Money Talks. (Now will it please be quiet?)

The idea that 4-year college degrees and liberal arts curricula waste students’ time and money, which I’ve lately been writing about in this blog,  is definitely spreading among those who seem most easily to get media exposure.  The recent words of Bill Gross, one of the country’s most revered bond investors,  have been heard across the land. The claims made in his company “Investment Outlook” column for July 2011, titled “School Daze, School Daze,” have been picked up widely by the business press. I saw them cited yesterday in a Philadelphia Inquirer business column piece about my own university,  “PhillyDeal: Drexel University Plans to Redirect its Expansion” (in which they were, happily for me, roundly contradicted by Drexel’s President John Fry). […and thanks to Scott Knowles for sharing the Inky article.]

When I looked into Gross’ original statement on the PIMCO (his firm) website, I went back to being unhappy. As have others in the last few months, Gross found “facts” that militate against providing the familiar college experience for many Americans. He writes off college as something that, even in a thriving economy, did little for the minds of those who attended:

…a degree represented that the graduate could “party hearty” for long stretches of time and establish social networking skills that would prove invaluable later at office cocktail parties or interactively via Facebook.

–Bill Gross, July 2011

In the face of the “erosion of our manufacturing base” going on today,  Gross sees the traditional comprehensive undergraduate immersion serving largely as a “vacation” for young people that does them, and the economy, little good. He says it is time to do away with the “stultifying and outdated”  idea of widespread enrollment in 4-year curricula. He would steer the nation towards “technical education and apprenticeship programs instead of liberal arts.”

Gross is playing an unfortunate zero-sum game with higher ed, perhaps counting the hours in the school day and finding that there just isn’t time for the seeming luxury of  humanities education.  But for a clever guy who is not entirely closed to hybrid solutions [see below],  he’s being notably uncreative here. For one thing, project-based technical learning,  centered on interdisciplinary blends of liberal arts and STEM content, is seen by many educators as the most powerful instructional approach to come along in years.  John Fry, for one,  seems to think that’s the case. He’d find  plenty of folks involved with Liberal Education at the American Society for Engineering Education to back him up, too.

In his column, Gross corrects a common error in discussions of America’s so-called lost manufacturing jobs by noting that  “high tech paragons”  like Apple, Microsoft, and Google “never were employers of high school or B.A. college graduates in significant numbers,” having sought offshore workers for hardware manufacture all along.  He also, unusually, supports a larger role for government in seeding job creation and providing job preparation for Americans:

In times of extremis, pushing on the private sector string is ineffective…Government must temporarily assume a bigger, not a smaller role in this economy, if only because other countries are dominating job creation with kick-start policies that eventually dominate global markets…

–Bill Gross, July 2011

Along these lines, citing economics and policy writer Fareed Zakaria, Gross calls for something like a new G.I. Bill focused on  “mid-tech” skills that will boost employment and productivity in the nation.  I share that belief in a larger role for government in higher ed,  but not the lowered bar.

If Gross feels that money rather than time is the problem, consider this point I’ve made before: Maximizing (rather than shrinking) opportunities for intellectual development among America’s citizens, opportunities historically provided by our institutions of higher learning,  may only seem fiscally imprudent  because we have to keep paying instead for things like wars, corporate tax-cuts and other publicly funded  undertakings that bring little long-term economic benefit.

But here’s something I haven’t really thought about before. This kind of wholesale indictment of the humanities and liberal arts in American higher education is downright nihilistic: With any perspective at all, we can see that it dismisses hundreds of thousands of hours that Americans of every class, ethnic background,  national origin, and political persuasion have spent in college classrooms, for the last 250 years, learning and thinking about human culture. To say these hours were wasted suggests a  spectacular and possibly tragic failure of imagination.

…and a failure of self-knowledge: Gross himself holds a psychology degree from Duke University (a school to which he has donated millions).  He now refers to this as his “own four year vacation.”  Does he really think his business acumen, understanding of world market behaviors, communication skills and (yes, we must say it) wide social influence today, what we might fairly call his own “social networking skills,”  have nothing to do with the things he learned as a young person at that institution? In “School Daze” Gross describes “professorial tenure” as something that stands in the way of improved productivity for the country…but I’m guessing his education at Duke included more tenured professors than adjuncts and teaching faculty.  And who exactly does he thinks generates the scientific and technical knowledge, the IP,  on which so much corporate R&D in the U.S. now relies? Adjunct instructors? Graduate teaching assistants? Nope: Tenured university professors  (absolutely all of whom started out by getting four-year bachelor’s degrees, not training as apprentices, let us add…).

