Hey Folks! Fireside this week; next week, I hope to start up our next “How Did They Make It” series, focusing on iron production. I say ‘hope’ because COVID-19 related disruptions continue (my current university moved all classes online last week and has started moving students off campus this week) and it seems that no plan survives contact with this semester. I’ve also started some background reading for “the long-delayed but always expected something that we live for” post on why I am so troubled by A Song of Ice and Fire and Game of Thrones‘ Dothraki; while I feel I have my feet fairly firmly on the ground as to some of the supposed real-world-counterparts of the Dothraki, I wanted more background on others (particularly Native American parallels), thus the reading.
In the meantime, you may have noticed I have been thinking a fair bit about how universities are doing, particularly big public universities (where I have done all of my teaching and most of my learning). Which leads into my musing for the week on what exactly college degrees do in our society.
This week I want to muse on a question that I think about a fair bit: what is a college degree for? That’s a question that sounds like it has a simple, easy answer, but the college degree is an odd creature. Created literally centuries ago, it has acquired new uses, values and meanings over time, often without anyone really meaning for it to do so. I sometimes describe these sorts of things to my students as living institutions (or living traditions, when it is a more purely intellectual tradition). Such living institutions have often almost completely escaped the shackles of their original design, which makes it important to think carefully about the roles they have come to serve as opposed to what the original intent or ideal state of the institution might be. Just because the wall wasn’t intended to be load-bearing doesn’t mean, after a century or two of damage and building-settling, that it isn’t now.
So what role does a college degree serve now? Fundamentally, of course, it is a signalling device. While a diploma on the wall may (and should!) make you feel warm and fuzzy, the core purpose of issuing a degree at the end of the education process is to tell other people (mostly potential employers) that you have, in fact, completed the education process the degree is for and are thus qualified to perform whatever social role requires it. But that raises all sorts of strange questions because you can use a college degree to get jobs utterly unrelated to the major on the degree. So clearly there’s some complexity wrapped up in our sheet of vellum. So what does the degree signal?
First and most obviously, a college degree signals a mastery over a certain skill and knowledge set, typically one associated with the college major. A biology degree implies that you can do some biology (or at least have a foundation for further specialist training in biology). This was the original purpose of the degree and it remains intact: there are many careers that it is very difficult, if not impossible, to embark on without the relevant degree.
I think the main misunderstanding here is that the degree is often not meant to signal that you know everything about a subject; more often it is meant to signal that you have learned, practiced and demonstrated the skills and way of thinking in that field. Programmers like to joke that their key skill is searching Stack Overflow for the solution to a given problem but – as someone who did just a touch of amateur programming in his youth – learning how to search Stack Overflow is actually really complicated! There are all sorts of ancillary ideas and terms you need to know, concepts to understand and ways of thinking to have adopted. The same is true in almost every discipline – historians do not memorize all of history, but we do learn to research quickly and effectively, at least for topics where our method of thinking applies well (which, to be clear, is not all of them – anyone who argues for a ‘one true specialist’ field that is better than the others is a fool).
Obviously, that information is of real value to employers. But it cannot be the only thing they are looking for, or you wouldn’t find so many Art History majors in sales, or English majors in management or history majors with law practices (and law degrees, of course). So apart from specialized knowledge in a major, what else does a college degree tell someone?
Second, it offers a signal as to the possessor’s intelligence. I really, really do not want to descend into the fever-swamps on intelligence (and I have no intention of letting the comments do so either, we are not going to debate that book here; there is nothing to be gained by so doing). Let it suffice to say that intelligence varies individual to individual and that colleges have gotten pretty good, at least for large swaths of the population (there is some evidence that for some minority populations, the college-admissions-intelligence-sorter doesn’t work so well), at soaking up most of the smartest folks in most industrialized countries. Consequently, because a college degree indicates that one graduated college, and therefor got into college, it is a strong indicator that one is more intelligence than average (typically in something like the top-third to top-quarter of the distribution). For jobs and roles that demand a lot of thinking, you can see how it would be valuable for employers to have this information, especially as it is often either improper or illegal for employers to ask or test this directly. Of course, this does not mean that everyone who is smart goes to college (it is not hard to meet very smart people who, for whatever reason, did not go to college), or that everyone who goes to college is smart (it is not hard to meet legacy admissions candidates), but the degree (or even a background with ‘some college‘ that indicates an applicant got through admissions) is a strong enough indicator of intelligence to be useful for employers and society more broadly. If your position or job requires a ‘smart person,’ you ask for a college degree.
