Thoughts on Higher Education

In response to a post by my brother Eugene about the humanities, I came up with the following comment which I decided to turn into a post (it's kind of long).

I postulate a degree will become completely unimportant within 30-50 years (hey, I believe in the slow-accumulating-changes version of history).

I can't actually answer for any other field but English, but based on English, I think it will change because businesses will begin to realize that the people they are hiring can't write. Whatever their transcripts say, they aren't any more capable than someone without a college degree.

Actually, this is already happening. Based on an article that I use to scare my students (by an educator, so take it for what it is worth), 80% of "surveyed corporations" assess writing during hiring; 40% of the companies require extra writing training for employees (I can actually verify this; they do it at Microsoft), and writing "deficiencies" cost businesses in America $3.3 billion a year. I'm assuming this includes all that training.

It troubles me that (many of) my students not only cannot write grammatically correct sentences, they also, bizarrely enough, can't format their documents. I thought high schools had computers now? And don't they use their computers all the time? A student who can't format a Word document to the right margins, right font, and automatic double-spacing is going to have a tough row to hoe. (As I can attest based on a woman I once had to train who had zero computer skills. I was teaching her how to find files by opening correct folders; yeah, she didn't last.)

I don't actually pass anyone who can't communicate semi-clearly, and my grading has gotten tougher over the past five years (more B's than A's), but I will admit that I have very mixed feelings about the whole grading side of the equation. I think it is important for people to earn their grades, and I use clearly defined (and basic) criteria to grade. But I also can't forget (what with my massive student loan) that they are paying for the course and part of me is very, very angry because I feel like the system let them down. "They shouldn't be here!" I keep thinking. "They already had 12 years of school!" Or, "I should be focusing on stuff other than grammar!"

On the other hand, the students who can write clean, professional-looking documents do deserve the better grades, and if I passed a student who couldn't get across an idea at all, I would be committing fraud. But if colleges held composition students to the same standards I had to reach as a legal secretary, very few of my students would get even B's. I don't know how the community colleges I work for would respond if I started giving only C's, but giving all your students C's makes some online colleges very uneasy. (Some majors require their students to get at least "B's" in writing, so students with "C's" can't progress, which means the students drop out of the programs, and the colleges lose money.)

The irony to all this--or maybe it isn't ironic, just sad--is that if businesses stopped hiring based on degrees, they would have to hire based on intrinsic ability. In other words, the whole idea of learning-to-be-better would vanish. My students who start out the semester with A's end the semester with A's, and they would be the people getting hired. Does this confirm a meritocracy or do away with it?

To be fair, 1/3 to 1/2 of my students do improve over the semester, but those who improve can't improve until they are willing to reject their diary-like, stream-of-consciousness thoughts, accept that good grammar matters, and know what they want to say. (And why should any company hire anyone who can't do these three things?)

Although, to be fair some more, a lot of so-called, white-collar professionals can't write either. (See "deficiencies" above.) This is why secretaries exist.


Mathew Park said...

In my run in with ar-tee’ts who feel they are above such things as proper formatting and grammar. It all comes down to the difference ( and the misunderstanding) of Art versus skill.

In my opinion:

Art is easy, because no one can attack it, and it’s easy to defend.
Skill takes time and effort. Time AND effort.

Look at the Sonnet. People hate to write real sonnets because you have to stick to a very strict pattern of word-sounds and rhymes.

People will say that structure kills art. That art is beautiful and structure is ugly and ridgid.

The Ar-teet’t will say: I do not write sonnets because the format constricts my inner being from singing its true song.

The Artists can make his song fit in any hole, because they have skill.

Kate Woodbury said...

The Artists can make his song fit in any hole, because they have skill.

I completely agree with this! I'm having some difficulty this semester getting a few of my students to understand that revision does NOT mean, "I tell you what to correct, you correct it, voila! you get a good grade." (Actually, I have this problem every semester, just more this summer than in the past.) Revision means you look over your writing, recognize what is wrong with it, and have the skills to fix it. The end result: the writing communicates better!

My idea is that a student who understands principles of writing will be able to write a memo, an essay, put together a presentation, etc. etc. etc.

