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What should a student learn from college? Why go to college?

1 November 2009

In the comments to yesterday’s post a discussion arose about the purpose of a college education, sparked by ”JOURNAL: I’m Young and Need Advice“ by John Robb, posted at his website Global Guerrillas, 26 October 2009.   Robb replies to an important question often asked by young people:  “What should I be doing to prepare myself for an uncertain future?”   I recommend reading the post in full, as this post gives only a brief excerpt.  This post gives an alternative answer. 

At the end are links to other posts on the FM site about education.  Also, although it should be unnecessary to say, these are all opinions on matters about which we can only speculate.

Robb answers this on three levels.  First, a goal:

You will need train yourself to be an entrepreneur, to run your own business. This requires an ability to do everything from designing your own products to selling products to keeping the books straight.

Second, about college:

That being said, you should still go to college (if you haven’t already). For the most part, it’s not going to play much of a factor in how you make your living in the future (for most people). Instead, do it because it improves you as a human being. Learn about everything you can while you are there, from philosophy to physics.

Third: about a broader skill set (this is an abstract from his reply):

Here’s the maximal strategy for those that can pull it off (I’m assuming that if you are reading my work and you understand it, you certainly have the smarts to pull it off). … Learn to make/repair things. … Learn how to communicate/collaborate with others online.

Section One — Career Goals

An alternative view to his goal (section #1 above):  not everybody wants or is suited to be an entrepreneur.  It’s just one path in life.  I know, as I’m not.

Section Three — acquiring skills

An alternative view to his third section, here is advice from Sherlock Holmes (from A Study in Scarlet, by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle):

“I consider that a man’s brain originally is like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose. A fool takes in all the lumber of every sort that he comes across, so that the knowledge which might be useful to him gets crowded out, or at best is jumbled up with a lot of other things, so that he has a difficulty in laying his hands upon it.

 Now the skilful workman is very careful indeed as to what he takes into his brain-attic. He will have nothing but the tools which may help him in doing his work, but of these he has a large assortment, and all in the most perfect order. It is a mistake to think that little room has elastic walls and can distend to any extent. Depend upon it – there comes a time when for every addition of knowledge you forget something that you knew before. It is of the highest importance, therefore, not to have useless facts elbowing out the useful ones.”

I believe advice like Robb’s encourages drifting, idly picking up skills under the illusion that they’ll inevitably add up to something meaningful (there was a similar misunderstanding in the early days of AI research). 

Life is a brief journey, and I believe it’s best conducted with a map.  We each get to draw our own, and alter it on the road.  Decide what you want to do, and then list what skills you’ll need.  Your list will improves as you gain experience and knowledge.  Getting advice about your chart is valuable, and you’ll find a surprising number of experienced people will be happy to help.

Life is like any other journey.  Decide where you’re going, and provide suitable intellectual equipment for your journey.  Snow shows will not help in jungle.   If you’re packing for the arctic, don’t include an ice machine because it’s cheap and available.

Section two — the purpose of a college education

Here we go to an issue of great depth and complexity, which illuminates many important aspects of our society.  I strongly recommend reading one of the greatest books ever written about this:  The Closing of the American Mind by Allan Bloom — How higher education has failed democracy and impoverished the souls of today’s students.   Here are a two excerpts, a look at his thinking. From pp 336-337:

What image does a first-rank college or university present today to a teen-ager leaving home for the first time, off to the adventure of a liberal education? He has four years of freedom to discover himself — a space between the intellectual wasteland he has left behind and the inevitable dreary professional training that awaits him after the baccalaureate. In this short time he must learn that there is a great world beyond the little one he knows, experience the exhilaration of it and digest enough of it to sustain himself in the intellectual deserts he is destined to traverse. He must do this, that is, if he is to have any hope of a higher life. These are the charmed years when he can, if he so chooses, become anything he wishes and when he has the opportunity to survey his alternatives, not merely those current in his time or provided by careers, but those available to him as a human being. The importance of these years for an American cannot be overestimated. They are civilization’s only chance to get to him.

In looking at him we are forced to reflect on what he should learn if he is to be called educated; we must speculate on what the human potential to be fulfilled is. In the specialties we can avoid such speculation, and the avoidance of them is one of specialization’s charms. But here it is a simple duty. What are we to teach this person?

