There’s an ad on the radio for McDonald’s that makes my blood run cold. One in 12 working Americans, intones an unctuous voice, have received their “training” at McDonald’s. The voice says this with a tone of pride. That’s about 18 million people in a workforce of about 150 million nationally. Knowing how to flip a burger and salt those fries is really big business.
Sadly, for too many Americans, education at McDonald’s is just about all the “training” they will ever have. Millions of American workers — by some estimates 40% or more of workers — have sub-standard high school educations. Fewer than 40% of the population have college degrees. The high school dropout rate is a scandalous 30%, even worse in some states and among populations of color. The difference in lifetime earning power between a high school dropout and a worker who completes even one college degree runs into the millions, with the gap growing larger with each advanced degree.
As a result of the recession that began in 2008 — a recession that economists recently declared to be ‘over’ — the national unemployment rate rose considerably, even among college graduates, leading some pundits to question whether the decades-long emphasis on attending college is misplaced.
There’s a snide and cynical thread running through an increasing number of commentaries about education today, claiming that college degrees are over-rated, that studying the liberal arts is not especially valuable, that instead of encouraging students to achieve high intellectual goals they should focus more on job skills.
Like salting those fries.
Certainly, a college education should prepare a student for a successful professional life, and certain programs do prepare students for specific professions, e.g., Nursing or Teaching. However, professional success even in those specific fields ultimately depends on the ability to keep learning throughout changing life and workplace conditions, to be able to write well and speak persuasively through a range of circumstances, to reason logically and insightfully, to have a well-honed sense of ethics, to understand why people act as they do, to be able to analyze data and engage in quantitative analysis, to work through thorny problems creatively and with intellectual resourcefulness. The liberal arts platform of undergraduate education is specifically designed to educate students in these lifelong habits of mind and communication ability that make it possible for the student to adapt to new learning situations continuously, long beyond classroom days.
Most of us who are running businesses today went to school in an era when the specific “job skills” we learned occurred with typewriters, papertape or punchcards, overhead transparencies and possibly even slide rules. Somehow, in spite of the obvious deficiencies in these old skill sets, we managed to acquire and conquer the wonderful world of software and digital communication, mostly in self-taught late-night struggles. What’s important about advanced learning is NOT that the student learns all there is to know forever, but rather, that the students learns HOW to learn continuously, and remains curious and creative in enlarging her capacity to embrace new knowledge and new skills.
Reclaiming America’s international superiority economically and educationally requires unrelenting emphasis on improving educational outcomes at all levels. Rather than indulging the dumbing-down of the culture through disparaging the “intellectual elite” and decrying college as a waste, politicians, policymakers and pundits should renew and enlarge the drive to get more Americans to complete high school, enter and complete college.
Good job skills are certainly important — none more so than the ability to write well, communicate effectively, calculate complex numbers and figure out the solutions to complex problems. Flipping burgers might be necessary along the way, but the real economic value and social status resides in running the company. Unless you’re Bill Gates — a well known college dropout whose rare gifts made him the wealthiest man in the world via Microsoft — earning that degree is an essential step toward genuine professional and personal success.
Follow the debate On Success at the washingtonpost.com
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Note: read a startling article in the Washington Post this morning about the rapid rise of the poverty rate among Black children in the District of Columbia — more to come in my next blog.…