College Takes Four Years. Education Takes a Lifetime

Photo by Heather Schwartz, Unsplash.com

When we think about the value of a college education, it is usually in the context of making a living. We expect that a college education will result in higher earnings over the course of our lifetime. This idea has been drummed into us for the last thirty years. For decades, the education industry has been repeating the mantra that ever more education means ever more income.

 

There might be some truth to that, but it a relatively new view of the value of education. My parents and grandparents didn’t see things that way. Sure, higher education contributed to a higher standard of living, but that was not really the point of going to school. My parents put me on the college track when I was elementary school, not for the promise of a high income, but because an education built character and made individuals better citizens.

 

In their view, smart people have a civic duty to get an education because of the benefits it returns to society.

 

This wasn’t an idea created by the generation before mine. The Founders of the United States had a reverence for education. Concepts like equality, liberty and democracy are abstractions – they are intangibles, sometimes called metaphysical because we cannot see or even visualize them in our imaginations. Without an education, it is very difficult to understand sophisticated arguments about political theory and the rights of man.

 

Graduating from college meant I was educated and ready to contribute to moving my country past the convulsions of the 60’s and 70’s that was tearing it apart. I was very proud of myself for earning a bachelor’s degree.

 

That is, until I read the newspaper.

 

About a week after the formalities of the graduation ceremony, I was sitting on my parents’ couch reading an editorial. I don’t remember what the editorial was about, but I vividly remember a reference to The Scarlet Letter and having no idea what the editorial was trying to say because I had never read the book.

 

I was stunned.

 

Here I am, I thought, a week out of college with a newly minted diploma attesting to my new status as an educated American, and I don’t know what a newspaper editorial means because I have not read a well-known classic American novel.

 

I resolved to plug that hole in my education.

 

I began going to the city library, working my way through canyons of bookcases packed with classic works of fiction and highbrow literature that I had avoided in high school and college. I’d pick out a book I had heard about but never read, head to the overstuffed chairs at the ends of the bookcases, and start reading.

 

Some books I just could not manage.

 

Anything by Dickens or the Bronte sisters are just too slow and boring. And who would want to go to the trouble of writing a book and then title it The Scarlet Pimpernel? I never got far enough in that book to find out what a pimpernel is or why a scarlet one is noteworthy.

 

The unfamiliar names of characters in War and Peace confused me no end, but I made index cards with mini-biographies to keep everyone straight. Even then, I found the book just plodding along. Just the same, it brought the Russian history courses I took in college to life.

 

This got me excited about Russian history and I read biographies of Catherine the Great, Ivan the Terrible and Peter the Great. I even got to Nicholas and Alexandria, the story of the last Tsar and the revolution that brought communism and half a century of untold suffering to the Russian people.

 

That got me started on Russian dissent Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s works.

 

I read For the Good of the Cause and found out how the human need for social hierarchy combined with an imposed inhuman bureaucracy creates institutionalized abuse. This is very relevant in an era of Bong Hits for Jesus and school districts reporting sexually active students to law enforcement. Anyone advocating progressivism in education should read For the Good of the Cause to see how a too much of a good thing can undermine human and civil rights.

 

The relevance of old stories to modern concerns was something else I discovered.

 

St. Elmo is one of the first romance novels. It was written in the 1880’s, I think, and is so full of archaic words that I kept a dictionary nearby as I read the book.

 

The plot was follows the formula of modern romance novels. Some things never change – and our appetite for romance novels is one of them.

 

The main character was a young woman nursing a broken heart who meets a mysterious wealthy stranger, who also lost at love. St. Elmo was the grief stricken mystery man and the narrator was the governess – the nanny — of his children. I found out that back in those days a “bluestocking” was an older, conservative woman who thinks young people have no discretion, decorum or respect for propriety.

 

Sound familiar? Human nature is very slow to change and books like St Elmo reminds me how similar we are to generations long past.

