A matter of Degree

Posted 08.23.06

This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of my graduation from Columbia University. Most university graduates are proud of their accomplishment, and many list their degrees after their names. I'm proud of my B.A., and my diploma hangs in a frame on my office wall.

But there's a myth about higher education that I'd like to dispel. Let me start with a story.

I have two friends who got to know each other through me. She is an editor who handles publications as well as several other important tasks for a professional association where she's worked for more than twenty years.

He is a teacher with a Masters' degree. They're both quite shy, so when one of them asked me about a problem I thought the other could solve, I wasn't that surprised to hear him say he was reluctant to call her.

But I laughed when he gave the reason. It was because he was in awe of her accomplishments and status. At the same time, she told me that she was a bit intimidated by his degree since she has only a high school diploma.

Yet she is an excellent editor, an extremely capable administrator, and able to speak knowledgeably to people in the highest levels of government.

Where did she hone those skills? Not by going to school or poring over textbooks. She learned on the job, by observing others, listening carefully, asking questions, and paying attention to her mistakes instead of becoming defensive.

I find it sad that someone whose job performance has been exceptional should be overlooked for some positions because she lacks a degree. Having a university degree, even a Master's, is now considered essential for many jobs. I'm not sure why.

As a teacher with many years of experience, I feel I can speak with authority about education.

It's a myth that higher education prepares students for better jobs. The real preparation takes place much earlier, in elementary and high school.

That's where students learn to read a wide range of materials, to write with clarity, understand basic math and calculation, and, beyond "The Three Rs," attain basic knowledge of history, geography, and science.

But perhaps the most important lessons learned, usually before the age of twelve, are how to understand what you read and how to speak and write correctly.

It worries me when I hear about students cramming facts prior to an exam, or "studying" by surfing the Internet to patch together bits and pieces they often don't comprehend, frequently from websites with dubious credentials.

This is not learning.

What I gained from my four years at university were three important things that had nothing to do with facts, exams, essays, or grades. I learned where to find accurate information, how to organize it so it made sense to me and to others, and, perhaps most important of all, how to learn from observation.

Let's put the focus where it ought to be. Let's make sure our elementary schools teach the basics. Then, whether high school students go to university, into the trades, or begin business careers, they'll be prepared.

Barbara Floria Graham is the author of the 20th anniversary edition of Five Fast Steps to Better Writing and Mewsings/Musings. Her website: www.SimonTeakettle.com

Copyright © 2006 Barbara Floria Graham/Log Cabin Chronicles/08.06