Education

If Only the Singer of "Psychotic Reaction" Had Listened to Charles Murray 40 Years Ago

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Charles Murray, whose latest book is Real Education, takes a stand against using bachelor's degrees as basic job credentials in The New York Times. Part of the problem, he argues, is the vocationalization of higher ed:

Many young people who have the intellectual ability to succeed in rigorous liberal arts courses don't want to. For these students, the distribution requirements of the college degree do not open up new horizons. They are bothersome time-wasters.

A century ago, these students would happily have gone to work after high school. Now they know they need to acquire additional skills, but they want to treat college as vocational training, not as a leisurely journey to well-roundedness.

As more and more students who cannot get or don't want a liberal education have appeared on campuses, colleges have adapted by expanding the range of courses and adding vocationally oriented majors. That's appropriate. What's not appropriate is keeping the bachelor's degree as the measure of job preparedness, as the minimal requirement to get your foot in the door for vast numbers of jobs that don't really require a B.A. or B.S.

Discarding the bachelor's degree as a job qualification would not be difficult. The solution is to substitute certification tests, which would provide evidence that the applicant has acquired the skills the employer needs.

Whole thing here. I actually find the addition of vocationally oriented majors less heartening than Murray. Why not let workplaces prepare and train their own employees? I think college works best when it is introducing students to intellectual frameworks, deep knowledge in specific disciplines, and the arguments surrounding both of those, rather than task-specific skills. (I realize there's a lot of slippage and overlap in there). 

In any case, Murray's advice comes too late for the recently deceased John Byrne, singer for the Count Five and composer of the garage-band standard "Psychotic Reaction." In a Los Angeles Times obit, Byrne seemed ambivalent about hitting the books after failing to generate more chart success:

Byrne returned to his studies at San Jose State University and became an accountant, later working as a manager of a Montgomery Ward store in Northern California. But he never quit playing music, his daughter said.

"Maybe I made some mistakes," Byrne told the San Jose Mercury News in 2002 when the band had a revival. "I was determined to get through college. Maybe I was wrong, but I'm glad I'm an educated man. At least when people talk to me, they know I'm not an idiot."

More here.

Hat tips: George Leef at National Review; Jack Shafer at Slate.

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  1. College is like kindergarten for when you get older. Adding vocation aspects to college curricula dilutes what college is for. I want somebody with a wide range of experience to run my company. I want somebody who knows how to drive a truck to drive my company’s truck.

  2. “I think college works best when it is introducing students to intellectual frameworks, deep knowledge in specific disciplines, and the arguments surrounding both of those, rather than task-specific skills.”

    well spake, Nick.

  3. My man IS gay.
    I stick my dick into him all the time and he seems to like it.

  4. Nothing, and I mean nothing burns my ears like hearing a student at any level saying, “Why do I need to learn this? I’m not going to be a ______.”

  5. Why not let workplaces prepare and train their own employees?

    That requires a resource investment that is beyond the scope of many employers for many positions.

    Even when they can make the investment, the employer has no real protection against watching that investment walk out the door, so the employer has little assurance that it will see a return on its investment.

    And, really, a major beneficiary of training is the employee (who gains portable skills), so the employee, not the employer, should ante up for it, at least in part. That doesn’t really fit into the current employer/employee relationship.

  6. Maybe I was wrong, but I’m glad I’m an educated man. At least when people talk to me, they know I’m not an idiot.

    Hit & Run should be all the evidence anyone should ever need to see to know that “educated” and “idiot” are not mutually exclusive.

  7. Oh shit, Jamie’s back on the sauce again.

    And folks, college isn’t about learning. It’s about drugs, drinking, fucking, drugs, and fucking. And drinking. I mean, they don’t even make you go to class! Why would you?

  8. I actually find the average B.A. grad to be so stupid he can’t wipe his ass without a flow chart.

  9. Oh shit, Jamie’s back on the sauce again.

    Fuck yeah! Pesto will fuck your shit up.
    Now, off to an A.A. meeting.

  10. I’m a college student, but it’s for an engineering degree from one of the best such schools in the country, so I feel like there’s a point to me being there.

    There wasn’t a point to taking linear algebra, though.

  11. What Episi said
    WTF is a flow chart?
    If they want to pass out the good jobs based on some arbitrary criteria I’ll vote for standardized tests.99th percentile bitches!

