Academic resumes — itemizations of where you went to school, your grades and (even) your test scores — became common only after World War II. Before that time the questions on any job interview were about what jobs had you worked who you knew. My Dad attributed the change to the GI Bill, and he wisely anticipated that the change would lead to a dependence on standardized testing not only for schools, colleges and universities, but also for all licensed occupations. However, the rule that he followed as an extremely smart student and a future textbook publisher was not "parrot the textbook." He was shrewd enough to know that every teacher prided himself on being smarter than the textbook. The key to straight As was to attend every lecture, take copious notes and "parrot" exactly what the teacher said. Following that rule and working at it industriously each day earned him a Phi Beta Kappa key just as it has earned his granddaughter one. "Thinking for yourself" is fun and has its own rewards, but it is guaranteed to get you a 2.7 GPA. That has been the state of American education for over half a century. It is the reason the "rednecks", among others, have lost their faith in "education". They see it as an extended exercise in obsequiousness. They are right, of course. They are also right to be skeptical about the benefits of academic certifications. Getting a Class 4 license has proven a much more profitable investment over the past decade than completing a graduate degree. In my limited travels here in Northern California I see any number of signs for "Truck Drivers Wanted". I have yet to see a single advertisement reading "PhD in (Gender Studies, etc.) wanted; Steady Pay; Great Benefits". Instead, I see the poor grad students trudging to their classes at the local universities like so many helots marching to the silver mines.

Prof. Charles Pennington responds:

I guess Stefan is using hyperbole, but just in case: PhDs do not do all that badly out there, and better than truck drivers. I had a high school friend who became a truck driver for a while, and he confirms that it's quite stressful and boring and not really all that well paid.

The students who got PhDs in my group have jobs at Pfizer, Intel, University of Hawaii (Associate Professor, not post-doc!), Varian, the Mayo Clinic, Keithley Corp., and Intermagnetics. I don't know exact salaries, but I think they're probably centered around $100K. They do interesting work, too. Most of them are doing things with magnetic resonance imaging, including "functional" magnetic resonance imaging where you literally watch what's happening in someone's brain while he's thinking some designated thought.

I agree though, sort of, on the topic of how to get As from professors. The most efficient way to get As is to attend all the lectures, and, as a first priority, write down everything that's said out loud and written on the chalkboard. If you can understand it in real time, fine, but if you can't, review your notes as soon as possible after the lecture, and try to figure out what was being said. You might figure out 90% of it then and there. Later you'll still have to cram for the test, but you'll be miles ahead.

Professors always feel like they're trying to give everything away, leading the horses to water and begging them to drink. I always tried to design my tests so that a student could get 80% of the answers through diligence alone, though it did require above-average diligence. 15% required some thinking, some creativity, and some aptitude, and maybe 5% could be answered by only the top one or two students in the class.

Sure, there's a lot of alcohol and 420 consumption at universities, but if you looked around at the students at Ohio State, you would find much to admire (insert Professor/coed joke here). Many, many students there had jobs working 20 or more hours per week along with their full course loads, and the curricula, at least in science and engineering, were not designed with that in mind. Plenty of students really do develop their minds and abilities more than they ever thought possible going in, and they experience much satisfaction from that. It is much better to go to college than to become a truck driver.

Stefan Jovanovich responds:

For those lucky and skilled enough to be in your rather select group, the rewards of serious scientific academic study are unquestionable. The point I thought I was making was that for "ordinary" people the traditional academic game is proving to be an increasingly bad bet. For those for whom the choice is "education" in the generic sense of survey courses, breadth requirements and a non-rigorous major vs. a Class 4 license, the Class 4 license is currently looking to be a better deal. That is clearly the conclusion of the masses who are voting with their feet in favor of junior colleges and trade schools. I apologize if I am stepping on someone's rice bowl, but I doubt very much that the current relative values of a certification to operate heavy machinery vs. a B.A. in Anthropology can be questioned, given their respective acquisition costs and likely future incomes.

The utility of formal education must be measured in more than monetary terms, but for the people taking out student loans (whose repayment, under the new bankruptcy laws, cannot be so easily ignored) the question of what a degree is worth and what it costs is hardly academic. As you acknowledge, "the curricula, at least in science and engineering, (are) not designed" for students who have to work to pay their way through school. That is a change for the worse and testimony that the land grant public universities no longer offer genuine opportunities to the poor, bright student. My Dad bussed dishes at the dining hall to make it through the University of Colorado, and my father-in-law slung hash in the kitchen of a fraternity to earn his undergraduate and masters degrees in geology at Texas and Oklahoma. I have never been either as poor or as smart as Dad or Buster; but, if I had not worked a job serving process, I would not have been able to afford to make it through law school at Cal (and the world would have been spared one more tax attorney).

