The main point is simple: University as vocational training is a new concept, and I suspect it is one that is about to make an exit. It’s simply not the right tool for the job.
First, a quick take on history.
Before WWII, University was something extremely rich people, or would-be academics, attended. The rich people did it for prestige — their future was assured in any case. The pre-academics did it because for that one vocation, college is the appropriate apprenticeship. A college — a subdivision within a University — aimed to create well-bred 1%ers, and steer would be academics in the right direction.
For the working class — including skilled and specialized workers — there were other forms of education, mostly centered around on-the-job training. Apprenticeship being the most common pattern.
In the U.S.A., the G.I. Bill opened the college experience to a new generation, which meshed well with the changing needs of American business. The increasingly corporate world needed workers who could read, write, employ logic, understand figures. College was, perhaps, overkill for the skillset, but a college grad could generally be relied upon to write a memo.
But where are we now?
The needs of business have moved on. A general purpose facility with basic math and language is, of course, still handy. But the college experience has diverged from its original mission, and business has developed far more specialized needs. To a certain degree, these developments are related — but it’s not working very well. There are two fairly big problems.
1. Universities are run by the academics. Remember those interlopers in the ivy-covered halls of privilege? They’re still there. They’re still doing their vocational training and going on to become professors. But rather than being tasked with expanding human knowledge (which is what they want to do), or stamping out new young men and women of privilege (which is how they used to earn their paycheck), now they are asked to prepare young men and women for professional careers.
You see the problem? The academics don’t know a goddamned thing about professional careers. The training that kids come out with is at best inconsistent, and frequently completely useless.
2. Specialization is the enemy of general education. Not only are kids not graduating with useful skills, they are not graduating with much education at all. There was a time when going to college guaranteed a certain common language. The classics. A foreign language (probably a useless one). The “major” or other direction was an expression of interest, but the education was guaranteed to be broad. A chemistry major would have as much exposure to history, philosophy, and literature as someone preparing for law school.
You see the problem? College no longer offers a good education.
So: Bad vocational training and a bad education?
Of course there are exceptions. Lots of exceptions. And there are exceptional people, lots of them. And some vocations are different from others. It’s a crazy confusion of inconsistencies, so drawing any general rules is risky.
But let me introduce some anecdotal evidence from my current career.
I’m a software developer. I interview a lot of recent graduates, both bachelor’s and master’s degrees. And I despair of the state of computer science education. Graduates in computer science rarely demonstrate the fundamentals of how computers work. Instead, they have typically been exposed to a smattering of languages, and a sprinkle of concepts. They have probably done several big projects, which generally have little to no real-world benefit. And because those were group projects, it’s often hard to figure out what this student right here actually did, if anything. As often as not, the project was the idea of a T.A., and implementation and architecture were guided from above as well. This process can continue on through the master’s degree, wherein a student, again with a group of peers, works on some professor’s current research. These are sometimes cool projects that I wish *I* had an opportunity to work on. But it has no bearing on real-world software development, and any given student may or may not have learned a single useful thing over the course of the work.
Some schools are different: some schools specialize in real-world training and aggressively pursue valuable internships for their students. Not surprisingly, graduates from these schools are much more in demand than graduates from other schools. Universities aren’t stupid, and more schools are starting to attempt this alignment. But Universities are big. They have competing interests. They are slow to change. And individual professors are often resistent to change. Like I said, it’s a crazy confusion of inconsistencies.
So, uh: You’re saying people shouldn’t go to college?
Of course not, and to the link that started it all: young people should pursue their passions. If those passions are academic, or the best way to pursue them involves a tour through academia, by all means. Go to college. For as long as it takes. But if what you want is vocational training for a “good” career, take a good long look at that career to see if college is the right answer.
