Thursday, January 07, 2010

Destroying Colleges to Save Them

Lamin sent me this article from The New York Times -- Making College Relevant. It shows how those selecting colleges are among the most well-intentioned and ill-informed consumers in the marketplace.

We had an alum come back to visit us a couple weeks ago -- Billy. Good kid, not a brainiac but loved philosophy. he's now got a good job in the private sector and like so many others before came back to say that it was his studies in philosophy that got him the job. All his competitors for the position had "practical" majors -- business management, economics,... -- but he was the one who got it and it has helped him every day of his career. It's a story we hear again and again.

Yet, we see movement in the opposite direction. Here's the worst sentence from the entire article:

"Dr. Wilcox (Provost at Michigan State) says curriculum changes at Michigan State have just as much to do with what students, and the economy, are demanding."
It mistakes a correlation between what students are demanding and what the economy is demanding. Students (and more so their parents) demand from college what they think the economy is demanding. But they are wrong.

Parents and students are justifiably worried about incurring huge student loans obligations and having no job or a poor paying job on the other side. the fear is real and legitimate. But what that fear leads to is viewing a college education as vo-tech training for white collar jobs. "If only I have more classes that teach me to work with spreadsheets, that teaches me to be an entrepreneur, then I'll really get ahead."

But, of course, it is not training of the pedestrian sort that helps students entering the work force. Every job will train you. They know they have to train you. They expect to spend time training you. What they need from you is the ability to think clearly, analytically, creatively, and rigorously. They need you to be able to express yourself well and convincingly. They need you to be able to understand why things happen and to be able to see how they might be done better. They need you to be able to make connections between ideas, especially ones the other guy didn't make. And this requires learning, not training.

Students ask me why they should study logic when they will never have to construct a first-order natural deduction proof in their lives. I answer them by reaching both hands over my head and showing what a lat pull down looks like. "You'll never ever do this in the game of lacrosse," I tell them, "but if you don't spend time in the pre-season doing this a whole lot, you'll never be a good lacrosse player." You may never quote Plato in a marketing meeting. You may never calculate experimental error during a conference call with customers. You may never have to write a ten page expository essay about implementing software packages. You may never make use of the details of what you learn, but learning it is itself training that you could never get by just looking at the details of what you hope is going to be your job.

But patience is hard to come by when you are worried about your child. The straight path is surely the quickest and best, the thought is. State universities have to bend to legislators who have little appreciation for those elitists and their education. Private institutions have to please the parents. When you react out of fear, you don't make the best decisions and what is happening now is that students and parents are scared and higher learning is responding in ways they know do not render maximum benefit. Like the parent who pulls into the fast-food burger joint because the kids will not stop their nagging, colleges are feeding the minds of their students less intellectually nutritious offerings because that is what they are demanding.

The business world and the culture at large benefits from a population that is better educated rather than better trained. People who are rounded and thoughtful create a society that flourishes. But it is hard to think about flourishing when you are worried about surviving.