The American learning system has, I think, two big virtues.
First, it provides second chances. It tries to teach people when they're motivated to learn -- which isn't always when they're in high school or starting college. People become motivated later for many reasons, including maturity, marriage, mortgages and crummy jobs. These people aren't shut out. They can mix work, school and training. A third of community college students are over 30. For those going to traditional colleges, there's huge flexibility to change and find a better fit. A fifth of those who start four-year colleges and get degrees finish at a different school, reports Clifford Adelman of the Department of Education.
Second, it's job-oriented. Community colleges provide training for local firms and offer courses to satisfy market needs. Degrees in geographic information systems (the use of global positioning satellites) are new. There's been an explosion in master's degrees -- most of them work-oriented. From 1971 to 2004, MBAs are up 426 percent; public administration degrees, 262 percent; and health degrees, 743 percent. About a quarter of college graduates now get a master's. Many self-help books are for work -- say, "Excel for Dummies.''
Up to a point, you can complain that this system is hugely wasteful. We're often teaching kids in college what they should have learned in high school -- and in graduate school what they might have learned in college. Some of the enthusiasm for more degrees is crass credentialism. Some trade schools prey cynically on students' hopes and spawn disappointment. But these legitimate objections miss the larger point: The American learning system accommodates people's ambitions and energies when they emerge.
Wednesday, September 06, 2006
Robert Samuelson is always required reading.