Thursday, May 22, 2008

The Meaning of a Bachelor’s Degree

Gordon RakitaGordon Rakita
Department of Sociology and Anthropology
When I was a graduate student, I was assigned by my program as a teaching assistant to one of the archaeology faculty. I was thrilled because TAships were rare in my program and represented one of the few chances we graduate students had to develop valuable “teaching experience” for our résumés. I was somewhat less thrilled by the fact that I was assigned to a faculty member with a reputation. Professor X was quite a drinker, smoked constantly (even in the non-smoking building where his office was located), and was not above making the occasional inappropriate comment about female archaeologists. He was, to put it mildly, and unreconstructed, dinosaur-ish archaeologist of the old-school. I hesitate to point out that Professor X was very prolific, perennially published peer-reviewed articles (at least one per year), was a popular instructor with many undergraduates, and saw more of his graduate students successfully defend and acquire jobs than most other faculty.

TAing for Professor X was not an unpleasant experience, and I did learn quite a bit from him about managing classrooms of undergraduates, preparing lectures and exams, and negotiating the bureaucracy of a major university. One afternoon, as we walked to his Introduction to Archaeology course, Professor X made a statement that has stuck with me ever since. You see, the state government had recently instituted a lottery scholarship program (not unlike Florida’s Bright Future’s system) and our university (the flagship state institution) had seen a tremendous upsurge in undergraduate enrollments. Class enrollments were bulging, internet systems were taxed, and the student union was jammed with kids who six months earlier had been riding herd on their parents’ ranch. So it was in this context that during our stroll to class, Professor X turned to me and said, “You know Gordon, most of these students don’t belong here…and it’s our job to let them know that.”

I was fairly shocked by this statement. I had never contemplated the idea that anyone would not belong in college. You see, in my family, the unstated expectation of both my brother and me was that we would attend college and would (at a minimum) earn our Bachelor’s degree. From this perspective, I had viewed the state’s decision to develop a method to help fund everyone’s University education as a good plan. The idea that it might be misguided never crossed my mind. And further, I think this expectation that all young adults should be college bound is becoming much more common among states and households these days. The expectation is that most individuals will go to college.

Recently, two articles in education journals reminded me of this statement by Professor X and started me thinking about the meaning of a Bachelor’s degree. The first, was Michael Wesch’s “Anti-Teaching: Confronting the Crisis of Significance” in Education Canada ( Wesch is fairly famous in both anthropological and education circles as the producer, along with the students in one of his classes, of “A Vision of Students Today” which can be seen on YouTube ( The second was Marty Nemko’s “America’s Most Overrated Product: the Bachelor’s Degree” in a recent issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education (

Wesch makes the very interesting observation that if we replace the word “school” with the word “learning” in the phrase “..some students are just not cut out for school..” we end up with the rather provocative phrase “..some students are just not cut out for learning..” Ah ha! Here is the rejoinder to Professor X’s comment. By saying that some individuals don’t belong in college, Professor X was arguing that some students are undeserving of learning. Or was he?

I am sympathetic to Wesch’s point. I would never want to say that any student is not cut out for learning. He has a point; and his article is well worth reading. He makes a convincing argument for what is wrong with some of the teaching that goes on in higher education and advocates persuasively for teaching that facilitates learning. Indeed, reading his article has made me think anew about my upcoming Fall classes.

However, in another way, I think Wesch misses a point about a college education. Namely, he ignores the point that a Bachelor’s degree represents more than just learning about course materials, general education outcomes, or even specific skills imparted within the classroom. When I am introduced to someone with a Bachelor’s degree I have no idea if they can work a differential equation, dissect the rhetorical symbolism in Ulysses, or explain how collections of humans create a society by their individual actions. They may be able to do those things, they may not. What do I know about someone who has successfully completed an undergraduate degree? I can be fairly certain that this is someone who has set a 4+ year goal for themselves and has completed that goal. I know that this is someone who has learned to manage their time fairly well and has learned to prioritize various aspects of their life. I know that this is someone who has had to deal with peers and supervisors (some of whom they don’t like) and has successfully negotiated those relationships. I know this is a person who has managed bureaucracies, paperwork, course materials, and personal interactions that were potentially unpleasant and vexing and yet persevered. I know that a person with a Bachelor’s degree has invested time, energy, and money into their own development and has succeeded. In some regards, these sorts of experiences and knowledge (read as: learning) are much more important than differential equations, Ulysses, or the nature of society. I can teach them these latter things. I can not teach them the former; they must be experienced. A college degree is so much more than what’s taught in the classroom and we faculty are narcissistic if we think that student’s lives should revolve around us.

Lest you think that my observations are the subjective musings of a blogger, I direct you to Rebekah Nathan’s My Freshman Year (Cornell University Press, 2005). Nathan is the pseudonym of an academic Anthropologist who took a sabbatical and entered a university as a freshman. Her experiences formed the basis for her ethnography of undergraduate culture. Her research led her to several conclusions. For example (p. 140), “most professors and administrators overestimate the role that academics plays in student culture, and as a result they magnify the impact of teachers and classes on student life and decisions.” Indeed, after returning to her life as a professor, Nathan came to the noteworthy conclusion (p. 136) that “my just one of the many balls being juggled in the time management challenge faced by each student.”