  12. Charles Murray is such a killjoy. Kids go to college to have fun! What’s wrong with that? If Mr. Charles Fucking Murray (I guess that should be Dr. Charles Fucking Murray) wants to know what college is all about, he should read this effusion of Spartan Spirit:

    “Drugs, alcohol, sex, and violence, in a beautiful campus setting, makes for pretty damn good education in my book. I am sorry that we aren’t some liberal art school where the biggest problems facing male students is how to come out to our roommate and convince him to let us go down on him. Or maybe some west coast, hippie, save the fucking whales, follow phish, do-gooders that want to complain about this country all day instead of doing something about it. Let me tell you something; Every Spartan I know is better suited for the real world because they had a social life AND finished their degree. So when it comes time to have a drink with the boss and maybe score points, a Spartan might be able to talk about more than the oppression of little tribal island that nobody gives a fuck about. Furthermore the arrest statistics should take into effect the size of MSU (45,000 students), but that doesn’t matter. Know why? SPARTANS LIKE TO GET ARRESTED!!!! It is a rite of passage! The 3rd best Halloween party at MSU every year is in the East Lansing Jail. As for drugs? This is fucking college! I did enough drugs to kill an entire tribal island during college. Screw you! Bitches like fucking on ecstasy, and we help them do that. And I don’t care what you say. Nothing is sexier than a coked up, drunk sorority slut. So who is the best? Michigan? Michigan girls drive to State to get fucked in the ass on a daily basis. Oh and by the way. . . . I have been to jail, for a while. So when I find who you are I am going to fuck you in the ass. I hope you are a guy. Stay the fuck out of East Lansing.”

    (This originally appeared in Radar Online, when Radar made fun of MSU, the goddamn pussies. I quoted it in a movie review, but now the Radar link seems to have gone bad.)

  13. In my experience, linear algebra is one of the most important courses any engineering student will take.

  14. The drugs, alchohol & fucking has been relegated to high school nowadays.

  15. so being a retarded fratboy = good?

    (looks at last eight years of white house)

    hmmmm.

  16. In my experience, linear algebra is one of the most important courses any engineering student will take.

    Just don’t get viciously baked before a linear algebra exam. Seriously, not helpful. With organic chemistry it sorta helps, though.

  17. For these students, the distribution requirements of the college degree do not open up new horizons.

    Ambiguous.

    Does “For these students” here mean “In the objectively assessed case of these students,” or does it mean “In the benighted, provincial, intellectually blinkered, self-defeating, uninformed opinion of these students, which it is precisely the mission of education to correct”?

    If the teaching under consideration is good, it will be the latter.

  18. There wasn’t a point to taking linear algebra, though.

    No, you’ll find that in Plane Geometry, three doors down the hall to your left. 😉

  19. The elephant in the room is discrimination law. It used to be that employers could give IQ or aptitude tests to job applicants. If I need a book keeping clerk, I give them a test to see how well they ad and how meticulous they are with figures. Thanks to discrimination law, employers can’t do that. The moment an employer starts giving objective tests and IQ tests, those tests will be ruled to have a disparate impact on minority applicants and the employer will be screwed. To get around this employers just demand a BA and judge the applicant on where they went to school as an indication of intelligence and competence. That is largely what has driven the demand for BAs. Let employers give objective tests again and the value of a BA and the number of those spending thousands of dollars and years pursuing them will drop dramatically. of course there are a lot of people, those in higher education, race hustlers and trial lawyers who would really not like to see that happen. So it won’t and people will continue to go into debt and waste productive years getting BAs for jobs that don’t really require one.

  20. There wasn’t a point to taking linear algebra, though.

    That’s what I thought in college, too. Fifteen years later I use it in my job. I’m surprised I actually retained some of it.

    I’ve even found use for my Philosophy and World Religion courses in my job. Haven’t found any use on the job for my Art Appreciation course, but it wasn’t a total waste. Haven’t found any use for my Modern Education course, but then one religion course is really enough anyway.

  21. Eh, I hate debates over whether liberal arts or vocational training is better. It really depends on your interests and aptitudes and goals. The “LIBRUL ARTZ ARE TEH SUCK!!11!!1!” crowd pisses me off, but the snobbery of some regarding vocational training also pisses me off.

    I teach at a university with a wide range of professional schools but also programs in basic sciences and liberal arts. I see nothing wrong with a range of options.

  22. I’ve even found use for my Philosophy

    On a good day, hourly, I hope.

  23. “And folks, college isn’t about learning. It’s about drugs, drinking, fucking, drugs, and fucking. And drinking. I mean, they don’t even make you go to class! Why would you?”

    I’m glad you had fun in college. Meanwhile, I was getting my ass kicked by the engineering curriculum. Moreover, I didn’t find many well-rounded LAS people. I know this because I have an engineering degree and a BA (in French). As soon as I’d strike up an interesting intellectual conversation, the topic would be changed, ’cause you know, being smart is uncool.

