My Facebook page this week is a cap and gown parade; college graduation season has begun. Tonight’s entry wins the Judges’ Award as Kendall Howen graduates from The University of Alabama with a chemical engineering degree. In doing so she joins the roughly one-third of the country’s adult population who have a bachelor’s degree or higher. Although Notre Dame appears to be the only university still using real parchment for their degrees, the symbolism of having a “skin on the wall” remains a potent reminder of the American dream. A college degree means, economically speaking at least, that your life should be about twice as good than those who hold a high-school diploma as their highest educational achievement.
Living in a slice of the world filled with people who hold college degrees and many with more than one, the significance of the accomplishment is easy to forget. Only 60% of the people who start down the road finish the journey. The obstacles can be academic or economic, but my experience is that most often the absence of discipline is the biggest hurdle. I take for granted that my children are the type who do not consider giving up an option. I am not sure I would have that sort of fortitude except for the fact that if I quit while at Baylor, my immediate career path on dropping out would have been as an Airman First Class in the U.S. Air Force. Kendall and Kelsey needed no such extrinsic motivation. So when I saw Kelsey in her cap and gown, and when I see Kendall tonight in hers, I am prouder of their hearts than their brains.
But I wonder what Kendall’s college degree means to the world we are building. We live in a time when every one is an expert on everything. It used to be that a diploma conveyed authority in a subject matter. Yet daily, I have people lecture me (SMU Law School 1991) on what the law is; even more people tell my wife (Bachelor and Masters in Education) how kids should be educated. And, mea culpa, there have been more than a few times at McLane Stadium that I have offered Art Briles vocal advice about how to run his football team.
It is not that people need to blindly accept the pronouncements of the intelligentsia or that universities are the sole repository of knowledge and skills. Far from it; it is a good thing that neither Bill Gates nor Steve Jobs stayed to complete their degree plans. Still what stuns me is that people will refuse to consider the offerings of someone who has been rigorously trained in the very discipline being discussed. Often the fact that the person has been trained in and has experience in the field is used as evidence that the person must be wrong; they are by definition part of the vaguely defined establishment on which we blame all our troubles.
As a volatile “for instance,” I give you climate change. My hunch is that almost none really knows how bad the problem is, if it can be fixed or how to fix it if it can be fixed. Many of us, however, will offer strong opinions on the subject without the benefit of the deep understanding necessary to deal with the science of it. Because we are all scientists, just as we are all lawyers, doctors and teachers. And at some point, actually being a scientist, doctor, lawyer or teacher ceases to matter.
Amazingly, the same man is responsible for all of this. Al Gore created the internet and the climate change argument. On one hand we have a scientific approach to our world and on the other we have made the science available to people who do not understand it, but believe they do, I do not know how we put this genie back into the bottle, but allowing a knowledge-based society to flourish worked pretty well for two centuries. We seem adamant, however, on transforming ourselves into an opinion-based society. Admitting that someone knows more about an issue than I do is a sign of weakness.
Not so with chemical engineering. I publicly and openly defer to my 22-year old daughter on all aspects of the subject. Because in the immortal worlds of Emil Faber: “Knowledge is Good.” She has a lot of it and I have very little. And if you think I may be full of faux humility, your opinion might have some weight there. I would not be from Dallas if I did not brag that Kendall is graduating summa cum laude.