The answer may not be evident, but to attempt to answer the question is already to philosophize and to begin to educate. Such a concern in itself poses the question of the unity of man and the unity of the sciences. It is childishness to say, as some do, that everyone must be allowed to develop freely, that it is authoritarian to impose a point of view on the student. In that case, why have a university? If the response is “to provide an atmosphere for learning,” we come back to our original questions at the second remove. Which atmosphere? Choices and reflection on the reasons for those choices are unavoidable. The university has to stand for something.

The practical effects of unwillingness to think positively about the contents of a liberal education are, on the one hand, to ensure that all the vulgarities of the world outside the university will flourish within it, and, on the other, to impose a much harsher and more illiberal necessity on the student — the one given by the imperial and imperious demands of the specialized disciplines unfiltered by unifying thought.

The university now offers no distinctive visage to the young person. He finds a democracy of the disciplines — which are there either because they are autochthonous or because they wandered in recently to perform some job that was demanded of the university. This democracy is really an anarchy, because there are no recognized rules for citizenship and no legitimate titles to rule. In short there is no vision, nor is there a set of competing visions, of what an educated human being is. The question has disappeared, for to pose it would be a threat to the peace. There is no organization of the sciences, no tree of knowledge.

Out of chaos emerges dispiritedness, because it is impossible to make a reasonable choice. Better to give up on liberal education and get on with a specialty in which there is at least a prescribed curriculum and a prospective career. On the way the student can pick up in elective courses a little of whatever is thought to make one cultured. The student gets no intimation that great mysteries might be revealed to him, that new and higher motives of action might be discovered within him, that a different and more human way of life can be harmoniously constructed by what he is going to learn.

Thus, when a student arrives at the university, he finds a bewildering variety of departments and a bewildering variety of courses. And there is no official guidance, no university-wide agreement, about what he should study. Nor does he usually find readily available examples, either among students or professors, of a unified use of the university’s resources. It is easiest simply to make a career choice and go about getting prepared for that career.

The programs designed for those having made such a choice render their students immune to charms that might lead them out of the conventionally respectable. The sirens sing sotto voce these days, and the young already have enough wax in their ears to pass them by without danger. These specialties can provide enough courses to take up most of their time for four years in preparation for the inevitable graduate study. With the few remaining courses they can do what they please, taking a bit of this and a bit of that. No public career these days — not doctor nor lawyer nor politician nor journalist nor businessman nor entertainer — has much to do with humane learning. An education, other than purely professional or technical, can even seem to be an impediment. That is why a countervailing atmosphere in the university would be necessary for the students to gain a taste for intellectual pleasures and learn that they are viable.

That’s the good news.  Here’s the bad news, from pages 87-88:

This indeterminate or open-ended future and the lack of a binding past mean that the souls of young people are in a condition like that of the first men in the state of nature — spiritually unclad, unconnected, isolated, with no inherited or unconditional connection with anything or anyone. They can be anything they want to be, but they have no particular reason to want to be anything in particular.

Not only are they free to decide their place, but they are also free to decide whether they will believe in God or be atheists, or leave their options open by being agnostic; whether they will be straight or gay, or, again, keep their options open; whether they will marry and whether they will stay married; whether they will have children—and so on endlessly. There is no necessity, no morality, no social pressure, no sacrifice to be made that militates going in or turning away from any of these directions, and there are desires pointing toward each, with mutually contradictory arguments to buttress them.

The young are exaggerated versions of Plato’s description of the young in democracies:

[The democratic youth] lives along day by day, gratifying the desire that occurs to him, at one time drinking and listening to the flute, at another downing water and reducing, now practicing gymnastic, and again idling and neglecting everything; and sometimes spending his time as though he were occupied with philosophy. Often he engages in politics and, jumping up, says and does whatever chances to come to him; and if he admires any soldiers, he turns in that direction; and if it’s moneymakers, in that one, and there is neither order nor necessity in his life, but calling it sweet, free and blessed, he follows it throughout. (Republic, 56ic-d)

Why are we surprised that such unfurnished persons should be preoccupied principally with themselves and with finding means to avoid permanent free fall? No wonder that the one novel that remains continuously popular with students is Camus’s The Stranger.

