February 16, 2010

Colleges fail How

Filed under: Stuff I love, Stuff I worry about, Success at Work

What do your kids learn in college? Lots of people ask the question only when they see the tab for higher education. It’s a good question. A better question is, do they learn How?

I’m a big believer in education for its own sake. Anything you learn is something that might “grow you,” and it might even be something you’ll someday use to good effect. So if that’s why you’re sending your kids to college, good for you.

If you’re paying for higher education because you think it’s gonna help your kids get better jobs, make more money and have a higher standard of life — well, think again. I’m not saying college won’t provide those benefits. I’m saying it isn’t really set up to provide them.

Lots of magazines publish annual college surveys that rank the schools and even suggest how much higher your kid’s lifetime earnings will be if he attends one school versus another. But I look at this another way — a far more pragmatic way.

My buddy Brooke Allen, who runs NoShortageOfWork.com, came up with a test of colleges that makes a lot of sense. Brooke is a numbers guy, so his test is really cool because it’s got nothing to do with numbers. Here it is in his own words:

Here is an experiment: Find an on-line college catalog. Search for the phrase “how to” and see if you find it anywhere, in a title or in any course descriptions.  (Things like, “How to sign up for this class” don’t count.) If you find a course that promises to tell students how to do anything, let me know. I haven’t found one yet.

I’ll tell you something: Nothing has gotten under my skin lately more than this. Sure, there are college courses that enable students to walk away and do something or other… so what’s the problem? The problem is that colleges don’t structure their curricula around how to do anything. Learning is fine, but where is the doing?

I think there are probably no courses about How to do something because colleges don’t value How. It’s not part of the institutional mission. So professors don’t teach How to do anything because to the institution, How doesn’t matter.

Why don’t colleges teach How to Be an Accountant? Or, How to Make Money? Or, How to Build a House? Or, How to Do Anything? (All are credible skills that would serve a student — and Mom and Dad — well.)

Now I’m re-defining what it means to me that education is good for its own sake. Learning What is fine, but that doesn’t “grow you” unless you learn How to put it to use. I don’t care if you never get a job or do any work or ever apply the How, because that’s up to you. What I care about is that the How is missing, and How is at least half of any education.

Any school that fails to teach How — about any subject it teaches —  fails its students.

Why don’t colleges teach How? And why do you pay so your kids will learn only What?

.

35 Comments on “Colleges fail How”
By Jason
February 16, 2010 at 7:14 pm

It seems to be more about having that piece of paper from an accredited institution. If you don’t have that, it doesn’t matter how much How you know how to do. Doors will be closed without that degree.

Colleges don’t have to teach How to maintain their accreditation.

By John
February 16, 2010 at 9:47 pm

If you’re majoring in an engineering discipline, there are capstone or senior design classes where students integrate the knowledge and skills gained throughout the curriculum (and other places) to solve real problems.

As for colleges not teaching anyone how to do anything, they have never been designed for that, especially in the arts and sciences.

By John
February 16, 2010 at 10:06 pm

Followup on the capstone classes…it helps tremendously if the instructor has industry experience.

By Ray Saunders
February 16, 2010 at 11:06 pm

I once had a prof who stated on Day One that he wasn’t going to teach botany – he was going to teach the students how to think. He did that pretty well. Had an Enlish prof with the same mindset (and we learn a lot that had nothing to do with the coursework). Usually, the teachers were very ivory-tower. About half way thru his grad school in physics, my brother decided to design/build a lot of equipment based on all the theory he’d been taught – cameras, photo gear, radios, TVs,etc – putting theory into to practice, just to test the utility of it all.

VocTech & Community Colleges are generally more oriented to How. I have a BA in Linguistics and soon found I needed a PhD to even talk to employers. Ended up doing quite well as a Systems Engineer/Programmer – all self-taught, on the jobs.

If you know how to think critically, life will provide any needed education.

BTW Jason: My first job was IBM in 1963 (for 5 years). They did ask if I had a degree and might even have verified it. From then on, I never even put it on my resume. They also hired a lot of folks without diplomas.

.

By Nick Corcodilos
February 16, 2010 at 11:20 pm

Please note that my point is that colleges don’t list any courses titled “How to…” and in any event don’t really pretend to teach “how to.”

Kudos to the profs who took the class “offline” and taught how to think!