    Caveat: Graduate students in LAS were much more interesting, as well as those in the honors program.

  24. Also, if you want to become depressed over the future of our country, just sit in the back of a TA-led discussion in an intro LAS class. You’ll soon realize most college-bound students are dumber than rocks.

  25. There wasn’t a point to taking linear algebra, though.

    Maybe there wasn’t a point, but I’m sure there were plenty of vectors and planes.

  26. Conclusion: a BA is almost entirely worthless unless it’s in a specialized field. It does not make people well-rounded. Curiosity about the world comes from within, it can not be magically bestowed by an overpayed, lazy, tenured professor.

  27. I’m glad you had fun in college. Meanwhile, I was getting my ass kicked by the engineering curriculum.

    Yeah, and I was getting my ass kicked by Johns Hopkins’ pre-med undergrad track. I decided it wasn’t worth it and had fun. Priorities, dude.

    Personally, I would much rather have gone to Pacific Tech.

  28. I have a double major in Philosophy and Economics. Worked my ass off and read all of the stuff you are supposed to read in college. You know what? I would have read that stuff anyway. Education is a life long project and an end in itself. It is not a quest for a degree or a four year check the block “oh I read that in college” cocktail party course. If I had it to do over again, I would have gone to the Merchant Marine Acadamy and learned how to do something practical and spent the rest of my life reading the books I didn’t read in college.

  29. With organic chemistry it sorta helps, though.

    It’s all just Lego blocks, duuuude…….

  30. When I was in law school (in balmy Chicago), one of the running jokes in my class was how we all should’ve attended the University of San Diego School of Law. Not so much because San Diego was warmer and nicer than Chicago–there are any number of law schools than can make that claim–but because of San Diego’s catalog. Back then, virtually every law school catalog had a picture of some “student” or “students” in the law library. Not San Diego. It had a picture of “students” playing volley ball on the beach. Woo-hoo!

  31. WELCOME TO PACIFIC TECH! SMART PEOPLE ON ICE!

  32. John, you are wrong. An employer can give an objective accounting skills test to prospective employees. We do it all the time.
    And it works really well to weed out the poseurs. One applicant with a B.S. in Accounting from one of those “mind is a terrible thing to waste” colleges got every question wrong. Our supposition is that he was a mole for some anti-job discrimination group just looking for some excuse to bust us.
    Never heard another word, so the test must have passed their criteria for fairness.

  33. Creech,

    Maybe so. I have always been told you can’t do that. Of course, you are an accounting firm, so the test does real skills and can be justified more easily. It would probably be harder for a job with a less definable skill.

  34. Come to think of it, I had more fun *after* I graduated from college.

    No regrets though–here’s a fun anecdote for ya:

    Had a French professor who came to class drunk and would often cancel class without notice (he didn’t use email), or abruptly adjourn. He also made uh… inappapropriate a

  35. advances to some of the female students. Me and the other students staged a successful revolt and we had the prof forced into early retirement.

  36. I worked at a major university, and I could swear that “inappropriate advances at students” was a professorial perk.

  37. It’s all just Lego blocks, duuuude…….

    You get to learn about the chemicals you’re taking recreationally. What’s not to like?

    This? This is ice. This is what happens to water when it gets too cold. This? This is ProL. This is what happens to people when they get too sexually frustrated.

  38. No deep understanding comes from an engineering or science bachelors. It is purely brute memorization of the basics you need to develop a deep understanding if you decide to pursue a higher degree.

    An applied associates degree or whatever, would be a better and cheaper option for those that have no intent of furthering their studies.

  39. I hasten to add that I observed this phenomenon; I did not partake. Of course, to be fair, I was a researcher not a teacher. I enslaved my graduate assistants, but not for that purpose. More for washing my car and ironing my cape, that sort of thing.

    Episiarch,

    There are times I wonder if you’re reading another blog and posting your responses here.

  40. “I worked at a major university, and I could swear that “inappropriate advances at students” was a professorial perk.”

    Yeah well, this dude’s glory days were in the 70’s (never changed his pic on the university’s site), he thought he still had the hip factor, but was just a washed up old drunk.

    His pick up line to the unfortunate student? “My wife and I are swingers, you know”.

  41. that’s just cuz Epi’s mom puts license plates in his underwear.

  42. “No deep understanding comes from an engineering or science bachelors. It is purely brute memorization of the basics you need to develop a deep understanding if you decide to pursue a higher degree.”