Bloom provides a solution, but you’ll have to read the book to discover what it is.

For more information

Reference pages about other topics appear on the right side menu bar, including About the FM website page.

Some posts about America’s education system:

  1. College education in America, another broken business model, 3 July 2009
  2. The secret about our universities (seldom even whispered among Professors), 5 July 2009
  3. Women dominating the ranks of college graduates – What’s the effect on America?, 7 July 2009
  4. A better answer to “why women outperform men in college?”, 8 July 2009
  5. Is a college education worth a million dollars?, 10 July 2009

Afterword

Please share your comments by posting below. Per the FM site’s Comment Policy, please make them brief (250 word max), civil and relevant to this post. Or email me at fabmaximus at hotmail dot com (note the spam-protected spelling).

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23 Comments leave one →
  1. Elle permalink
    31 October 2009 2:23 pm

    Do universities need rescuing? If so,by whom and why? I am with Mr. Robb on this: “A College Degree for $99 a Month“, posted at Global Guerrilla, 4 September 2009 — Excerpt:

    To the extent that educational background is a factor in my hiring decisions, I would be more likely hire a person that succeeded at an educational program like Straighterline than somebody that went to a standard four year institution. Why? The choice demonstrates an ability to improvise — in that they were able to see the advantages of a $99 education vs. something equivalent at 100 times the cost. It’s also because they demonstrated an ability to operate successfully within an online work environment — which, despite it quickly becoming the critical job skill of the 21st Century, is something that traditional colleges don’t teach and most workers are terrible at.

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    Fabius Maximus replies: The homeschooling movement in the US shows the strengths and limitations of such programs. Very few people can master complex material or long courses of study without the structure of a formal school. On my experience, only about 5% who homeschool in first grade go to 12th; most re-integrate with regular classroom instruction. And the homeschool population is an exceptional one, mostly highly motivated parents who strongly value education.

    Like

    • Mikyo permalink
      20 July 2013 3:44 pm

      For students who already know what they want, there are many things that one can learn by sitting alone with a book or computer.

      Like

  2. Jon permalink
    31 October 2009 3:33 pm

    I’m with the John Robb who just published his advice to young people, wherein he said this:

    “you should still go to college (if you haven’t already). For the most part, it’s not going to play much of a factor in how you make your living in the future (for most people). Instead, do it because it improves you as a human being. Learn about everything you can while you are there, from philosophy to physics. However, don’t spend much money doing it (state universities are more than good enough).”
    —“JOURNAL: I’m Young and Need Advice“, Global Guerrillas, 26 October 2009

    Moreover, I believe John Robb has a son at or near college-age; I would bet my entire life savings that his child will be going to college (and more than likely it won’t be a state university).
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    Fabius Maximus replies: I’ve never understood this school of thinking — “learning everything you can.” You cannot drink the ocean. We are all just teacups, capable of holding only a teacup of water. It’s vital to spend carefullly those few years of concentrated learning. Randomly taking entry-level courses resutls for most people in a confused mish-mash. Also note that the first half’s advice (broad, superficial study from “philosophy to physics”) contradicts the 2nd half to gain a large number of technical skills (selling, accounting, CAD, scripting language, fix things, etc).

    Few people can absorb such a wide range of skills and knowledge in 4 years. It’s unrealistic advice.

    Like

  3. 31 October 2009 5:25 pm

    If I could control the educational system, it would involve the following reforms: Foundation

    1) Foreign languages from pre-school on. Probably Spanish, though any foreign language would be good. Besides the obvious practical advantages from being fluent in more than one tongue, learning foreign languages provides one with insights into one’s own English. Do not wait until high school. That is too late.

    2) Mathematics. The indispensable foundation for any science or engineering skills, math also provides the ability for critical thinking.

    3) Communications skills. Howto communicate ideas with other people and interact effectively with them socially.

    I would not be worried if most students could not offhand cite the capital of South Dakota; I would be worried if they could not read a map, know how to consult a reference; critique a speech by the Senator from South Dakota, or develop an argument concerning underpopulation in the Great Plains.