I want here to make a long aside on intelligence. I have met far too many people, particularly among the colleged elite (note: if you have a college degree, you are a kind of elite; most people do not have one), who treat intelligence as a moral virtue or – God help us – the only moral virtue. This is extraordinarily foolish and I use that word (as you will see) carefully. Intelligence, as a trait, is a mix of inborn factors and perhaps early upbringing – again, I don’t want to descend into the swamps here; the key thing is that by the time we are mature enough to understand it, it isn’t susceptible to much change. Consequently, intelligence isn’t a virtue (in the moral sense) at all but simply an attribute about a person, like an attractive face, red hair, height and so on. Being intelligent does not make one a better person; it is merely the luck of birth. It carries all of the moral virtue of being good at basketball or League of Legends; less, really, since one has to show discipline and practice in those things (though for the already intelligent, there is a strong element of intellectual training necessary to really harness that inborn trait, much like natural talent at sports or esports). If you had the luck to be born smart, you ought – in my view – to feel obliged to give back just as if you had had the luck to have been born rich or beautiful.
Here I think it is crucial to separate intelligence from wisdom; the moral virtue lies in the latter. Intelligence is one’s ability to think through complex problems; it is an inherent ability with no moral value (but it does, of course, have use-value). Wisdom concerns one’s judgement and consequent code of conduct. I have seen too many students berate themselves – often quite cruelly – as being ‘stupid,’ because they have made some mistake (in situations, by the by, where I can be almost perfectly certain that said students, by virtue of being in my classroom, were in the top 25%, probably the top 15%, of the intelligence distribution). And on the one hand, I cringe because the self-criticism I hear from them is one that elevates intelligence to a moral virtue (they are a ‘bad person’ for being ‘stupid’) and at the same time an in-born, immutable trait that they cannot change. They are declaring (they think) not only that they have no worth (which is not true) but also the impossibility of worth. But of course they haven’t been stupid, but rather they have been foolish. The difference is that wisdom and foolishness is about choices and judgement; we can make the choice to be wiser in the future. A single foolish decision doesn’t make a fool. We have not yet found a way to make a stupid person intelligent, but we have refined many paths for the foolish person to reach to wisdom; indeed, all children are fools and must become wise as they mature.
It may be the case that it is easier for intelligent people to be wise, because they can more rapidly puzzle out life’s problems and find helpful solutions; I am unconvinced, having known a great many terribly smart, terribly foolish people (I mean, I went to graduate school in history – none of us there could have had very much sense) who in their foolishness thought they were smart enough to live without wisdom. It is certainly the case that there are great stores of wisdom, quite clearly labeled as such, available to anyone without the ability or inclination to puzzle out the basic principles of wisdom on their own. To be honest, I would advise the intelligent to use those stores as well; attempting to think one’s way to wisdom is a path full of peril, hubris and error. I have met many people who achieved a real measure of wisdom through these stores and who were often quite a bit wiser than some of the super-smart people I have known (and, as an aside, being an academic plays absolute havoc with your ability to assess normal intelligence when your entire peer-group is very smart; I suggest avoiding ever descending entirely into an academic bubble – maintain non-academic friends!).
Intelligence is an important, but quite frankly, overrated thing in our society; in almost any relationship, we ought to prefer the wise person to the intelligent one.
Third, and I think this is perhaps the most important thing a degree signals, completing a college degree can signal a certain work-ethic and self-motivated discipline to an employer. College takes an 18-year-old student (of course there are a lot of ‘non-traditional’ students who are older, but let’s focus on the vast majority of students) and puts them in an environment where family and community structures which might have restrained them (parents, neighbors, their home church, etc.) are far away, where there is no other supervision, and which is filled to bursting with every distraction an 18-year-old could ever wish for. Alcohol, more – ahem – controlled substances, attractive fellow students of every possible type, free time and interest groups in every possible hobby and every possible kind of vibrant social scene (for me, it was the Science Fiction Book Club, because I am a nerd).
