By Gus Bode

Get an education with that degree

(EDITORS: This story may not be used on Web sites)

Daniel Akst



Now that graduation season is upon us, here’s one last test question for the students: Have you ever seen the painting of a pipe by Rene Magritte? It’s called “The Treachery of Imagery,” and if you haven’t had art history, I’ll describe it. It’s just a painting of a pipe, really, except that at the bottom it says, in French, “This is not a pipe.” What can such a caption mean? Obviously, what’s portrayed is a pipe. But Magritte is trying to remind us that his painting is just a picture of a pipe — an image that cannot be stuffed with tobacco or smoked — and that’s a crucial distinction.

There is an equally crucial distinction to be drawn between a degree and an education. Yet everyone is so focused on the former that an awful lot of young people are graduating without the latter.

The problem is that we’ve confused the two — mistaken credentials for knowledge, and time in school for learning. It’s a tragic mistake.

And it’s a mistake the marketplace is unlikely to make for long.

Already, credential inflation has set in. As college degrees have become more plentiful, some employers have started demanding an MBA or other graduate degree.

Undergraduate and even graduate degrees will lose more value over time as employers wake up to the fact that you can’t smoke a picture of a pipe.


The question is whether all these college degrees signify much learning. The signs so far aren’t encouraging. Survey data indicate that college students study less than they used to, yet are also the beneficiaries of inflated grades. At many colleges, professors beholden to student evaluations — and more interested in their own research — are content not to challenge their students, whose ratings inevitably are influenced favorably by how easy the coursework is. Apparently, most participants are happy with this arrangement.

Business students seem especially prone to sleepwalk through college. They spend less time studying than students with other majors, get less out of their first two years of college, and actually do worse than nonbusiness majors on the GMAT, a standardized test for admission to a graduate program in business. The inadequacies of undergraduate business education are especially pronounced among such “soft” specialties as marketing and management, as opposed to, say, accounting.

Coasting through college at keg parties and bong blasts can be fun. (Don’t ask me how I know!) But there really is life after graduation, and without an honest-to-goodness education it may prove surprisingly unhappy.

So forget about the degree. What you really need from college is the same thing you ought to have had from high school, only more of it: some understanding of math and science, some coherent knowledge of the world and its history, and the skills to communicate clearly and persuasively in writing. You’ll especially need the ability to read and think critically.

If you get all this, you’ll have the beginnings of an education that will propel you into a lifetime of curiosity. As a bonus, you shouldn’t have too much trouble making a living. Of course, you can always just borrow a bunch of money to get an empty credential. But don’t expect the rest of the world to mistake it for an education. As Magritte must surely have said somewhere, you can put that in your pipe and smoke it.