    Like

  4. 1 November 2009 4:33 am

    FM said: “I’ve never understood this school of thinking — “learning everything you can.” You cannot drink the ocean. We are all just teacups, capable of holding only a teacup of water. It’s vital to spend carefullly those few years of concentrated learning.”

    I call foul! FM, look at this very website – a platform for discussing, amongst other things, strategic thought, futuristics, technological change, geopolitics, ecology, sociology, counterinsurgency theory, demographics, finance, communication strategies, political institutions and their structural reform, culture, and resource depletion.

    Remind me again what were you saying about tea cups?
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    FM reply: I don’t understand your comment. This site represents the accumulated knowledge of many people. Me (the product of many decades of study), the people I cite in the over one thousand posts (covering a range far broader than my own), and those writing the over 13 thousand comments.

    Like

  5. Mikyo permalink
    1 November 2009 4:52 am

    The University of Fabius isn’t a WHOLE Ocean, just maybe a small lagoon :P

    Like

  6. Pete permalink
    1 November 2009 5:25 am

    FM, you are indeed correct; one cannot drink the ocean. Have you by chance thought of attending medical school? I ask, because I once had someone describe the experience as “trying to drink water from a fire hose.” Your sense of humor and his seem similar.

    Jon, you agreed with Robb’s thinking, “Learn about everything you can while you are there (i.e, college), from philosophy to physics.” FM, you disagreed, saying specialization is needed, focus on a specific area of knowledge and learning.

    Doing my best King Soloman imitation, you are both correct. The original idea of a broad liberal education was to make college graduates well-versed in enough fields of human knowledge to conduct themselves well in an advanced society and complex world. That many colleges and universities have done a poor job in general education over the past couple of decades, dumbing down the canon of western civilization and so on (As Bloom wrote in “The Closing of the American Mind”) and so forth, does not make this approach less valid.

    Fabius, you are correct in that if an education stops there, with only the general foundational courses and level of knowledge, most likely it will leave the student unprepared for life in a world that demands specialization. If a firm needs graduates who code in C++ or can design integrated circuits, they will most likely not care that you can quote Shakespeare from memory, only that you can do those things.
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    Fabius Maximus replies: That’s not what I said. A random assortment of entry-level courses can easily have the same result as a pie made with a random assortment of ingredients. Judicious selection and a plan are needed to achieve anything useful, IMO.

    As for med school, no. I suspect that the “fire hose” effect is a technique of the guild striving to limit the number of doctors, and one reason US health care is more expensive but no better than that in other developed nations.

    Like

  7. 1 November 2009 7:35 am

    FM: “I don’t understand your comment. This site represents the accumulated knowledge of many people…

    You say that we should not try and learn “everything”. The world is an ocean, and we have but tea cups. I don’t quite buy this — sure, you don’t know everything (an impossible task), but you (and your readers) know a lot. While you may not be the author of every link you provide, yet you demonstrate your ability to discuss the issues raised in these articles intelligently every time you post such a link. (Most of the time. ^_~)

    Tea cups? I see no evidence of the sort, and much to the contrary. Heck, the Fabius Maximus site is a testament to the utility – perhaps even the necessity – of knowing a lot about a lot.

    The question, of course, is the feasibility of such a project for the average undergraduate.
    .
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    Fabius Maximus replies: This sounds nice, but I must disagree. I know little about many of the subjects discussed here. And that little taken decades of study to accumulate. More broadly speaking, I believe my area of knowledge is a candle shining amidst a great darkness.

    This goes to one of the fundamental debates on the site. There are those who have confidence in their knowledge about complex things on the border of our knowledge, and advocate precise solutions. I side with those who stress the uncertainties, and advocate research and testing before large-scale implementation.

    Like

  8. 1 November 2009 7:42 am

    Universities are filtering and sorting devices. Admissions committees ensure that students attending their university have certain values and traits the University hope to strengthen and instill. From my experience raduates from Notre Dame are similar to other graduates from Notre Dame, but they are different from USC graduates or Grinnell graduates or West Point graduates. In this way, schools act as filters, finding and amplifying certain traits and values. In this way, someone looking for artistic or musical abilities can go to Grinnell, while someone looking for military bearing can look for West Point graduates. In a world so cluttered and unstructured, don’t university degrees provide a way for people to find like minded individuals and also to be found? Isn’t this one purpose of a University?

