I know I’ve been on this “do my kids really have to go to college?” bender for a while now, but yesterday’s New York Times column by Charles Murray has added some new fuel to the fire. In “Should the Obama Generation Drop Out?” Murray basically makes the case that a) a bachelor’s degree should not be the prime determiner of employment as an adult and b) for most kids, the bachelor’s is a credential that is “beyond their reach” yet we spend countless hours and dollars in preparation and pursuit anyway.
Let me just say, once again, I am not anti college or anti-intellectual. What I am is anti the treadmill that we’ve set up for many kids in primarily upper middle class suburban schools that streamlines them into a very narrow track to a four year degree right out of high school. The treadmill my kids are going to be encouraged to climb on in the very near future. The one my wife and kids and I are going to have to decide whether we want them on. The statistics are pretty compelling: only about one in four Americans have a bachelor’s degree, and college dropout rates are over 50%. As Murray says,
For most of the nationâ€™s youths, making the bachelorâ€™s degree a job qualification means demanding a credential that is beyond their reach. It is a truth that politicians and educators cannot bring themselves to say out loud: A large majority of young people do not have the intellectual ability to do genuine college-level work…[And] Many young people who have the intellectual ability to succeed in rigorous liberal arts courses donâ€™t want to. For these students, the distribution requirements of the college degree do not open up new horizons. They are bothersome time-wasters.
Now that doesn’t mean I don’t think my kids can’t succeed at college. And it doesn’t mean that I don’t fully appreciate the advantages my kids have in growing up in a white, upper middle class home where both parents are educated by the traditional means and (hopefully) intellectually curious enough to motivate their kids to learn. And it doesn’t mean that I don’t know the economic benefits of a college degree. But I can’t help but think that my kids have opportunities to learn what they need to know to be successful in ways that I didn’t, ways that in some measure may have been there all along and that maybe I didn’t take advantage of, but ways that are also brand new and game-changers. This is not a suggestion that we replace a bachelor’s with a blog, btw, but it is an open question as to whether or not my kids have more ways to acquire the knowledge and skills they need to be successful and show what they can do on an unprecedented scale. And if so, it’s a challenge to move them off of a college treadmill and onto a learning treadmill where the system’s job is not necessarily to raise it’s college acceptance rates but to prepare all kids for a variety of choices and scenarios upon which they can create their futures.
More and more, all I want from my kids’ school is to help me identify what they love, what their strengths are, and then help them create their own paths to mastery of their passions. Stop spending so much time focusing on subjects or courses that “they need for college” but don’t interest them in the least. Help them become learners who will be able to find and make good use of the knowledge that they need when they need it, whether that means finding an answer online or taking a college course to deepen their understanding. And finally, prepare them to create their own credentials that will powerfully display their capabilities, passions and potentials. (And I know that my more immediate challenge right now is to figure out whether or not my kids’ public school system can do that and, if not, what to do about it. More on that later.)
Maybe I’m dreaming. Or maybe it’s because the last seven years have turned me into an “alternate route” learner and passion-based professional, and intellectually I’ve just loved this SO much more than when I went to college (though college did have its moments…just not usually in the classroom.) Either way, it just feels like there’s going to be some shift happening here in the next few years as well, and I, at least, have to start thinking about it sooner rather than later.