chancellor was asked to step down abruptly, the rumor being that he wasn't implementing them fast enough for the Regents.

These revelations inspired a bit of a grassroots uprising on the part of the faculty. A letter was circulated, and one of the letter authors went through the necessary hoops to speak at the latest Board of Regents meeting. See his speech here: and see the comments of one of the Regents in "part 2" here:

Martin Vermeer said...

This one remained with me from my Slashdot days, a decade ago. Enjoy... teachers do make a difference.

toto said...

5) On top of teaching two courses, I am also supervising 6 PhD students.

See, there's a whole different problem right there.