However, I don't necessarily expect a student to be able to write literary analysis or fiction. I do think analysis and fiction take slightly different skills/abilities not included in basic communication. Some people just don't know how to analyze literature. I do believe, though, that those who do know how to analyze literature will get better at it only if they practice doing it and use tools from other writers. All great painters learn from past painters! Why not writers?

Jennifer said...

I was a secretary for several years and wow - talk about needing writing skills! I constantly was having to correct grammar and spelling. It served me well, though, when I got a job later as a copy editor. :)

I have to give credit to my parents for my English skills. I learned very quickly in grade school that all I had to do to get good grades in grammar was pick the answers that sounded like what I was used to hearing at home. My parents were VERY particular about how we spoke. I used ain't one day (I'd picked it up from a friend) and my mother about had a heart attack. I was lectured by both my parents, several times, about that!

Joe said...

The elephant in the corner is why does anyone graduated from high school need to learn basic writing (and word processing)?

Kate Woodbury said...

Well, I suppose it depends on the job. But within a certain sector, it is almost impossible to move forward without having some writing and word-processing skills. Secretaries obviously do. But so do lawyers (more and more lawyers are required to do their own typing) as well as paralegals, counselors (ditto), programmers (at least the programmers I worked for who did a lot of client work), consultants (MAJOR word-processing and writing skills), and nurses. Keep in mind, I'm not saying the businesses/companies/corporations/hospitals are FAIR to require this, but they do.

I can't argue with the obvious assumption that there are many jobs that don't require writing/word processing, but many of the students who return to college do so because they want to move up some ladder somewhere. From both sides of the business fence (secretary and teacher), I've seen a lack of writing skills make that climb difficult to impossible to achieve. There is a class system at work which favors people with writing and technological skills. Which would make me feel terrible except that auto mechanics in unions make about three billion times more money than I do.

Problem is: I don't want to be an auto mechanic. Presumably, the students in my classes who want to be social workers and nurses don't either. If they want to get the most they can out of their chosen careers, they have to be able to write and find stuff on computers. It would be nice if they could learn to do it when someone else was paying for it.

Personally: I would be in favor of changing the ENTIRE educational system, so high school was either all about teaching the basics OR all about exposing students to different job possibilities. College would then be one year of either exposure or basics (to dovetail with high school) followed by apprenticeship programs. You want to be an accountant? You go to one year of basic training, and then you immediately start working in a job where you bring home a paycheck.

Because everyone learns on the job anyway. But right now, the system is set up with the expectation that people won't learn on the job; they will learn stuff beforehand. So everyone pays three times over for an education: once in taxes for public schools; once at the college level; and once in the workplace where everyone is retrained.

Dan said...

My understand of Joe's question is the surprise that one can graduate from high school without having learned Word Processing. I can only guess there are school districts where students can finish high school without ever having mastered basic office productivity computer skills. Perhaps it is assumed the student will acquire these but if the student has "help" along the way he or she may never develop the skills.

I do wonder what changed to cause school administrators to eliminate vocational training from the curriculum. For just about all students a 8 week course on how to run a small business would do more good than the existing alternatives.

Joe said...

My underlying point is that public school is ultimately a failure since it does little to teach basic, useful skills. Instead, it has become an extension of university academia where you learn to learn and that's that. Most high school English courses don't concern themselves with teaching English, but in highly self-indulgent literary analysis. One point being is that the type of person who teaches English tends to like to read and sees reading as intrinsically valuable in it's own right. I maintain that that is total nonsense (and please read what I wrote not what you imagined I wrote.)

That anyone can be admitted to a college or university without being able to write a basic argument using a word processor is beyond absurd. (Even more absurd are the number of college graduates I know who still can't write worth a darn.)

BTW, my solution is to stop public education at 16, before which students learned basic. Classes and extra-curricular activities would be trimmed--I'd even stop all public school sponsorship of sports, music and drama. To progress to University, students would be required to graduate from a two year vocational school. Colleges and Universities would drop all general education requirements. (I'd also get rid of student loans.)

Of course, my ideas are nothing new. This is how much of the world already does education. Very few countries offer public education as long as the US, though I think that has more to do with the cultish worship of teenagehood in the US. (Americans are also kind of nuts about children and are obsesses with infantilizing adult behavior way beyond anything European "nanny"-states do.)