Running 25 miles in one go is usually worthy of an impressed eyebrow raise at the very least, but not if the intention was to run every last tenth of the 26 and two tenths that makes a marathon: intentions provide one context to evaluate outcomes. In Mr. Gerber’s article “How Liberal Arts Colleges are Failing America” he identifies an apparent mismatch between Liberal Art Colleges’ intentions and consequences.
According to Mr. Gerber, people go to college to get a job yet so many recent graduates are unemployed. If colleges existed to launch graduates into immediate employment, then I would agree that liberal arts colleges failed in their intentions.
However, Gerber’s assumption fails to understand the reason for a liberal arts education: to expose a student to multiple disciplines and so become a multi-dimensional thinker. Incidentally, Mr. Gerber actually ends his piece with a cal for more “well-rounded thinkers and doers.”
Instead, let’s focus on the state of the world according to the facts he established: more people have Bachelor’s degrees but the unemployment rate for college graduates is very high. A college degree no longer guarantees a job. Therefore, colleges fail their students. However, his conclusion does not inevitably follow from the premises. Assuming a college degree ever guaranteed a job (an objectionable premise in itself) it is not necessarily a failure on the part of the college that a job does not immediately follow graduation.
Appealing to an employer requires that the candidate be just slightly better than everyone else or, to sound a bit nicer, that the candidate can differentiate from all the rest. When fewer people had degrees, a Bachelor’s degree could function did differentiate the candidates. More Bachelor’s degrees means that the degree alone differentiates less than it would, all else equal. Therefore, it is not necessarily the schools, but a job market flush with degrees.
By attending school it is expected that the student will learn. Learning, however, is not a machine, where the input defines the product: Louis XVI of France had some of the best tutors in the world. We should also consider that students fail their colleges. In some areas, (just about) everyone can go to college, so (just about) everyone is expected to go to college, so (just about) everyone does. Let’s not pretend that an average student in high school will- on average- transform once in college to a high performer. And its not uncommon for high-school top dogs to fall into the middle or below of the college pack. With more challenging work, more rewarding social opportunities, and the knowledge that the brass ring is the degree, not the GPA, why strive more than necessary?
Gerber correctly writes that not all degrees are created equal and assumes the degree received accurately signals skills obtained. It is a valid assumption to make when comparing two students of the same intelligence and motivation w. However, the degree does not guarantee the necessary skills. By the same token, a class about entrepreneurship will not necessarily provide the skills: a rose by any other name will smell as sweet and a class on Shakespeare will still be a class on the old bard, even if you call it number theory.
The proposition to fire anyone who doesn’t advocate for entrepreneurial education will not necessarily result in the consequence desired: more entrepreneurial talent. Rather, it will lead to more classes called Entrepreneurialism 101. What Mr. Berber actually wants, and which I agree is necessary, is that colleges provide a way for those who want them to get the necessary skills. The class he described at Babson does sound incredible and my alma mater, Smith College, has a similar program during January term.
The caveat though is, “those who want them”: some people want to be researchers. And the solution to fewer factory jobs is not more entrepreneurs: some people want a job with stability, security, and structure. And, at a certain point, there will be too many entrepreneurs without anyone to actually do the work needed to deliver. That’s called diminishing marginal returns, a term from one discipline in the Liberal Arts that somehow never fails in describing the reality beyond ivy-covered walls.