It’s taken a few weeks, but I’m getting back to the book “Leveraged Learning” by Danny Iny.
In “Leveraged Learning” – Part 1, I took a look at the introduction to the topic as well as taking a couple of excursus (or excursuses, if you prefer) on different aspects of education, including a bit of history.
As we come to chapter 1, we see Iny making his argument that the education system is somehow failing. As noted, he concentrates on post-secondary education.
Iny’s first contention is that the “signal” of education has eroded over time. That is, a degree signals that the possessor has achieved a certain level of knowledge and skill, commands a certain amount of knowledge, and exhibits a baseline of mental faculties, dedication, and willingness to work. (Otherwise, the degree holder would not have successfully completed the course of study.)
According to Iny, the signal has eroded for a number of reasons, including ubiquity, disconnect from substance, and cost to value ratio.
“Ubiquity” means that college and university degrees have become so commonplace they no longer send the same signal of excellence that they once did. This argument is similar to the argument, “If everyone is special, then no one is special.” I’m not certain that either argument is entirely cogent.
In the case of education, the implication of the argument is that increased availability and access to a degree somehow invalidates the signal that a baseline of mental faculties, dedication, and willingness to work has been achieved. For certain instances, this may be the case, but there is a major assumption involved in applying the assertion across the board.
The “disconnection of signal from substance” argument seems a bit specious to me. It begins with the assumption that the purpose of education is to prepare people for business. Iny writes,
This misalignment with the needs of our graduates as individuals and economy as a whole is especially true with the degrees that you don’t specifically need for any job, but check the box of “requires an undergraduate degree,” no matter how unrelated to the task at hand. These non-vocational degree programs, like liberal arts and even business degrees in the absence of a career track headed for accounting or consulting or investment banking, simply aren’t designed to make their students valuable in the workplace. (Iny, p. 5)
Notice that one of the criteria for value is what you “need for any job”. We are also told that certain degrees have little to no value because they are “unrelated to the task at hand”. And “these non-vocational degree programs … aren’t designed to make their students valuable in the workplace.”
He is by no means the only person to hold this position. I have seen it reiterated numerous times in articles, advertisements, and other writings by entrepreneurs. Quoted in “Leveraged Learning”, Bryan Caplan, professor of economics at George Mason University, states, “Most of what schools teach has no value in the labor market.” (Iny, p. 6)
These writers fall into the trap of utilitarianism. In an article titled “The Utilitarian Trap“, DV observes the following:
College is an opportunity to evaluate oneself intellectually, socially, and existentially. By reducing it to a career path, we do a tremendous disservice to those who hope to transcend trade and vocation. The concepts we learn in college do not guarantee us jobs. Rather, jobs are a byproduct of much more significant intellectual development. … Essentially, we ask college to be something it was not intended to be: a job creation center.
This objection to the trap of utilitarianism should not be seen as an excuse for shoddy educational practices. A bad education is still a bad education. However, one should not blame education for human nature. Caplan goes on to say, “Students fail to learn most of what they’re taught. Adults forget most of what they learn.” One might lay a certain amount of blame on the educational process for the failure of students “to learn most of what they’re taught”. However, holding education responsible for adults’ forgetfulness is a bit misleading at best.
Another bit of disingenuous argumentation is the assertion that this “disconnection from substance” “… is at least partially responsible for the unimpressive employment rates of recent graduates. In 2011, 50 percent of college graduates younger than twenty-five were jobless or underemployed, and those who were working were more likely to be waiters, waitresses, or bartenders than engineers, physicists, chemists, or mathematicians (100,000 versus 90,000).” The role of the near-depression, longer careers of Baby Boomers, and other factors receives no mention, yet they contribute significantly to underemployment and unemployment among younger workers.
