Success in Education

The first time that someone asked me if I wanted to go to college, I was in middle school. That someone was a teacher. I thought for a moment and answered “yes,” then went home that afternoon and told my parents. I remember them taking a bit of a deep breath, and then encouraging me. No one that I knew in my family at the time had graduated from college.

I went to bed that night and thought nothing else of it until somewhere around my sophomore year in high school, when things like advanced placement and honors classes began. Then the adventure was underway.

As I said in a recent podcast episode, I’m a case study in not knowing what you want to be when you grow up. My freshman year in college I was a music major. Then I dropped out altogether for a semester and went back to a different school as a communications major, eventually declaring theatre as a second major, and graduating with a psychology minor. Then I went to grad school for religious studies, and ended up working as a programmer, and eventually a manager of programmers. So, my higher education was a circuitous route through the humanities that eventually ended up with the acquisition of some hard technical skills much later (and which, incidentally, I acquired at an arts school). The thing is, though, that I could never have gotten where I’ve been professionally without that humanities education. The things that I learned in communication studies (being required, for example, to take two courses in listening), the things that I learned in theatre as a director, the leadership theory that I learned in grad school….have all served as a foundation beneath the technical skills that I’ve acquired later. Without them, I couldn’t have made sense of where in the world those technical skills fit in, to say nothing of being able to relate and communicate with the people (much smarter than I) that I lead every day.

Which sort of brings me to my point.

I read this column a few days ago about the most regretted and lowest paying degrees. As you might guess, the data that this report cites indicates that most people surveyed regret degrees in the humanities, because, as a rule, they pay less. I think the data is likely skewed, as the purpose of the column is clearly to focus on “return on investment,” approaching higher education as a business proposition. I’m not without sympathy to that, given the cost of a university degree. I believe, though, that we’re doing ourselves a dis-service to let the conversation end there.

If you read to the end of the column, you’ll see two words that really summarize the issue for me: “critical thinking.” The author reports, to his credit, opinions from “humanities specialists” that degrees in the humanities foster the critical thinking skills necessary to adapt to a wide variety of vocations, instead of being narrowly focused on a single field.

I can say without hesitation that the critical thinking skills that I learned in my humanities education, both undergrad and graduate, have been more important in my life than the technical skills that comprised a small sliver of my education. I can also say without hesitation that I would not grasp the technical skills at as meaningful a level without those critical thinking skills.

I also think that it only takes a casual look around our everyday lives, even a cursory glance at the headlines or a social media feed, to see a void of critical thinking skills. I would argue that the rampant conspiracy theories and hatred we feel toward each other as our nation collapses in on itself is the direct result of a lack of critical thinking skills. This deficiency, in turn, is the result of education being treated as a business model, in which the prioritized outcome of a degree is the income that it will allow you to earn. Higher education, however, is so much more than that. The academy is where people learn who they are, what their views on art, on religion, on politics, on relationships, on…everything…are. Without those fundamental belief structures in place, we’re just doing things. Rushing but getting nowhere. We’re just busy. We’re just making stuff up as we go.

Make stuff, earn money, repeat.

The end result is using those technical skills to make things without stopping to consider whether or not we should. Not all progress is progress. If we use income as our only barometer for success, and if that continues to lead to a decline in studying the humanities, our collective humanity may well be a casualty.

Turning Back Pages

The back wall of the office in our house consists primarily of bookshelves. Because Karen is (and I find this a very attractive trait…sort of the hot librarian thing) a compulsive organizer, these books are carefully categorized according to the various disciplines that she and I have studied and practiced during our lives. As such, old textbooks of every stripe are located amongst those shelves. On occasion, I find myself pulling an old undergrad textbook from the shelf and glancing through it. On Saturday morning, with our daughter watching cartoons and Karen sleeping in, I was doing just that.

One of the books that I looked through was an old technical writing text. This was actually from my post-undergrad (is there such a thing?) period in which I went back for some professional courses after completing my degree. I mention that only to stipulate that this book isn’t even as old as several of the textbooks that we still own. In the back of this book was an appendix on the web. The focus was on writing content, but the discussion about HyperText Markup Language and the construction of the web was amusing to me. It’s fascinating to take a look back on this, partly because HTML is second nature to me now (a stretch from the confused glaze on my eyes the first time I encountered code), but also because of how completely out of date a text can become in such a short period of time.

