A “Good” Education

Before reading this, I urge you to take a little while and listen to this.

OK, you’re back.

I want to start out by saying that, as an undergraduate, there was never any question that I was among the best and brightest at my school.  Starting in 1976, I attended the University of Minnesota, in the College of Liberal Arts.  All told, the University had around 55,000 students.  My student ID number was 990127.  Tuition, during my time there, was between $300-400 for as many classes you wanted each quarter (the University was on the quarter system, what is now known as the trimester system—each term was 10 weeks, and there were three normal terms in the university calendar, plus two shorter summer terms of 5 weeks each (plus, if I recall correctly, exam weeks)).  The University had, in addition to the CLA, the Institute of Technology, a forestry school, and an entire agriculture campus (that we knew as “Moo U.”  Plus there were graduate programs in almost every department and professionals schools for Law, Medicine, and Architecture.

I made the Dean’s List every single term.  I was in the honors program.  I was in chemistry classes with premed students and I earned solid As when they were getting Bs.  I graduated summa cum laude in sociology, with a gold phi beta kappa key and a GPA of around 3.8.  I never got less than a B.  Yes, I’m bragging.  I earned the right.

So what did I do for an encore?  Naturally, I applied to graduate school.  I applied to ten, and was accepted at nine.  The one that didn’t accept me (Stanford) may have done so because one of the people I asked to write a recommendation hated that school.  Those that did accept me—every one of them, from the New School for Social Research and Columbia University to the University of California at Berkeley and UC Santa Barbara—gave me scholarships.  In some cases, they gave me way more than free tuition–additional aid for living expenses, so I would finish loan-free (and loans were smaller in those days).

I ended up at the University of Chicago, one of the great schools for sociology, with a 3-year scholarship that gave me leave to take whatever courses I wanted, so long as I was making progress in the sociology department, and $1,500 each term for living expenses (Chicago was also on the trimester system).  $4,500 per year was not a hell of a lot of money, but a studio apartment in Hyde Park, with utilities, could be had for $400/month, and there were always research assistantships to be had, so it was pretty good.

Do you know the difference between a college and a graduate school?

A college turns out people who go into a wide range of disciplines—they may become small business owners, artists, housepainters, musicians, actors, shopkeepers, draftsfolk, bus drivers, electricians, plumbers, clerks, soldiers, luthiers, police officers, managers, account executives, bicycle mechanics, insurance salespersons.

A graduate school turns out professors.

Now, I have no argument with professors.  I’m married to one—one who also received an excellent scholarship from the University of Chicago and who (unlike me) finished her PhD (and on-time!).  But I wonder sometimes, regarding my own case in particular and graduate schools in general, if we don’t make a mistake by funding the routing of the undergraduate “best and brightest” into the professoriate.

I’m thinking about this in large part due to having listened this weekend to the Malcolm Gladwell podcast I’ve linked above.  Because the reason I don’t work in a factory today, and the reason I’m now in my third exciting career (I’m now doing law, after teaching and software engineering) has much more to do with that undergraduate education than with graduate school.

Gladwell makes the point that America is a country in need of weak-link aid rather than strong-link aid.  That is, in context, that it would make more sense to put money toward improving the education of the many, including the “not so hot” students, than it does to put increasingly vast amounts toward the education of a few, fantastically smart students.  He uses the analogy of soccer vs. basketball, and argues—convincingly—that America is trying to play the latter when it needs to play the former.  We should be funding the bench, not just the superstars.

Now, there are good reasons to fund smart students.  I remember sitting in one class at Chicago and realizing that the person to my left had a BS from Yale (he quit grad school the next year and went on to be a lawyer), and the one to my right had a BA from Harvard (finished grad school and has been chair of sociology at Chicago!).  I was smart, and I did good work and communicated some useful things to people.  Not as smart as them, but I was smart.

But.  Had the thousands spent on my abortive graduate career gone to the University of Minnesota, easily a dozen people could have earned BAs.

I’m not sorry that I went to graduate school.  It was a great experience—I met my spouse, branched out to a new city, learned things that I still use in everyday life, met exciting people and minds (see Yale and Harvard, above).  But the marginal advantage was small.  Perhaps that’s why I dropped out of graduate school.  What I learned as a grad student didn’t build all that much over what I learned as an undergraduate.  Or perhaps I wasn’t cut out for it, and wasn’t as smart as I thought.

And maybe Malcolm Gladwell is right.  Maybe what we need is not a few people with great educations, but a whole lot of people with good ones.  Looking at the current political situation, it’s hard to argue with that point.



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