In a recently published piece on The Daily Beast, Professor X challenges the majority of American educators, economists and employers by claiming that a bachelor’s degree isn’t valuable. You might be wondering who Professor X is, besides a nerdy writer fulfilling his childhood dream of growing up to be a wheelchair-bound, British, mind-reading mutant. Well, he’s actually a community/private college professor (and college degree holder) slash author who wrote a book about his accidental foray into academia and has since become a critic of widespread university education. This most recent piece frames the college premium as an “artificial construct” and goes on to stress how little effect a B.A. has on the skills of employees who earn more than their high school-educated counterparts. Read more after the jump.
In the piece’s conclusion, Professor X writes,
“A firefighter with a college degree can expect to earn, in his lifetime, $600,000 more than his counterparts without. When my house is burning down, when I’m trapped on an upper floor, I want simply the best firefighter to come to my aid. I want someone brave and true and skilled in the art of rescue. I have no interest in reading his research paper on Maslow’s Hierarchy or his final exam comparing To His Coy Mistress and My Last Duchess.”
So much for an educated citizenry.
It’s easy to see what X is getting at here – for most jobs, skills are learned on the job and a college education has little direct effect on work skills (as anybody who’s had a job in the fabulous field of ‘marketing’ can attest). X rattles off trivial statistics to illustrate how small-but-not-insignificant percentages of CEOs and managers lack college degrees (but fails to think that they may be either incredibly old or foreign) and shrugs off the classic economic theory of signaling as “[pointing] to little more than a willingness to pay college tuition and complete degree requirements.” Basically, for Professor X, college is only a logical step on the road to a terminal degree, and in any other capacity it’s worthless.
College students are supposed to be cynical, but this guy takes the cake. For one, he’s completely disregarding one of the most crucial skills almost exclusive to a college education: the ability to think critically and communicate those thoughts clearly. While some high school curricula have been standardized to the point of lifelessness, many colleges, such as our own, aim to develop critical thinking skills that encourage us to ask questions and find answers (Professor X was right, maybe college-educated men and women got us into the financial crisis, but they’re also working day and night to move the nation, its financial system and its policies forward). Thinking in this way helps us make better decisions, and, as Jefferson asserted, helps us become better citizens.
Professor X’s claim that the abilities of a fireman or an office clerk have little connection to their education level probably holds some water, but is the college-educated employee a more informed voter? Maybe. Is the college-educated employee going to have the problem-solving skills and skepticism to help improve the way a business works? Perhaps. These types of questions are always going to vary depending on the individual.
Yet an undergraduate education affords a student four years of learning experiences in and out of the classroom – from developing crucial social skills to writing clearly and persuasively to better understanding the way our country works. Curiosity only killed the cat, not the hundreds of thousands of college graduates each year who go on to do incredible things. Surely a research paper on Maslow’s Hierarchy has no influence on a fireman, but on the person, who will always be greater than his occupation, it may be a reminder of the process that made him the man he is today.
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