When I worked in the behavioral health field, there were trends that came and went…popular techniques that were deemed to be effective at points but then phased out in favor of what was proven by time to be beneficial to the client. With some exception, common sense tended to prevail. In other words, the core concepts of what makes for good parenting skills today aren’t all that drastically different from, say, five years ago. When I think of other areas in which I’ve practiced…avocations more than vocations…the same is generally true. Good storytelling, good acting…these crafts have a very long history behind them telling us what makes for good practice.

The same certainly can’t be said for technology. That’s why it was so interesting to read information that would be considered ancient today in the back of a book on writing, the rest of which, generally speaking, would still be considered at least a mostly accurate referent for study on the topic. It’s a unique point in history…honestly, a bit of a disconcerting point…in which the rapid pace of our change so quickly makes obsolete knowledge that came so recently to us. I’m concerned about how this de-values education, how it rushes an already frantic pace of life, how it leaves us tumbling, holding on to fleeting bits of wisdom from the past being sucked by as though an explosive decompression had just occurred at 30,000 feet. There’s always a direct correlation between the speed at which a task moves and the (lack of) quality of the finished product. The last thing that we need in our post-modern age, where history repeats itself and we continuously find new reasons to harm each other, is to have more reason to not think things through and rush to action.

That’s exactly the sort of thing that those textbooks from decades ago can work to counteract.

Language is Optional

My first thought when I head the news that the College Board and changed the vocabulary requirements and made the essay portion of the SAT optional was something like this…well, actually, pretty verbatim:

“America has…if this is even possible…become even more stupid.”

And, I’ll be honest, I still haven’t shaken that initial perspective, although I agree with other, more nuanced reactions, that the motivation behind the College Board’s changes were, at least. altruistic. And certainly there are good things attached to this overhaul, such as efforts to create opportunities for students from poor families. That said, there is so much about this that frustrates me.

I remember sitting in the SAT testing room during my senior year in high school, concerned about the competition for the colleges in which I was most interested. That stress was a real thing, and it certainly has potentially negative effects, which shouldn’t be minimized. Still, all things being equal, my experience there was similar to my experience only a few years ago when I sat for the GRE…my verbal scores were excellent, my analytical writing scores off the charts, and that saved me from the appearance of intellectual disability that would have been the result of looking at my abysmal math scores in isolation.

I just don’t get numbers, and yet I’ve managed to have a perfectly successful career, and am embarking on another. Imagine that. It’s amazing what an ability to communicate and write well can achieve.

It seems, though, that we as a country intend to produce only students that can perform mathematics and sciences. And, keeping in mind that I write code for a living, I’ve ranted on more than many occasions here about how we’re doing a monumental dis-service to our children and to our entire culture as we make our educational process progressively less literate. Now, even when the writing option for this test is taken, the focus will be objective and analytical, leaving little room for creativity and encouraging vocabulary that the student would realistically encounter in a professional setting.

Read: The limited and results-focused language of business.

So…where’s the poetry, man? What happened to one’s higher education pursuits being a time in which one can explore different disciplines and ideas, not only disciplines in which the student might be interested professionally, but also…and perhaps even especially…disciplines in which the student is merely interested? That creates a well-rounded person, a creative problem-solver, a person with some life experience. The answer to fixing our educational process isn’t rocket science. Leaving behind test-focused teaching and concentrating on an interdisciplinary approach to life would go a long way.

The College Board has failed us miserably here.

That said, though…and after my initial knee-jerk reaction above…I have to also recognize that this is a complex issue. Standardized testing, in my humble opinion, is the enemy, and placing one as a potential barrier to entry for bright, eager, and qualified students is a poor practice. When I took the GRE, a close friend who retired from a career in academia and sat on several PhD selection committees told me flatly: test results are only considered when the committee needs a reason to cut someone and can’t find anything else. I fail to see how this is useful. Multiple colleges have already made decisions to not use the SAT as a selection criterion, and this will hopefully be a continuing trend. Considering the issues raised before a student is even near being ready for college: the fact that we teach middle-schoolers calculus but not handwriting, for example…more so-called objective data interfering with the educational process at the most formative period in one’s adult life just isn’t helpful.

