All things excellent are as difficult as they are rare.


21 October 2011

Well At Least He's Being Honest

There's an illuminating and fascinating opinion piece over at EducationNews this morning. Why College Is Always Worth It. Kevin Wolfman comes right out and admits why college is great. I've got some thoughts on some of his reasons, so let's go through them, briefly.
As a group, people with a college education are more supportive of the right to free speech and public assembly, even if they personally disagree with the positions of the speakers.
I'm actually not convinced that this is true. But if it is, well... great. College teaches people about how the Constitution works. That's probably a good thing. If it's true.
They are more accepting of the idea of a female president, as well as being more committed to gender equality in general.
OK, so the value of college is that it generates certain substantive values. This seems like a pretty good value to have, all things considered -- but reasonable people could be worried that perhaps the purpose of college isn't to instill values. I'm not saying it isn't the proper purpose of college, merely that reasonable people might wonder.
They consume more news, and as a result are more informed about current events.
I have serious suspicions that this is a correlation-causation problem in the making. I doubt very much that college gets people to read more news. Rather, I suspect that both college and news-reading are symptoms of a certain type of intellectual engagement with life. Now, as a brief aside, Mr. Wolfman addresses this issue in the comments:

Correlation does not PROVE causation, but it does IMPLY causation if the correlations are statistically strong and numerous. The evidence for the link between higher ed and the values listed above is everywhere in the research literature. It’s common enough that we can assume it’s valid and true, in the absence of other contradictory evidence that is even stronger.
That's just silly -- he must have mispoken (mistyped) because even a bright high school student knows that a super-strong correlation's strength isn't what does the explanatory work. Statistical strength doesn't imply causation no matter how strong it is. What implies (in the loose, non-logical sense that Wolfman is using here) causation is strong statistical evidence and a plausible theory of how the causation supposedly works.

Example: Every time I leave the kitchen, I'm less hungry. 100% statistical correlation. This does not mean that it's reasonable to think that my leaving the kitchen relieves my hunger. And the reason it's not reasonable is that there's no plausible theory for how that might work. Now, we might be able to come up with something strained: the kitchen smells like food, and when I leave the smell of food, I become less hungry. That's not completely ridiculous.

But a better theory is that I'm eating in the kitchen, and that my eating means that I'm no longer hungry and I have no reason to stay, so I leave. Both are caused by my eating. Now we've got a plausible theory. That's still not a proof; scientists don't "prove" things in the technical sense.

Let's get back to his article.

They are more knowledgeable about the political process.
Not necessarily a great thing (see Rational Ignorance theory), and again, there's a serious correlation-causation problem at work here; I'd want to hear the theory. This also runs into the values-instilling issue again.

They are less approving of the use of violence to achieve political and social ends, by governments and citizen groups alike.
I'm not even sure that this is a good value to be teaching, even if it's true that colleges cause people to be less approving of the use of violence.

Violence, like everything else, has a place in the world. We'd be hard pressed to live without it; a ready preparedness to inflict devastation on our enemies is vital to our continued existence as a country, and a ready preparedness to let loose great injury on criminals is vital to our continued existence as an ordered society. So let's not be too quick to praise the devaluing of violence. If everyone went to college and ended up disapproving of violence, who would hold the gun in the guard tower in the prison?

I once again suspect a correlation-causation issue here, though. Pacifists like their books.

Speaking of politics, they are more skilled at articulating and defending their political beliefs in sophisticated and factually sound ways, rather than resorting to half-baked sound bites and unsupported “gut feelings” to back up their positions.
Is it true? Maybe. Good argumentation doesn't need to be "sophisticated", though. I have plenty of friends who didn't go to college who can argue a LOT better than my undergraduate students (and who could do so at that age, too)

Frankly, I think that this particular reason is just collegiate chauvinism at work. All those bumpkins out there... they just don't know how to argue. It's probably more an issue of the bumpkins not sharing all the same sorts of premises that the college grads hold -- premises that aren't necessarily true because they're held by more educated people.

They are more likely to vote and be politically active in general.
Not clearly a good thing. I need to be convinced that indifference isn't its own special sort of virtue.

They are more ideologically consistent...
What does that even mean? Consistent with what?

...meaning they are less likely to be swayed or duped by the disingenuous spin and outright lies that dominate today’s cable news outlets and anonymous Internet forums.
Hmmm. This is proof that just because a clause starts off with "meaning" or some other word indicating an explanation, does not mean that an explanation is actually in the offing. I don't see how being impervious to bad argumentation (let's assume that he's right about the bad argumentation in various media formats) is a mark of ideological consistency. It's more a form of rational intractability.

And "ideological" is such a strange word to use in this context. Or maybe it's not so strange after all.

.And they are less supportive of both authoritarianism and dogmatic thinking.
Not clearly true at all. Though if it is true, I can hardly complain. That's a pretty good value to instill.

Nevertheless, the original problem with instilling values is still on the table.

As for personal values...
See, this is where I think Mr. Wolfman has tipped his hand. He doesn't actually see any of the things listed above as personal values; for him, they are just truths. Violence is bad, and college is a place where you can learn that fact. Political activity is good, and college is a place where you can learn that fact.

You might think that maybe the values described above aren't, on Wolfman's view, "personal", but rather universal in some sense. But the rest of the sentence pretty much lays that theory to rest. Americans are more aware of the needs, perspectives, and feelings of others. They are more willing to associate with and befriend people outside their own ethnic group. They are more altruistic. They are also less self-centered, less racist, and less homophobic.

The list of virtues goes on and on.
I seriously question the "more altruistic" and "less self-centered" claims (or at the very least I think he owes his audience the technical definitions and findings of the studies on which he is relying), and I don't think that any intelligible sense can be made of the claim that college-educated Americans are "more aware of the feelings of others". Maybe they care more about those feelings, but it's not like college teaches you how to be empathic any more than working in a job or sitting in a museum watching people or reading a good book.

But, according to this author, college is good because it instills virtues. Very specific virtues.

I'm not saying that these are bad virtues (well, except the violence-attitudes which I'm willing to suggest are problematic). But one might be forgiven for thinking that Mr. Wolfman likes the idea of college because it supposedly turns out people who hold substantive values that are very similar to his (regardless of whether his descriptions of those values are accurate).

At least, though, he's being honest about it. And that's why I think that this is such an interesting article. Usually, people who hold this position try to hide it.

1 comment:

Dawn said...

Great post but you could go further.

Assuming all of the virtues he's arguing college promotes ARE universally good (and like you I'm not convinced) then his argument is on the edge of simply writing those of us who never went past high school off as a lost cause.

To him it's simply college that promotes those virtues. He draws the line there. If you did that with your kitchen analogy of course you'd leave a lot of people to starve. You'd send hungry people into an empty kitchen, have them leave and then be content that you'd solved the problem of hunger.

So yes, he's honest but holy crow, is he ever lazy.

The next step of course, should be to examine what about college makes more people into the sort of people he thinks are useful and good and see if we can bring that into high school. There will always be people who can't or won't choose to go to college after all, why deny them what he deems so valuable?

I have this problem with a lot of arguments for college. Underneath the arguments for college is actually a case for how we've failed kids in high school.

Disclaimer: I never did make it past high school myself. Feel free to blame any lack of articulation on that although I thin it's more to do with the brain fuzz that comes with being 9 months pregnant. :D