Saturday, July 5, 2008

The Most Defensive People in the World?

Following publication of my article, America's Most Overrated Product: a Bachelor's Degree, the Chronicle of Higher Education asked me to blog on its site about it for a month.

I have never seen such defensiveness as I encountered in the readers' (mostly professors) responses. The focus of my blog was to document how little students grow in college, suggest a variety of approaches to improvement, and invite readers to agree, amplify, or disagree.

Instead, the large majority of responses were tangential and/or personal attacks. My 13 detailed posts in the month plus approximately 10 detailed rejoinders to their comments yielded little willingness to engage in the issue.

I believe the largest reason was defensiveness: If those professors looked inward, they'd have to realize they're the wrong people to be teaching undergraduates and are educating in a way that serves themselves far more than it serves their students. After all, they're hired and promoted based heavily on their research capabilities, attributes which often are inversely correlated with the ability to teach undergraduates.

I come away from my Guest Blogger stint at the Chronicle of Higher Education more convinced than ever that a bachelor's degree is America's most overrated product.

I'm confident that graduate instruction is not much better. I need search no further than my own family:

-- I look at the irrelevance of most of the courses my wife and I took in getting our Ph.D.s at Berkeley. For example, all the students in our programs were forced to take five five-unit graduate level statistics courses, even though the vast majority of us would never use any of it--If we needed advanced statistics, we'd hire a statistician. But one of the most powerful professors in the department was a statistician and he wanted to make sure that the courses he wanted to teach (Nonparametric Statistics anyone?) always had sufficient students enrolled.

-- Barbara and I had to write many long papers but rarely received much feedback on any of them, even though there were fewer than 10 students in her program and in mine.

-- My daughter went to Yale Law School, considered America's best. Yet when hired, she like most Yale Law School graduates, had to enter a training program on how to practice law. The Yale grads understood arcane and leftist legal theories but were clueless about what to do to prepare a case or succeed in the courtroom.

Many of my career counseling clients are physicians, attorneys, engineers, etc. Most of them believe their long, expensive education ill-equipped them to be competent in their profession. Or at minimum, it provided much too little learning of value for the time and money expended.

When I supervised student teachers at San Jose State University, despite their having nearly completed their teaching certification, most of them were bad teachers.

So, my summative message: I believe not only that the bachelor's degree is America's most overrated product, but that most higher education diplomas are.

Of course, alas, many professions require degrees, for example, doctor, lawyer, and teacher, although some school districts now allow alternative certification. But many careers don't require a degree. If not, a self-starter will learn more at far less cost at what I call You U: Learn, on a just-in-time basis, via self-study, workshops, mentors, etc. If you're worried about being unemployable because of your lack of a degree, write cover letters documenting how you've opted for substance over form.

If you want more formal education, even if you already have a degree, check out the offerings at community colleges. Because faculty is hired and promoted heavily on teaching ability, because the tuition is low, and community colleges offer a surprising array of programs, I believe they're among America's most underrated products.


Anonymous said...

Another good thing about community colleges: you don't have to be on a degree track to take a few classes. You can just take the classes you're interested in, and many of them don't require that you've taken another class as a prerequisite.

I followed some of the blog postings and comments on your guest blog for a time. It surprised me how utterly juvenile most of these people, who are supposed to be among the best examples of higher education, were. I have seen children treat their peers with more respect. Just because they disagreed with you doesn't mean they had to act like trolls.

Seeing it made me devalue my bachelor's degree more than ever. What if these were the kind of people that were attempting to teach me? Preschoolers could teach these people a thing or two about common (?) courtesy.

John said...

As a current college senior, do you have any advice as to what I can do to get something out of my bachelor's degree (not limited to classes)?

Marty Nemko said...

John, I'd consider doing at least some of these things:

1. Choosing your courses based more on the professor's excellence than the course topic.

2. Request permission to do your term papers and projects on topics of more compelling interest to you (personally or careerwise) than the regularly assigned topics.

3. Be brave enough to ask questions , even if they do reveal your ignorance.

4. Politely ask questions that represent an unpopular point of view, if you in fact hold such a view.

5. Get involved in extracurriculars that would be one or more of these: an adventure, enhance your leadership skills, fun, something you might otherwise not get to do.

6. Utilize the career office at your college.

7. Perhaps most important, develop close one-on-one relationships with professors, students, administrators, resident assistants, etc., whom you respect and like.

Anonymous said...

You recently wrote the following in another post:

"I reasoned that if people don't like my work or ideas, they're just not smart enough or are too politically correct to appreciate my brilliance.

"In short, knowing I have a high IQ makes me hubristic and sometimes complacent."

I think it's fair to ask if this attitude may have had anything to do with the defensiveness of the Chronicle readers and your response to it. Despite your intelligence and your credentials, perhaps you were not the right person to deliver this message to them.

In the same post, you said:

"I would score far lower than the 99th percentile in the art of persuasion and in sensitivity to people's feelings."

If you had a do-over, knowing what you know now, would you have perhaps communicated your messages in a way that would not have caused defensiveness on the part of the Chronicle readers?

Marty Nemko said...

Anonymous asks a reasonable question. On rereading my posts, I believe they struck the balance between being direct enough to create the disequilibrium I tried to create, so they might be open to change, yet not unnecessarily inflammatory.

Then again, perhaps I'm not sophisticated enough in the art of getting professors to change to judge whether my work did, in fact, strike the right balance.

I can say that my editor at the Chronicle was, throughout the onslaught by the responders, supportive, saying that he thought my posts were very good.

Dave said...

What really boggles the mind is how these institutions are run. Before starting my PhD course, I asked a PhD student about his experiences. What he told me really boggled the mind.

His supervisor left the university, following a serious disagreement he had with the department chair. This happened in the middle of his write-up year! The department could no longer provide him with in-house supervision. He had to search outside the university for someone to supervise his thesis! Yes, HE had to find a supervisor! The department did not offer any assistance. Nobody cared...

I withdrew from a university when a heated argument erupted between my supervisor and another faculty member over the validity of my thesis. The next day, I fired off dozens of e-mails to professors from across the country, asking them if they'd be willing to take me on. I lucked out in the end.

This is in the UK, by the way.

Anonymous said...

The bachelor degree is only really valuable if it's used to further one's education to a doctorate level. Otherwise it's a waste of time and money. I'm still a proponent of education and training - just not a fan of the boloney served in attempting a bachelor's degree.

Anyway Marty, I love your work! Thank you!

JP Adams said...

Thanks for the interesting post Marty. You got a young man thinking.

Anonymous said...

Three cheers for the community college system. I have taken many classes at my local Jr. College in order to keep up with the rapid changes in technology. I don't need another degree, I just need to be competitive with people 20 years younger than me.