And then it asks them to do the biology reading and write their history essay.
In a sense, of course, many transitions to adulthood do this, but not to the same degree – often the constraints of family are not so far off, or the distractions not so vibrant or immediately, or the supervision is more intense, or simply the need to have money to live is more immediate. While many college students also work in order to pay the bills, the connection between bill-paying and physics homework is much more indirect and far more delayed. And that’s the point.
Many jobs that our society needs done need to be one by individuals who need to self-supervise, self-motivate and self-direct, often in situations where gratification is not only delayed but often not connected to the work being done in clear and obvious ways at all (even if it is connected). College is meant to foster those skills (though of course, there are many self-disciplined folks who never went to college) and then importantly provides a test for the broader society to know if students have passed it, which is why so many jobs that require self-direction, even if they do not require any particular technical knowledge, require a college degree.
By and large very few students (especially at a flagship state school) flunk out of college because they weren’t smart enough. For all of its many, many flaws, the college admissions system is actually fairly good at ensuring that nearly every incoming student is intellectually capable of completing a degree. Indeed, returning to my anecdata on intelligence, one problem of our society’s increase fetishization of intelligence is that students are lead to believe they have an intelligence problem (which they cannot fix) when they actually have a self-discipline problem (which they can fix). And yet at most flagship state schools – which get the cream of the crop of their state – you will find that around a quarter of each class doesn’t make it to the end.
As I tell my students: you are not here to prove to me that you are smart. You’ve proved your intelligence already by getting to the point where you can be in my class. You are smart enough; that has already been demonstrated. The question now is if you can remained focused enough, if you can do the work despite all of the distractions. You are here to prove you have self-discipline and drive (or to develop such within the next four years).
Fourth, and I think this is by far the most awkward function of a college degree, but a very real one, a college degree demonstrates that the person holding it has likely mastered the language and social customs of a society’s upper-classes. This sometimes comes awkwardly close to suggesting that someone from an underprivileged background who succeeds at college is selling out or giving up their culture; this is not what I mean at all. Nor am I suggesting that there is something right and proper about the elite cultural package. Rather, cultural ‘packages’ are like languages: you can learn more than one, and someone who is fluent in several can shift between them. For folks born into the upper- or upper-middle-class of their society, there is no problem; they are like Americans whose first and only language will ever be English – the whole world seems bent to accommodate them. But for many of the people born outside of that group, learning the ‘language’ (including many things which are not linguistic) of the upper-class is often an essential skill to be able to rise in society, or even to hold and perform certain jobs. That need not – indeed, should not – entail them giving anything up. It is merely another tool in their toolbox, to be used when useful and ignored when not.
I am not saying the existence of this elite culture is good – I don’t actually think it is (although I also think it is probably invulnerable to change, save shifting from one elite culture to another, equally arbitrary one) – merely that it exists as a fact in every society I have observed or studied. In particular, while the cultures of the poor and marginalized in most countries are a brilliant tapestry, full of local variation and variety, the elite culture is typically national (often, today, transnational; American, British and Canadian elites often, it seems, have more in common with each other than with their poorer fellow citizens) and somewhat monolithic. And unfortunately that means people from that brilliant tapestry are often unfairly judged against the monolith of elite culture. This seems to me to be a fairly stubborn element of human behavior. Any country that doesn’t want entry into its upper reaches to be restricted to people born into that elite class has to create ways whereby folks from other backgrounds can learn to ‘code switch‘ into the elite culture.
Again, this is unfortunate. There is nothing inherently superior to Standard American English when compared to any number of regional or ethnic accents, nothing inherently superior to the customs of the American upper-class (the sort of ‘what fork do I use?’ questions) when compared to other, less-elite customs. Yet elite customs are more useful in certain environments. The elite lingua franca is fundamentally arbitrary, but it also clearly exists. There is quite a lot of evidence that things like strong accents or local customs hurt the opportunities available to folks. Absent any way to be rid of that fact (and certainly, refusing to teach the elite lingua franca so that it becomes the preserve and key-to-opportunity for only a small hereditary elite certainly won’t work), the best we can do is provide an institution where the elite paradigm may be learned by non-elites. College is the principle institution we have of this type (so are primary/secondary schools, of course, to a lesser but still important degree). I used to wonder if the rise of the internet and mass culture would diminish this role, but given the Big Sort, I no longer expect that will happen.
