What’s in a Name?

mortarboardIt’s graduation season and so the chattering classes have taken their annual turn towards dissecting what’s right and wrong with the American educational system. This year, as it has for a while, the subject of choice has been the cost of a college education and whether it is worth it.

I have refrained from addressing the cost issues of college head on. Readers know that I am skeptical of claims made about the educational system in the US. I am quite sympathetic to the idea that it functions as the engine of social stratification. I think the system labels and short changes people. I even worry that forces external to the system are exerting too great an influence.

This morning , though, the discussion on WNYC’s Money Talking really set me off. I think you’ll want to listen to the audio–it’s only 6 or 7 minutes long–to really appreciate the non-verbal information that caught my attention. For those not in the NY market, Money Talking is a weekly program in which Joe Nocera, currently a columnist for the New York Times and Rana Foroohar of Time magazine discuss financial issues. I’ve known Nocera’s work for years, Foroohar I only know from the show.

What’s truly astonishing to me is the uncritical manner in which Foroohar, in particular, addresses the issue of high-priced, elite institutions. There’s a telling moment when Nocera singles out Franklin & Marshall for their $55,000 a year tuition. He asks rhetorically is it really worth it and then goes on to say what ought to be patently obvious to anyone paying attention: you can get a good education anywhere as long as you work hard at it.

Then his counterpart weighs in. Foroohar says, more or less, that earlier in the segment  she asked if we need more Harvard English majors but that’s not really the question. Because when you go to Harvard you’re joining the club and its about networks and access to other things. So the question really is  do we need Ball State English majors or should students come out with marketable skills.

What hubris. And what a typical, narrow, East Coast view of the world.

If you clicked on the link above you’ll note that Foroohar herself is a member in good standing of ‘the club’ with an English degree from Barnard. Let’s for the moment presume the economists are correct. It’s no stretch then to say that in a job market that doesn’t reward Liberal Arts degrees that the holders of such have every reason on earth to seek differentiation of their own credential. So of course any Ivy-granted English degree trumps the equivalent from Midwest U.

On such self-serving twaddle masquerading as objective fact is the myth of the Ivies perpetuated. Nocera is right: you can find poorly educated Ivy League graduates and brilliant State U grads. Outside the northeast and select pockets around the country no one sees anything wrong with going down the road to the big state school and coming back to make your living. We even have an example in the northeast: Penn State.

In some disciplines the reverse is  true. One dirty little secret is that the Ivy League schools on the whole have abysmal engineering schools. Harvard, in fact, makes the ridiculous claim that their school of engineering and applied sciences, organized in 2007 “…in recognition of the growing preeminence of engineering and applied sciences” actually dates to 1847. No serious engineer believes this. (For a stunning example of just how blind one can be when surrounded by Ivy, I invite you to visit the About page of the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences at Harvard. The first sentence on the page wouldn’t  pass muster at Nassau Community College.)

Yet this nonsense persists. And it persists because commentators like Foroohar see no shame in voicing profoundly undemocratic statements. We all put pants on one leg at a time and we all wind up six feet under. Everything else is commentary.


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