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On Failing and Forgetting
February 15th, 2012

For two people with three graduate degrees between us, GAP and I have made a somewhat unlikely habit of questioning the actual value of the educational pedigrees we worked so hard to attain.

The basic premise of our debate is this: Does a college or graduate degree hold value because of the knowledge imparted by the coursework itself, or because of the signal it sends to the marketplace about the kind of person you are and the kind of employee you will be?

In this vein, we once spent the better part of a weekend intermittently debating whether we would fill a hypothetical entry level position with a candidate who had a four-year undergraduate degree, or one who had spent his post-high school years in the Peace Corps.  Assuming all other things were equal – raw intelligence, social skills, work ethic, etc. – which candidate did we think was more likely to do a better job.  Weighing the merits of each, we both ultimately (if reluctantly, for some reason*) admitted that we’d hire the college grad over the Peace Corps alum.  While we both liked the idea of the Peace Corps alum, we felt that the college grad was better positioned to succeed in an office job for a variety of reasons.

As it turns out, we’re not the only ones.  On Monday GAP sent me a link to this article on the Library of Economics and Liberty’s blog which discusses the difference between failing academic classes and merely forgetting the information taught in them.  In it author Bryan Caplan (George Mason Economics Professor) points out that he doesn’t remember any of his high school Spanish, which has no bearing on his current professional life.  However, if he’d failed high school Spanish it would have negatively impacted his college prospects, which in turn likely would have affected his current professional life.

Caplan’s point speaks directly to the conversation that GAP and I have had so many times.  It doesn’t seem to be about the knowledge. Patently, I remember precious little of what I studied in college – even of many courses within my business major.  (Ironically, I probably retained the most of my Spanish degree – my second major – even though I rarely use it.  Unlike other coursework, it seems to reside in the same portion of my brain as bike riding and skiing – rusty, but ready to be used whenever needed.)  Yet the fact that I earned my bachelor’s degree, and then my MBA, indicates that I am worthy of my job.  Perhaps there have been moments when my job required knowledge learned in school.  But by and large my jobs – all of them – have required knowledge I learned by experience much more frequently than that learned in classrooms.

As GAP and I think about our children’s education it is something we value incredibly, but not for the reasons you might expect.  We value it for the process skills that our kids will learn – how to apply yourself; how to seek help from classmates and teachers; how to juggle a demanding course load; and how to achieve those ever-elusive time management skills.  Whether or not they can calculate an integral when they finish high school (I think I still could, if really pressed – thank you Ms. Clements!) is ultimately irrelevant.  Whether or not they can rise to a challenge, however, matters a great deal.

*We really liked the idea of the Peace Corps candidate.  We thought he was probably a more interesting person and likely had more street smarts than his college grad counterpart.  But we felt that the guy with the bachelor’s degree would be better positioned to succeed at a desk job than someone who’d been out traveling the world for four years. … And we both sort of felt like jerks because of it.

3 Responses to “On Failing and Forgetting”

  1. BigLittleWolf Says:

    The issues of formal education are complex – particularly in a bad economy. I believe there will always be value in those skills you mention which are acquired in college. And recent studies indicate that formal education also offers positive impacts even decades later, in terms of aging and cognition. (

    From a job opportunity perspective, there is also the law of diminishing returns that kicks in – the assumption that “overeducated” is threatening, too expensive, and too much trouble.

    One last thought – there is joy in learning, joy in being surrounded by and taught by those with many perspectives to share. We seem to have lost the awareness that learning in and of itself holds intrinsic value. I understand why – given the outrageous cost and pressures involved in working towards, getting in, staying in, and paying for college and/or grad school.

    But the experience of an academic environment for some of us?


  2. Rebecca Says:

    Felt the need to comment here being both a Peace Corps and George Mason alum! I think you are spot on about the benefit of an education and what a kid (person) truly takes away. Having lived in a handful of developing countries now, I can only be even more grateful for the education I received in the US. Most all education systems in these countries consist of “chalk and talk” and require student to memorize facts and figures, but not really learn. This ends up showing up in their professional endeavors. Unless their work is directly related to their education (i.e. accounting), people don’t really know how to think for themselves, use a critical eye or problem solve. Plus, employees are actually dis-empowered to do those things. It can be so frustrating as a patron of those businesses.

  3. Cathy Says:

    Great topic. Interestingly enough I have had a few careers in my life – none of which are even remotely related to my college degree. I think, however, that a college degree shows the ability to take on and complete an objective. That, fundamentally, is what an employer wants to see (in my humble opinion of course)!