Finally, there are a small set of elite institutions whose degrees denote membership, by birth, wealth or special invitation, into a country’s true upper-class and which exist, so far as I can tell, largely to use their wealth and prestige to build a wall around that upper-class that they might benefit from being its gatekeepers. These days, such institutions sooth their consciences that every so often they open the gate for one or two ‘deserving commoners.’ I am not terribly fond of these institutions. I suppose I would not turn down a job at one (any port in a storm!) but honestly I might feel more comfortable teaching at a public university or a small liberal arts school than one of the big prestige-privates (note that outside of the United States this same role is often filled by top-tier public institutions which nevertheless are fiercely selective and find creative ways to wall out most of the lower classes; an all-public university system does not avoid this problem).
So that’s the four (and a half) major functions I see that the college degree serves. Apart from the last, you will note that they are all about using past accomplishments to predict future performance and with a decent, though not perfect, degree of accuracy.
On to Recommendations:
I would be remiss if I did note note that this week my writing on the sad state of higher education in our pandemic appeared in The Atlantic. For the twitter-oriented, I discussed some of the issues in that article with a bit of a different focus on two long twitter threads; a third twitter-thread on adjunctification ought to appear, when I next have time to tweet excessively. Much of this is something you could hear in almost any department meeting or faculty senate at any major state university. Since writing, I’ve also had quite a number of British and EU readers, friends and colleagues contact me with the ways their systems are different, but also often the ways that they suffer from the same ailments by different vectors.
Another video on armor from Tod’s Workshop, this time some experimental work with hardened leather armors. Tod here presents one suggested way to recreate cuir bouilli. I’d have liked him to be a bit clearer in his statement that we don’t know how cuir bouilli was made – we actually have multiple, conflicting reports, suggesting that different ways of producing hardened leather were used at different times. If you are looking for a sense of where the modern scholarly discussion is, check out L. Davies, “Cuir Bouilli” in Conservation of Leather and Related Materials (2005) and E. Cheshire, “Cuir bouilli armour“ in Why Leather? The Material and Cultural Dimensions of Leather (2014). Nevertheless, Tod is right that much of this is unsettled.
For my part, I have some doubts about Tod’s reconstruction here, on the same lines that he does (he worries that he overdid the glue-saturation, leading the hardened leather to be a bit brittle). Hardened leather defenses clearly worked; I was actually just reading descriptions (written by Europeans) of the relatively high effectiveness of Native American leather body-defenses against arrows. The fact that Tod’s arrows were dealing very serious wounds even through many layers of the hardened leather makes me wonder if perhaps he hasn’t gotten something a bit off. Here though, it must be caveated that Tod’s ‘lockdown longbow’ (that is, his crossbow set to produce longbow-equivalent launch energies) is simulating some of the most powerful bows that would have ever seen a battlefield; most bows were not this strong. Certainly my impression is that, by and large, bows from the Americas tended not to have such high launch energies.
For book recommendations, since we’re going to be talking about iron production soon, I wanted to recommend two books on Roman metal production, particularly iron production for armor: David Sim and Isabel Ridge, Iron for the Eagles: The Iron Industry of Roman Britain (2004) and David Sim and J. Kaminski, Roman Imperial Armour: The Production of Imperial Military Armour (2012). These are by no means the end-all of discussion on this topic (you will note soon I have quite a bit more bibliography when we get to this topic) but as a starting point for exploring the topic, both volumes are quite handy. I think you would be well-advised to read Sim and Kaminski (2012) alongside a copy of M.C. Bishop and J.C.N. Coulston’s Roman Military Equipment from the Punic Wars to the Fall of Rome (2006), which can help with correlating the equipment that Sim and Kaminski are trying to reconstruct with the archaeological remains and evidence on which those questions are based (note: do not rely on Raffaele D’Amato’s newer book on the same topic, which is more likely to mislead than clarify).