The Purpose of Education 2 - Scholarship and Voc-Tech

Why do we get for the vast sums spent on higher education?

There is more knowledge more widely available today than at any previous time in human history.  For most of history, only the wealthy and powerful had access to any books at all, and then generally only to a handful.  Even in those rare instances of a proper large-scale library like the legendary one at Alexandria, no one person could make use of it all because it wasn't well indexed.

Today, even a peasant in Africa has access to all the world's knowledge via Google on his smartphone, something that the sages of old would have considered nirvana.  Yet even as the effective price of knowledge is dropping, the price of credentialed knowledge via a degree from an institution of higher learning is going through the roof.  The current Obama depression is underlining what's been clear for some kind: our current system of giving out college degrees is unaffordable and often a bad investment.

In the first article in this series we examined differing views of education, between STEM schools like MIT versus liberal-arts institutions like Harvard, and found that while STEM institutions often value spreading knowledge without regard to making money off it, places like Harvard are keener to restrict access to keep up their cachet.  In this article, we'll look more closely at some of the reasons for this, and their consequences.

Dead White Males

By definition, a university is composed of individual colleges which often emphasize different disciplines.  Harvard University, for example, comprises Harvard Law School, Harvard Business School, Harvard Divinity School, School of Public Health, School of Government, and many more, even a School of Dentistry.

Overall, though, universities often have a particular character.  While MIT offers a Theater Arts major, it's not the first school on the list for would-be thespians.  Harvard has a school of engineering and no doubt it's pretty good, but serious engineers would look across the river to MIT.  That's why MIT is categoried as a STEM school and Harvard as predominantly liberal arts, even though both cross the line in many ways.

Naturally, any professor or university school is going to argue the importance of their own particular discipline.  The usefulness of structural engineering and medicine are obvious, but what about soft diciplines like the humanities - literature, arts, philosophy, and the like?

Humanities professors argue that studying the humanities makes you a better person, but there's more to it than that.  Harold MacMillan, Prime Minister of England from 1957 to 1963, was interviewed on American television shortly after he retired.  He had had a "Classical Eduction," starting Greek at age 6 and adding Latin soon after.

When asked why he valued his classical education, he replied, "If you read what those great men wrote, you can tell when somebody's talking rot.  Government is full of bright young things who'd solve all the world's problems if only I'd give them a few hundred million pounds.  I didn't have to know everything they were talking about because I could tell they were talking rot and not give them any money."

Decades later, Dartmouth students chanted "Hey, hey, ho, ho, Western Civ has got to go" in effectively persuading the administration not to require that they study "dead white males" whose writing had been valued for centuries.  The budgets and fiscal situations of all major Western countries clearly show that politicians no longer have the ability to tell when some slick shyster is talking rot, nor the discipline required not to give them any money.

What's worse is that, having also ignored the classics, our electorate can no longer tell when politicians talk rot.  Voters elect politicians who offer impossible promises because voters don't know any better.  They aren't able to intelligently analyze the proposals and poke holes in them, nor are they sufficiently familiar with history to realize "that's been tried before and was a miserable failure."  You'd think that most modern voters would remember the collapse of Soviet Communism just a handful of decades ago, and yet socialism is still a victorious electoral force throughout the West.

Creating Jobs

STEM universities are noted for basic research, but T stands for Technology.  This suggests the need for practical application of the knowledge discovered.  Applying knowledge means starting a business to sell something useful that resulted from the research, and many STEM universities offer courses in how to do that.

STEM professors are just as greedy as anyone else.  The faculty watch for bright, hard-working students whose ideas might lead to wealth.  A Stanford professor who was teaching one of the Google guys was an early investor in Google and made himself a few bucks.

The Wall Street Journal reports that MIT has set aside 10% of the space in a new billion-dollar office complex for start-ups to rent at below-market rates.  The city of Cambridge plans to require that all new Kendall Square office developments do the same.

