University Diaries
A professor of English describes American university life.
Aim: To change things.
Contact UD at: margaret-dot-soltan-at-gmail-dot-com

Read my book, TEACHING BEAUTY IN DeLILLO, WOOLF, AND MERRILL (Palgrave Macmillan; forthcoming), co-authored with Jennifer Green-Lewis. VISIT MY BRANCH CAMPUS AT INSIDE HIGHER ED

UD is...
"Salty." (Scott McLemee)
"Unvarnished." (Phi Beta Cons)
"Splendidly splenetic." (Culture Industry)
"Except for University Diaries, most academic blogs are tedious."
(Rate Your Students)
"I think of Soltan as the Maureen Dowd of the blogosphere,
except that Maureen Dowd is kind of a wrecking ball of a writer,
and Soltan isn't. For the life of me, I can't figure out her
politics, but she's pretty fabulous, so who gives a damn?"
(Tenured Radical)

Tuesday, May 01, 2007


Excellent Writer.
Bad Logician.

Barbara Ehrenreich argues here that the Marilee Jones story (she's the longstanding admissions person at MIT who was just fired for having lied about all of her higher education credentials) proves that most people probably don't need a college degree, and that their expensive BA's are really about making them poor and desperate (all those student loans to repay) and therefore meek employees. Since meek employees are exactly what corporate overlords are looking for, college grads will be hired before non-college grads.

SOS usually features crappy writers making crappy arguments. Here, for a bit of a change, we have a fine writer making a crappy argument. Let's take a look.

Can you be fired for doing a great job, year after year, and in fact becoming nationally known for your insight and performance? Yes, as in the case of Marilee Jones, who was the dean of admissions at MIT until her dismissal last week, when it was discovered that she had lied about her academic credentials twenty-eight years ago. [Cast your eye to the end of the piece. She begins and she ends with Marilee Jones -- an elegant way to structure your essay.] She had claimed three degrees, although she had none. If she had done a miserable job as dean, MIT might have been more forgiving, but her very success has to be threatening to an institution of higher learning: What good are educational credentials anyway? [Already we're getting a little funky. If she hadn't been good at what she did, MIT might not have fired her? Ehrenreich wrongly assumes MIT had something in mind about the inherent worth of a college degree when it dismissed Jones. There's no reason to assume this. MIT had the trustworthiness of highly responsible administrators in mind.]

Jones is hardly the only academic fraud. The outplacement firm Challenger, Gray and Christmas estimates that 10-30 percent of resumes include distortions if not outright lies. [There's a huge difference between the mild fudging most of this represents and lying about your entire educational history.] In the last couple of weeks, for example, "Dr. Denis Waitley Ph.D." --as he is redundantly listed in the bestselling self-help book The Secret, where he appears as a spiritual teacher--has confessed to not having his claimed master's degree, and the multi-level vitamin marketing firm he worked for admits that it can't confirm the PhD either. [Ehrenreich does herself no favors by hauling into this argument an obvious conman.]

All right, lying is a grievous sin, as everyone outside of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue knows. And we wouldn't want a lot of fake MIT engineering graduates designing our bridges. But there are ways in which the higher education industry is becoming a racket: Buy our product or be condemned to life of penury, and our product can easily cost well over $100,000.

The pundits keep chanting that we need a more highly skilled workforce, by which they mean more college graduates, although the connection between college and skills is not always crystal clear. [College isn't about workplace skills. It's about general cultural acquisition, becoming an educated person.] Jones, for example, was performing a complex job requiring considerable judgment, experience and sensitivity without the benefit of any college degree. And how about all those business majors--business being the most popular undergraduate major in America? It seems to me that a two-year course in math and writing skills should be more than sufficient to prepare someone for a career in banking, marketing, or management. Most of what you need to know you're going to learn on the job anyway. [Why doesn't Ehrenreich take this opportunity to express opposition to bogus undergraduate majors like business?]

But in the last three decades the percentage of jobs requiring at least some college has doubled, which means that employers are going along with the college racket. A resume without a college degree is never going to get past the computer programs that screen applications. Why? Certainly it's not because most corporate employers possess a deep affinity for the life of the mind. [No one claims corporate settings want intellectuals. But they do want people with certain mental and cultural attributes, and one of the best places to get those attributes is a good college.] In fact in his book Executive Blues, G. J. Meyers warned of the "academic stench" that can sink a career: That master's degree in English? Better not mention it.

My theory is that employers prefer college grads because they see a college degree chiefly as mark of one's ability to obey and conform. Whatever else you learn in college, you learn to sit still for long periods while appearing to be awake. [This is funny. Her claim that America's go-go corporate sector wants somnambulists is dumb, but the way she puts it is funny.] And whatever else you do in a white-collar job, most of the time you'll be sitting and feigning attention. Sitting still for hours on end--whether in library carrels or office cubicles--does not come naturally to humans. It must be learned--although no college has yet been honest enough to offer a degree in seat-warming. [There's a charming nonchalance of tone and confidence of manner in this writing. Unfortunately, it's not describing American corporate life very well.]

Or maybe what attracts employers to college grads is the scent of desperation. Unless your parents are rich and doting, you will walk away from commencement with a debt averaging $20,000 and no health insurance. Employers can safely bet that you will not be a trouble-maker, a whistle-blower or any other form of non-"team-player." You will do anything. You will grovel. [I think we're talking Japan here.]

College can be the most amazingly enlightening experience of a lifetime. I loved almost every minute of it, from St. Augustine to organic chemistry, from Chaucer to electricity and magnetism. [Touch of snobbery here.] But we need a distinguished blue ribbon commission to investigate its role as a toll booth on the road to employment, and the obvious person to head up this commission is Marilee Jones. [Why is a cynical liar the best person for the job?]

I actually agree with Ehrenreich that too many Americans feel compelled to go to college. But I think she's got the reasons all wrong.