Thursday, September 25, 2014

What: Professor X, In the Basement of the Ivory Tower: Confessions of an Accidental Academic (Viking, 2011)

Why: Qualification inflation is rampant. On a purely utilitarian basis, are we forcing people to obtain costly postsecondary qualifications that are unnecessary for the tasks they perform? 

Readers of my posts will know that I am a fan of David Brooks, whose writings I have come to admire notwithstanding certain differences in political outlook. Close friends will also know the great influence my father’s views on education have had on me and the course of my life. Let’s just say he saw education as the key to unlocking potential, a world view he successfully imprinted on his children.

So, when I saw that David Brooks had awarded a Sidney Award to Professor X for an essay on higher education that appeared in The Atlantic a few years ago, I made a mental note to track the piece down. Later, to my delight (sometimes it doesn’t take much to delight me), I found that it had been expanded into this book. Cracking it open, I immediately discovered why this was published under a pseudonym.  

Professor X has the somewhat controversial opinion that too many people who do not belong in college and don’t need a college education to do what they do are being told they need to get a sheepskin. They are incurring huge amounts of debt (in excess of $1.2 trillion) in what for many of them has become a failing enterprise.

Professor X tells us there is a social disconnect here. He identifies, as a typically American trait, the use of a meat-axe where a scalpel would serve nicely:

                    The United States of America does a few things extremely well. It is
                    unmatched at completing a certain species of task requiring a relentless 
                    approach….We’re not the best at figuring out why we’re doing any 
                    particular task, but we are a people who can get stuff done….
                    We are, if nothing else, thorough.

We have, he suggests, been much too thorough in pushing people into postsecondary education and in requiring qualifications for occupations that may be gainfully pursued without an education unrelated to the tasks at hand.

I personally believe that education is its own reward, and that education can lead to the discovery of potential that might otherwise remain untapped, but on a purely utilitarian level Professor X makes an important point—one that I suspect most entrepreneurs know or soon discover as they pursue their dreams.

Think of Bill Gates dropping out of Harvard to build what has become the leviathan we know as Microsoft. He learned what he needed, but knew that a liberal arts degree wasn’t necessary for him to achieve his vision. And that, at the end of the day, is the conclusion Professor X reaches: “Let’s start judging based on skills and experiences and talent, and save failing students from a mountain of unnecessary debt.”

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