Sunday, May 20, 2012

Advice for High School Graduates

The Chicago Tribune has an opinion piece on Open letter to high school grads. You really should read the entire thing but here's part of it ...
If you haven't posted a good academic performance in high school, don't believe a university, its leadership, advertisements or admissions officers who co-sign your promissory note with no responsibility for its payment obligation. They need paying students.

Stoking a deceitful dream on life support — an underappreciated, overfinanced, media-hyped charade — is the real deception, and the weight falls on your back, not theirs.

A shameful, elaborate sham, when one out of two college graduates this year are unemployable in their chosen field.

Look carefully at the costs and benefits of a university education. University officials may not tell you the truth: Enrollments could drop. Bankers will not tell you the truth: Interest income will fall off. Elected officials will not tell you the truth: Elections will be lost. Listen to those really concerned for you carefully.
Who wrote this? It's Walter V. Wendler, who is listed as director of the School of Architecture and former chancellor at Southern Illinois University.

Am I the only person who finds this disturbing? Does the former chancellor of Southern Illinois University really believe that his school is no different than WallMart? Does he really believe that the best advice for high school students is to tell them that colleges are nothing more than diploma mills who are out to rip you off? Does it really boil down to a cost-benefit analysis where employment opportunities are the only benefit?

Want to know more about Walter Wendler? Here's something he wrote for the Chicago Tribune last December [Navigating an impossible distance] ...
A few years ago I had the opportunity to start a tradition that included bringing faculty, staff and friends of a university together to wish each other well during the holiday season. After an hour of visiting, a pianist accompanied hundreds of us, physicists and plumbers, teachers and trainers, groundskeepers and geologists, secretaries and scholars as we sang (I may be generous calling it that) Christmas songs. To this day, I think of that noise we made, and hear music in my heart … you know … the one that is 18 inches from my head.

It was joyful.

It didn't mean the same thing to everyone, but I think it meant something to everybody, even if only that we belong to something bigger than just ourselves.

The tree, gifts, families, friends, and the other secular trappings touched common memories, and we all knew that we weren't alone in the dark, cold night. We did not have to share a single meaning to find meaning in the shared experience.

But we could sing, drink coffee, eat cookies and acknowledge each other.

I'm convinced that that day reduced the distance between the hearts and heads of hundreds of dedicated servants from 18 inches to zero, if only for an instant.

It seems the job of modernism and the modern world to separate head and heart. This 18-inch distance is wreaking havoc on our social order.

Contrary to what some physicists and biologists think, science and ethics can coexist quite nicely. There should be room for this discussion.

Science is not "truth." Science is a method for finding a particular kind of truth. Other methods let you find truths science cannot; truths that can lead us to become who we need to be, and help us build stronger communities.

When we only accept the icy standards of measurable phenomena, 18 inches becomes an impossible distance.

Thanks for your indulgences. It must be that time of year.
Now I get it. Wendler uses one of those other ways of finding truth. That explains his bizarre advice to high school graduates.

[Hat Tip: One of Hemant Mehta's readers provided the link to Wendler's article in the comments under Advice for High School Graduates. Hemant is a high school teacher but I find his "advice" to be almost as troubling as that of Walter Wendler. Is the American higher education system really as broken as these "advices" imply?]


  1. While entirely correct, the article has too much of a "the goal of education is to prepare you for a job" flavor for my taste. Consider this:

    Three: Consider carefully with your family, and counselors you trust, the dollar value of your career-path choice.

    That's not what college education is about - that's anti-intellectualism 101, and most of the problems with higher education today originate directly in this attitude towards it being so dominant. Now it's true that people are forced into this view of higher education by the practical necessities of living in a society set up the way ours is, and there is no way to make meaningful changes in higher education that will address the problem without some serious restructuring of the social system itself (i.e. it's not going to happen), but that does not change the fact that it is wrong to hold such a view.

  2. Sorry, Larry, I know that you are a prof., but no matter how goofy his other statements might be, the first quote is disturbing because of how much reality it contains.

    A cost benefit analysis should be part of every prospective student's thought process.

    I cannot speak to Canada, but the US has a staggering number of under-employed graduates and an even more staggering number of loan defaults.

    And yes, the schools bear a share of the blame for this by not accurately reflecting graduate hires or salaries. I understand it is the student's responsibility, but a degree does not guarantee an improved career outlook, much less a feasible job market.

    Just because the man is superstitious does not mean that he is wrong on all issues. It is about time someone pointed the darker side of education out to prospective students.

    1. He is entirely correct about the cost-benefit analysis.

      The problem is why people are doing that cost-benefit analysis, why they don't understand why it is wrong to do it, and why even if they do, they are still forced to do it.

      I said this in a comment in a previous thread and I mentioned it above, but the sole purpose of education in the eyes of the vast majority of people is to provide a well-paying job. Now evolutionary psychology is not liked much here but this is one perfect example of how the evolutionary wiring of our brains is driving our behavior< and in a very bad way. Education is a tool in people's fight for inclusive fitness maximization, even though they don't realize it - education itself does not matter, it is the social status it provides, and that's how we have ended up with our current system of universities seeing themselves as being in the business of serving their "clients" and making money, rather than developing students intellectually. Ironically, if people were paying attention to what they learn in school, they would be aware of the situation, what is driving their behavior and how pointless the rat race is; but they are not

  3. I'd give the advice a little differently, but I think Wendler's mostly right. Students should not just go on to college without thinking about what they really want and whether / how university plays a role in getting what they want. They certainly shouldn't take on thousands of dollars of student debt without a real belief that university is worth the work it will take to learn well.

    Some students love to learn and think, and they can benefit from a university education regardless of potential debt or earnings. For others, the university really is a pathway to a well-paying job. That may not be our favorite goal, but if it is the student's goal and the university can help (and be paid for helping), that's great.

    However, many of my students are at university for no better reason than that their parents expected them to go. Or maybe they just assume they need the education to get a good job, which they vaguely assume they need though often without any idea what a real job might entail.

    These students aren't committed to learning. In fact, they often resist learning. If they (or their parents) can pay their way to party for four years or to muddle through university, they just waste their time. If they take on debt to attend university, they end up much worse off than that -- uselessly educated, often without a degree, and with debt that will dog them for years.

    I wish more of my students would take a year or two off between high school and college. Coping with real life for a little while can sharpen their interest in school and give them an idea of what it might mean to actually work when they get here.