So, while the College Board has made an epically stupid decision this week, I’m not sure it should matter, because the SAT is…or at least should be…a red herring. Objective testing has nothing to do with educational achievement, because educational achievement…and the methods by which what one learns can lead to career success throughout life…is amazingly…well…subjective.

Crunched by the Numbers

I don’t understand business.

Really, I don’t. Besides the fact that I experience serious nausea brought about by ethics whenever I see business working from the inside, I also don’t get it when it’s me doing the business. How in the world does one calculate what one’s time is worth? Isn’t it more important to get the job done well than quickly and cheaply? Isn’t it more important to get the job done than to bill every hour?

Part of this is because I’ve spent most of my professional life working in or with the non-profit sector, so working with people whose goal is to sell things strictly for profit…well, I just don’t understand it. I don’t understand it any better when it’s my own professional services that are being invoiced.  Even when they’re being invoiced by me. A colleague once said that he had lost out on a significant amount of money in his life because he wouldn’t confront clients when they didn’t pay what was agreed. I’m not sure I wouldn’t confront if someone contractually owed me for my time, but I think I understand where he’s coming from.

All that to say, I hear people talk a lot about this concept of “return on investment.” It’s self-explanatory enough, and I understand it when we’re discussing things like products. If I buy a pair of jeans, I expect a certain lifespan out of them in order to justify the price. I use Macs (partly) because they go forever, and I get my money’s worth out of the device. I believe in “you get what you pay for.”


I don’t for a second believe that you can apply that concept to education. Years ago, I was at work talking with some colleagues about future educational plans. I mentioned that I wanted to do an MFA in writing, which was my academic goal at the time. This was as I was finishing my graduate degree in religion. The response I received was, “You don’t like going to school for things that will make you money, do you?”

This immediately brought to mind my parents’ questions (raised on multiple occasions) about what exactly that degree that I just sacrificed years for as gotten for me.

You see, I think that the education and life experience are reward enough. I think that studying the humanities and the arts have a “pay off” for us that are at least equal to the “pay off” from a narrower, more scientific or technical field of study, just in a different way. I don’t think that studying the humanities should be an endeavor motivated by earning income. I don’t think that pursuing any academic pursuit should be approached with that in mind.

Which is why this study, “8 College Degrees with the Worst Return on Investment,” which I spotted as it made its way around LinkedIn last week, really leaves me unsettled. In fact, it just leaves me disgusted. I know that someone needed to generate some copy for the site on this particular day, but if this represents our mindset about education, then the so-called “free market” really has poisoned our perspective on everything.

Let me lay aside the fact that the number one worst degree on their list, communications, was what I graduated with from undergrad. Let’s consider their other bad degrees: Fine arts, theology (both of which have been other disciplines that I’ve studied…fair enough). How about education?  Or nutrition? Do we really want fewer professionals becoming teachers because they don’t make enough after college? Perhaps people who would be wonderful educators to our children? Do we want fewer nutritionists in favor of more medications? Fewer sociologists to study the potential dangers of our actions? Really?

I know that there are a lot of complicated pieces to this puzzle. I understand that faculty must be paid well for instructing at these colleges, but tuition prices are still out of control. Salaries for the most important professions barely stay afloat while salaries for professions like finance soar with no end in sight. And, being the pragmatic, quantifying Americans that we are, we begin thinking about which fields of study will make us the most money.

I’m not opposed to studying a technical field in order to make a living (I just finished doing exactly that). I’m motivated by Karen’s story of a friend that she knew in college. She told me that when he had finished high school, he apprenticed and became a master carpenter. Then he attended a liberal arts school for his undergrad degree, paying his way with the income that he earned from carpentry. I really respect that.

Yet, if we limit our educational pursuits to the things that make us the most money, then some of the most important aspects of the human condition…the arts, spirituality, the psychology of the human mind (all listed in this article)…receive less focus. The less focus they receive, the less we understand ourselves. The less we understand ourselves, the more we are doing things just to do them, just to earn more money, just to have more things…all of which leave us ultimately empty.

