Saturday, May 17, 2008

The Continuing Relevance Of College

In trying to find out if there's more meat on the bones of Charles Murray's arguments about education than is apparent from this, I found this Wall Street Journal piece:
Even if forgoing college becomes economically attractive, the social cachet of a college degree remains. That will erode only when large numbers of high-status, high-income people do not have a college degree and don't care. The information technology industry is in the process of creating that class, with Bill Gates and Steve Jobs as exemplars. It will expand for the most natural of reasons: A college education need be no more important for many high-tech occupations than it is for NBA basketball players or cabinetmakers. Walk into Microsoft or Google with evidence that you are a brilliant hacker, and the job interviewer is not going to fret if you lack a college transcript.
Oh, right... The fact that a company is founded by somebody who didn't complete a college degree means they're open to hiring anybody, even people without college degrees. Microsoft aside, could Murray be less informed about Google's hiring practices?
A reality about the job market must eventually begin to affect the valuation of a college education: The spread of wealth at the top of American society has created an explosive increase in the demand for craftsmen. Finding a good lawyer or physician is easy. Finding a good carpenter, painter, electrician, plumber, glazier, mason - the list goes on and on - is difficult, and it is a seller's market. Journeymen craftsmen routinely make incomes in the top half of the income distribution while master craftsmen can make six figures. They have work even in a soft economy. Their jobs cannot be outsourced to India. And the craftsman's job provides wonderful intrinsic rewards that come from mastery of a challenging skill that produces tangible results. How many white-collar jobs provide nearly as much satisfaction?
Here, Murray reinforces my prior opinion that he has very low regard for the manual trades, and knows next to nothing about... well, we're reaching the point where I could say "pretty much anything he writes about". Murray seems to believe that intellectual skills are something you must be born with, but any other skill can be learned equally well by anyone. As difficult as it may be to find a master craftsman, it is not difficult to find a run-of-the-mill craftsman. (And if you're truly talking the high end, it's no more difficult to find a master craftsman than it is to find a good lawyer, assuming you can afford their services. It's not like they're in hiding.) As for outsourcing, I can contact artisans in Asia with specifics for custom woodwork, stonework or metalwork, and have it shipped to my house. The local contractor only has to have enough skills to assemble or install the parts. That's not outsourcing?

Incidentally, I agree with Murray's argument that the college degree is an artificial qualification for many jobs, and that the act of making college accessible to everyone means lowering standards for obtaining a college degree (as compared to what they could be if you restricted enrollment to the very bright, but let's not pretend that our nation's elite schools have historically focused on enrolling only the brightest students). Unlike Murray, I don't think that's going to change. If you have 40 applications for a job, and 12 have college diplomas, it's an easy criterion to use to narrow the pile. And no, even if the job arguably could be done by somebody without a degree, it's not entirely arbitrary. A college education can provide people with knowledge, thinking skills, and perspectives on the world that they would not otherwise have attained.


  1. "WSJ op ed" and "Charles Murray" and you read any further why?!

  2. Or perhaps we could say, "You saw something written by an AEI 'scholar' and you thought it would have merit?"

    I started with this; I made the mistake of looking further. The WSJ editorial is one of a three-part series, so there's ample fodder for at least one more post....

    But really, lots of people take this stuff seriously. Granted, it's probably the same 49% of the population who believe McCain will "win" the Iraq War if elected, but I think there there should be something available arguing the other side....

  3. I know, but the people who take this stuff seriously don't care about whether it's correct. Really, who believes anything Charles Murray says, other than the racists and bigots who wish things were the same as in the good old Himmelfarbian era?