    I take it the engineering classes you had did not have labs, or are you just talking out of your ass? Memorization only got you so far where *I* went anyway. It helps on the final exam but that’s about it. It doesn’t help when you’re building a robot, designing a microprocessor, or writing a game entirely in assembly.

    I’d say brute memorization is a bigger problem with LAS than engineering.

  43. “I take it the engineering classes you had did not have labs, or are you just talking out of your ass?”

    So what new discoveries did you make in lab from your newly acquired deep understanding?

  44. Had a French professor who came to class drunk and would often cancel class without notice (he didn’t use email), or abruptly adjourn

    I had a classics professor who was a huge wine drinker, and sometimes was obviously buzzed during class. But he was cool, and it made discussions of Pericles or the Archidamian War more…lively. He also would invite students out for drinks after class or over to his house for wine tastings.

  45. No deep understanding comes from an engineering or science bachelors. It is purely brute memorization of the basics you need to develop a deep understanding if you decide to pursue a higher degree.

    I actually partially agree. There’s more than memorization going on, I’d say that if you actually do well and work on it you start getting skills. However, I actually agree to some extent that deep understanding doesn’t come with the degree.

    I’m not sure that the advanced degree brings much deep understanding either. Yes, I started getting a deep understanding near the end of my advanced degree, when things were finally coming together and I was also teaching a class as an adjunct. However, I wonder if I would have gotten the same understanding if I had gone into industry, worked on projects there, and taught some night classes on the side.

    That’s not to say that the advanced degree doesn’t confer advantages distinct from work experience, but I think the main advantages are the opportunity to go in depth with fewer pressures and more freedom over an extended period of time. Still, I think that if I had pursued a job in an industrial R&D setting I would have gotten some sort of deep understanding over time, just different from the understanding I got in academia, and perhaps accompanies by different (and valuable!) skills.

  46. ProL, what about that time I found you naked with that bowl of Jell-O?

  47. Marc,

    At what point do you just write off the whole non-graduate university system and just declare that all anyone ever needs is an associate degree or a masters at minimum, which then moves the associates to the level of bachelors.

    I think people protest a little too much about who and who does not need to go to college.

  48. Episiarch,

    Exactly.

  49. Epi,

    My experience was that the math and physics classes, the few I took, emphasized pretty good understanding of the the things they were talking about. The biology and one chemestry class I took were just pure brute memorization. Perhaps I just took them from a bad department, but it seemed to me that the people doing natural science degrees spent all of their time memorizing crap that you could look up if you needed to and very little time actually doing science or trying to understand things.

  50. he was hot and he was hungry.

  51. Me and the other students staged a successful revolt and we had the prof forced into early retirement.

    Not before he had instilled in you, alas too effectively, the francophone use of the accusative case as subject.

  52. “At what point do you just write off the whole non-graduate university system and just declare that all anyone ever needs is an associate degree or a masters at minimum, which then moves the associates to the level of bachelors.”

    Better and cheaper option the only option

    Classes are in science and engineering are brute memorization. Labs are application of the newly memorized material. The only people the knowledge is new to, are the students.

  53. “Curiosity about the world comes from within, it can not be magically bestowed by an overpayed, lazy, tenured professor.”

    dictionaries, however, are available on the third floor. 🙂

  54. “Not before he had instilled in you, alas too effectively, the francophone use of the accusative case as subject.”

    Touch?.

    @John
    “The elephant in the room is discrimination law. It used to be that employers could give IQ or aptitude tests to job applicants….”

    From my experience in software, tests are a routine part of the application process, regardless of which university the applicant attended. It may well be different in other fields.

  55. “From my experience in software, tests are a routine part of the application process, regardless of which university the applicant attended. It may well be different in other fields.”

    Again, that may be more legal because it is skill specific. Several of my friends are in the IT field and do quite well. None of them have a BS. They tell me a BS in computer science is meaningless. If that is true and it is also true that they give tests for jobs in the field, that would seem to support the idea that letting employers give tests would take away some of the demand for a degrees.

  56. “Classes are in science and engineering are brute memorization. Labs are application of the newly memorized material. The only people the knowledge is new to, are the students.”

    If the result of the lab is the creation of new understanding not available by memorizing facts I would disagree with you. The proof was that there were many ways to achieve a correct solution, or that there was no “correct” solution and the grade of the lab was based on subjective criteria. Though that was a nice attempt at post hoc rationalization.

  57. ProL, would you prepared if gravity reversed itself? The only thing I can’t figure out is how to keep the change in my pockets. I’ve got it. Nudity.

    The biology and one chemestry class I took were just pure brute memorization

    Yes indeed. There’s no “understanding” a benzene ring, there’s just memorizing the different variations.