That’s a not a life that I want for our cultural future. That’s not the educational mentality that I want our daughter to inherit. Articles like this do nothing helpful for students planning their college careers. They are only there to earn ad revenue for the sites that waste pixels by putting them up.

And, incidentally, most of my friends were humanities majors. We continue to make our livings just fine.

The Common Core, A Common Problem

I am not an educator. Let me just say that up front.

I know many educators, though, my wife among them. Some of my closest friends are, or have been, educators by profession. The common thread among all of them is that, with the possible exception of one, they all hold the No Child Left Behind law in extremely poor regard.

No, I’m not going to violate my rule about not posting about politics here. This isn’t political, I promise.

Before moving to New England, I spent four years in a position that contracted into the public school system. I saw my share of classrooms first hand. I met many colleagues who are extremely competent educators, and whose hands are tied by the limits of objective test scores and narrow-minded curricula. Because of what Karen and I have both experienced in public school classrooms, we are seriously considering pursuing home-schooling options for our daughter, because neither of us trust the quality of education that will be received in the public system. The things that aren’t taught leave a gaping absence in my mind. This is a difficult decision for me, because I think that the social experiences of public school are very important, and I myself am the product of primarily public education. The point of the experience, though, is just that…education. If our children aren’t learning enough of the right things…acquiring an acceptable fund of knowledge, to use the jargon…then there sort of isn’t any point.

I’ve been reading a lot about the common core standards of late. Again, I’m no educator, but I am (and I don’t say this to be in any way narcissistic) well-educated, and I am at a point in my life at which I can think back to how I got that way. I am also a stake-holder in this situation now that I’m a father, and I’ve seen my share of how American students receive a sub-standard education that is quantified by test scores, up close and personal. The common core standards, as I understand them, are designed in part to push back on No Child Left Behind. From what I read, I’m hesitant.

Some of my friends are in support of the common core standards. Some are not. I’m firmly undecided, but skeptical, as the core issues at hand…namely, that education is operated as a business and driven toward numerical measurements of success, primarily in mathematics and sciences at the near exclusion of the humanities…seem to remain unaddressed.

The aspect of the common core that gives me the most pause is it’s emphasis on “informational texts.” A significant percentage of time is expected to be spent by students reading these so-called informational texts…that is, texts that talk about what they just studied. I have no difficulty envisioning less time spent with the primary sources (which is the subject actually being engaged), and more with other scholar’s (perhaps of arguable reputation depending upon the political bent of the school board in question) opinions about those primary sources.

That is, before my daughter reads a critic’s analysis of Salinger, I want her to have read and engaged a significant sampling of Salinger herself, because that’s how independent critical thinking develops. And, if American culture is painfully short on anything, it’s critical thinking.

Perhaps I’m paranoid. Perhaps I’m pessimistic. I’ve certainly been accused of both in the past. Perhaps I’m also of the age where I’m beginning to despair at the disparities between the children of today and my own experiences. Those potentialities notwithstanding, I remember my senior year in high school, when I took “Advanced Placement” English. I was exposed to some of the most influential literature of my life that year (we had to read four books the preceding summer as a condition of admission to the class, and continue to read a book on our own and generate a critical paper every three weeks during the year, aside from what the class covered as a unit). I learned to think critically about literature. I learned how to write critically. As a result, I learned a lot about life. None of my undergraduate English courses were as difficult…or as rewarding…as that high school English course.

I resonate with my friends who find their students at the undergraduate level woefully unprepared for the level of thinking a university requires. I want to have enough faith in the public education system to not be concerned about sending our daughter there in the future. I want to see the arts and humanities in their rightfully equal footing with the sciences and math. I want to know that our daughter will be pushed to read great literature like I was my last year in high school.

In my admittedly limited scope of knowledge, but substantial scope of experience, on the subject, I’m not at all convinced that the common core standards are moving us in the right direction.

That said, with our education system in the condition that it is, the bar for improvement is decidedly…and tragically…low.