    Secondly, Universities serve as sorting devices. Engineering departments turn out people with particular skills, as do liberal arts, Language, business and science departments.

    To me, these two functions serve a great purpose to society. For the student, Universities provide an opportunity to experiment, dream, fall in love and determine their place in the social world. The friendships one forms at university often serve for a lifetime.

    Are universities perfect? No, they’ve made decisions and taken directions that are far from optimal. But they still provide one of the best launching pads for a life for which one is suited.
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    FM reply: While I agree with all you say, the statistics show that there is a third and far more important function — universities are a key component in the education system which maintains the economic classes in the USA. Children of the upper classes are almost guaranteed an elite place in society, while the lower class is screen out. The middle classes remain in a state of uncertainty, spending a large fraction of their income on grade schools (or the real estate that obtains good schools) — followed by ruinious college expenses for their children. This makes for a hard-working, passive, and thrify middle class.

    Like

  9. Mikyo permalink
    1 November 2009 7:44 am

    That answer is already widely known. The Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything! It’s 42, of course! Unfortunately, The Ultimate Question itself is unknown.

    Like

  10. Mikyo permalink
    1 November 2009 7:55 am

    Psst! Did anybody find that one about the “one hand clapping?” :p

    Like

  11. 1 November 2009 12:37 pm

    FM: “There are those who have confidence in their knowledge about complex things on the border of our knowledge, and advocate precise solutions. I side with those who stress the uncertainties, and advocate research and testing before large-scale implementation.

    Indeed. In this case, and in many others of interest and import (foreign policy, the economy, cultural issues, popular participation in governance) there is a general consensus that we are both too free and not free enough, too open in some ways and too closed in others, overmanaged and undermanaged, and so on.

    The problem is, often within ideological boundaries but almost as often crossing them, we don’t agree or have any firm knowledge as to which is which. That is, in which ways are we too free, and which not enough, and so forth. On both sides, ‘left’ and ‘right,’ there is strong conviction, and firm arguments and policies, backed by philosophical bases and historical data, that this or that should be more or less controlled, and a policy implemented on that basis (including the option of no policy).

    The result is what we have, a sort of drift, a lowest-common-denominator muddling through… in part, because both sides cannot both be right, and they cannot agree, nor can they separate (often, they exist in one and the same person).

    Our nervous systems do not deal well with uncertainty, and research and testing require time and involve risk, along with enough agreement to engage in them, and enough integrity to objectively evaluate the results. In this sense we know the ‘solution’ or at least a method that reasonably could arrive at it, but cannot bring ourselves to do so due to contradictions, some of them internal, between thought and feeling, between comfort and truth, between ideology and effectiveness. And thus our conundrum.

    Like

  12. anna nicholas permalink
    1 November 2009 2:15 pm

    The compass needs to shift the raison d etre from success and money , to doing work and doing good , and thirsting for knowledge .
    Talent and education are a blessing , but they should also be a scourge ; if much is given , much is asked in return .
    There should not be college courses in art , music , theatre , languages or sport : these things are for personal developement and could be studied at own expense in spare time .
    Core subjects are maths , physics , chemistry , geology , botany , zoology , history . These could be studied at 4 levels , school to specialist . Further courses on level 2 blocks give medicine and agriculture . Everything else – media , business , electronics – now taught in colleges , could be taught by the commercial businesses that use them .

    Like

  13. 1 November 2009 6:01 pm

    Re 11:
    Even our platitudes and aphorisms reflect this conundrum. A stitch in time saves nine, but don’t fix it if it ain’t broken. He who hesitates is lost, but look before you leap. Welcome to the human condition.

    Any discussion of college must include the internet. The WWW is changing everything. Social networking is substituting for the community and group identification that college used to uniquely provide to intellectuals. By and large, “hypercommunities” like this comment board are obviating the need for physical/geographic communities including college towns and campuses. The sustained focus and imposition of discipline college also provides may make a big come back as the social club aspect is eclipsed by the internet.