 

The Iliad and The Odyssey, both written by Homer almost a thousand years ago, might be the first novels ever written. In the last few years archeologists have found that people and events described in these books really existed. Homer describes the Trojan War in some detail, as well as the duplicity that spawned the famous wooden horse. Helen of Troy makes a series of appearances as well, and Homer explains her role in the conflict.

 

Something in The Odyssey frequently comes to mind when I see people openly wearing guns in public.

 

In the book, the main character, Odysseus, finally returns to his hometown after 20 years of adventures. He finds that although his wife had remained pure and true to him, men vying for her bed and her fortune surrounded her. He reveals himself to his son who wants to grab swords and axes to intimidate and scare off the interlopers. The old man immediately rejects the idea saying,

 

“Bare steel in sight draws men to fight.”

 

Instead of inviting a bloody confrontation, they hatch a plan to discreetly keep their weapons under their cloaks and use their intelligence and ingenuity to achieve their goals. That part of the book always comes to mind when I see people openly toting pistols in public. If Homer was to reincarnate in Walmart his modern advice might be, “Carry your gun discreetly and like Odysseus and his son, use your wits to avoid using it”.

 

Something truly amazing about The Odyssey is that the plot of 2000 movie O Brother, Where Art Thou? is based on it, although it is set in Depression era Mississippi and the main characters are prison escapees. Imagine, a poem written almost a thousand years ago made into a modern motion picture!

 

Finally, there is Gone with the Wind. Unfortunately, the book is now the focus of racial conspiracy theories. Historical revisionists claim the books’ purpose is to glorify slavery and the antebellum South, but that simply is not true. Most people advancing that assertion have likely not read the book, although they might have seen the movie.

 

The famous move limits itself to the love story between Rhett Butler and Scarlett O’Hara, but their romance is just a superficial subplot in the book. The real story is more complex and very relevant to what we are now experiencing in the wake of the collapse of the industrial economy in 2008. It’s as if the southern survivors of the Civil War left a time capsule detailing their struggles creating a new economy from the ashes of an old one.

 

The book actually explores the question of why, in the aftermath of the destruction of an economy, some people achieve success and others do not. In the beginning of the book author Margret Mitchell tells of listening to adults who were alive during the Civil War incessantly discussing this question.

 

Some people who were wealthy before the war were able to rebuild their fortunes afterwards, but many of their peers did not. At the same time, there were people who were very poor before the war, yet afterwards did quite well for themselves.

 

What is it that determines an individual’s financial fate when they live in the ruins of a formally vibrant economy? It not just the ability to work hard – Americans are notable throughout the world for their work ethic. Plenty of people work very hard, but never achieve much material success. We call them the “working poor”.

 

Why is it some do so well and others do so poorly? This is an especially relevant question today as we move past the collapse of the industrial economy of the 20th century and begin building a new economy.

 

Individually we are facing challenges very similar to what Mitchell heard her elders discussing when she was a child. Like them, now there are people who struggled in the old economy who are doing very well in the emerging one. On the other hand, some people who were doing quite well in the late 20th century are now living like Tom Joad, a character in Grapes of Wrath, another book, (and movie), examining the plight of people facing the aftermath of a collapse of a national economy.

 

Education is not just about getting a college degree and making more money than you would otherwise. It is about amassing a wealth of knowledge that makes the world more understandable. A broad wealth of knowledge helps us see important nuances and reveals connections and insights others have experienced.

 

I found out that in order to learn new things it is essential to have a foundation that new knowledge can build upon. Learning a new language or musical instrument is a good example of this. In the beginning, learning is very slow and difficult because there is no context for the new knowledge. As learning takes hold it becomes easier to add new knowledge to what we now understand. Every morsel of knowledge is a foundation for more knowledge. Every bit of new knowledge has a relationship with previously learned knowledge.

 

Education is the antidote to “fake news”, conspiracy theories mascaraing as insight, and emotional catchphrases that subtly undermine principles of justice and equality.

