Saturday, August 29, 2015

The purpose of college education is ...

Remember those "fill in the blanks" part of the tests from elementary school years?  What I didn't know was that life is all about filling in the blanks.  Not only my own life but our collective lives as well.

So, yes, go ahead and collect your thoughts on how you would will fill in the blanks that would complete the following:
The purpose of college education is ___________________
Now that you have filled out the blank, because you are a good student (otherwise you won't be reading this in the first place!) do you think your response will be the same as everybody else's?

Do not merely shake your head to signify a no, especially if you are doing that strange Indian head bobbing move;, this American can't anymore figure out whether it is a yes or a no, dammit! ;)  Ah, yes, it is such a sense of humor (huh!) that helps me navigate such issues where our views--yours, mine, and everybody else's--differ, and boy do they widely differ.

Consider this, for instance, in which a technology entrepreneur gripes about computer science students and the university curriculum:
The thing I don’t look for in a developer is a degree in computer science. University computer science departments are in miserable shape: 10 years behind in a field that changes every 10 minutes. Computer science departments prepare their students for academic or research careers and spurn jobs that actually pay money. They teach students how to design an operating system, but not how to work with a real, live development team.
There isn’t a single course in iPhone or Android development in the computer science departments of Yale or Princeton. Harvard has one, but you can’t make a good developer in one term.
It is almost like a Rorschach test; if you agreed with that excerpt, then that says a lot about your views of college education.  If you disagreed, then it means something very different.  So, did you agree or disagree with that?  You thought you would scan through this post and I am making you work, eh!

The writer is the son of a computer scientist at, ahem, Yale!  The son continues with his gripe in the Wall Street Journal:
Today we insist on higher-education for everything—where a high-school diploma for a teacher or a reporter was once adequate, a specialized degree in education or journalism is now required.
Did you catch that?  He believes that a high school diploma would be enough to be a teacher?  Hmmm, along those lines, I suppose my daughter's years of schooling and training to be a neurosurgeon is a waste of time and a high school GED can do that lobotomy? ;)

Anyway, you were saying, Mr. Entrepreneur?
A serious alternative to the $100,000 four-year college degree wouldn’t even need to be accredited—it would merely need to teach students the skills that startups are desperate for, and that universities couldn’t care less about.
Education that increasingly wants to serve only the interests of commerce is what William Deresiewicz takes on in his essay on how college sold its soul to the market.  Deresiewicz writes:
Only the commercial purpose now survives as a recognized value. Even the cognitive purpose, which one would think should be the center of a college education, is tolerated only insofar as it contributes to the commercial.
And the tech entrepreneur questions even that commercial purpose that colleges aim for!

Deresiewicz continues:
All this explains a new kind of unhappiness I sense among professors. There are a lot of things about being an academic that basically suck: the committee work, the petty politics, the endless slog for tenure and promotion, the relentless status competition. What makes it all worthwhile, for many people, is the vigorous intellectual dialogue you get to have with vibrant young minds. That kind of contact is becoming unusual. Not because students are dumber than they used to be, but because so few of them approach their studies with a sense of intellectual mission. College is a way, learning is a way, of getting somewhere else. Students will come to your office — rushing in from one activity, rushing off to the next — to find out what they need to do to get a better grade. Very few will seek you out to talk about ideas in an open-ended way. 
I find it disturbingly strange that we are so intent on reducing higher education to nothing but serving the commercial and technological interests, which these days are pretty much the same.  The net result?
If college is seldom about thinking and learning anymore, that’s because very few people are interested in thinking and learning, students least of all.
So, how do all these compare with how you had filled those blanks?  ;)



  1. The purpose of a college education is to learn. Nice broad answer. Students need to learn what they enjoy and don't enjoy so they don't end up engineers when they should be geography professors. Students need to learn why things happen. They need to learn there are multiple answers to most questions. They need to learn that different people think differently based on their backgrounds, beliefs, outlooks, etc. They need to learn to think creatively, that the straight line is not necessarily the shortest, fastest or best.

    I recall a conversation with a financially successful entrepreneur about hiring. He conducted interviews that were conversations rather than reiterations of resumes. He said he didn't care if a person could remember all the rules of math if he could think. Could he see the problems? Could he develop potential solutions? Could he prevent them? Could he see possibilities? Those are the people he wanted to hire for the big jobs. Number crunching and typing skills were minor, easily taught to those who lacked the creativity to answer the big questions. He did not graduate college and didn't care if his employees did. He saw little value in the parchment.

  2. The problem with your question in the title of your post is the word "college". I take it to mean any formal education higher after a school , as any Indian would do. Whether it is a degree, a diploma or whatever. I think, you mean grad and post grad as you in the US would understand it .

    As I interpret "higher education" I would completely disagree with you that it is purely about thinking. Yes, that is important and it should be a feature of any level of education - school, nursery, kindergarten, whatever. But to look down on learning skills isn't appropriate either. All of us need to learn skills - otherwise we would not survive. And imparting skills is one of the roles of a place of "higher learning".

    I know where you are coming from - that the balance has been so tilted in favour of skills that fundamental concepts of thinking and learning are being dangerously sidelined. I agree. But in making that argument, I am afraid you are debunking skills completely and I submit that you will never win the argument that way.

  3. Ramesh has perhaps forgotten the number of posts--and even newspaper opeds--in which I have critiqued the marginalization of "skills" training through the high school years. There is a place for skills, indeed. But, we will be one messed up society if we thought that higher education ought to be tilted in favor of skills training. Unfortunately, that's the trend. Of course, the more "skilled" labor there are but the less capable they are to think for themselves will work fine for everybody from the Chinese Communist Party to the rich in "democracies."

    I, too, find "little value in the parchment" anymore. The loss of value has been compensated by credential inflation :(


Posts popular the last 30 days