Tuesday, September 18, 2012

More Liberal Arts for the Least Affluent

I've disagreed with Peter Meyer multiple times in the past, bot in posts (here, here, and here), and in comments on his blog posts (which I'm not going to take the time to dredge up).  So I think it's fair that I point out that he recently wrote what I think is an outstanding post last week on college attendance and poverty.  Also, digging up those old posts just made me realize I've been misspelling his name; my sincere apologies.

Anyway, Meyer makes a strong case regarding why, in an ideal world, we should want everybody to attend college -- and how obtaining a broad, liberal education particularly advantages the most disadvantaged.  Among other things, he points out that:

-exposure to new ideas, new institutions, and new styles of thinking is particularly beneficial for those who were exposed to the fewest of these in their childhood

-a college education opens more options for students compared to limitations placed on them by hyper-specific vocational training

-underemployed college grads still make far more than non-college grads in the same field (a college educated dishwasher makes 83% more, for example)

-increasing college attainment hardly solves our problems but not sending more kids to college creates more

While zillions of logistical hurdles stand in the way of all students procuring a top-notch liberal college education, Meyer concludes by arguing that:

I personally don’t care if a kid decides not to go to college. I would, however, demand that every high school graduate at least be capable of reading (and understanding) David Leonhardt’s story—i.e., your options are probably pretty constrained if you don’t go to college—and that every district superintendent be judged by the number of his or her truly college-ready graduates. If a student decides not to go to college, fine. But at least he or she would have, I would hope, the option of going if he or she wanted to—which is better, I would assume, than not having that option after twelve years of schooling.

I can only find two small points of contention in the post:

1.) the argument that teaching poor kids "a new kind of thinking -- reflection" is the key to getting them out of poverty is either inartfully expressed or demonstrates a lack of understanding.  I'm leaning toward the former, since he also wrote a pretty good piece explaining the genesis of that quote.  At first glance, it might look like Meyer is arguing that kids are poor because they think wrong.  I think, though I could be mistaken, that this was actually was a way of saying that exposing kids to more culture, society, and ideas (e.g. plays, museums, concerts, lectures, etc.) will benefit those who previously had the least exposure.  Indeed, the program driven by this notion was the result of the suggestion of an impoverished prisoner who said that kids needed to get more involved with the what was happening downtown in order to interact in new ways with government, society, etc.

2.) While I agree with Meyer that, ultimately, we shouldn't force every kid to get a high-quality college education: that giving every kid both the option to obtain it and the understanding of how it will benefit them is a better policy goal, I do hope that he personally does care which path any given student chooses.  Given that he argues that more students obtaining high-quality educations improves the lot of our entire society, I'd certainly hope he would then wish that all students chose to obtain that type of education.

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