    From my experience in software, tests are a routine part of the application process, regardless of which university the applicant attended

    While I have been asked to take a test when applying for a software job, I always refuse. First of all, fuck you–if you think my references and I are all lying, I don’t really want to work for you anyway. Secondly, tests are an idiotic thing to give a programmer, as we all have different styles and there are so many ways to do the same thing. I will show someone examples of my code, however, because that’s truly indicative of skill.

  58. Classes are in science and engineering are brute memorization. Labs are application of the newly memorized material. The only people the knowledge is new to, are the students.

    Actually, you can’t pass a half-decent science test if all you did is memorize. The professor can switch it up and present you with a situation or data that you haven’t seen before and ask you what’s going on.

    And intro physics labs aren’t about applying anything. Intro physics labs are all about skills. Oh, we may have some pretext of application or discovery, but what I find when I actually teach these labs is that what students really seem to get down is data analysis, interpretation of graphs, understanding of units, etc.

    Getting unit conversions straight seems kind of abstract on a homework problem: You solved for it in centimeters, did your conversion to meters wrong, and now you have a number but little context to interpret it and recognize your mistake. So you write it down (because you didn’t recognize your mistake) and hope that you either got it right or at least got partial credit.

    However, if you’re in lab, and you fail to convert a volume from cubic centimeters to cubic meters, the absurdity of your error is right in front of you: Your percent error is huge. So now you have to troubleshoot. Plus, if you’re in my lab, I’ll say “Hmm, you got a volume of 9 cubic meters. [This is the density lab.] So, you’re telling me that your little cylinder of metal was approximately 2 meters in diameter [spread out my arms] and 3 meters long [I walk a few steps]. Doesn’t look like it to me.” And now that their mistake is unambiguously recognized, and they have a physical basis to interpret it, we can go through the technique for converting from cubic centimeters to cubic meters.

    This may or may not be the best way to teach freshman physics labs, but the reality is that the way most freshman physics labs are constructed the only lessons that you can really get from them are lessons on skills for handling numbers.

  59. What John is talking about are general tests of intelligence, as opposed to the tests for job-specific skills that everyone else is describing. It may very well be that John is right about laws not permitting intelligence tests (I don’t know, I’ll defer to his legal expertise) but that doesn’t seem to preclude the tests of specific job skills that everyone else is describing.

  60. “They tell me a BS in computer science is meaningless.”

    This is true if the applicant has at least five years of experience in the workforce. It is a difficult (though not insurmountable) task to land that first job without a degree.

    Though the argument can be made that almost any field of knowledge can be gained outside some formal school. A few exceptions are fields that require university facilities since the expense of teaching yourself is prohibitive–such as medicine, integrated circuit design, high powered physics, organic chemistry (the latter is becoming easier as a recent Reason post has suggested).

  61. Episiarch,

    I just heard a rumor that Val Kilmer is involved in a possible sequel to Real Genius. While that probably has disaster written all over it, he was quite good at comedic roles, once upon a time. Beats a remake, anyway.

  62. “Yes indeed. There’s no “understanding” a benzene ring, there’s just memorizing the different variations.”

    But if I need to know what the variations of a benzene ring is, I can look it up. Why spend the time to memorize it? Aren’t there more important things to do? To me biology and chemestry were like taking military history classes where you memorized the entire order of battle for each side at Waterloo. Why?

  63. ProL, it’s practically guaranteed to be a disaster. However, The Dark Knight was excellent, so Hollywood did it’s little abused Episiarch routine with me, where I am almost ready to write off anything from a regular studio after too many beatings, and then they go all nice and sweet and tell me they still love me with an excellent product.

    And I come back.

  64. Epi,

    It is called bait and switch. Produce just enough decent product to make people intersted in the crap.

  65. Episiarch,

    Which is why it will work.

    By the way, I saw The Dark Knight in IMAX. I have to say that that format (with the dome, anyway), doesn’t work so well for action movies. Stuff keeps jumping all over the place–whoa, help me dude!

  66. But if I need to know what the variations of a benzene ring is, I can look it up. Why spend the time to memorize it?

    I’m not sure about that particular case, but in many cases looking up commonly used information every time you have to use it makes more advanced study impossible. When I was in second grade I was forced to memorize the multiplication tables out to 12×12, and I felt about it the same way you do.

    Didn’t feel quite the same when I was tutoring college students in algebra who had to pull out a calculator every time they needed to know what’s 3 times 7, because they hadn’t been forced to memorize it.

  67. John Byrne is dead?

    Jesus Chrysler I feel old knowing that.

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