Formal education isn’t for everyone

With the passage of the 2012-2013 Unionville-Chadds Ford School District budget earlier this month, it’s natural to think about the nature of education in general and who should pay for it.

One of the goals, if not the chief goal, of K-12 education is get the child ready for adult life, to be a literate, functioning and productive individual without being a drain on others. This would be true even if formal education was only K-7 or whether such schooling would be public or private.

Locally and nationally, the talk is usually about higher education. U-CF board members have talked about the need to get kids ready for college and a television promo currently being aired talks about the need to improve science scores since U.S. students don’t score in the top 10 internationally.

Even President Barack Obama, in his 2012 State of the Union address, spoke of making higher education a priority: "[H]igher education can't be a luxury. It is an economic imperative that every family in America should be able to afford."

By convention, higher education is any formal schooling — academic or trade — beyond the high school level. Yet, most people think of college when they hear the phrase.

Walter Williams, an economics professor at George Mason University, took issue with that in a recent column:

“…there's no evidence that a college education is an economic imperative. A good part of our higher education problem, explaining its spiraling cost, is that a large percentage of students currently attending college are ill-equipped and incapable of doing real college work. They shouldn't be there wasting their own resources and those of their families and taxpayers.”

Williams quotes a May 27 Washington Post article in which Robert Samuelson wrote, “…the college-for-all crusade has outlived its usefulness…Like the crusade to make all Americans homeowners, it’s now doing more harm than good.”

Williams’ column also includes reference to the U.S. Labor Department saying that the majority of new jobs in the country don’t require a college degree.

And formal education is no guarantor of success in life anymore than a lack of such education guarantees failure. The image of an educated ne’er-do-well is cliché because it’s commonplace. Yet, Thomas Edison was homeschooled because, after three months of formal schooling, his teacher tagged him as “addled” and told Edison’s mother that the boy couldn’t learn. Benjamin Franklin went to school for only two years and wound up with the honorific of doctor. Steve Jobs only formal attendance at college was for one semester and Bill Gates dropped out of Harvard.

This is not to belittle formal education. Society does need scientists, doctors and teachers, and specific disciplines need that formality, but other intellectual pursuits can be done informally with just as much success and far less expense to the individual or to a society that has to foot the bill.

Better to focus on the quality of education, even if it’s only to focus on the three R’s that teach a person to think for himself, than to dwell on “credentialism” that adds letters after a person’s name but little else of value.

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