Perhaps it is a case of the critic speaking about others.  Perhaps Gross feels that his talents and interests deserved the cultivation a superb college education delivered, but those of others  do not. We can’t be sure because like so many other who offer these recommendations, Gross doesn’t offer his criteria for which young people should pursue “good technical skills but limited college education.”

If  anti-higher-ed ideas like Gross’ are going to perpetuate among those of wealth and influence in our country, I’d like a little clarification, please: College is worthless…for which of us, exactly? If proponents of a diminished world of university education make that part of their thinking explicit, I think we might hear more objections from the individuals and communities consigned to mid-tech training.

Better yet, perhaps these short-sighted, elitist, and altogether less-than-constructive visions for America’s higher ed need not be shared at all.

Our Possible Selves

I’ve been watching the spread of a troubling recessionary idea: That sending fewer Americans to college will solve our economic problems.

In STEM fields, this is part of the whole “skills gap” story so popular in talk about education-for-jobs today…the notion that in order for the nation to thrive, we need more people who prepare  to be technicians or mechanics in high-tech sectors like bio- or nanotech, and really, for all kinds of mid-level technology based jobs. (Here’s  one example of skills gap logic, from Austin, Texas,  but really, it is so pervasive a notion among workforce planners and educators now that I’m actually willing to say: Just Google it.)

As the new STEM programming in that Austin high school indicates, anxiety about the skills gap can bring new resources to STEM teaching, enriching instruction and encouraging kids to enter those fields. But when those worried about an inadequate  industrial labor pool call for more enrollment in sub-baccalaureate education or on-the-job training as the answer, some unfortunate differentials in educational opportunities seem to strengthen.

For example, the  “Pathways to Prosperity” report, which came out of Harvard’s Graduate School of Education earlier this year, essentially tells us that too many Americans are aspiring to 4-year degrees, evidenced by high drop-out rates among 4-year college students from disadvantaged backgrounds.  Some significant number of young Americans will be better off, we can assume,  if they give up on the idea of pursuing a 4-year degree, thus saving expenditures of money and time that are unlikely to lead them to secure employment.

By extension, we may understand that there are methods by which those who “shouldn’t” attend college can be identified before they make the error of trying to do so.  I see this outlook as one that (intentionally or not) helps to justify the historic under-representation of poorer Americans (who often grow up in communities with poorer schools) in 4-year colleges and graduate programs.

Take this justification from “Pathways To Prosperity”  for “diversifying” the post-secondary paths we offer to young people in this country:

Behaving as though four-year college is the only acceptable route to success clearly still works well for many young adults, especially students fortunate enough to attend highly selective colleges and universities. It also works well for affluent students, who can often draw on family and social connections to find their way in the adult world. But it clearly does not work well for many, especially young men…Similarly, among the low-income and young people of color who will make up an increasing portion of the workforce of the future, this single route does not work well either. [p. 13]

Thus: Who shouldn’t aspire to 4-year colleges? Those who have historically done poorly in that setting. Those without social and family connections. Who happen to be those from less affluent backgrounds. Or from historically disadvantaged minority communities.    …So much for asking the hard questions about economic attainment in America.

The Pathways report holds the promise of some interesting K-12 reforms, helping students who might otherwise lose their way benefit  from personalized, well planned, well resourced education.  But why have community college, rather than university, enrollment as the goal for these students? Why do the Harvard authors think it is a good step forward for the nation to discard the “college for all” model that has shaped our public education system for generations?

I don’t know, but invoking national workforce needs as a reason seems not a little circular to me, and  I think we should be asking if some larger economic system is sustained by that aim.  Ronald Ferguson, an author of the report who spoke to a gathering at the Penn Institute for Urban Research a few weeks ago, put the report’s message thusly (as reported on the Penn IUR website):

Ferguson argues that children will be able to “accumulate a menu of possible selves” and to see that “all work is honorable.”

