Why I teach Plato to plumbers

A philosophy professor at a community college, Scott Samuelson explains in The Atlantic  Why I Teach Plato to Plumbers — and  nurses’ aides, veterans, ex-cons, preschool music teachers, janitors, Sudanese refugees, prospective wind-turbine technicians, etc.

Many seem to think the goal of an education is economic advancement and technological power, writes Samuelson. If that’s true, why “should anyone but hobbyists and the occasional specialist take courses in astronomy, human evolution, or economic history” — or Plato?

My answer is that we should strive to be a society of free people, not simply one of well-compensated managers and employees. Henry David Thoreau is as relevant as ever when he writes, “We seem to have forgotten that the expression ‘a liberal education’ originally meant among the Romans one worthy of free men; while the learning of trades and professions by which to get your livelihood merely, was considered worthy of slaves only.”

It’s hard to predict who will value the liberal arts, Samuelson writes. After teaching in schools from Emory to Kirkwood Community College (Iowa), he’s found “there are among future plumbers as many devotees of Plato as among the future wizards of Silicon Valley, and that there are among nurses’ aides and soldiers as many important voices for our democracy as among doctors and business moguls.”

I recently got a letter from a former student, a factory worker, thanking me for introducing him to Schopenhauer. I was surprised, because I hadn’t assigned the German pessimist. The letter explained that I’d quoted some lines from Schopenhauer in class, and they’d sparked my student’s imagination. When he didn’t find what I’d quoted after reading all of volumes one and two of The World as Will and Representation, he started in on Parerga and Paralipomena, where he was eventually successful. Enclosing a short story that he’d recently written on a Schopenhauerian theme, he wrote me a long letter of thanks for inadvertently turning him on to a kindred mind.

. . . I once had a janitor compare his mystical experiences with those of the medieval Sufi al-Ghazali’s. . . . A mother who’d authorized for her crippled son a risky surgery that led to his death once asked me with tears in her eyes, “Is Kant right that the consequences of an action play no role in its moral worth?” 

The liberal arts aren’t just for the children of the elites, he concludes. “The fire will always be sparked. Are we going to fan it, or try to extinguish it?”

Scared STEM: Tough talk for arts majors

4 in 10 grads don’t need college degree at work

Most Americans say their job doesn’t require a college degree, according to a new Gallup poll. But employers often do. Four in ten college graduates don’t use their degree on the job, points out Walter Russell Mead on The American Interest.

Employers often require degrees to show applicants’ determination and work ethic, Mead writes. Academic skills don’t count. That wastes students’ time and money.

We need to separate job training from education, writes Mead. Let career-minded students learn the job skills they need — quickly and inexpensively.

. . .  reduce dumb bachelor’s degree requirements, so that job seekers and employers could be brought together based on aptitude and achievement tests rather than meaningless but expensive paper credentials.

A liberal education is “valuable in itself,” Mead writes. “Rather than force all college students into a bizarre hybrid of liberal education and skill training, we need to figure out how to make a true education more widely available to those who want it, including adults who wish to continue their education later in life.”

Higher ed pays — for technical grads

Higher Education Pays: But a Lot More for Some Graduates Than for Others concludes a Lumina-funded report by Dr. Mark Schneider, the president of College Measures. “What you study matters more than where you study,” says Schneider, a vice president at the American Institutes for Research (AIR).  Learning technical and occupational skills pays off, even for graduates of low-prestige colleges and universities. A music, photography or creative writing graduate from a prestige university will struggle.

Schneider analyzed first-year earnings of graduates of two-year and four-year colleges in Arkansas, Colorado, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia.

Some short-term credentials, including occupational associate’s degrees and certificates, are worth as much or more than bachelor’s degrees, the study found. For example, Texans with technical associate’s degrees averaged more than $11,000 more than four-year graduates in their first year in the workforce.

Certificates that require one or two years of study may raise earnings as much as an associate degree, especially a transfer-oriented degree.

In Texas, certificate holders earned almost $15,000 more on average than graduates with academic associate’s degrees, but about $15,000 less than graduates with technical associate’s degrees.

Not surprisingly engineering degrees have the biggest payoff, followed by nursing and other health-related fields. What is a surprise is the weak demand for biology and chemistry graduates. “The S in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) is oversold,” the report found.

Despite the clamoring for more students to focus on STEM, the labor market shows less demand for science skills. Employers are paying more, often far more, for graduates with degrees in technology, engineering and math. There is no evidence that Biology or Chemistry majors earn a premium wage, compared with engineers, computer/information science or math majors. The labor market returns for science are similar to those of the liberal arts, like English Language and Literature.

Women now make up a majority of biology graduates and about half of chemistry majors.

“Prospective students need sound information about where their educational choices are likely to lead” before they go into debt, the report concludes.

You can live in the basement without college debt

It’s better in to live in your mother’s basement, drink beer and play video games all day than to major in English or sociology, go into debt and then live in the basement, says Aaron Clarey, author of  Worthless: The Young Person’s Indispensable Guide to Choosing the Right Major.

Colleges pushed to disclose grads’ earnings

As student debt mounts, colleges and universities face pressure to disclose their graduates’ earnings, writes Jon Marcus for the Hechinger Report.

Joyce English was about to start studying toward an associate degree she hoped would lead to a job as a consultant to healthcare companies around Tacoma, Wash., where she lives.

Then she discovered a database created by the state’s workforce training agency estimating what she’d earn with that degree versus how much she could make in other jobs with other majors and degrees from colleges and universities across the state.

. . . “You obviously want something out of your education,” says English, who changed her mind and is now majoring in what she learned is the more lucrative field of business management at Pierce College. “You don’t want to go into something that’s going to pay you less than it cost to go to college.”