 

Education leverages the value of the struggles and victories of people who came before us. Their knowledge and experiences strengthen our cognitive insights and understanding as we grapple with our challenges and struggles.

 

A college degree is just the beginning of education. It is a foundation for the real education to come – a lifetime of intellectual excitement and exploration.

 

 

 

 

 

An Echo from 2001: A Few Words About Jobs And The Economy

Mark Rasmuson Unsplash.com

This essay was written in January 2001. On the ten year anniversary of the collapse of the old industrial economy it is fitting to take a look back. The industrial economy did not suddenly disappear in 2008; there were signs of big changes long before that, but we had no idea of exactly what was coming our way.

Economic Myths and Fairy Tales

Just as people caught up in the upheaval of the Industrial Revolution knew their economy had been turned upside down and had no idea what might happen next, neither do we. No one really knows what is going on with the economy. Economists in academia who we have traditionally depended upon to unravel economic mysteries and predict future trends can’t seem to agree on what’s happening. While some argue that we are on the verge of an economic Golden Age due to the increasing technical educational of the American work force, others claim that we are facing the same kind of demographically induced calamity that crushed the Japanese economy in the mid 1990’s.

Maybe in another fifty or one hundred years historians will assign a name to the revolution now occurring around us. Although to our eyes the modern economy is a chaotic and unpredictable place, historians of the future will see how our present upheaval merges nicely into the streams of time.

A lot of people who should really know better don’t seem to be aware that basic precepts and standards that applied to economics or employment a few years ago no longer exist. Indeed, employment counselors often tell their new clients that “there’s a place in the job market for everyone”, at the same time that the numbers of long term unemployed is higher than it ever has been and continues to grow.

Just figuring unemployment is challenging. So challenging, in fact, that government statisticians often use six different formulas to figure the state unemployment rate. One of the middle numbers is usually given to newspapers and the public as the “official” unemployment rate. The government isn’t trying to hide anything; it’s just that there is no easy way to define unemployment. And if there isn’t a good way to define unemployment, it’s impossible to put a number on how many people are unemployed. Click here to read all about it.

It’s Nothing New

The truth is that we are in a position similar to that which Americans and Europeans found themselves during the early 1800’s. Although craftsmen of many disciplines existed at that time, the real engine of the worldwide economy was farming. Just about everyone was a farmer — just about everyone had to be because farming was so labor intensive. At that time, economics had been closely tied to agriculture for as long as anyone could remember. A trained economist who knew a little about he weather, growing seasons and transportation could make some pretty accurate predictions about economic trends.

This all began to change in 1781 when James Watt reinvented the steam engine and made it a practical source of power for use in manufacturing plants. It was a much slower world in those days, and at the dawn of the 19th century steam engines were still an expensive curiosity. Gradually though, industry saw the advantages of replacing horses with steam engines. This incredible new technology was much cheaper to maintain and operate than horses, and (unlike water power) could be located just about anywhere.

By 1825 a world shattering transformation was occurring. Thanks to the ever increasing use of steam power agriculture was becoming more efficient, and fewer people were needed to operate the new steam powered grinding and milling machines. At the same time heavy textile industries were flourishing in England and Germany, and the Northern United States began a century long industrial building boom that produced the Steel Belt — that portion of the north central United States that would produce most of the worlds raw steel, trains, railroad tracks, and later, trucks, automobiles and war material.

Young people in Europe and the Eastern United States began leaving farms and moving to cities to work in the new high paying industries. Suddenly craftsmen who had labored for years in order to learn to make beautiful silver and copper dining sets or hand stitched saddles and tack found themselves out of work. With the aide of steam power goods that were once the product of intense and conscientious men patiently creating practical art could be manufactured en mass faster and cheaper than an army of craftsmen. The legend of John Henrys race with the steam engine is a cultural myth invented to explain this bit of economics. (The young ‘uns who entered elementary school after the teaching of American culture became passé can visit the John Henry Homepage to find out about this very relevant allegory.)

