George Jonas

The alchemist's dilemma

by George Jonas
National Post

A reader wants to know why the educational system that served him so well in England and Canada 50 years ago is letting down today's graduates so badly. As a post-doctoral fellow, he writes, he arrived in Canada, debt-free, with offers to do research in any field he fancied, or just about. A graduate today may not only be debt-ridden, but forced to take a job in a laundromat because he/she can't find academic employment.

"What has changed in 50 years to make things so much worse?" Mr. T. wants me to tell him.

Mr. T's question reminds me of the alchemist's dilemma. In medieval Europe, alchemists spent an inordinate amount of time trying to turn base metals into gold. It was a foolish quest, not only because it couldn't be done, but because success would have defeated its purpose. Had alchemists managed to do what they set out to accomplish, gold would have become valueless.

Something close to it happened to education, I believe. Having discovered the economic value of diplomas, social engineers reacted to it like alchemists reacted to the economic value of gold. Since PhDs earn more money than high school dropouts, they reasoned, why not turn as many high school dropouts as possible into PhDs?

It seemed like a good idea at the time. Perhaps it was, but as a result we've proportionately more job applicants in relation to the post-doctoral positions available today than we've had high-school dropouts looking for agricultural or construction jobs 50 years ago.

Educating people for economic advantage diminishes the economic advantage of education. That's why we see PhDs slinging hamburgers every so often, and can expect to see more as time goes by.

This won't deter the education mill. The paradox of alchemy was equally self-evident, yet alchemy flourished in various periods and places, occupying and preoccupying people of intelligence and ingenuity. It still does. In our day, the alchemist's workshop has become the educator's classroom, where we spend inordinate amounts of time, effort and money in the hope of doing to minds what alchemists once tried to do to metals, turning the base into the precious.

In one sense, educators have a better chance than alchemists. Human minds are infinitely more malleable than metals. Unlike alchemists, educators can, to a limited extent at least, morph brass into gold. But this only aggravates the problem educators face when they reach the second part of their quest. When all those precious minds glut the market, how can anyone turn education into an economic advantage?

Advantage derives from rarity, for minds no less than metals. That's the juncture where gold and learning meet. Award PhDs until they become as common as brass, and their value will decline until they'll be worth no more than brass -- maybe less, because PhDs can't be used for bathroom taps or doorknobs. Precious minds underemployed foster the same unrealized ambitions as base minds underemployed. Simply put, they become high school dropouts with PhDs.

One consequence of schools-as-diploma-factories already was evident 50 years ago. Back then, it was still mainly trade schools that concentrated on graduating students instead of educating them. The concept of "social promotion" wasn't yet embedded, but its effects already could be felt.

My first office job in Canada came from the CBC. In 1962, one couldn't have a desk job lowly enough not to warrant a secretary. I had a dozen or more as I rose through the ranks of the broadcast bureaucracy during the next 23 years. They were nice women, including one who started out as a nice man. There wasn't a bad apple in the lot, and the British trained secretaries could even spell.

Many Canadian-trained secretaries couldn't.

It wasn't as if Canadian-trained secretaries had been less intelligent than their British-trained colleagues: They weren't. They weren't less diligent or dedicated. They weren't less anything. It was just that the rules of written English, especially such esoteric things as punctuation, remained a mystery to most. If you wanted a comma or semi-colon in your text, you had to say so while you dictated it.

The reason was educational philosophy. The British still wanted to teach students in the 1950s; the Canadians mainly wanted to promote them. In Britain, at the lower end of education, at least -- trade schools, vocational training and such -- the goal was still to make students master the material of the course. In more "progressive" Canada, the main purpose was already to equip students with diplomas and make them feel good about themselves. Half a century later, we're reaping what we've sown.

Does it matter? Some say no. Maybe we can't spell anymore, but our computers can. If we've less information in our crania, our electronic gizmos plug us into the informational cornucopia of cyberspace. And slinging hamburgers with a PhD is no worse than slinging them without.

Is it possible to take this view? Yes, to answer my reader. Is it the view I take? No. The view I take is that the world is going to the dogs.