Taking Apprenticeships Seriously: The need for alternate paths

Timothy Taylor’s “Taking Apprenticeships Seriously” makes an argument for doing something we, collectively, should have started a long time ago. College is not the magic answer to every social and economic problem, as anyone who has taught at a non-elite college should know. Yet this powerful meme holds that college for everybody, everywhere, is a good idea. It isn’t. There should be alternate routes to a reasonable life.

The standard college-for-everyone argument comes from extensive data showing that college graduates earn higher lifetime earnings, which is true, but correlation is not causation: smarter, more conscientious people may attend college, and that is one of Bryan Caplan’s arguments in The Case Against Education. In that line of reasoning, college is mostly about signaling.

It’s hard to tell what’s actually happening in the economic market for college grads, because “college” is a lot of different things, much like it’s hard to evaluate whether, say, “sex” is good or bad: usually it’s good and more is better, but we can all imagine contexts in which it’s not so good. To take one example (about college, not sex), Derek Thompson wrote “The Value of College Is: (a) Growing (b) Flat (c) Falling (d) All of the Above,” which discusses some of these arguments and concludes, naturally, (d), in part because the economic value of college depends a lot on what you do in college. If you do just enough to squeak by and don’t have the skills to make things people want or do things people want to pay for, then have to pay back tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars in loans, college is not so hot and vocational education might have been better.

This issue reminds me of arguments a friend and I have been talking about via e-mail: my friend has heard the endless cry for more Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) graduates. But he’s involved in a business that requires strong communication skills and is disappointed with many of the cover letters and resumes he see; they evince limited knowledge of the very skills he’s hiring for. Can you really take people who lack sufficient knowledge about their native language to write a competent cover letter and make them understand the finer points of the difference between a heap and stack? Or understand differential equations?

My larger point is that everyone needs basic skills but few people have them (English majors could do well with a CS class or two—for the skills imparted and for the appreciation they’ll have of the people designing their iPhones). Taking an average comm or sociology major and sticking them in STEM classes will lead to more dropouts, and, beyond that, most big schools also have STEM weedout courses designed to be punitive rather than to impart knowledge. The world needs more smart, curious people in general, but smart and curious people appear to be in the minority, and probably always have been. One of my favorite moments in Joel Mokyr’s The Enlightened Economy is this:

It is important to stress that the Industrial Revolution was the creation of an elite, a relatively small number of ingenious, ambitious, and diligent persons who could think out of the box, and had the wherewithal to carry out their ideas and to find others who could assist them. This is not to return to the heroic interpretations of the Victorian hagiographers such as Samuel Smiles and credit a few famous individuals with the entire phenomenon […] Even these pivotal people were a minority, perhaps a few tens of thousands of elite workers, well trained through apprenticeships supplemented sometimes by informal studies. (Mokyr 121–2)

(Yes, I do sometimes include page citations in e-mails.)

A relatively small number of people can create, find, or make new ideas that then spread to everyone else. I too would like to increase the number of such people, but I’m not sure that’s really possible, at least at the level of public policy.

We probably could use more people with STEM skills, but we could also use more people with all kinds of skills, and especially people with STEM and humanities interests. The STEM training mantra reminds me of something Gerald Graff wrote in “Narrative and the Unofficial Interpretive Culture:” “As often happens in the history of criticism, an extravagantly stated fallacy proves to be more illuminating than many sober truths, and in appropriate such histories the critical community tends quietly to discount or ignore their exaggerations” (4). The “extravagantly stated fallacy” that many people should major in STEM is wrong; the lesser idea, that perhaps people on the margins should, is probably right.

Still, there’s one other problem with STEM fields: they’re transparently hard; you know if you’re doing it right or not, while other disciplines can more easily be fudged or watered down, as has happened to sociology, comm, and other disciplines.

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