AMAC Exclusive by David P. Deavel
This past week Joe Kent, a father, veteran, and Gold Star husband running for Congress in Washington State’s 3rd District, released a statement via Twitter titled: “Government Must Open Jobs to Non-Traditional Educational Backgrounds.” I’m a professor who is financially invested in having students do a four-year degree, but I agree with the candidate on the main premise. Four-year college isn’t for everybody and it generally should not be a requirement for most jobs. And the more American government and corporations stop relying on the possession of a four-year degree, the better those institutions—and American higher ed—will be.
I don’t agree with all of Mr. Kent’s rhetoric here. He argues that someone who studied “poetry for four years” should not be given priority over a person who started out on the factory floor and worked up to a managerial position. The problem is not that Americans are prioritizing talented scholars of poetry over those in the real world. A true liberal arts education is a good preparation for a great variety of jobs in the real world where the question is not technical skills but the ability to think critically, take in large amounts of information from different fields of knowledge, and communicate well. We might well benefit in a technical age from more poetry than less. Microsoft president Brad Smith argued a few years ago that “as computers behave more like humans, the social sciences and humanities will become even more important. Languages, art, history, economics, ethics, philosophy, psychology and human development courses can teach critical, philosophical and ethics-based skills that will be instrumental in the development and management of AI solutions.”
The problem is that American higher education, absent a few bright spots, has been doing a dismal job of producing students who have the kind of cultivation and knowledge that four-year degree recipients should have. Richard Arum, co-author of Academically Adrift, a 2011 analysis of the failures of our colleges and universities, spoke of some of the findings he and co-author Josipa Roksa had documented in an interview. Fifty percent of students reported that they did not have a class in which they were required to write 20 pages in a semester and one-third reported that they had no class requiring forty pages of reading per week. By 2011 students were reporting that they were studying about fifty percent less than a generation before.
As he summarized, college was producing very little in the way of “critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing skills” in its graduates. While a 2019 study showed some improvements in the number of hours students reported studying over the last decade, too few college students were really doing the work. And as Arum observed, there wasn’t that much work to do for too many.
Though a good college education should be providing those thinking, reasoning, and writing skills, the reality is that they often do not. Recent research has shown that many business leaders have come to doubt that the symbol of the college diploma has much reality behind it. A number of big-name companies, including Hilton, Tesla, Apple, Alphabet, and J. P. Morgan, have all loosened their requirements for a bachelor’s degree. Parents and students are starting to react, too. This year’s drop in undergraduate enrollment was especially steep—5% from spring 2020—but numbers have been trending down since 2012.
This is why it is good that candidate Kent has been calling for the federal government to catch up. But he’s not the first to do so. A year ago President Trump signed an executive order directing the federal government to revise its hiring based on “the principle that employment and advancement rest on the ability of individuals to fulfill their responsibilities in service to the American public.” Thus, merit rather than simply credentials should be the governing standard.
The order noted that this would bring the federal government in line with what many of those corporations are already doing and commanded that agencies only require bachelor’s or other degrees when they are legally required and that they only take such degrees into account when they demonstrate skills required for the particular jobs. If moved upon, such a change would indeed accomplish a great deal in terms of bringing more people from more diverse—both racially and socio-economically— backgrounds into the federal government. With their broader array of experiences and skills, a new crop of people in public service might make some progress on bridging what Mr. Kent calls the “severe social and cultural disconnect between the policy makers in D.C. and the people they are responsible for serving.”
So far, President Biden has not rescinded this order, but it is far from clear that anything ever came of it within the federal government. The order dictated that the changes be complete within six months, but by December 26 the Trump administration had other things on its mind. It would be a good thing if Mr. Kent’s rallying cry became the rallying cry of a great many others.
If the federal government and more businesses start to make it clear that credentials simply aren’t enough, it could have a profound impact not only on our government and our economy but on the flailing American higher education scene as well. University administrators might be forced to pull back on the promotion of progressive activism and the amenities such as climbing walls, which add expense and provide little (or negative) value to student education and go back to holding students accountable to actually learn how to think and write in ways that will make a college degree something that does add to a job candidate’s luster.
David P. Deavel is editor of Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture, co-director of the Terrence J. Murphy Institute for Catholic Thought, Law, and Public Policy, and a visiting professor at the University of St. Thomas (MN). He is the co-host of the Deep Down Things podcast.
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