“plan b – skip college” and curiousity about diffusion

Recently, the New York Times published a short Op-Ed piece “Plan B – Skip College” wherein author Jacques Steinberg asks “WHAT’S the key to success in the United States?” and answers his question by saying that conventional wisdom dictates “go to college.” He then challenges this assumption.

Steinberg’s articles implicitly asks readers to adopt an evidence-based approach to managing their personal affairs (on EbM see Pfeffer and Sutton or, better yet, Teppo’s post on EbM, or, even better yet, Teppo’s post on evidence based living).

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Steinberg states:

Among the top 10 growing job categories, two require college degrees: accounting (a bachelor’s) and postsecondary teachers (a doctorate). But this growth is expected to be dwarfed by the need for registered nurses, home health aides, customer service representatives and store clerks. None of those jobs require a bachelor’s degree.

You don’t need a college education to get jobs in growing job categories, it seems (so long as we just ignore pay, promotion, and schedule structure[?]).

Interesting as this thought might be during graduation season (I am referring primarily to high school graduation season but also college graduation when the clock starts ticking to pay off those students loans), “conventional wisdom” makes ears burn in org theory.

Explicitly, Steinberg states that the conventional wisdom goes a little something like this:

The idea that four years of higher education will translate into a better job, higher earnings and a happier life — a refrain sure to be repeated this month at graduation ceremonies across the country — has been pounded into the heads of schoolchildren, parents and educators.

As someone interested in diffusion, a historical account of this conventional wisdom guided by theory would seem to be an interesting idea (unless someone knows of a research study like this already done or underway).

A good possibility to study this matter: Bruno Latour’s (somewhat under-appreciated) diffusion model in Science in action set about 100 or so pages into the book. Latour describes a series of techniques that make the originator of the idea or, in this case, conventional wisdom, progressively less obvious and their fact, message, or machine spread more widely. This idea, that diffusers will attempt to cover their tracks so that the machine, for example, appears to be so superior that it spread as if by its own volition has hardly been studied in STS (and perhaps elsewhere) despite its significance for a truly Latourian actor-network model of diffusion (or, in Latour’s terms, a model of translation). Such a project would start with the obvious question: where did this conventional wisdom come from?

Written by Nicholas

May 19, 2010 at 1:54 pm

4 Responses

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  1. The mechanisms of Diffusion and Translation are discussed in-depth in John Campbell’s superb book “Institutional change and globalization.” Also, one of the chapters is devoted to the power of Ideas.
    I think, this is truly recommended book for everyone who’s interesting in these issues and in neo-institutional analysis.


    Oleg Komlik

    May 19, 2010 at 2:26 pm

  2. I don’t think this is the best case for the study of the spread of conventional wisdom. The thing is that college degrees do still pay off economically; to the extent that this is changing, it’s because more and more people are getting college degrees and therefore their value in the marketplace is diminished. If I were to study this question I’d start out with something like the idea that you are better off owning a home than renting.



    May 19, 2010 at 7:08 pm

  3. Also, a small point of fact: though RNs don’t strictly require a bachelor’s, they do require at least an associate’s, and there is a hierarchy of prestige and pay within the field based on the amount of education (with more education bring more pay and prestige).



    May 19, 2010 at 8:02 pm

  4. I have a Ph.D. in the humanities, a M.A. in English, and a B.A. in recombinant gene technology. I received my Ph.D. in 2004. I am writing this from the hotel where I work the night audit. I don’t need any of those degrees to do that. During the Fall and Spring, I do teach English Comp. I only need my M.A. to do that. I write plays and poems. No degree needed for that (no pay, either). The only thing I have done that requires my Ph.D. is write some scholarly papers on spontaneous order theory (some pay — the Fund for the Study of Spontaneous Orders pays to attend their conference, which is why there’s no conference this year). So far my education has been almost useless. Less than useless if you consider the fact that almost noone will hire someone with a Ph.D. unless they specifically need someone with a Ph.D.


    Troy Camplin

    May 22, 2010 at 10:35 am

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