One of my father's very few serious regrets at the end of his life was that in the early 1980s he could not persuade the directors of the public company that he ran to go into the for-profit education business and offer "trade school" educations. The directors feared that the public school teachers would rise up in anger and boycott their textbooks. Dad thought the risk was worth taking since he saw the profit margins in the textbook business evaporating before the advance of high-speed copiers, readers and used book resellers. The capital markets have proven him to be right. The upstart University of Phoenix and its cohort of U.S. for-profit publicly-traded educational companies - which were just being started 3 decades ago - now have a greater market capitalization than all of the world's textbook publishers.

J. T. Holley replies:

My father was a truck driver for 25 years. Boring it's not (regular change of scenery), and the pay is great compared to other jobs in rural areas. But I'll grant it's stressful due to the other drivers on the road. For a young man in the rural U.S. to leave and go to the "U", he must ask a deep deep question: "do I leave my family?". It's easy for those raised in the city or town that the "U" is in, but those living in towns like Grundy, Damascus or Martinsville in Virginia don't make that decision as fast. Being a truck driver allows them the opportunity to "get out" and come back weekly and be around the family. This is usually one of the highest paying jobs in the area if it exists. Now, I'd rather be the "dumb human than the smart pig" as Plato proposed, but in rural redneck America the smart pig might be the better option. In a small town, having a PhD might get you a loan from the bank to start a business, but that's about it. I had a kid from Kansas on my ship in the Navy. He couldn't swim. He asked me why I joined the Navy and I gave him the usual "college money" reply. Feeling a sense of obligation I then asked him why he joined. He said "to see the ocean". Seeing the seriousness on his face I asked him if he'd ever heard of a vacation. He said "It just doesn't work that way up in the Smoky Hills".

Russell Sears responds:

Perhaps I misread the post. But as the good teacher, Adam Robinson says in his book, the smart student learns to parrot the textbook. After all its generally the teacher ego that picks one book over another. Perhaps it has not quite sunk into this "quant" that in the real world you need to think for yourself. That this was an exercise in peer review, not textbook writer worship.

If I am right what is sad, is the state of education at MU. Perhaps, a word of "real world experience" could change this youths direction.

GM Nigel Davies adds:

Consider the incentives in education. What is taught in the classrooms is not necessarily what is required by the world at large, but rather the interpretation thereof by people who are elected and/or appointed to decide such matters. The students have an incentive to toe the line and will be unified in saying that the system/their qualifications are good because it gives them an edge in the jobs market. And the establishment has an incentive in making the system look good in order to maintain funding. Who's going to question its value? Looks like it's only Ken Smith, some truck drivers and maybe a Grandmaster or two.

Greg Rehmke responds:

Whether driving a truck or pursuing a PhD, I suspect results turn on what people read, discuss, and write. Audio tapes from Books-on-Tape, The Teaching Company, and Knowledge Products can provide both truck drivers and commuters a wide-ranging education. I especially recommended is the "Giants of Political Thought" series available from Knowledge Products.

As truck-drivers relax after meals or before sleep, what they read shapes what they understand and how they think about the world. If they read, for example, William Easterly's recent book White Man's Burden, or Rodney Stark's The Victory of Reason, they will better understand why the western world prospered while Africa and Latin America are still stuck with poverty. If, instead, they read the New York Times and watch the evening news, and if they listen to talk radio and NPR instead of thoughtful audiotapes, their minds will be full of some combination of things that aren't true and things that don't matter. (I listen to NPR sometimes because I enjoy it, so I end up with a fair number of not true/doesn't matter items bouncing around my head.)

Graduate work can expand understanding and insight, as well as research and writing skills. But most Masters programs in the social "sciences" waste time, money, and minds. I remember a stand-up comic telling of a professor encouraging him to pursue a Political Science Ph.D. after finishing his undergraduate degree. "What do Political Science PhDs do?" he asked. "They teach other students about political science" was the answer. "What do they do with their political science degrees?" he continued. "They teach still others" was the reply. The comic concluded that political science was a giant Ponzi scheme. And so, unfortunately, are many of the social "sciences."

I am enrolled in the Masters program in Economics at San Jose State University. Classes are in the evenings and most masters students work full-time. At least a dozen SJSU economics profs are accomplish market-oriented scholars (Jeffrey Hummel, Mark Brady, Ed Stringham, Ben Powell, Lydia Ortega, Edward Lopez, and others, many with Austrian/Public Choice educations from George Mason University). Each semester hundreds of undergraduates learn economics, but also learn Austrian and public choice insights that usually remain hidden from students at higher-ranked universities.

In the end we each choose whether we pursue our own course to wisdom and understanding, or just float along in the media mainstream. We could spend a decade in college, as thousands do, but learn little either true or useful. Or we could spend a decade crossing the country by truck accompanied by the greatest thinkers in world history.


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