Of course, these dramatic changes created some harsh truths for a lot of people. Suddenly skills and abilities that had ensured economic security and social status for centuries counted for nothing. Workers who had been displaced by this technological advancement would need to learn new ways to fit into an economy driven by the steam engine. People who failed to integrate into the new economy faced major consequences — it was as if they no longer existed for any economically related purpose. Men who had previously been artists in metal, wood and leather now found themselves faced with the ignoble future of either shoveling coal to fuel the steam engines, or if they too old to compete with 18 year olds at the end of a shovel, simply becoming burdens to their children.

Does This Sound Familiar?

It should. We are experiencing the same sort of economic upheaval right now. Computers and the Internet are reshaping the entire economy, and jobs that were once plentiful have now either disappeared, or have become unrecognizable. At the same time, measures of economic health are quickly losing their ability to reflect important aspects of the economy.

For example, the service manager of the biggest auto dealership in my city says that that his biggest headache is finding mechanics. This sounds strange to those who remember the old world of fifteen or twenty years ago when it was easy for garages and dealerships to find mechanics. Back then lots of kids were so fascinated by turning wrenches that they trained themselves to be auto mechanics by working on their friends cars for little or nothing. There was a bottomless reservoir of mechanics anytime one was needed.

Today, though, cars run on software and silicone as much as they do on gasoline and rubber. Modern autos are loaded with computers that control so many aspects of the vehicle that diagnostic computers are consulted before a wrench is ever pulled from a toolbox.

What we used to think of an as a mechanic no longer exists.

Anyone attempting repairs on a modern vehicle needs a formal technical education in order to perform anything more complex than an oil change. In the mechanics place is a highly trained technician who understands the sophisticated interplay of computer chips, circuit boards, and hot moving parts. Young people with the basic skills and talents for this type of job are becoming more and more rare.

That’s because it takes far more than a mechanical aptitude and a desire to work on cars to become a mechanic these days. Candidates must be able to read and write well, have knowledge of basic science, (especially physics and chemistry), be computer and Internet literate, and accept the fact that constant improvements in automotive technology means constant education for automotive technicians. With these basic qualifications a young person might get accepted into a training program at a community college and pay $7500 for a two-year course that will be relevant only for vehicles produced three to five years after graduation.

Not surprisingly, there are few people willing to take this road. Young people possessing the degree of talent, intelligence and academic commitment needed to be an automotive technician tend to be attracted to more glamorous and better paying careers.

Car mechanics aren’t the only ones facing this dilemma. Science and technology is elevating the bar for entry-level positions every year and in every industry. Here’s what the US Department of Labor says in it’s comprehensive report on the state of the economy, Futurework — Trends and Challenges for Work in the 21st Century:

“…A 1996 American Management Association (AMA) survey of mid-sized and larger businesses found that 19 percent of job applicants taking employer-administered tests lacked the math and reading skills necessary in the jobs for which they were applying. The AMA’s 1998 survey, however, found that this percentage had increased to almost 36 percent. The sharp increase in the deficiency rate is due, the 1998 AMA report concluded, not to a ‘‘dumbing down’’ of the incoming workforce but to the higher literacy and math skills required in today’s workplace.”

Futurework: Trends and Challenges for Work in the 21st Century

Chapter 7 — Implications of workplace change

In other words, in just 2 years jobs had become so math and literacy dependant that the number of applicants who did not have the education to qualify for them doubled. Think about that for a moment, and then consider that people generally believe that they have the skills needed to perform the jobs they apply for. This means that according to the AMA survey cited by the Labor Department about one third of applicants at mid size or larger companies did not realize that they were lacking the basic skills needed for the jobs they desired. Necessary job skills had become so sophisticated so quickly that the applicants frequently did not realize they did not qualify for the job.