“A menu of possible selves”?  It would almost sound like poetry if it didn’t seem so calculated to make a non-issue of inequity in education. And, “all work is honorable”?  Though I have absolutely no reason to think Ferguson intended this effect here, that phrase historically has naturalized the least democratic features of our economic system. It has too often been used to placate those in our society who hold the most tedious, dangerous, and difficult jobs.

Here’s the thing: If we strived to make all jobs in America as remunerative, safe, interesting and growthful as possible for those who hold them, such exhortations might not be necessary.

If that kind of deep, redistributive societal reform is not on the menu of economic and educational strategists today,  perhaps we are really talking about pathways to prosperity for those who already have sure routes to that destination.

A Hands-Off Management Style. Literally.

“I want to have as few people touching our products as possible.”

So spoke Dan Mishek, the managing director of an industrial plastic products manufacturer in Minnesota, quoted in Catherine Rampell’s NYTimes article yesterday, “Companies Spend on Equipment, Not Workers.” Why would an employer want to keep people away from its products? Germphobia? Elitism? No, just practicality: as hiring becomes increasingly expensive for industry, compared to automation and capital investment in machines in general,  more human hands , it seems, can be an unwelcome presence in the factory.

Mr. Mishek also noted that, “You don’t have to train machines.”  Or read their resumes (“It’s a huge distraction to sort though all those.”)  In essence, where humans proliferate on the shop floor, maximized productivity is threatened.

Mass-production operations have historically minimized the degree to which they depend upon workers (with their insistent human need for wages, training,  and accommodations to safety and fatigue); that’s the basic logic of industrial capitalism and once inside that logic, an employer might reasonably  feel that  no other view of hiring seems rational.  And Rampell aptly includes a single point made both  by the chief economist for the National Federation of Independent Businesses and by the chairman of Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers.  These analysts note  that with demand for products and services low in the current slow-growing economy, employers won’t be “comfortable” with any kind of investment, “human or otherwise.”

In all ways predictable sentiments, entirely consistent with good business practice in the United States.  So: Why were they featured on the front  page of the New York Times?….

Here’s where it gets interesting:  I presume because on some level,  Rampell and her editors detect that such discomforting managerial commitments, so clearly out of keeping with ostensible national priorities to put more Americans back to work,  keep fading from view.  They are perhaps obscured by the bright, shiny glare of other headlines of the moment, such as, “Obama Touts National Manufacturing Certification Program” (seen the day before in IndustryWeek.com).

According to that piece by Jonathan Katz (and thanks to Mary Ebeling for calling it to my attention), the National Association of Manufacturers’ Manufacturing Institute, working with President Obama’s Skills for America’s Future,  is supporting a new program to certify half a million community college students with “skills that are critical to manufacturing operations.”  We read, as we have so often in the past year or two, that America’s pharmaceutical, aerospace and biotech sectors need people with skills not yet widely distributed among the nation’s workers, skills broadly grouped under the rubric “high-tech.”

As I’ve written here before,  new skills, many involving  knowledge of new software, applied mathematics and up-to-date machine processes, are no doubt needed by those manufacturers who do still hire, and who do still turn to American labor pools.  Obviously, new jobs are mostly going to arise in emergent industries, not in fading “low-tech” sectors.  But the power of the “minimize hiring” logic is truly immense in our society.  A “skills gap” may well exist on some level, but to picture 500,000 American workers filling such a gap would require a leap over that logic. To pursue, as the NAM’s new training program does,  so utterly uncritically the provision of newly trained manufacturing workers is to ignore the tremendous counter-forces that automation, tax incentives for capital investment, and outsourcing exert on the nation’s industrial employers.

What is more, when companies like those quoted here by Katz say they need “engineers,” are they really picturing men and women with community college credentials? Many high-tech industry folks I’ve spoken to worry about that very slippage; associate’s degrees and certificate programs are simply not providing the level of chemistry, physics and material science preparation needed in their companies’  labs or assembly operations.

I know, I know, I’m like a broken record, a virtual mass-producer of such plaints. But the disconnect is so darn pervasive! So persistent!  I can’t help but ask yet again: Can all of these high-tech-job  boosters possibly be sincere? Are they willfully naive? Why is technical modernization–high tech– constantly painted as a natural and inevitable producer of jobs for American workers, when so very much evidence to the contrary exists??  When managers like Mr. Mishek, to do their jobs well, must–let’s face it–minimize the creation of jobs for others?