3 Unproductive Idiots

One of the things one often hears is that investment in education is what is needed to boost national productivity. The tremendous explosion of global higher education is explained as a response to this need for better educated and more productive workers. I think there are some good arguments to be made against this position (a lot of new jobs don’t need a college degree, much of the supposed growth in American productivity came from the financial bubble, etc.) but let us take it at face value for now. If there is a demand for a certain type of new worker, few of the world’s institutions of higher education are meeting the demand to produce such a worker.

Take for example this letter from Mohit Chandra, a partner with KPMG, to “India’s Graduating Classes.” Many of his complaints would be just as valid of students I’ve met in Philadelphia as they are of students I’ve met in Ahmedabad or Taipei. It seems to me that there are two possible explanations for this failure. The first is that the institutions of global higher education are particularly unproductive and inefficient at producing the type of students they wish to produce. The second is that they don’t actually wish to produce such students in the first place. I’d like to argue that the latter statement is closer to the truth.

Let us look at the skills that Chandra wishes to find in new employees: “language skills, in thirst for knowledge, in true professionalism and, finally, in thinking creatively and non-hierarchically.” In reading this list I can’t help but think of Bourdieu and Passeron’s argument that education primarily serves to cultivate a

misrecognition of the truth of the legitimate culture as the dominant cultural arbitrary, whose reproduction contributes towards reproducing the power relations.

The skills Chandra lists are elite skills largely cultivated in the home long before arriving at the university. Bourdieu and Passeron argue that schooling exists largely to “inculcate the fait accompli of the legitimacy of the dominant culture” rather than actually training students to cultivate these skills.

I think this tension explains the tremendous popularity of the Bollywood Film 3 Idiots.

Almost every single Taiwanese person I know has seen this film, which was also a huge hit in India. The film is about three engineering students at a highly competitive university who refuse to learn the official curriculum, instead evidencing those skills which Chandra claims KPMG is looking for. My point being that there is a certain recognition in the success of this film that the skills being taught in universities are not the skills people really need to compete in the new economy.

When my wife and I were shooting our last documentary in India we sometimes stayed in a guest house on the campus of an engineering school. Some of the students there knew that there was a visiting anthropologist and they would wait outside our guest house late at night when we got back from shooting, wishing to talk until I could no longer keep my eyes open. Like the “3 idiots” in the film, they were desperate to get the education they feel they needed rather than the official education being provided by the university.

One often reads that high end management companies and the like (places like KPMG) like students with advanced degrees in anthropology. While few people with advanced degrees in anthropology are interested in working in management, I think one could make a good argument that an anthropology degree is much closer to the kind of training Chandra is looking for than that provided by the engineering and management schools which train most of his actual employees.

I think Bourdieu and Passeron do a good job describing the problem, but I don’t think they adequately explain how such institutional failure continues to be reproduced on an ever-expanding global scale. It might be that KPMG is the exception and that there really is a huge need for low level technocrats of the kind actually produced by most schools and that elite skills would actually be a problem for the companies seeking to hire these workers. But I find such a market-driven answer equally unconvincing. I tend to feel that there is a contradiction between the needs of employers qua employers and the needs of employers qua capitalists. As employers they need these skills, but as capitalists too many people with these skills would be a threat. I think that the current state of global higher education is the result of the working out of these contradictions.

4 thoughts on “3 Unproductive Idiots

  1. Why are so many graduates of institutions of higher education “unproductive idiots”? If my own case, before being rudely awakened by failing to get tenure and busting out of academia, is typical, I put it down to one word — “schooling.” The ostensible purpose of my encounters with educational institutions, from elementary through graduate school, was to acquire an open, well-stocked mind, with the habit of critical thinking. But since I was not athletic, the jocks I stupidly despised acquired other habits—Initiative, Perseverance, Risk-taking, and Teamwork—habits I failed to acquire until, stumbling into a job at a Japanese advertising agency, I had them pounded into me by the creative director who hired me. Now I think of people I admire, Barack Obama, Rachel Maddow, Glynn Brassington (a good friend who is President of Pitney-Bowes Japan). What did they learn that I didn’t? Literally how to play the game.

  2. Bourdieu and Passeron’s argument can be refined by noting that the democratization of education plants the seed of this system’s destruction. Democratization has cheapened a rare good that offered access to elite status, regardless of the actual content of education. A flood of degree holders unprepared to compete and survive in today’s world now threatens to overwhelm the liberal dream of education as a driver of upward social mobility. Our schools can no longer pretend that all students come from Lake Woebegone, where the children are all above average.

  3. @John McCreery: A flood of degree holders unprepared to compete and survive in today’s world now threatens to overwhelm the liberal dream of education as a driver of upward social mobility.

    It is interesting in this time of the Montreal student riots that the question of the quality of education is not considered over the question of access. All of us have bought into the idea that wide-spread access is the premier definition of “education,” and that what happens post-university will take care of itself. This seems to betray an unrealizable faith in the labour market that jobs will be provided at some point in the interim of graduation and the halcyon days of summer. What is overlooked is that while a student, one’s rights and priveleges are upheld both by the university and student organizations. Once one is hired, a similar, though more risky condition exists, with the employer and unions supporting the employed. But it is in the interim that we are at sea, so to speak.

    In this recessionary environment, where unemployment ranges widely depending in which country you live, there is emerging a sense that the prospects of employment may be independent of post-secondary education. No guarantee, is the usual way of looking at it. Prospects of being hired may associate more clearly with geography, who one knows, or even pure luck, than your resume. Universities and students are responding by packaging programs as dual purpose (students graduating with say degrees combining Poli-Sci and Computer Science), or univeristies focusing on business diplomas as adjuncts to academic degrees. Since the Montreal riots, one Canadian prof has suggested that the democaratization of post-secondary education has undemined its quality, and that less students is the solution. The irony of student demands is that education may become more accessible in terms of cost (dare I say even free), but that a paring away of both students and academic fields may be part of the cost.

    The experience for american students is wildly different from my own in Canada, and from what I have heard from Chinese students in Beijing. While much seems up in the air, the prospect for experimentation in delivering education (and what that education involves) appears more driven by economic and market needs than a philosophy of education.

  4. @Fred there is emerging a sense that the prospects of employment may be independent of post-secondary education

    But this is demonstrably wrong. While post-secondary education may be no guarantee of employment, it increases the odds of employment significantly when compared with those without it. Also, like many sweeping generalizations, this statement ignores differences in members of the category to which it refers. Some forms of post-secondary education are more employable than others.

    It is, however, clear that fresh ideas are needed both about the content of education and about how education is delivered to those who want to learn.

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