I know you need a degree to get a job in certain cases. That’s beside the point. Those employers aren’t getting any “how to,” either.

By Dan
February 17, 2010 at 10:47 am

It is unfortunate the a liberal arts education is no longer looked upon as an asset. This type of education teaches you how to think – the most important ability you can possess. There are still a few smaller schools that teach this way. Many programs such as engineering, business and others are no more than glorified vocational training. Unfortunately, most larger institutions do not put their best resources into undergraduate education. Their focus and incentives are on research and graduate students.

Even though I am in a technical field, I greatly value the liberal arts education I received. I would much rather work for and hire someone that knows how to think and problem solve. Besides, after your first job, no one really cares where you went to school.

By Brooke Allen
February 17, 2010 at 11:54 am

Part of the problem with a Liberal Education is that it isn’t being offered any longer in most liberal arts departments, or anywhere else, for that matter.

My freshman year, 1970, I went to Rose Polytechnic Institute (now Rose-Hulman). It was all engineering – all the time, and the liberal arts department offered classes called Humanities 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6.

But they decided they were going to teach us what we needed to know, not what they were interested in. The first day of the first class we began with “The Web of Belief” by Quine and Ullian, which is all about how to think, how to form a belief system, and how to change your beliefs. Then they proceeded to challenge our beliefs. This was probably the most important class of my schooling – and much more valuable than anything I even see in the catalog elsewhere.

Then I transferred to Rutgers where they had “distribution” requirements – but nothing that required you to learn how to think about anything other than those things that interested the profs. For example, you could take Photography, The History of the Crusades, and a course in Film and somehow be “Liberally” educated.

The Liberal Arts departments did not like the idea at first, so they created a test of what they considered to be the bare minimums. I remember it had inane questions like, “In what museum does the Mona Lisa hang?” Since I know how to think, I know that even if the answer was “the Louvre” yesterday, it could have been stolen last night. This isn’t thinking; this is trivia.

The Math/Science people decided to create their own test, with basics like: If you have a room that measures 9 by 12 feet, how many square yards of carpet do you need? and, Why do we have seasons?

The results. The math/science students got nearly 100% on the math/science and the Liberal Arts Students did abysmally. The math/science students did almost as well on the liberal arts tests, and the liberal arts students also did terribly.

So, the Liberal Arts departments dropped the issue. Then they discovered that it was more fun to teach what they were interested in than what was needed.

Like, “How to Think” – which isn’t just a trade school “how to” topic.

It is the whole point.

Brooke

PS, Please visit our site: http://www.NoShortageOfWork.com

It is about: How to Think About Work.

By Lucille
February 17, 2010 at 12:54 pm

Oh way back in the day, when I went for my undergrad in computer science and my masters in computer science, we had lab classes. We had to turn in correctly running code (how to write code). We had to prove our results. We had chemistry lecture and lab. And the other sciences had lecture and lab.

I think Nick, you are off the mark here. There is a lot of practical learning at colleges. It isn’t all trivia.

I think you are taking a swipe at our degrees and I think you are twisting words to make your point.

By Patrick
February 17, 2010 at 5:24 pm

I think in most colleges/universities there are very few courses that teach “how to..” and they are never titled “how to..” these examples would all be in the language arts. I can hold a passable conversation in spanish today because of what I learned in college. Writing classes do indeed teach how to write, but that’s about all I can think of.

By Nick Corcodilos
February 17, 2010 at 5:47 pm

@Brooke Allen: **nothing… other than those things that interested the profs**

Colleges that teach mainly what interests the profs – this is an interesting and troubling issue. It’s at the heart of politics in American colleges – and politics in colleges are powerful. Brooke’s point is very important and very pregnant with meaning and implications.

Coincidentally, in a lengthy article in the Feb. 22 Newsweek (not yet online or I’d link to it) about “Harvard’s Crisis of Faith,” Lisa Miller raises the same issue. She discusses why Harvard professors voted against making religion (“Reason & Faith”) a core course requirement. “The facile explanation,” writes Miller, “is that more than a third of elite university professors are nonreligious, a dramatically higher percentage than the population at large.” But forget that the example is religion. The point is that this is a crisp example of what Brooke is talking about. The core curriculum at an Ivy League school is driven by what professors are interested in. And they’re not interested in religion, or in much having to do with “How to do anything.”