How could this crazy situation have arisen? Because the constant advances in technology are quickly adopted by businesses in order to remain competitive with other companies who are doing the same thing. Competition has become so fierce that huge, well-known companies with familiar names that were once pillars of the economy are frequently going out of business. Sears, JC Penny, Montgomery Ward, and Rubbermaid have all either gone bankrupt or been forced to reorganize under Court supervision.

The increasingly rapid spiral of competition and technological sophistication means that workers are expected to become competent in constantly narrowing and arcane specialties. The sad irony is that while companies complain about a shortage of qualified workers, there are plenty of well-educated workers looking for jobs. The speed of change has become so fast, however, that they may not even be aware of the special skills needed to perform the work.

Sometimes even the most menial of jobs requires sophisticated technical skills.

The sales manager of one of the largest manufacturers of wood chipping equipment in the Northwest illustrates this problem nicely. He frequently complains about how difficult it is to find laborers to work on the plant floor. Although the sales manager blames the wonderful economy for the shortage of workers, he seems to be missing some important facts.

First, why is a sales manager concerned with hiring laborers to work on the plant floor? The answer to that question is summed up in one word: Reorganization. The economy is so competitive that businesses of all sizes and types are constantly reexamining the way they manage tasks. The era of mid level managers putting their feet on a desktop and reading the newspaper are long gone. Everyone one in an organization, from the president to the guy who empties the wastebaskets, must constantly prove their worth to the company. Failure to do so results in cutting hours or eliminating positions, and distributing tasks to others in the organization.

This sales manager has to remind himself that the Personnel Department was almost completely eliminated two years ago and replaced with a temp agency. In addition to managing sales, he also serves as the liaison for the temp agency.

In an economic environment so competitive that salesmen are involved with personnel matters it’s no surprise that laborers must be able to do more than sweep floors and clean windows. In a company that survives on its ability to fabricate metal into wood chippers even the laborers at the bottom of the organizational chart must have technical metallurgical skills.

That’s why laborers at this company, working for just above minimum wage, are required to have at least one year of experience in a metal fabrications plant, and be able to recognize all metals used in the plant on sight, as well as have knowledge of the properties of the metals used. This way the company does not have to train newly hired laborers in skills needed to sort and stack the valuable and reusable scrap metal produced in the course of manufacturing wood chippers.

At the other end of the wage spectrum is a man we’ll call Dave. Although Dave is bright, educated, and works hard, there is nothing particularly unusual about him. There is one thing setting him apart from the rest of us, however. He is paid between $200 and $300 dollars for every hour he works at his chosen profession.

Dave writes and maintains the software that medical offices use to organize patient affairs. Everything from X-rays to billing, appointments to insurance claims is instantly accessible to anyone in a medical office using the software he maintains. The software makes managing a medical office so efficient and economical that medical professionals are willing to pay premium prices to lease it and keep it running.

Although Dave is a good programmer, there is nothing exceptional about his education, background, or skills. He graduated with a degree in Computer Programming in 1985, and had the good fortune to go to work for a small company just starting to market medical software. Unlike most of the others who stared with the company, Dave remained in Oregon rather than move to Silicone Valley, and now is one of two programmers in the Northwest who are familiar with this software. Because his skills are so rare, and result in such economy for the medical sector, he is paid an unusually large amount of money for his services.

Job Hunting Realities

So, what do these examples tell us about jobs in the Information Age?

What they show is that in order to be competitive in the job market people need to possess very narrow, specialized skills that are directly relevant to the company and position they are applying to. It is no longer enough to have a degree, or training or even experience. Transferable skills mean nothing to employers — getting the work done is the only thing that matters. Employers are looking for people who can be effective and economical from the first hour they walk into their new position.

