Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Thoughts on Marilee Jones

I don't know Marilee Jones, and she doesn't know me. She's the (former) dean at MIT who lost her job when it came out that she had fraudulently claimed academic degrees in her background. By all accounts, she performed her job exceptionally well, but MIT believed that an Admissions Dean with fraudulent credentials called the entire enterprise into question, even if she had been well-regarded up to that point.

Gotta admit, I've of divided mind on this one.

Most of the commentary I've seen has been on her side. Barbara Ehrenreich, whom I consider a national treasure, took the Jones firing as evidence of the irrelevance of higher education generally. Her argument, which is a bit subtle, seems to be that the glory of higher ed is precisely that it isn't job training; therefore, we shouldn't be shocked that folks without it can do their jobs just fine, thanks. It's hard to make a coherent argument that something irrelevant should also be necessary. (She also takes a contradictory, Pink Floyd-ish position that higher ed cultivates a tolerance for boredom and conformity that will come in handy in cubicle world. I've been an Ehrenreich fan for a long time, but sometimes the generation gap is just too much. All in all, the “just another brick in the wall” argument is self-indulgent seventies horseshit.) Others have taken a more hamfisted antiacademic position, essentially arguing that if MIT couldn't tell the difference, then why are we spending all this money on higher ed?

I can concede truth in both of those observations, yet I still don't find the “no harm, no foul” argument convincing.

It's certainly true that people without higher education can be utterly brilliant, high-performing, high-achieving, and morally outstanding. (My grandfather, whom I've mentioned before, dropped out of school in ninth grade, yet was the single wisest person I've known.) For the sake of argument, it seems that Dean Jones was an exemplary performer in her job, and I have no trouble believing that. It's also true that much of the actual content learned in college never gets applied directly at work. (Although I enjoyed my Tudor and Stuart England course tremendously, I find the ability to summarize the Interregnum at the drop of a hat to be of limited value at work.) Outside of technical majors, it's not at all weird to see people move into occupational fields of little or no relevance to their academic backgrounds. And it's certainly possible to cultivate a lively mind outside the groves of academe.

All of that granted, I still can't help but see the Jones case as the kind of weird exception that makes for bad policy.

College is hard. It's supposed to be. Getting through college successfully Рfor the sake of argument, let's just say 'graduating' Рis supposed to signify the ability to get your stuff together sufficiently to complete a long-term, difficult task. I've met some very smart people who couldn't do that. Some folks have the academic wherewithal, but fall apart on the life-management end. Others are perfectly functional on a day-to-day level, but freeze up when faced with anything like abstraction. (I find the latter sort surprisingly common even among college grads, frankly. When confronted by abstraction, they either just ignore it or start flopping around verbally until they hit a clich̩.)

None of that is to deny that some people have advantages going in that make college easier. The same could easily be said of the job market. But that's another issue altogether. (It's also the case that some people claim that cc's make college too easy. These same people, in other contexts, argue that cc's have very low graduation rates, indicating that we aren't doing our job. The contradiction goes unacknowledged. If we were truly easy, almost everybody would graduate.)

Graduate school is that much harder. A doctorate may or may not signify tremendous intellect, but it almost certainly signifies tenacity. And tenacity is nothing to sneeze at in the work world.

At Proprietary U, I frequently confronted potential adjuncts who had never been to grad school, but who had been trained, as they invariably put it, in the school of hard knocks. Some of them had some great war stories, but I was struck at how rarely they were able to generalize beyond them. Worse, they didn't seem to think it important to be able to generalize.

A degree requirement is an imperfect first filter, but what would replace it? Is there a better first filter?

I was also struck at how rarely anybody reversed the question. “Couldn't we just waive the degree requirement?” can sound reasonable enough when confronted face-to-face by a sharp applicant, but flip it around. Can I get the opportunity cost of my degree refunded, since it doesn't count now anyway? That would be lost salary for the grad school years, plus lost equity I could have built up in the house I would have bought with that salary, plus many years of 401(k) contributions and attendant appreciation, for starters. To whom should I send the bill?

I didn't think so.

During those years that Marilee Jones was building the excellent work track record cited by her defenders, living on a grownup salary, some of us were scraping by on grad school pittances, living like church mice and playing by the rules. Deferred gratification takes a lot more self-discipline than does lying on a resume. Maybe she did her job quite well. So did we. But we did it without lying. That's supposed to count for something.