There is a problem here.

By John
February 17, 2010 at 5:53 pm

Entrepreneurship is being taught across the country with a heavy emphasis on how to develop, evaluate and launch a new business. The “what” is still very important, but is insufficient with experiencing the process first-hand. At the University of Minnesota, it is very much learning by doing:
MGMT 4171/4172: Entrepreneurship in Action (2 semester, 8 cr.) In this full year class, students conceive, plan, launch, and operate a real business. Students gain hands-on experience with all aspects of business including strategy, sales and marketing, finance and accounting, operations, human resources, and information technology. The course runs for two semesters during a student’s senior year. In the fall, students identify a business opportunity, develop the concept, determine the resources required, and acquire the resources to launch the business. In the spring, the students implement the business plan, manage the business, and determine the exit strategy.

By Nick Corcodilos
February 17, 2010 at 5:53 pm

@Dan: Check this article: http://www.pbk.org/home/FocusNews.aspx?id=247

I wrote this for Phi Beta Kappa (I’m one) because I believe in the value of a liberal arts education.

However, I also believe it is possible and necessary for a liberal arts school to incorporate “How to” in every single course it teaches. It could be as simple as devoting one class meeting to a guest speaker who shows how some aspect of the course can be used in the “real world.” My major in college and in grad school was cognitive psychology. Don’t laugh: I could teach an entire class on the subject of how to use how to do things in business by applying what I learned in school. I’d be ashamed if I couldn’t.

By Nick Corcodilos
February 17, 2010 at 6:17 pm

@Lucille: I’m not trying to manipulate words or disparage degrees. I use the former a lot, and I have some of the latter myself, and I’m glad I do.

Maybe I’m not saying it well. College’s fault?? ;-) Brooke’s point is simple: College catalogues do not have courses titled “How to…” It’s a very interesting point. It suggests that college professors are not interested in How To and neither are colleges. Why not?

(Please note that I’m not disparaging education for its own sake. I’m asking why are there no How To courses? How To is legitimate, and important, learning.)

Let me try an example, tho’ I’ll probably bungle it. It’s the first one I can think of.

Like you, I learned how to write computer code that worked, too. (Unless you dropped the stack of punched cards before you submitted them to the computer administrator… long time ago…)

I learned how to write programs that did what the professor was interested in. But the course outline did not say, Take this class to learn how to write programs that do XYZ. I was a psych major. Why wasn’t there a course titled, How to Write Programs That Calculate Analysis of Variance? Or, How to Write Programs That Organize Your Record Collection?

Might sound silly, but I’d have learned a lot more about PL/1 (the language we were using) if there were How To in the course. In fact, I might have become a programmer if PL/1 were taught as a “How to.” As it happened, the professor lost me by the end of the semester. The final project was to write a computer language using PL/1. I had NO idea what the hell he was talking about and I totally blew it. I swore off programming.

Six years later, I encountered a How To problem related to programming. It was a programming problem because our office had just bought its first pc and I realized this might be a good tool. “How to organize the job candidates and job orders I had gathered in my headhunting business to help my candidates and clients and to help me close more deals?”

The problem was that there were no database programs for the TRS-80. (Well, filing systems. I use “database” very broadly.)

So I taught myself BASIC. I wrote thousands of lines of spaghetti code. But kludgy as it was, it worked. At one point, a software engineer who worked at IBM’s San Jose Labs looked at it, shook his head, and told me I had just reinvented disk indexing. Yah, I had. But what I was really excited about – I was writing little programs that my main program was calling. In a VERY loose sense, I had used a computer language to write a computer language. It suddenly dawned on me what my PL/1 professor wanted me to do and what it meant. And I was excited as hell.

He could have taught me that if the course were a How To course. Too bad. Instead, it was a dry “do this because I told you to” course.

I dunno if that makes my point for anyone. We can learn the theory of something all semester long. Or we can learn How to do something, and from that learn the theory. And that’s a fundamental question in education, I suppose.

So where is the debate about it today? NOWHERE. You send your kids to school and hope for the best.

Except some people are asking questions. When enough parents who foot the bill ask these questions, there’s gonna be some ‘splaining to do, Lucy. ;-) (No offense intended…!)

