Share and discuss this blog

Saturday, February 4, 2012

college is about status not education

I have friend who I won’t name who went to a university I won’t name. He is very proud of having gone to this particular school. He insists that is son will go there. He attends their football games regularly. He brags that he is the only member of his family who was ever admitted to that school.
Whenever he says something I think is silly, I make fun of him for not knowing much because he went to this dumb school. Now in fact, I don’t think the school he went to is dumb and I don’t think he is dumb but my razzing gets to him and we are friends so it just a way that we talk to each other.
The other day he insisted that his school was ranked in the top 20 universities in the country. This being my business I assured him that it was not and he got very angry and then eventually looked it up and realized that on some lists his school didn’t appear even in the top 200. Recently he bet me that his school was in the top 10 hardest schools to get into. Of course it was no where near that hard to get into.
Why am I telling this story? I do not believe that one receives a better education in one university than one receives in another (unless one is planning a research career in which case where you go to college may matter a great deal.) It doesn’t matter where he went to school, it does matter what he has done since school. But his alma mater matters to my friend a great deal.
When I moved, as a professor, from Yale to Northwestern, I was always being asked why I would make a move like that. People perceived me as moving down in class. And, I succumbing to the status issue we all live with, will usually respond “Yale” when asked where I was a professor if I don’t have the time to list all the places I have been.
This is the point. The obsession we have with going to college in this country, with test scores, with SATs, with rank in class, and so on is not an obsession about education at all. It is an obsession about status. If you can say you went to Harvard every one will say ooh and wow and suddenly people will believe you are very smart. 
Having taught at places that are thought of that way I can tell you that there are smart kids and there are dumb kids at all these places. What they have in common is an ability to please their teachers and do well on tests.
It is a very sad state of affairs that people spend tremendous amounts of money on exorbitant tuitions, push their kids from kindergarten onwards to get good grades, and obsess about test scores for small children, all in the name of status. Moreover, they attach status to schools that don’t even have that status. I can’t tell you how many times I have heard the phrase “its a very good school” after having been told that someone’s kid went to some school no one ever heard of.
This isn’t just an American obsession of course. Exactly the same phenomenon exists in the UK down to even which college at Oxford is better than which other college and in France with the Grandes Ecoles and in every other country I know about.
I wish I could say it is all nonsense but it isn’t. Companies make hiring decisions based on which school one attended and your friends think about you differently based on which school you attended. But it is simply not about education in any way. A lecture is still boring everywhere. The same books and internet are available anywhere, and college has never actually been all that much about education any way. Graduate school maybe. College not so much.
We really have to start thinking about all this differently.
Here are some numbers to think about. Yale and Harvard are top research universities. They are really about researchers teaching students to do research. One out every 64,000 people in the US are researchers. On the other hand, there are 1 million lawyers, 6 million teachers, and 12 million health care workers. Colleges do not teach these three, graduate schools (and technical schools) do that.
Stop worrying about what college your first grader will go to. Leave him alone. Let him have fun and learn what he wants. Most of us never attended Yale (including me) and have managed happy lives.


Bulent Akman said...

Thank you for your insights. As an English teacher, I've watched my students become obsessed with grades to the point that I say to parents and collegues and anyone who will listen that we're putting the mark before the course (pun intended).

I also enjoyed your article on why textbooks suck, C.A. Mace is one of my heroes. He said all human knowledge can be summarised as a series of questions to which there are answers. Some of my students get this. Many are overstimulated, overwhelmed by choices, forced to make too many decisions already and have become numb.

I'm doing what I can in Warsaw, Poland to change things but the situation appears intractableI am very nearly resigned to an education system here that is permanently confrontational to actually educating students. those students who are able to think are those who've taken the responsibility to teach themselves.

Fred Beshears said...


When I worked with the Instructional Technology Program at UC Berkeley (from 1987 to 2007) my friends would ask if I thought their son or daughter should go there. My advise was that they would probably be better off if they went to a good community college and then transfered to Berkeley.

Like many research universities, Berkeley routinely herds their undergraduates into large lecture classes. Some faculty acknowledge that they short change the freshman and sophmores, but they think their students will "get their money back" if they stick around for the upper division undergraduate classes. Unfortunately, many of these are pretty large, too.

The problem is that in general research faculty would much rather teach small seminars that closely dovetail with their research interests. And, at places like Berkeley, they have the political clout to make sure funds get allocated this way.

As an educational technologist, I suggested way back in 1988 that the campus should at least try alternatives to large lecture classes. My specific suggestion was that they try Tutored Videotaped Instruction, which had been used by Stanford's distance education program since the early seventies. (TVI involves creating small study groups of students and giving them lecture videos, discussion questions, and problem sets. Stanford found years ago that this simple approach compares favorably with live lectures.)

Unfortunately, the faculty shot my suggestion down. They may be interested in instructional technology, but they aren't interested in innovating themselves out of a job. Nor do they want anyone else to come in and do this for them.

I tried to argue that faculty could look for other things to do with their time, but this arguement also fell on deaf ears.

So, I'm afraid that disruptive innovation will have to come from outside the institution.

Therefore, when asked I still suggest that parents consider sending their son or daughter to a good community college, and then consider what school to go to next. Once you get your undergraduate degree (not to mention your graduate degree), no one cares where you went to school for the first two or so years.

Fred M Beshears

pavel said...

Thank you for this post, Roger. As a Dean at a very small, very little known--and very progressive--college, I certainly agree with your perspective that names do not make an education, yet this is the world in which we live. What metric can there be, then, that rises above that of relatively ignorant perceptions of what makes a "good" college education?

Q said...

Your post is excellent, Roger, and pushes forward a discussion that I wish we could have nationally - that of the role of class and status in the US.

It's a pity that the United States has never been able to have a discussion, a real discussion, about social class. Why do students beat themselves into a pulp to get into "name" schools, when, by any objective standard, they can be just as well-educated (if not more so) at a "lesser" school? As you say, it's because of the status that such a degree provides. It's because of the network of connections that attending that "name" school will offer (at least in theory). It's because it's a way for those families in the upper class to remain there - there will always be slots in those schools for the children of wealth and privilege, and for those children they will further their social/class connections while attending.

The sad part is, it's not at all clear what will change this - think about the colleges that the founders of Microsoft and Facebook attended, for example, and think about the social networks (sorry for the pun) they had developed prior to even attending college. This is a big sell for certain colleges, AND a big sell for college prep schools - not to mention the Kaplans and Princeton Reviews of the world. It's all, in the end, about access.