Monday, November 9, 2009

The Qualifications Arms Race

Frederick Roberts and Tommy Franks would have had a lot to talk about. Both led punitive expeditions to Afghanistan, 122 years apart. Both were experienced officers, artillerymen by training, seasoned by previous Imperial wars. Both were sent by confident empires keen to see justice done and try to bring Western civilisation to a country geographically isolated from it. They both led relatively small forces at the leading edge of the technologies of their day, assured that the new tools of war would soon bring the Afghans into line. They fought the same peoples, struggled with a same tactical and logistal problems imposed by the terrrain, and met with similar degrees of success. Cities were taken, battles won, kings replaced, and victory declared, without much change in the day to day existence of the 'conquered'.

There were differences, to be sure. US Casualties in 2001 and since, the subject of such media attention, would hardly have even been counted as a war in Victorian England. Videoconferences with the President would surely have been a greater irritation to a commander in the field than cables from Whitehall. The technology was more complex, certainly, but Tommy Franks could no more fly a helicopter than Frederick Roberts could drive a steam engine. They had people for those jobs.

How did these people come to lead these armies? What, as a job interviewer might ask, were their qualifications? Both fought in the imperial campaigns of their time, the Indian Rebellion, Abyssinia, Vietnam and Desert Storm, as did their peers and competitors for high command. Both men, and their competitors, had similar opportunities to distinguish themselves in the field, and earn decorations. Both, no doubt, were man of great ability and determination. They had very different backgrounds and educations.

General Tommy Franks was adopted into an ordinary family in Texas. After high school, attended the University of Texas at Austin for two years but dropped out and enlisted in the army in 1965, at age twenty. From there, basic training, training as a cryptologic analyst, and then to Artillery and Missile Officer Candidate School and commission as a 2nd Lieutenant in 1967. In later years, he completed a Bacholers Degree in Business Administration and a Masters Degree in Public Administration. He also attended the Armed Forces Staff College, the Army War College, and an Artillery Advance Course.

Frederick Roberts was the son of a General, born in Cawnpore, India. He attended Eton, Sandhurst and Addiscombe Military Academy, then a training school for officers in the Army of the British East India company. He was commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant in that army in 1851, at age 19. three years younger than Tommy Franks. While the curriculum at Eton, Sandhurst and Addiscombe was no doubt excellent by the standard of the day, Frederick Roberts was finished his formal education and started as a 2nd Lieutenant before Tommy Franks had even enlisted. Assuming Frank's two years of military training from 1965 to 1967 as more or less equivalant to Sandhurst and Addiscombe, Franks had three more years of pre military education than Roberts, plus specialist couses, a Bacholors and Masters degree at the other end. All that amounted to perhaps ten more years of advanced education, not an unusual amount for a US Army General of the 21st century.

Why? Why did Tommy Franks need a decade more education that Frederick Roberts to do the same job, with equal success, 122 years apart? Granted, the equipment that Tommy Franks had to master at the start of his career as a forward observer in Vietnam was more complex than a horse and sabre, but he recieved specific technical training for that in addition to the what was counted above. Tommy Franks' education no doubt also covered topics as irrelevant to the task of subduing Afghanistan as Robert's Latin and Greek.

And what does this have to do with the future of Universities.

Robert had one thing Frank didn't. He was born in the right class, to an Imperial Family, son of a General. In the Victorian empire, that was mainly how leaders were selected. Some did fight their way up through the ranks, but it was the exception, not the rule. To get the job, Roberts still had to distinguish himself, but against relatively small pool. Franks was born in a different age. Anyone could enlist, and who your father was wasn't going to help much after you did. The US Army has it's generals who are scions of military families or sons of the wealthy, but they are the exception, not the rule. Without birth and breeding to set himself ahead, and with opportunities for combat and decorations as much of a random lottery in the 20th century as the 19th, what was 2nd Lieutenant Franks to do, that 2nd Lieutant Roberts didn't have to?

To keep up with his peers stay in the running for advancement, Franks needed formal qualifications, and lots of them. More of them than the other guy, if possible. Not to do the job, but to get the job. His degrees didn't help him with the Afghans, Roberts managed just fine without any. His Degrees meant he could be considered for posts that the other 2nd Lieutenants in the class of 1967 would not. In the century that divided them, and arms race of ever increasing qualification had built up. In Roberts day, a public school education was deemed an adequite academic qualification for just about anything. Viceroys of India, arguably the most powerful non hereditary job of the age, often had little more than that. Even by the 1960s, a college degree was a requirement. By the 1990's, you needed a Masters to say hello. By mid 21st century, expect a PhD and an MBA to get you to the starting gate. The people selling these degrees would have us believe that we need the technical skills in our modern world, but we know that isn't entirely true. Nothing Tommy Franks learned in college prepared him for war in Afghanistan any better than Frederick Roberts, but he needed them to get the jobs along the way. A Degree demonstrates a level of intellectual ability and persistance, but when everyone else on the shortlist has those attributes, then you need more degrees, and so on. If you're smarter than the others, great, but you still need the degrees to get on the shortlist. Much of our tertiary education efforts supports nothing more than intellectual arms race, building higher and hotter hoops of flames for people to jump through to prove their worth.

History and evolution tell us that arms races like this are unsustainable. Eventually, ever spiralling costs lead to diminishing returns. When everyone has a PhD, an MBA, twenty five years of formal education incurred at the costs of hundred of thousands of euros, will employers give up on qualifications as an indicator of ability and shift to something else. Class was abandoned as a means of selection as the 20th century showed the Aristocrats to be no more (or, arguably, less) competant than a suitable qualified person of the 'wrong' class. Could the 21st century in turn abandon qualifications? Could they be replaced with some other easy indicator of ability? It seems unthinkable, but no more unthinkable to us, then it was for a Victorian of 1879 to imagine that, one day, an army of Empire could be led by an middle class boy from Texas.

1 comment:

  1. I recently read The War that Made America, an account of what on this side of the Atlantic is called the French and Indian War and on the other side the American campaign of the Seven Year War. The British and French aristocratic generals appeared to take turns making stupid mistakes. I was reminded of the Monte Python skit, The Upper Class Twit of the Year.

    There has been a great deal of military scholarship between the time of Roberts and that of Franks and schooling is a good way to master the information. Of course, the knowledge one needs to lead at different levels of rank and responsibility changes, so that to successfully rise in the ranks an officer must learn many things that are useful at one stage and not at later stages.

    So too, in the heat of battle an officer should already have learned what he needs to know. So a lot of what one learns "just in case" is never used.

    Still I agree that a lot of higher education is not useful. Some of that might be seen as a form of entertainment -- a service one consumes without intent to utilize the knowledge later.

    I think there is a similarity with health services. Youngsters in school like patients in a hospital are dependent on the offerers of the service to tell them what they will need. The people who run institutions of higher education have incentives to offer too much and to charge too much for what they offer, and the increasing use of certifications by educational institutions as qualifications for positions adds to the problem of excessive expenditure of time and money for education.