By Nick Corcodilos
February 17, 2010 at 6:19 pm

@John: The MN example is a good one. But now I’m getting all goofy about this. I want to know, why don’t they call it, “How to start a business?”

Honest, I’m not ragging on them or on any colleges. I want to know – what’s the problem with “How to?” Does it sound too VOCATIONAL? Arrghh! That means we’ll all be DAY LABORERS when we get out of school!!!

By JB King
February 17, 2010 at 8:29 pm

In Canada, there is more of a distinction between colleges and universities. The latter institutions tend to be more general and thus aren’t quite as specific to the real world aside from the doctorate programs like doctors, lawyers, teachers and other professionals that tend to be the second degree one seeks. Thus there isn’t a “How to” at the university level really. First year courses are about establishing a common base and then later year courses build on that. Thus, it makes sense that a course like “Computational Complexity Theory” isn’t likely going to have a how to part as it is mostly about proving or disproving various ideas in theoretical Computer Science. Just to toss out another course title I took there was “Asymptotic Enumeration” which while there is some “How to” elements within it, the same underlying principle of proving something is at its heart.

Colleges in contrast can have more practical work which can be both good and bad. University degrees may be more favored so that the college grads can be SOL at times but in a way that’s life.

By Chris Walker
February 17, 2010 at 10:37 pm

I have twin daughters currently in their junior years of college. Both are now doing semesters abroad, one at King’s College London the other at the University of Cape Town South Africa (thank God for Skype). The explosion in the numbers of US students spending time abroad since my college days in the late 60’s is one of the most positive developments in our higher education system. Far too many Americans have no exposure to the rest of the world. I once worked with a guy who was an avid Cleveland Browns fan. When they played an exhibition game in London, he made the trip. When he returned, all he could talk about was how he couldn’t get pancakes the way he liked them.

One of my kids, the one in London now, started at a smallish liberal arts college in PA (no names), but transferred to Barnard College because she found too many of her fellow students, while definitely interested in a degree, weren’t actually interested in learning anything. If the traditional liberal arts education is worth anything at all beyond becoming competent in thinking and communicating, it is that it should instill a commitment to and desire for life-long learning. I work at a non-profit that provides training and placement to job seekers 50 and over. One of the stereotypes plaguing older workers is that they can’t/won’t/don’t want to learn/change/keep up. Demonstrating an eagerness to learn and grow is essential for this group in the job search process. It’s easier when they picked up the habit early in life.

By Nick Corcodilos
February 18, 2010 at 10:56 am

@JB: Okay, just to prove I’m not out to simply bash higher education… let me ruminate on another perspective. You make some good points about the distinction between How To and “a common base.” So, while a particular course may not be a How To, is it true that a major (that is, your degree) is a How To without being called that in a catalog?

E.g., If you’re working on a EE degree, is that really a degree program in “How to Engineer?” Or “How to Compare Literature,” or “How to Psychology?” I don’t mean to be cute – I’m serious. I’m asking, does a degree program prepare you to “do that field?” Bigger question: Does it prepare you to earn a living in that field?

(Yo, Brooke! What do you say?)

By Nick Corcodilos
February 18, 2010 at 11:01 am

@Chris Walker: So there’s another version of How To: A liberal arts education is “How to Learn” without calling it that. Okay!

To play out Brooke’s point further, maybe it would be GOOD if colleges started calling it that. Maybe it’s even CRUCIAL that they start calling it “How to Learn.”

Maybe that would get professorss away from “teaching what they’re interested in” (I think too much of liberal arts has gone in that unfortunate, self-serving direction) and actually push schools to develop useful curricula in “How to Learn.”

What we call something has a huge effect on what it turns into over time.

By Jason
February 18, 2010 at 11:28 am

To come at it from a different direction: I’m a free-market kind of guy. If people actually want “how to”, and colleges are not delivering it, then why not? In a free market, the successful enterprises compete for business by giving customers what they actually want and are willing to pay for. So what, if anything, is preventing this from happening?

I think the future is something like the Khan Academy, where all kinds of “how to” videos are posted on YouTube. Or MIT, which posts its courseware online. I don’t see a lot of “how to” in the titles, but at least it’s kind of implied. A title like “Defining the angle between vectors” suggests that this is a how-to video. Perhaps this kind of learning will start to supplant the old way of going off to a bricks-and-mortar institution to be at the mercy of tenured professors.

