Friday, May 20, 2016

Plumbers, philosophers, and ... pundits like me ;)

I plan to send a slightly edited version of this to the editor of that other paper where I send my commentaries.  Readers outside the US, especially this impatient guy, should note that this is about the American higher education system ;)

“School teaches you only to be better at school” said a student who is graduating in June, in response to my question to the class on whether they thought they were ready for the world of employment. The other students immediately and unhesitatingly agreed with her.

In a highly entertaining and sarcastic TED talk back in 2006—way before “TED talk” became a part of the common regular vocabulary—Sir Ken Robinson noted that “you'd have to conclude the whole purpose of public education throughout the world is to produce university professors.” The student, too, was channeling Robinson’s point. Psychology professors are keen on creating more psychology professors and biology professors want to make biologists out of students, so to speak.

I will be at least a tad happy if that student’s statement were true. I am not convinced that school is teaching students to be better at school. An increasing body of research questions the value-added over the four-plus years of undergraduate schooling.

But, even more do I worry that higher education has become a diluted and credential-chasing process that it is falling way short when it comes to preparing students for employment.

It begins when graduating high school seniors and college freshmen are bombarded about their academic majors. This is where the machinery of school teaching students to be better at school does a tremendous disservice because college is really not about the major.

The myth persists, despite all the research, that there are some academic majors that are more geared for employment than others are. That is, of course, the case if students are in professional undergraduate programs—like elementary school teaching. But, otherwise, the link between a college major and productive employment is nebulous at best—unless one wants to be a college professor.

Even the composition of the academic credits towards a college degree gives this away—for instance, while a minimum of 180 credits are required to graduate from Western Oregon University, a majority of those credits will not be in the major. Or, to rephrase it differently, if college education is only about a major, then an undergraduate experience can be easily wrapped up within a year and a half.

Preparation for productive employment is rarely about the major itself. The skills that employers repeatedly cite as important—skills like writing, thinking, researching, and more—are gained through a broad array of topics outside of one’s major, and that is what most of the undergraduate education is all about as well.

If we are truly interested in how higher education is serving the young—and, hence, the country’s future—the debate we ought to be engaged in is not about whether majoring in science, technology, engineering, and math (often grouped as STEM) is better than a geography major, or whether we need philosophers or plumbers . Instead, society—especially the faculty and administrators across Oregon’s colleges and universities—needs to carefully monitor whether students are mastering those skills that are prized by employers. Else, it will continue to be the case that the only thing that school teaches the young is to be better at school.


Ramesh said...

Alright, this is purely about the US, which is of course not on Planet Earth and inhabited by a species completely different from Homo Sapiens who inhabit the aforesaid planet :)

Why don't you start writing a series of posts on exactly what is the undergraduate programme (note the spelling) that you would design that would be closest to achieving what employers want. Since you have also argued in the past that education is not about employment at all, then you could also tweak the design to cover other objectives too.

One suggestion for inclusion amongst the courses. A full credit on spelling so that your species does not murder Her Majesty's language :)

Anne in Salem said...

Current high school education teaches students to pass a test - state test, AP test, chapter test, etc. If a student is fortunate, he has a teacher who really inspires him and challenges him, thereby preparing the student for more than test-taking.

Liberal arts education seems insular. My oldest graduates this year magna cum laude from the Honors College within U of O with a major and a minor. She has the skills employers want - thinking, writing, analysis, creativity - but doesn't know what to do with them. She has no job and only a vague idea of what she wants to do. Liberal arts teaches the skills but gives no direction. As a liberal arts major, her options are wide open, perhaps too open.

STEM majors may have more narrowly focused skills and may lack the writing (and spelling) skills employers want, but they are more likely to find a job because the skills have focus and are immediately employable.

What do college students want - broad, valuable skills with no job or narrower skills with a job? I think most would choose to graduate with a job even at the expense of broader skills. This may be short-sighted, but most people will choose pragmatism over idealism every time.

Sriram Khé said...

Ramesh, we ain't changin' the way we spell and talk. To heck with the queen is what we said a long time ago ;)

Ramesh, Anne, if students listened to me, then they would be doing both--getting educated and getting ready for employment. But, most students do not ever listen to me. I don't blame them. Why should they when the rest of the faculty tell them to simply follow their passions and do whatever makes them happy. I often remind students about the marshmallow test and delayed gratification.

The liberal education that I champion would do both. However, the system in place now neither educates students nor prepares them for employment. Faculty simply want to teach their favorite topics and then go home. Administrators want to make sure that students do not get too independent and that they would depend on the bureaucracy--it is job security for the administrators. Students, for the most part, do not care about anything as long as they get their long weekends to party, are able to have sex, and enjoy the ball games.

The rare, rare student who listens to me, well, it is such a small number that I know what they are up to--and they are doing well.

BTW, the next post does follow up on at least one related issue ...

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