To degree or not to degree?

On Tuesday, Lisa Bauer introduced us to the “Oz Fallacy,” the belief that the simple possession of a symbol of a skill or talent equates with the possession of that skill or talent. Using the petitioners of the Great and Powerful Oz to illustrate this point, Lisa pointed out that the tokens bestowed on the story’s heroes by the Wizard merely symbolized their gifts, not unlike how a diploma is a symbol of formal education. She went on to make the point that possession of a diploma, of any sort, is not a guarantee that the holder also possesses intelligence.

It is an illustrative analogy and an absolutely valid point. However, I was left feeling somewhat uncomfortable by the tone of the comments that the post produced on the Gotham Skeptic and on the Facebook site for NYCS. And thought it was worth developing my response in a post rather than as an additional comment (‘cause I can).

Many of the comments reduced Lisa’s argument to something along the lines of:

[Diplomas]… are supposed to be “proof I know what I am talking about”. Unfortunately, this is not always the case. To often, this just means, “I was well off enough to get myself into a good school.”


The Amount of knowledge you have is completely irrelevant in today’s accreditation based society. A dumb College graduate will always be considered smarter then a Genius who couldn’t afford college.

I guess I feel that these comments, on the potential for higher education to be an empty exercise in privilege, miss a critical point. While belief in the generalization that diploma=intelligence is perilous, it is equally dangerous to ascribe to the reverse formula and to therefore conclude that the pursuit of a diploma is a useless endeavor for the masses. Our educational system has its flaws and pitfalls, and it certainly does not produce cookie-cutter geniuses, but at the risk of being booed out of the skeptical community, I am very certain that outcome measures of intelligence like critical thinking skills, for instance, increase proportionally with possession of number of degrees for the general population. Is there a wide margin around the mean? Sure, but I think the large majority of students emerge from a degree program with more knowledge than when they entered, and with a greater amount of knowledge than they might have obtained on their own in that same time period. With this hypothesis I have just outlined a really simple experiment here, the only problem is that intelligence is a notoriously difficult outcome measure to evaluate. [Data have been collected on the relationship between education and outcome variables like income or latency to obtaining a job, and predictors usually include demographic variables.]

This opinion is based on more than just my personal anecdotal experience but all of us have experience learning both in formal learning settings and without.  Last week TQM criticized the ability of standardized tests to measure your readiness to proceed to the next learning level while at the same time praising the test prep courses for providing the skills needed to take the tests. Regardless of the worth of the actual standardized test in assessing your intelligence, learning to take the test is a form of knowledge that is easier to obtain in a formal setting. Teaching yourself and learning on your own, are absolutely possible and in fact probable. We all do it all of the time. But being taught something is usually the faster path to gaining knowledge and understanding. There are three things that a formal education setting provides that I think contributes to the faster pace of learning than when trying to ascribe to the University of Life (and I don’t mean the chiropractic school in Atlanta). First, having access to reputable resources is key. I have said it MANY times before. Access to an academic library will learn you way betterer than Google can learn ya. Second, access to experts is always helpful. Chances are your professor/teacher/mentor has a field of expertise that will be useful to you, and you likely have access to multiple experts on a variety of topics that you can pick and choose from in a standard education system. Third, formal education provides one important thing, no matter how little effort is put into it by the student: practice. Practice communicating, writing, reading, working with fundamentals. Practice will never make you dumber.

But I have one more corollary that I want to express which I think speaks to the point that a diploma does not necessarily equate with intelligence as well as why, despite the huge variation in outcome, formal education still has an important value. This point speaks to the misunderstanding of many many many students that learning is a passive activity. In the prior paragraph it may have sounded as though I pitted self-learning, an obviously active process, with structured learning, but this is not the case. Diploma seekers who are active participants in their education will end up with more than a piece of paper at the end of it all. You have to do more than show up to receive what your teachers are providing. And this is what I think accounts for much of the variation around the mean in diploma holders.

So, I would suggest that rather than dismissing the outcome of a formal education as an unpredictable endeavor, perhaps we should elevate the value of knowledge-seeking in any form in our society. As such, we should encourage students pursuing any educational path to be active participants in their education, formal or otherwise.

Having said all of that… do I think the 2/3rds of my life that I have spent in school was worth it? Depends on what “it” is… but my education wasn’t able to help me define “it.” I’ll let you know when I figure “it” out. But that is definitely my own failing, not my education’s.

From Piled Higher & Deeper Comics ( Questions not even 5+ years of grad school will help you answer

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6 comments to To degree or not to degree?

  • Excellent article! I too was worried that my point was being misunderstood when I saw some of the comments. To be clear: I think education is important! I’ve loved the years I’ve spent in college and graduate school and I plan to spend many more. But, if someone is to presume that I’m “smart” I’d much prefer it if they base that decision on my behavior and not the diploma’s tacked to my wall. Hopefully, if my tuition dollars are well spent, the education represented by those diplomas transformed me into someone smarter and more ore skilled, and a more critical thinker.

  • Jim

    I did not mean to say that the getting a diploma was always an exercise in privilege. A better phrasing would be,”Often, undergraduate degrees from well respected school usually means they were well off enough to afford said school.” Also, I meant that getting a diploma, and where you got it, was more important that what you actually learn. Of course you come out better educated and more knowledgeable. But to outside society. Outside of Academia, outside of the sciences, the diploma, and the university you get it from, are more important that what you actually learned. And getting into the well accredited highly respected university is often an exercise in privilege. In this case, the flaw is not in the educational system, it is a cultural one.

    I also wonder the amount of knowledge retained when people are going into college with just the goal of getting the diploma. How much is retained when you are learning this you have to instead of want to.

    And I would like to thank you for saying this:
    “I am very certain that outcome measures of intelligence like critical thinking skills, for instance, increase proportionally with possession of number of degrees for the general population.”

    You are the only person I have seen admit this. I have seen people dance around this belief, but It is nice to see admitted. I have been waiting for someone to finally come out and say this. I believe many other bloggers in the skeptical community think the same way.

    • Jim

      And how the heck do I get a picture next to my name?

      • Thanks for you non-anonymous comments, Jim :)
        I prefer to use a “Gravatar” ( which is free and well recognized at a number of sites including WordPress. The trick is once you ascribe to a Gravatar it is hard to ever post an anonymous quote (which sometimes have validity).

        • Jim

          There is no reason to be anonymous here. The IRC chat that is half skeptic, half conspiracy, all hackers, that is where you go anonymous behind 4 proxies.

  • A pictorial representation of a PhD. Thought it was pertinent:

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