Finally, I’ll go one step further about Wesch’s argument. Perhaps one step more than I should go as this is the most cynical and pessimistic of ideas. I’ll even argue that Professor X was right in all senses of his comment that “most of these students don’t belong here.” Here I derive support from Nemko’s article. Nemko notes that “Today, amazingly, a majority of the students whom colleges admit are grossly underprepared. Only 23 percent of the 1.3 million high-school graduates of 2007 who took the ACT examination were ready for college-level work in the core subjects of English, math, reading, and science.” Nor do four years in college necessarily improve the situation. Nemko reports that “A 2006 study supported by the Pew Charitable Trusts found that 50 percent of college seniors scored below "proficient" levels on a test that required them to do such basic tasks as understand the arguments of newspaper editorials or compare credit-card offers. Almost 20 percent of seniors had only basic quantitative skills. The students could not estimate if their car had enough gas to get to the gas station.”

These statistics may seem outrageous to those of you who have never taught a freshman survey course with 200 students. Perhaps it’s a matter of sampling size…my classes are larger than many, so I see more of these under/un-prepared freshman…but they are there. Further, it’s not only that they are intellectually unequipped to deal with college; they are unequipped on emotional and maturity terms as well. Some students are simply not ready or willing to take on the responsibility of pursuing a Bachelor’s degree.

I will provide you with a bit of data and some anecdotal evidence. This Spring term I taught a section of our Anthropology 101 course (ANT2000 here at UNF). The course enrolled up to its cap with 200 students. Student grades were based on three measures; 4 surveys (12.5%), 6 classroom activities (12.5%) and three exams (25% each). The exams were the largest percentage of a student’s final grade. Each exam was given after approximately 5 weeks of lecture and I dedicated the class period after the exams were taken to return them to students and discuss the results. I also had those exams that were not picked up with me the second class after the exam was taken in case any students were absent the day I gave the exams back. Any student who missed their chance to retrieve their exam (and learn what grade they got on the exam) could pick up their exam during my office hours.

I was surprised to find at the end of the semester that 13 of the 186 students (7%) who completed the course did not pick up either of their first two exams. 9 of these 13 (69%) students who did not pick up their first two exams earned a D or F in the class. Put another way, of those who earned an F, 20% did not pick up their first two exams and 31% of the Ds did not pick up their first two exams. Why? Why didn’t these students pick up their exams? I can only assume that they were entirely uncurious about how they had performed on these exams. Moreover, they were not even interested in knowing if they were doing so poorly that their best interests would be served by dropping my class and trying another course. Note, I have not hidden their grades from them. I have encouraged at every turn that they consider their grades and their time management issues and make informed and rational judgments about their education. I provide them an Excel spreadsheet that calculates their expected final grade on the basis of their performance on course assessments. I am supportive of those students who contemplate dropping my course or who seek my advice about passing my (or any other) course. I often express my understanding that mine is not the only course they are taking and that they have many academic, professional, and personal responsibilities to balance. Despite this, I can only conclude that 7% of my ANT 2000 students don’t belong here.

I think we need to distinguish between schooling and learning as per Wesch’s article. I think both are important. But while I think he makes the point that we should not confuse the two, I do think he ultimately does conflate them in ways that gloss important issues. Or perhaps more precisely, he assumes that learning is the only thing that students should do in college. My students have a wonderful cognitive dissonance about college. 91% of the students in my last ANT 2000 course agreed or strongly agreed with the statement: “A college education should make students into well-informed, thoughtful, and engaged citizens, not simply prepare them for a particular career.” And yet, in the same survey, 63% agreed or strongly agreed with the statement: “The important thing about a college education is receiving a degree so that I can obtain a high paying job.”

I even had a student in one of my other classes, say “all I need out of UNF is a piece of paper” when I expressed to him that he wasn’t performing up to his potential. Mind you, this is an incredibly bright student. Yet his goal for his college education was that piece of paper. He wanted (to use Wesch’s terms) schooling, not learning. To my mind, this student doesn’t belong in college, and he doesn’t deserve a Bachelor’s degree, no matter how many courses he skates through. He may be ready to earn that degree sometime in the future. I sure hope so. Be he’s not ready now.

In this sense, Professor X was right. Some students don’t belong in college. And what’s worse, the idea that everyone belongs in college is a myth perpetrated on these individuals by our society. I personally think this myth is very problematic. Not because I don’t think that all individuals should have a chance or opportunity to go to college. But because I think it implies that if you don’t go to college and get your degree you are somehow not as good/smart/valuable to society as someone who did. It implies that if you don’t have your Bachelor’s degree you can’t be productive, happy, informed, creative, and bright; that you can’t make a valuable contribution to your family, community, and the nation. It suggests that those with jobs that do not require a college education are somehow less important than those who’s jobs do. I am no more important to the workings of this university than the person who tends the grounds, or keeps the air conditioner working, or delivers the mail. Indeed, we all depend upon these folks far more than we depend on the President or Provost or the Trustees.

Finally, a college education might not even improve a person’s lot in life. Nemko states that “Colleges trumpet the statistic that, over their lifetimes, college graduates earn more than nongraduates, but that's terribly misleading. You could lock the collegebound in a closet for four years, and they'd still go on to earn more than the pool of non-collegebound — they're brighter, more motivated, and have better family connections.” College is a valuable experience. College should be a place of learning not just schooling. A Bachelor’s degree may say so many things about those who own the piece of paper. But I think I agree with Professor X.


Dan Richard said...

The discussion continutes:

OFE Faculty Blog said...

Please also check out the recent Article in the Atlantic

Gordon Rakita