That’s why I brought up accreditation in my original comment. I feel that this is a hurdle imposed by someone – the state? businesses? that may create barriers to entry for those who would be more responsive to customers. Maybe an accredited degree will become less important than demonstrating that you know how to do something.

By Nick Corcodilos
February 18, 2010 at 4:27 pm

@Jason: Good point about accreditation. Like certifications and “seals of approval,” I think businesses (including schools) band together to promote their products by putting some “authority” behind it. With education, this has gone a big step further. Try getting a good job without a college degree. An old friend of mine couldn’t get the jobs he wanted without a degree, so he got blessed with a PE (Professional Engineer) certification. His income doubled pretty quickly. (I’m not saying a PE is a substitute for a degree, or worth more or less than a degree. I just think it’s interesting that once he put that “ring” on his finger, he was suddenly “legit.”)

By Chris
February 18, 2010 at 10:45 pm

I place very little value in “how to” courses in college. If I want to learn how to operate a piece of machinery, I’ll read the manual or take a specific class/seminar on it. (I consider vo-tech and similar community college classes different since they can teach you a basic set of skills that would otherwise have to be learned through trial and error. These classes do have value, up to a point.)

The purpose of college should be to teach you “how to” a) learn and b) think. I remember my first chemical engineering class. The professor took about half an hour during one class to tell us that he could solve any engineering problem in any discipline.

He didn’t say this to be cocky. He showed us how he could define the problem, model it, use analogies (think fluid flow in a pipe and electron flow in a wire), and then look up/find the equations/programs/etc. he would need to solve the problem. The “how to”, if you will, came directly from first principles (e.g., those good old laws of physics/chemistry/thermo/etc.)

This thread reminded me of a discussion I had with another engineer a couple weeks ago. We were talking about how to model some very complex physical phenomena going on in a particular piece of equipment. He and another engineer had a slight disagreement as to how to do it. I can guarantee you that none of us ever took a class that discussed how to use the piece of equipment in question. And this equipment has been in use for longer than any of us have been alive.

However, by using very basic first and second year chem-e concepts, we were able to come up with guiding principles for “how to” model it. If we had just learned “how to” do some particular thing, we never would have been able to come up with a method for solving the problem.

The problem with “how to” courses, is that sooner or later, they only teach you how to use a hammer. And we all know what happens when everything looks like a nail……

In terms of professors teaching what they’re interested in, well, guess what. Some professor somewhere was interested in chemistry at one time before it had widespread, practical application. The same can be said for accounting, finance, civil engineering, programming, computer science, biology, medicine, sociology, statistics, criminology, and so on. These “interests” can be leading edge research that will have an impact down the road. I don’t know about anybody else, but I’d want recent graduates to have these ideas floating around in their heads.

As long as the professor is teaching students “how to” solve problems and think about things, the specifics of the courses are of secondary consequence.

Of course, this is not to say that there are no courses of little value. I’ve been in a few of those classes, and most students realize they’re fluff. But in the 3 or 4 different academic institutions I’ve attended, I’ve found them to be in the minority.

By Chris Walker
February 19, 2010 at 11:10 am

Some MBA programs apparently teach how to screw up a company or even an entire industry. Does that count?

By Lucille
February 19, 2010 at 11:30 am

I agree with Chris. You need to go to college to learn to think. I’ll give that discussion a slightly different cast. When I was young, my father always said “They can take away your money and they can take away your power, but they can’t take away your knowledge. And with your knowledge and your ability to think you can regain your money and your power”. And that is why my father insisted we go to college. To learn how to do, most certainly, but also to learn and to think. So I think Nick, that is is a specious argument to say that a course must be entitled “How to” in order to be valuable. I also think it is a specious argument to say that all a professor will teach you is what he is interested in and because it is interested that shuts off pratical knowledge.

By Nick Corcodilos
February 19, 2010 at 12:59 pm

@Lucille: I repeat, I’m a big fan of education for its own sake. But why can’t colleges do both? Teach What and teach How. I think parents who pay the tab would support any effort by colleges to structure curricula to deliver both, and to enhance students’ ability to land a job.

As for what professors teach, I’ve seen first-hand some of the drivel that passes for a “college course” because a professor manages to squeeze it under the rubric of a school’s curriculum. I had some great professors, but I also encountered some unbridled self-interested people teaching courses that I’d never pay for – even “for its own sake.”

