Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

A clarification of my opinions on schooling and education

with one comment

In my recent writings, I have noticed an apparent paradox that might confuse the recurring reader: On the one hand, I speak negatively about schooling; on the other, negatively about people with a weak(-ish) educational background. (Including concerning the U.S. Supreme Court.)

As with most paradoxes, it resolves it self with the proper understanding (cf. below); however, it is true that more or more advanced degrees are not an automatic proof of greater ability, and when we look at someone with dozens of years of experience and accomplishment in a field, the sum of that experience and accomplishment is almost always more important than degrees.

To resolve the apparent paradox, consider the following:

  1. Schooling and education are different things; I am very skeptical towards schooling, but a great fan of education; and one of my main objections is that the education system is too much school and too little education.
  2. The problems with the education system today were not always present in the past. Dumbing down, grade inflation, and the like, are paramount examples. When we compare degrees earned today with those earned degrees twenty, forty, or sixty years ago, the latter were usually (!) of greater value in terms of developing the degree holders and in filtering by ability*. That I criticize today’s degrees does not automatically imply a criticism of the degrees of yore.**

    *Notably, this filtering continues to make an important statement long after the degree holder has entered the work-force, even when what was learned has grown relatively less important, been forgotten, grown outdated, …

    **But I doubt that there has been a time when education was anywhere near perfect. By implication, going back to how it was will not make things perfect—merely better. There might even be some areas where the current system is better.

  3. While I am not a fan of what is happening with higher education, my criticism is the harsher the lower we go: For one thing, there is more to be salvaged* by the intelligent student on the post-graduate level than on the bachelor level than on the high-school level … than on the first-grade level. For another, the current negative trends of education have yet to be as pervasive in the higher reaches as in the lower.

    *Especially with regard to the difference between schooling and education.

  4. How much someone gains from advanced education depends much on the individual characteristics. On average, the very bright will see a much better effect than the less bright, making the investment the more worthwhile. (In the specific case of the Supreme Court, all its members should be among the very bright.)

    A caution must be added concerning the relative benefit of formal education vs. informal private studies and autodidactic activities (as well as formal research leading to a new degree vs. that being done as “part of the job”, and a few similar constellations). However, an unfortunate* disadvantage of private studies is that it is very hard for a third-party (and often the student too…) to judge what has actually been accomplished. With a degree there is some clarity.

    *I would love to have a magic fairy create me an academic degree for what I have learned outside of formal settings. I also regularly consider going back to earn an additional degree of some form (e.g. a Ph.D. to move beyond the master level or an “x of arts” degree to complement my “x of science” degrees), even though I know that I could learn the contents of the degree as well or better on my own. This partially through vanity (this is one area where I am not immune to it); partially through the pragmatical advantages of having stronger formal credentials.

Excursion on degrees with different grades:
An annoying complication when comparing degrees is that the requirements for merely passing are often quite weak, implying that not all degree holders have that solid a knowledge. Worse, I suspect that the clear majority does not have the understanding one would expect to be present. A much better approach, in my opinion, would be to grade everything on a pass/fail basis—with “pass” being the equivalent of a (pre-inflation) A! “A-students” would get through in the same tempo as today. “B-students” might need more time, but would leave with a more solid education. “C-students” and below would rarely graduate, not distort the meaning of a degree, not waste time and resources, …—usually discovering in the first or second term that they are not college material. (Something, unfortunately, hidden from them till the day they die, the current system.)

Excursion on the SCOTUS and education:
Instead of just complaining, what would I suggest as an educational background?* I am not knowledgeable enough in the area of law education or the actual work involved to detail what the ideal would be, but something along these lines seems reasonable to me (within the U.S. framework):

*I stress that formal education is not everything needed, just one aspect. Also note that this curriculum is intended for a very select group—it is not a generic legal curriculum.

  1. A bachelor focusing on proving and honing the ability to think, implying a strong math and/or science component. A connection to the law is unimportant (that is what the J.D. is for), but something contributing to an understanding of humans, society, history, or similar would be beneficial.

    Example: Double major in math and philosophy.

  2. Get the basic legal education: J.D. + bar exam.
  3. Master’s degree building a deeper understanding in some relevant area, e.g. jurisprudence or constitutional law.
  4. A real doctorate building a deeper understanding in another relevant area.

Excursion on general education levels:
Similar points about education can be made with many other important positions and organizations than the SCOTUS. I note e.g. the horrifying educational background displayed by many leading Swedish social democrats. Take Stefan Löfven, the current Swedish prime minister: According to the linked to (Swedish) Wikipedia page, his education consists of a two-year vocational high-school program, a 48-week welding (!) class that he did not complete, and a year-and-a-half of college without earning a degree. There are people with better credentials working as cashiers at McDonald’s; while Angela Merkel, his conservative counter-part in my adopted Germany, has a doctorate in quantum chemistry. Importantly, this is not only a very weak academic record, it is also a strong indication both of a poor head and of poor follow-through—I would give a greater benefit of a doubt to someone who had just earned the vocational degree and then remained in the work-force: The latter could be someone with a good head who just lacked the interest for studies, was denied the opportunity through external reasons, found so great success at work that college felt like a waste of time, or similar.


Written by michaeleriksson

December 15, 2017 at 1:39 pm

One Response

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  1. […] *Cf. earlier discussions of education topics, e.g. [2]. […]

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