Washington, Florida Arkansas, Tennessee and Virginia have released wage information by major, degree and institutution. Colorado, Nevada and Texas will do so soon. Congress is considering a bill that would require every college to disclose the average annual earnings of its graduates.

“I can imagine some hard questions being asked” by parents, students and legislators armed with knowledge like this, says Mark Schneider, a vice president at the American Institutes for Research and president of College Measures, which is helping states create such earnings databases.

. . . nearly 90 percent of incoming freshmen say the main reason they enrolled in college was “to be able to get a better job,” UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute reports. “And probably 100 percent of their parents say that,” says Schneider.

“It’s the no-name comprehensives, the regional campuses, the third-tier not-for-profits—their business model is going to be held up and people are going to ask about it,” Schneider says. “ ‘Why are you charging me $40,000 a year? What’s the outcome at the end of the day? What am I getting for all this time and money?’ ”

Higher-education leaders worry students will shun the liberal arts in favor more lucrative majors.

“Follow your passion” should be the message, not “show me the money,” says Carol Geary Schneider, president of the Association of American Colleges and Universities.  “Your college decision should be about becoming an educated person—giving yourself a resource that will increase in value your entire life, finding something you care deeply about, and developing the skills to go on learning what you need to learn.”

Democracy’s college? That’s over

Community colleges were supposes to be “democracy’s college,” writes Keith Kroll, an English professor at Kalamazoo Valley Community College in Michigan. That “grand experiment” is coming to an end, Kroll writes. From President Obama on down, community colleges are seen as job training centers providing workers for local employers, not as places where students begin higher education.

Within the next 20 years, 80 percent of classes will be taught online, he predicts. Ninety percent of faculty will be part-timers who may never meet their students or each other.

In the community college of the future each department will have one full-time “faculty manager,” whose responsibilities will include distributing prepackaged, business-driven curricula and course syllabi; selecting the common textbook from which all faculty members will “teach”; scheduling and assigning classes . . . and managing the online grading program that all faculty will use to assess student performance. There will no longer be in-person department meetings, faculty representation on college committees, shared governance, or professional development . . . (faculty) will no longer be teachers, but technicians with no say in what they teach and how they teach.

English instructors will teach writing solely to give students the practical skills required by employers, he writes. Literature — indeed all the liberal arts — will be eliminated on grounds they have “no economic value.”

The revised mission statement of the Association of American Colleges and Universities is “to make liberal education and inclusive excellence the foundation for institutional purpose and educational practice in higher education.” I’m not sure what “inclusive excellence’ means.


What about liberal arts?

“President Obama and many governors are pushing the idea of community colleges becoming workforce training centers,” writes Community College Dean. Funding is being shifted from general budgets to favored programs in “STEM fields or fields with presumed local employability.” It’s all about jobs,  jobs, jobs. But, what about liberal arts? What about higher education?

If community colleges fail at their academic mission, it will increase social and economic segregation, argues Diverse Issues in Higher Education.

Literature, philosophy, art history, political science, and economics shouldn’t be the privilege of those who have money.  They’re the shared (if contested) heritage of a culture, and they bespeak possibilities beyond the present.  . . .

Community colleges’ vocational mission is important, he writes, but so is educating students who will transfer to complete a bachelor’s degree or more. Starting at a community college and transferring after two years is the best way to earn a four-year degree without crushing debt.

Politicians aren’t scheming to keep the poor barefoot and ignorant, whatever faculty members may suspect, the dean writes. To “keep the liberal arts available for students of limited means,” academics should frame their arguments around “cross-class contact, transfer and student debt.”

Study liberal arts, get a job

Liberal arts classes aren’t frills, writes Rob Jenkins, an English professor at Georgia Perimeter College. Students prepare for success in the workforce by learning to write, analyze and solve problems in liberal arts classes.

Many Americans learn at a two-year college most of what they will ever learn—in a formal setting, at least—about writing, critical thinking, the history of our culture and civilization, the environment, and human behavior. 

. . . Employers rank communication and analytical skills among the most important attributes they seek in new hires, according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers. Perhaps those of us who teach those very skills at community colleges should embrace the integral role we play in preparing the nation’s workers rather than rejecting the idea of work-force development as somehow beneath us.

Communicating clearly in writing is a key to business success, so “one of the best things we can do for students is to require them to write—a lot,”  Jenkins argues.

Employers complain that many workers have difficulty thinking for themselves.

How many of us actually require our students to analyze material in an in-depth way (as opposed to providing them with convenient study sheets)? How many of us require them to draw inferences, make connections, reach and defend conclusions? Our liberal-arts courses are the ideal places to teach those cognitive skills that students need to be successful in the workplace.

Finally, liberal-arts instructors should connect what students are learning in class to the “real world.”

Visibility means accountability

After years when policymakers weren’t paying much attention, community colleges are on the political radar, writes Rob Jenkins, an English professor at Georgia Perimeter College,at the Chronicle of Higher Education. That’s good — but there’s a risk that community colleges will be judged unfairly by the same standards as selective four-year colleges.

An institution with an open-door policy, accepting high-school dropouts with GED’s, students returning to school after 20 years, and nonnative speakers, is simply not going to have the same output . . .

. . .  for community colleges, graduation rates are not the sole indicators of success. Many of our students just take a course or two, or transfer after a year. Even those who do stay two years sometimes leave without bothering to pick up an associate’s degree.

The demand for “accountability” could lead to a national curriculum, Jenkins fears. That would make it hard for colleges to serve their communities. In Britain,  “further education” colleges, which primarily offer vocational training, must wait years to get curriculum changes approved to meet local needs.

Jenkins also worries that community colleges have gained national attention as job training centers, not as places that teach the liberal arts.

Liberal-arts instructors “must make it clear that community colleges exist to educate the whole student, not just to crank out human widgets for the economic machine.”