Saturday, February 4, 2012

college is about status not education

I have friend who I won’t name who went to a university I won’t name. He is very proud of having gone to this particular school. He insists that is son will go there. He attends their football games regularly. He brags that he is the only member of his family who was ever admitted to that school.
Whenever he says something I think is silly, I make fun of him for not knowing much because he went to this dumb school. Now in fact, I don’t think the school he went to is dumb and I don’t think he is dumb but my razzing gets to him and we are friends so it just a way that we talk to each other.
The other day he insisted that his school was ranked in the top 20 universities in the country. This being my business I assured him that it was not and he got very angry and then eventually looked it up and realized that on some lists his school didn’t appear even in the top 200. Recently he bet me that his school was in the top 10 hardest schools to get into. Of course it was no where near that hard to get into.
Why am I telling this story? I do not believe that one receives a better education in one university than one receives in another (unless one is planning a research career in which case where you go to college may matter a great deal.) It doesn’t matter where he went to school, it does matter what he has done since school. But his alma mater matters to my friend a great deal.
When I moved, as a professor, from Yale to Northwestern, I was always being asked why I would make a move like that. People perceived me as moving down in class. And, I succumbing to the status issue we all live with, will usually respond “Yale” when asked where I was a professor if I don’t have the time to list all the places I have been.
This is the point. The obsession we have with going to college in this country, with test scores, with SATs, with rank in class, and so on is not an obsession about education at all. It is an obsession about status. If you can say you went to Harvard every one will say ooh and wow and suddenly people will believe you are very smart. 
Having taught at places that are thought of that way I can tell you that there are smart kids and there are dumb kids at all these places. What they have in common is an ability to please their teachers and do well on tests.
It is a very sad state of affairs that people spend tremendous amounts of money on exorbitant tuitions, push their kids from kindergarten onwards to get good grades, and obsess about test scores for small children, all in the name of status. Moreover, they attach status to schools that don’t even have that status. I can’t tell you how many times I have heard the phrase “its a very good school” after having been told that someone’s kid went to some school no one ever heard of.
This isn’t just an American obsession of course. Exactly the same phenomenon exists in the UK down to even which college at Oxford is better than which other college and in France with the Grandes Ecoles and in every other country I know about.
I wish I could say it is all nonsense but it isn’t. Companies make hiring decisions based on which school one attended and your friends think about you differently based on which school you attended. But it is simply not about education in any way. A lecture is still boring everywhere. The same books and internet are available anywhere, and college has never actually been all that much about education any way. Graduate school maybe. College not so much.
We really have to start thinking about all this differently.
Here are some numbers to think about. Yale and Harvard are top research universities. They are really about researchers teaching students to do research. One out every 64,000 people in the US are researchers. On the other hand, there are 1 million lawyers, 6 million teachers, and 12 million health care workers. Colleges do not teach these three, graduate schools (and technical schools) do that.
Stop worrying about what college your first grader will go to. Leave him alone. Let him have fun and learn what he wants. Most of us never attended Yale (including me) and have managed happy lives.

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