MIT has been so nonprofitable for so long that it owns about 90 acres in the Kendall Square area, from which many small companies have become successful enough to pay taxes.  While these rent subsidies may cost MIT a few bucks in the short term because most startups die leaving no trace, the owners of successful start-ups who were not only educated at MIT but were helped by rent subsidies will write bigger checks to the alumni fund.  In the long run, helping students create successful businesses will further MIT's well-honed nonprofitable business model.

Preparing for a Career

Students at STEM schools go there to learn how to do some sort of engineering - computer science, building bridges, whatever.  While it's considered crass to be in engineering only for the money, it was more or less understood that if you could produce a useful product that people were willing to buy, it was OK to make a lot, particularly if you kicked back to the ol' alma mater.

People go to the Ivies or the JFK school of government because they want to go into government or Big Business, which in modern America has become a crony-capitalistic cesspool that's more akin to government than anything Adam Smith would recognize.  While there may be some who go into government to benefit society, the overall impression is that most people who go into politics seek unearned power and wealth for themselves and their cronies.

Government doesn't make money or wealth, nor does it persuade people to willing fork over their cash as do businesses that offer a service; it extracts value from working people at the point of a gun.

The only way the good government guys, known as goo-goos in cynical circles, can pay for all the wonderful good they plan to do is to tax the businesses founded by the STEM graduates.  Taxing and regulating the STEMs makes them less productive, creates fewer jobs, and drives investment offshore; founding businesses makes more tax money available.  The STEM vs goo-goo battle is well joined, and the outcome is uncertain.

Getting the Work Done

Some organizations offer education just to get the work done.  The Economist reports that McDonalds is one of Britain's biggest trainers.  It receives a million applictions per year, accepts 1 in 15, and spends $61 million per year on training in just that one country.  Their year-long program which emphasizes English and math leads to nationally-recognized qualifications.

McDonalds doesn't seem to be too upset that many of their graduates end up working for someone else.  There isn't any other way to train store managers who'll be running $7 million per year businesses by their mid 20's.  They haven't found any other way to train whomever will eventually run the entire McDonald's empire - company policy requires that all CEOs start at the bottom, in a store.

One doesn't normally think of a McJob as requiring much education - in fact, McDonald's is often condemned by nervous parents as where you'll end up if you don't study hard in school - but apparently the McDonald's Corporation thinks educating burger-flippers is important enough to be worth spending tens of millions of dollars of their own money teaching them.

McDonald's isn't alone.  IBM sponsors a school in New York.  India's Infosys teaches 45,000 new employees per year and has 15,000 on their main campus in Mysore.  This may be a resurrection of the ancient tradition of apprenticeship.  The employer's paying the costs, and since they're paying, they're in the best possible position to make sure that the training offers a good return on investment.

What's striking is that, even with the relatively low levels of education required to flip burgers, the billions of taxpayer dollars dumped into our public school systems don't reach even that mark.  This is by no means restricted to the fast-food industry: in a time of record unemployment, many businesses report that they can't find workers with the skills they require.  Possibly this is because they're not willing to offer adequate salaries - but even though a business would prefer to pay $20,000 than $50,000, it's still smart to pay $50,000 if the business will earn $100,000 from the work done by the new employee.  Either way, the knowledge imparted to employees in our public schools doesn't seem to help them become productive enough for any future employer to be able to offer even minimum wage.

This suggests either that many schools are wasting the money spent on them, students are making bad choices about what to study, or both.  McDonald's doesn't have this problem: it knows exactly what its workers need to know, doesn't waste time teaching them anything else, and fires them if they don't learn.  No Art History or Women's Studies at Hamburger U!  No social promotion either - it's learn or leave, and don't let the door hit you on your way out.

McDonald's has a clear goal with their education: teach people how to make hamburgers that other people want to buy and how to sell them at a profit.  STEM colleges also have clear goals: build bridges that don't fall down, nuclear reactors that don't blow up, and if possible, discover or design something new and useful that didn't exist before.  What's the goal of liberal arts institutions?  That's the topic of the next article in this series.

Will Offensicht is a staff writer for and an internationally published author by a different name.  Read other articles by Will Offensicht or other articles on Society.
Add Your Comment...
4000 characters remaining
Loading question...