Here’s an example form the Classified Section of the Statesman Journal:

Drug and Alcohol
Program Manager
$2,969-$3,775/mo

Provide clinical supervision for an outpatient drug and alcohol treatment program. Qualifications: Bachelor’s Degree in a relevant field and four years of paid, full time Human Services experience with a minimum of four years direct D & A experience, one year of which must have been in a supervisory and/or administrative capacity. Call 541–396–3173 x232 for a Coos County application packet. Closing Date: January 24, 2001. EOE

Statesman Journal Subclassification: Professional 1/7/2001

There are some interesting things about this very typical advertisement. First, notice that the standard advise touting volunteer or part time positions as a way to building skills and abilities means nothing as far as this position is concerned. The ad specifies that only paid, full time experience counts towards the minimum experience requirement.

Does this mean that the experience needed to do this job can only be learned in paid increments of 7.5 hours each? Of course not. This requirement is arbitrary — it has nothing to do with the skills or abilities needed to perform the job; it was chosen only to eliminate “non-professionals” from the pool of applicants.

The trend among employers today is to marginalize volunteer and part time experience by interpreting it as an indication that the applicant is not dedicated to the field or lacks professional expertise. The inference of working without pay is that the value of the worker is very low — skills given away for free have no value. As one employer puts it, “Why would I consider paying [an applicant with a history of part time volunteer work] when he’s happy working for nothing?”

The same thing is true for the education requirement. Notice that there is no specific field of education specified for this position. As long as a Bachelors Degree is “relevant”, it meets the education requirements. Why would an employer be so vague about education requirements?

Because the academic details don’t matter.

Non technical Bachelor degrees, (like those in Liberal Arts, Humanities and Business), no longer imply that particular skills and abilities have been learned. Non-specific Bachelors Degree requirements are included in job announcements only to exclude applicants without an academic history in a particular interest such as Psychology or Sociology, and to ensure basic literacy and general knowledge ability.

Academic degrees, like part time volunteer experience, are being marginalized by employers who view them as a tool to exclude applicants, rather than as an objective measure of skills, knowledge or expertise.

(Indeed, this trend has been present for some time and is continuing to expand. An admissions director for Phoenix University recently said that the trend on the East Coast for liberal arts and business undergraduates is to forgo job-hunting until they get a Masters or MBA degree. Think about that for a moment — earning a graduate degree just to compete for entry-level positions!)

In addition to this, the employer also requires four years of specific drug and alcohol experience and a year of supervisory experience. This job announcement can be summarized very quickly — the employer wants an individual who has been doing pretty much the same thing at another agency.

This is a common requirement among local social service agencies.

In a moment of rare candor the personnel director for one of the biggest social service agencies in town explained that local agencies tend to trade employees back and forth rather than hire people from “outside the loop”. It seems that most of the social service employers in the this area area hire off the street only to fill the most entry of entry-level positions, and look to each other to share the burden of training for positions beyond that.

In other words, there are so many applicants that social service agencies only hire people who hold similar jobs for other local social service agencies. This ensures that new hires will have the basic skills, knowledge, and training needed by these agencies. People who might have experience from other states or vocational fields are routinely rejected for employment, even when they are highly qualified, because there are so many others who are familiar with local rules, regulations, and methods of client care.

What to Do?

That is fodder for another essay. The first step, though, is to reassess our assumptions about jobs and the economy. Things are changing so fast that what might be true now won’t be in a few months or years. Of course, the corollary is that what was true a few years ago may not be true now. Loyalty — either from employer to employee or vice versa — no longer exists, and the concept of employment is giving way to the necessity of employability.

Anyone who wants to survive in our increasingly turbulent and unpredictable economy has got to make being well informed a priority. Read books about employment and the economy. Talk to people who hire. Call the people who place job announcements and ask them about why they ask for particular skills or word their advertisements as they do.

The best tool we have to make the job market more comprehensible is knowledge. Knowledge is out there; we might not like what we find, and what we find may not be what we think things ought to be, but it’s the only reality we have.

Note

This essay was written in January 2001, seven years before the official onset of the Great Recession. The seeds for our present jobs problem were brewing even than, obvious to anyone who would look below the surface of news stories and rosy assumptions by employment “experts”. Now we must be just as vigilant in our analysis and suspicious of the pronouncements of experts.