Let me briefly tour my own history: I didn’t quite know what I wanted to do, but I come from a family of academics, so college was not even a question. I went to public school in a wealthy town, which was a lot like going to private school: pretty much everyone was heading off to college, and there was a pecking order of who got into what. I got into the school I wanted to, but I couldn’t afford it without enormous loans. My parents being academics, I had a great opportunity to go to a state university instead and graduate without debt. Which I did. I ended up majoring in philosophy, which had the final result of convincing me that contemporary academic philosophy is completely bankrupt and I have no interest in pursuing it or anything else academic. So, I graduated with a “useless” degree and no debt. Could have been a lot worse.
One thing young people should know: life has a lot of twists and turns. Our world offers many opportunities to reinvent yourself. The “good” career today may be a dead end tomorrow.
Personally, I got very lucky. There I was shelving the computer section in a bookstore. Well dressed guys in suits would come in and by HTML for dummies. I loved working in my bookstore (really, it was the best time of my life), but after a while I realized that just playing around with my 386sx and browsing a few books from the bookstore, I knew more than these guys in suits. (Ok, to be fair, I had always been an amateur computer hacker.)
In the mid 90’s, if you knew what angle brackets were, you could get a job doing web development. I did, and because I was passionate about it, and had the extremely good fortune to work with some really smart people, I got really good at it.
I can even say my philosophy degree helped: symbolic logic is a fools game, but it does help train the brain for things like recursion and code analysis.
What worked for me: passion and on the job training.
So, to bring this novel to a close. The university system is failing. It’s failing students (poor training); it’s failing society (poor education); and it’s just plain failing. Universities are being treated like businesses, and the numbers don’t add up. Government doesn’t want to subsidize it any more, and the corporate world is similarly skeptical. It’s a house of cards, and it’s going to collapse.
Here’s what we need:
1. Good general education for a white collar society. Every American should have the opportunity to learn the core requirements for a white collar job, if they want it. This should be the same old basics: good understanding of history, literature, basic math, a foreign language, scientific method, and a survey of the breadth of intellectual and professional areas of specialization. Ostensibly, this would be what high school does, but as we all know, adolescents stewing in hormones and home-town adolescent politics are in a terrible place to learn anything at all. A two or three year deep dive on general education — without any expectation of specialization — would do wonders to offering students the basic tools of thinking and communicating, as well as a common language upon which to build their future.
2. Good vocational training for professional careers. Here’s a great example: law. Becoming a lawyer is hard work, and it requires both on-the-job training (internships), broad familiarization with the field and its history, and deep understanding of the theory and practice. It is validated by a test that is reasonably hard to pass. It is not an undergraduate option. More professions should have this structure.
3. Societal support for academic research and true higher education. Universities are burdened with so many obligations they aren’t doing this very well anymore. But there is a reason that society needs these folks. R&D that takes place within the corporate world is extremely valuable, but it is also corruptible, and it is optimized for R&D that makes money. (Ok, university research is also corruptible! Fair point!) But we need a vehicle for today’s intellectuals and scientists to innovate creatively and explore areas of human understanding that do not have a short term profit center. This creativity makes all of our lives better, and results in ideas that change the world.
These three things are probably different things. But whether so or no, we need them. And we need young people with the courage to pursue their passion, regardless of a guaranteed paycheck. And we need them to be able to do this without selling their souls to a bank.
Whether we take a societally structured approach to transforming education or not, it’s going to happen. The current system is broken, and it’s not going fix itself.
And let’s not make it too rigid, ok? Let’s make sure that the bright kid who’s been self-educating for his whole life can still get work in the area of his fascination without being required to jump through 4-6 years of unnecessary training!
Update: I cannot for the life of me figure out how to comment or add a note onto my own blog entry. Tumblr fail, or am I just an idiot? Anyway, to Julie… I completely agree, but I see colleges failing even at this. I talk to young relatives who are in college now and are taking exciting classes that are very relevant to contemporary society, I’m sure, while missing out completely on the fundamentals. I would post examples, but I’m afraid it would just make me look like even more of a fuddy duddy than I actually am.
- mcjulie said: The thing the vocational school people are ignoring is that a GOOD general education is very FLEXIBLE. It prepares you for the process of learning, the process of analytical thinking, the process of communication and synthesis.
- blu3jack posted this