This has turned into one of the more interesting and thought-provoking threads on this blog. Thanks to all for expressing and stressing your opinions!

By JB King
February 19, 2010 at 1:55 pm

@Nick Corcodilos, part of the common base can be that one gets a “Principles of Computer Science” or “Introduction to Engineering Principles” course as I did have a course that was titled the former. It is more about basic concepts, terms and ideas so that in the future such terminology is second nature.

I’d like to think that some of those courses did help refine some of my skills like problem solving and the ability to justify a perspective. In grade 3 Math, a student can say, “The answer is 4,” and get all the marks but that doesn’t work well in the adult world where someone may want more persuasion on why something should be done or more specifics on where and when. Some of the course work I took has been applicable to my everyday life as things like a “Software Development Life Cycle” and various data structures and coding practices have been used where I’ve worked.

Initially, I was in a co-op program in university, which would have meant alternating work terms and school terms, where a term is 4 month periods, so that I would have graduated with 2 years experience in the field. In those situations, I’d think one would be at a different point of career maturity than the new guy that still has to find a job. While co-op didn’t work out for me, I did get some other lessons in life that are still with me to this day, like making sure about getting paid and what to do and other things. I lasted 8 weeks in one placement and did horribly. Thankfully there were resources at school to help with counselling and other things so that when I did graduate I did do much better in my next job.

Part of my job comes with the blessing and curse of being surrounded by technology. While I have stayed with a mostly Microsoft stack of tools, was I taught using any of these in university? Nope, not a one. However, the general principles of how to do things do apply across various operating system and tools so I can still apply the same ideas just with different key combinations for things in my work. I graduated university in 1997, before Google had taken its foot hold in the world or IE was the dominant browser.

By Nick Corcodilos
February 19, 2010 at 4:25 pm

@JB: I’ll offer a counterexample to my own point, which I think is a bit misunderstood. But in any event…

I’ve been managing my website with Microsoft’s FrontPage far too long… tho’ it’s been no problem because the site has never been redesigned, and maintenance is easy. (Redesign is harder.) The articles are free, and so is the time travel. One click and you’re back in 1997!

I’m switching to Dreamweaver, and because I want to do some of my own work, I’m reading a great 1,000+ page book to learn it. It’s a How To book. But like you, I’m one of those people who learn by studying concepts first, then applying them to solve a problem. So I’ve skipped the beginning of the book, which is all How To. I’ve been reading the more conceptual sections, about server models, dynamic web pages and data bases. I need to understand the concepts first. I’ll do the How To later.

BUT: I bought the book because it’s packaged as How To. Why? Because the concepts are not enough. I have an objective, which is to redesign and rebuild my website. (Well, as far as I can. Once the work is rolling, I’ll get some help. Probably.)

If I were shopping for colleges today, I’d want one with the best “theoretical” faculty. But I’d also look for a school that, like my Dreamweaver book, provides plenty of “tutorials” and hands-on experience doing real stuff.

I want both. I think schools can do a lot better delivering both.

(My fantasy is to go back to school and learn computer science.)

By JB King
February 19, 2010 at 6:36 pm

@Nick, I can understand the desire to want both, but I doubt that’ll happen in the modern world. I would like to be wrong about it, but I think there is a combination of factors that will prevent it. One of the big blockers that I’d see is the question of who would be running the tutorials and how is that funded in general. Professors of universities can get grants to do research, but teaching how to program 101 isn’t likely to be what the research is about unless there is some cross-department work between say Psychology and Computer Science to do it. The Computer Science professors are more likely to be researching topics that would be more like 901 than 101 which can make it hard to build the tree of courses to get a student from who knows what background up to speed enough to help on that research. The research done by various institutions can easily be overlooked in this and is something that shouldn’t be forgotten.

I’m all for improving education, but let’s not forget that it has its own competing goals for how money and time should be spent on things.

By “My BF left and he took my cat, my car and the chair!” | My Career Lead
February 20, 2010 at 12:09 am

[...] And Nick Corcodilos, the worldclass headhunter, wrote his piece “College Fail How” on his Ask The Headhunter blog here. [...]

