A College Degree Doesn’t Mean You Can Think

In the comments to this post at John C. Wright’s blog, Legatuss, (who might be a slightly spelling-challenged general in the Roman Legions, but is an intelligent commenter) brought to my attention an article about the Collegiate Learning Assessment Plus, a test of college students from the Council for Aid to Education. The gist of the nub:

Four in 10 U.S. college students graduate without the complex reasoning skills to manage white-collar work, according to the results of a test of nearly 32,000 students.

On average, students make strides in their ability to reason, but because so many start at such a deficit, many still graduate without the ability to read a scatterplot, construct a cohesive argument or identify a logical fallacy.

Well, I suppose there may not be enough jobs in politics, government, education and journalism to absorb *all* those kids in the 40%, so this might be a problem. Because, in the business world,

“Employers are saying I don’t care about all the knowledge you learned because it’s going to be out of date two minutes after you graduate … I care about whether you can continue to learn over time and solve complex problems,” said Debra Humphreys, vice president for policy and public engagement at AAC&U, which represents more than 1,300 schools.

Before we go on, it’s important and amusing to look at who these people are that are doing and commenting on this study. The CAE is a spin-off from the RAND Corporation, and its board is made up of high-level business executives and university administrators. So, on the surface at least, there should be a bit of conflict here: the business people are telling the educators that they aren’t doing a good job. Do board meeting divide between the business people on one side of the table and the educators on the other? Do food fights break out?

Sadly, I think I can answer ‘no’ to that last question. One of the amazing characteristics of all discussions about the failures of modern education at all levels is how the educators are coated with Teflon – no criticism sticks to them. It’s as if the captain of the Titanic were to be presumptively absolved for running the ship into an iceberg: wherever the blame for the abject failure of modern education ends up, it won’t be on educators. Logically, one might ask: is the problem not bad leaders leading, bad administrators administrating, or bad teachers teaching, or some combination? Nope, it’s always something else. That, right there, is the biggest red flag that our reasoning skill are not up to snuff.

So, we can put aside the idea of firing the manifest incompetents in charge of our schools – even though, speaking of business, that’s exactly what the business people on the board would do in their world. Instead, we’ll come up with programs and plans to address the issues, preferably ones requiring more federal funding.

But let’s not bicker about ‘o killed ‘o – this is just the problem-setting stage for the issue, no steps are being proposed – yet. We must first fight the political war before divvying up the deficit-funded spoils.

Considering how low the standards for white collar work are, that 40% is just the worst of the worst – I’d be willing to bet it’s more like 90%+ that wouldn’t know a tightly-argued position if it bit them in the infratip lobule. The real problem, as much of this blog is dedicated to pointing out, is not that the schools don’t work – it’s that they work exactly as planned. If one could read critically, then one might wonder how it is that, 100 years ago, high school students learned Greek and today, college students learn (more or less) remedial English.

That might lead to inconvenient thoughts, like wondering what it is, exactly, that the schools are up to, since teaching kids how to think so clearly isn’t it. Schools have two function that on the surface seems contradictory but actually fit hand in glove: first, to make sure that nobody learns anything that might be used to question what they are told, and second, to make sure the successful student is utterly convinced that he stands at the pinnacle of enlightenment. That way, the well schooled will immediately reject any challenges to what they think they know, and dismiss anything they don’t know as manifestly unimportant.

The list of subject areas in which a modern well schooled person can be expected to be crippled include not only reading, but history, science, and math – the very areas that provide a place to stand from which to judge our current civilization. A lack of knowledge, and, indeed, a lack of the tools to obtain this knowledge, is the intended result of schooling, as expressed by educational leaders since at least 1807. When Woodrow Wilson says the vast majority of students must forego a liberal education to be fitted for specific manual tasks, or John Dewey takes a few moments away from defending the Soviets democides to dismisses the need for children to learn to read critically, they are speaking from the mainstream of educational theory since Horace Mann adopted Fichte’s theories as expressed in the Prussian schools. It’s a solid line from Mann to all the heads of all the education departments that have been established down through the years. They then are the gatekeepers – only those with the approved opinions need apply. Then, this filtering works its way down until nobody can get a job teaching philosophy or history or any of the ‘studies’ fields without holding the correct opinions, because the department head is, say, an analytic philosopher or Marxist, and won’t hire, say, a Thomist or someone who denies the oppressor/victim paradigm as the ultimate explanation for everything.

In fact, anyone who thinks at all is pretty much nothing but trouble – didn’t they learn, via all the textbooks, that there are approved questions at the ends of every chapter, with approved answers in the teacher’s copy? That getting an ‘A’ is done by regurgitating those answers to those questions? Clearly, such people are at best antisocial.

Recently tried to have a discussion with two young relatives who have between them over 30 years of elite education in the finest grade schools, high schools and universities, with a nice set of degrees certifying their intellectual excellence. Frustrating – they have no idea what a rational argument would even look like, but are utterly convinced that they are among the Enlightened. They will support all efforts to control the population, and defeat global warming to ‘save the planet’ as unquestioningly as the finest Prussian foot soldier. They are the desired products of the schools we have allowed to be imposed on us.


Author: Joseph Moore

Enough with the smarty-pants Dante quote. Just some opinionated blogger dude.

5 thoughts on “A College Degree Doesn’t Mean You Can Think”

  1. It’s funny… You know how many people are engineers at Intel, that have degrees in history or writing/lit? Many. It doesn’t matter to employers that you have the degree. It matters that you can actually do the job.

    1. I work in a software house – the two owners have a math and a philosophy degree, respectively. Our heavyweight domain expert dropped out of college after studying physics. I got a Great Books degree. We have maybe half a dozen people with actual comp sci degrees. Only one is senior guy.

      Noticed years ago that, except for very select specialties like medicine, the degree tended to not have much to do with the career for the very successful.

  2. Thanks Joseph. Unfortunately, most in school systems don’t even know that they are teaching unthinking orthodoxy to modern thought and thereby hampering true thinking. As Mr. Wright (ala Andrew Klavan) has said, “The debate is over. The science is in.” School children have no reservations to feeling proud of their knowledge over and above the Troglodytes.

    Reading your last paragraph brings chills to my spine. Not only do those relatives remind me of myself 30 years ago before I worked for some thinkers whom, at the time, I rejected as “behind the curve”, but they remind me of all the small interactions I have with my son trying to get him to look at things from different angles and not accept school authority as sacrosanct. I feel the Fichte training is overwhelming my meager attempts and with God’s grace, only as he reaches a greater maturity will he maybe think, “Dad wasn’t a marginalized crack pot.” How much Prussian soldiering will he have accomplished by then?

    I was quite a loyal (and arrogant) Prussian for more years than I’d like to admit. Only by continual humbling by those who actual knew important things, did I learn to learn. I probably still can’t make a cogent argument though. I need some classical training myself in rhetoric.

    It isn’t so much what they don’t know, but that so much of what they know just isn’t so.

    1. Thanks, I know what you mean. The other day, I was looking over the Loeb edition of Aristotle’s Prior Analytics, where he lays out the rules for logical inference. In a footnote, the translator mentioned that every schoolboy learned these rules by means of a sets of acronyms, which he then gave.

      Imagine: every schoolboy taught Aristotle’s logic, so much so that there were standard mnemonics. *I* don’t understand logic that well!

      And yet, the well-educated today sneer.

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