Excursus (“Rabbit Trail”) 1: The education system has become a whipping boy for economic and other ills in American society. Iny’s arguments here are reminiscent of the education reformists’ attempt to lay the blame for “low international test scores” on teachers and public schools while ignoring the impact of poverty on all areas of life. The fact is that socio-economic status is a far more accurate predictor of academic success than any other single factor. [In all fairness, we have to admit that some individuals overcome the effects of poverty, just as some individuals overcome the effects of debilitating illness or catastrophic injury. Does that mean we should not attempt to eliminate diseases such as smallpox, diabetes, coronary disease, or cancer? The arguments are analogous.] When we correct for poverty, the US does not lag behind the rest of the world. We simply find it more convenient to use education and teachers as the scapegoat rather than address the systemic and endemic ills of our society.
Back to the Book.
Iny attributes education’s alleged “disconnection from substance” to five primary factors:
1. The lecture format
3. Course design by “non-practitioners”
5. Program design “by and for academics” or big businesses
Let’s address just one of these. Iny’s problem with tenure is that it “allows academics to focus on their passion for particular topics rather than the areas that the market needs most.” (Iny, p. 5) I hope we see that Iny once again falls into the trap of utilitarianism. In addition, he seems to fault “academics” for having passions that are not his. As noted before, he is blaming education for not doing what it was never designed to do. Perhaps I should blame Iny, a successful entrepreneur, for failing to prepare his students for success in the global economy because he fails to teach them a foreign language. After all, the largest markets in the world don’t speak English as their first language.
I hope that everyone noticed I just did something similar to Iny. I highlighted his primary deficiency and said nothing about his other points. So, let me be more forthcoming than Iny.
1. The lecture format often leaves a great deal to be desired as far as retention of knowledge is concerned. It is, however, not the paradigm of instruction at the secondary level. Nor was it used overwhelmingly in my courses when I was at university. I suspect that Iny is addressing a straw man.
2. Accreditation is a signal for educational institutions, much like a degree is a signal for students. Iny probably has at least some legitimacy in decrying the constraints placed upon institutions by the accreditation process. However, we should also acknowledge that accreditation entirely voluntary for non-governmental schools. There are numerous accrediting agencies, and they are composed of the schools that they accredit. If the agency is not responsive to the needs of its clientele, that is a matter that can and should be addressed.
3. As he does in other areas, Iny makes a broad generalization for the sake of his argument. While it may be true that some courses are designed by non-practitioners, this is false for many others. I have not done the research (and neither has Iny) to determine which is in the majority. My suspicion is that course design by non-practitioners is the minority rather than the majority.
5. Program design is often dictated by non-academics. The most egregious problems that I observed in my teaching career arose from the dictates of politicians and non-academics rather than those who were closest to the instructional process. It would be better for Iny to address outside interference in education, much as many entrepreneurs decry the restrictions and requirements placed upon them by non-entrepreneurs. (Of course, we can debate the relative benefits and drawbacks of those restrictions and requirements as we consider the larger picture of the environment, society, the overall economy, etc. – but that is an entirely different discussion.)
I agree with Iny that the cost of education is increasingly exorbitant. Prior to the twentieth century, education was for the “elite”, i.e., the wealthy. A combination of factors, including massive government funding, made post-secondary education something that larger numbers of people could access. Unfortunately, that government assistance also fueled a rise in the price of education for a number of reasons. As a result, education is once again becoming too expensive for the “average person”. According to Iny, “In the US and UK, education is now priced as a luxury.” (Iny, p. 8)
That is a significant problem if we believe that an educated citizenry is important to the working of a democracy – or democratic republic, to be more precise.
We haven’t even finished Chapter 1 in “Leveraged Learning”, but we’ll have to stop here for now.
Contra Iny, I do not believe that education is quite the disaster he paints it with his broad brush. In the remainder of his first chapter, Iny admits that higher education is still useful in a number of areas. If this work and the observations of others provide a corrective to the near idolization of education in our society, it is good. However, if it serves to demonize education, then it is bad. We’ll have to see where it goes.