By Jim
February 20, 2010 at 1:04 pm

I have a Liberal Arts undergraduate degree. They taught us discovery of facts, critical thinking, appreciation of literature and art and music. I’m glad they didn’t teach us “How to”
On a field trip to a National Laboratory, we were told that we were looking at a computer and that they were projecting that there would only be 20 computers in the country and those computers would be in National Laboratories.
I’ve used the skills I learned in my undergraduate studies to master several careers. My last career has been with computers which has lasted over 40 years.
If I had been taught “How to” my senior year, I would have been taught to program using a plug board and wires. (Which I subsequently mastered on my own.)
I am grateful for the “life skills” I learned as an undergraduate. I got much more of the “How To” skills in my MBA program.

jim…

By G
February 23, 2010 at 12:40 pm

Even supposedly practical programs like the MBA fail on providing their graduates with basic skills. Presumably an MBA should prepare the student to become a business or finance executive but how many MBAs do you know who lack the day-to-day skills of those jobs? I’ve seen MBAs who were incapable of writing a business memo or conducting a meeting.

In more academic programs basic skills of the job are also left out. People with a PhD in a liberal arts field usually become university professors but are not taught how to design a course or how to deliver a lecture.

These programs would be much more valuable if they included labs or assignments that required the student to demonstrate knowledge of the subject (financial analysis or medieval history, say) using the skills of the profession, perhaps by formatting the financial analysis as a presentation to the board of directors, or the topic in medieval history as a lecture to undergraduates.

By Maurreen Skowran
February 24, 2010 at 3:51 pm

@ Lucille — “You need to go to college to learn to think.”

I can’t see how college is the only method to learn to think.

By Jason
February 25, 2010 at 2:57 pm

Time has a timely (sorry, couldn’t help myself) article that touches on some of the themes discussed here.

http://www.time.com/time/nation/article/0,8599,1967580,00.html

Should colleges teach people to be productive workers, or to be well-rounded? Should everyone go to college? Online learning is more flexible. And so on.

By Brooke Allen
February 25, 2010 at 5:23 pm

Wow, what a discussion.

I have so many things I want to say about this stuff, but haven’t because I’ve been away at a science conference.

Expect my 2 cents soon.

Brooke

By Edward
March 3, 2010 at 12:27 pm

I’m late on this thread but here’s my 2 cents from having worked at a university.

The issue is really two fold, both which have been hit on here already. Tenure is the worst thing to have in education. Part of the reason education is so expensive is because of tenure, each school pays X number of profs, not to teach, they can’t fire them. Once a prof has tenure, they are basically going to get paid no matter what they do. I’ve seen non-tenure profs get tenure and they go from great profs to profs who should pay the students to listen to them. Get rid of tenure, let profs compete to teach like the rest of have to compete. If profs are made to compete and justify their paycheck, more of them will be willing to teach what needs to be taught, rather than just what they want to teach.

The second aspect is, not everyone is cut out to go to college. Far too many students are there for the paper. The Internet has created a whole industry that targets lazy students who don’t want to do their own homework. Even at the graduate level where I worked, there were people in the MBA program who were not really interested in doing their best, just in getting the paper. Schools take these people in because they need the money. But just because someone has a degree doesn’t mean they know what they should and we have all run into those people. I got my MBA because I really do want to do my best in business, I finished near the top of my class and my efforts showed in my work. But I work with other MBA’s and it embarrasses me how little these people know at times. Stuff I know they should know and they have degrees from Harvard and Wharton. They certainly sound slick, but really they over priced used cars salesmen, resorting to corporate politics to get things done, rather than using their head. But often they can’t because they didn’t pay attention in school.

By Stumped
March 10, 2010 at 4:33 am

Yes, many earn degrees, certificates, etc. for the credential. (I’m one of them, although I try to do good work anyway). But why is that? Could it be because employers demand such even when unjustified?

Reminds me of the spate of handwringing articles starting in the mid-1980’s complaining about widespread resume inflation, if not outright fibbing. About the time job requirements also started inflating, often to absurd levels. None of the articles asked why so many felt compelled to cheat, or why (so far as I know), resume “enhancement” wasn’t considered much of a problem prior to the 1980s.

So long as employers insist on the education and experience needed to build skyscrapers for jobs building doghouses, candidates will pursue credentials for their own sake, and embellish resumes.

Post a comment