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College crush

"College crush" Continued...

Issue: "The Obama era," Feb. 14, 2009

Q: But who controls the certification tests? For example, in literature you could have the Modern Language Association in charge . . .

And that's the problem. When you have certifications being taken for employers, there's no problem because if the tests are not predictive of high performance in that field, the employers aren't going to use them. Let's say you have certifications in English Lit and you're being sent to law school. Law schools want kids who have precision in verbal expression, they want kids able to deal with complex text. If the MLA is sending them a Maya Angelou touchy-feely thing, they may behave like employers, and say: We want to know about English Lit.

Q: How many fields have certifying exams now?

You have certification tests for building inspectors. There are lots of tests for technical specialties-for example, when you go get your blood tested, there is a specialty that takes about a year and a half or two years that the person who's sticking that needle in you has gone through. There's a certification test for brain surgeons. And you don't have to think in terms of multiple choice and bubbles: Both brain surgeons and master cabinetmakers are often judged on work samples. You can overcome the deficiencies of tests. The techniques are out there. It's not a technological problem.

What the colleges have to say is, "There is a world of the mind out there that we want to impart to students, and here's the problem: It is tough." Not everybody can read and understand Nicomachean Ethics, not everybody is capable of the rigor and verbal expression that's necessary to write a good term paper about it. It's tough. It's difficult material that a small percentage of the population is intellectually equipped to do.

Q: I hear you saying that if high schools are doing what they should, the time from age 18 on becomes the time for students who are intellectually gifted to delve into intellectual questions. For others we say, "It's time to learn something that will help you make some money."

And not only that. We must get over the idea that this choice is a second-class choice. I disagree with Aristotle-I don't think the life of the philosopher is intrinsically better than the life of those who take other routes in life. So you aren't asking the kids to settle for second best. What you're doing is recasting the goal of education so it no longer is, "get the B.A." The goal is to bring young people to adulthood with their having discovered things they enjoy doing and that they know how to do well. It is generically the same process for everyone: In every profession, you start out as an apprentice. If you become competent, you are a journeyman. If you get really good at it, you become a master craftsman. That has been true of me in my profession, it is true of you, it's true of the long-haul truck driver, it's true of the carpenter-we all go through the same trajectory. And you want to treat post-secondary education as being that process for everyone. The kid who's studying philosophy is an apprentice, and so is the kid who's studying to become an electrician. They're both doing things that, because of their different configurations and personalities, are right for them.

Q: What does it take for those occupations no longer to be considered second class?

It takes the upper-middle class to quit playing the pernicious role it plays. Upper-middle-class parents, when it comes to shopping for education for their children, act like drugged-up pop stars on Rodeo Drive. They buy by brand name, they don't check the quality of the product, they pay outrageous premiums, and they don't bother to check later to see if the product was actually delivered. I see no signs of that cracking. I do not know of middle-class parents who cheerfully say "that sounds good" when their son says what he really wants is to be in the merchant marine.

Q: So is the place to crack this Microsoft, or do we need novelists and poets to make fun of the Rodeo Drive mentality?

That would help. But it also helps to have a lot of rich people outside of the entertainment business who don't have college degrees. Bill Gates, Steve Jobs-throughout the software and computer hardware industries there are lots of millionaires who have IQs of 145 and never got a college degree. So you want lots and lots of those folks, but you also want to get them into other fields. Right now, if you go to the CEOs and the top people in big corporations, they in fact almost all have B.A.s, and oftentimes M.B.A.s. It would be really nice if we had the ability to get a certification for business administration. You start getting senior executives in corporations who just get the certification and don't have the B.A. You need to have visible examples, because not only will they be role models, but they will be talking differently to their children about what they need to do.

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