    Like

  14. Fanna Regulus permalink
    1 November 2009 6:09 pm

    FM points out that children need guidance — allowing them to drift according to their own whims will result in self-centered narcissists all the way up to the White House.

    Children need to be probed from the earliest age to find their deepest interests, skills, and talents. The child should be encouraged to pursue these under his own steam to develop self-reliance. The child (including university students well past sexual maturity) requires benign supervision and constant reminders as to goals and aims.

    Even in choosing marriage partners children in their twenties will require assistance and guidance.

    Like

  15. 1 November 2009 6:13 pm

    I think the excerpt from Bloom misses the point about why liberal arts educations are avoided by students: the high cost of college and the resultant debt. It used to be any college degree was a path to the better paying jobs, but this is not true any more. Why study something that will never produce the income to pay back the debt (which cannot even by bankrupted)? I find the disconnect between this concern and all the debate about becoming a better person shows a bizarre disconnect with economic reality.

    The fact is, if one want to make a decent living, a professional degree or a trade is a better path than a liberal arts education.

    And besides, the level of challenge is so low in most liberal arts programs that its a waste of time. The students who majored in liberal arts, as I recall from my college days 20 years ago (as opposed to math, science and engineering), were lumps who were going to college because they had nothing better to do. Why sit in a class full of morons?
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    Fabius Maximus replies: Can you provide any evidence for this statement?

    “liberal arts educations are avoided by students”

    It might be correct, but I don’t recall reading anything about this (of course, it’s not my field).

    Like

  16. Ed Stembridge permalink
    1 November 2009 6:26 pm

    FM: “The homeschooling movement in the US shows the strengths and limitations of such programs. Very few people can master complex material or long courses of study without the structure of a formal school. On my experience, only about 5% who homeschool in first grade go to 12th; most re-integrate with regular classroom instruction. And the homeschool population is an exceptional one, mostly highly motivated parents who strongly value education.

    We’re one of those <5% you mention, with one son beginning a career in film production (sans college), and one currently in 11th grade, both homeschooled from the get-go. Maybe we're not normative, but our reasons for educating in the home stemmed more from a desire to shape the character of our sons (particularly spiritual) rather than hand it over to their peers to be shaped. They happen to have also gotten a better than average education in the process (at least if you go by standardized test scores).

    We've watched numerous friends homeschool through primary or middle school and subsequently put their children in public school "for the socialization," which invariably has led to problems as their hearts are turned against their parents. Our sons are well-socialized, but it's been with a wide range of age groups and cultures – quite different from the age-segregated, peer socialization that occurs in public schools.

    For more on homechooling outcomes, see this recent study: “Homeschooling Across America: Academic Achievement and Demographic Characteristics“, Dr. Brian D. Ray (president of the National Home Education Research Institute), to be published aprox January 2010.

    Like

  17. 1 November 2009 7:35 pm

    I agree with you that societies are separated into classes by Universities. I would take it a step further. Class is determined by two features. IQ and money. There is certainly a economic/class division that separates people. Likewise, there is an IQ separation. Universities and programs serve as an important filter of IQ/mental ability. Regardless of income, without sufficient mental capabilities one cannot do calculus, science, engineering, writing etc. It’s probably only the top 25% of IQs with that capability. In a knowledge-based society, separating that top 25% is critical. Universities do that.

    Today, as you point out, many of the lower class have limited educational choices, though for very personal reasons, I would argue that this is not the fault of the Universities, but rather of expectations, personal decisions or something else (laziness?). As someone who enlisted in the Air Force out of High School and completed most of his engineering studies while enlisted, I’d like to offer an empirical insight to this.

    The insight is not that the courses couldn’t be completed or that their value wasn’t understood or that many of my fellow airmen lacked the mental horsepower to complete these programs. This is far from the truth. Many of my fellow airmen were smart enough, knew full well that a degree in engineering would change their economic status and had the financial and organizational support to complete these programs. However, they chose not to. They encouraged me and went out of their way to support my studies. However, in their own lives, they made consciousness, fully understood choices to follow a path of pleasure today rather then deferred pleasure and pursue self improvement through education.

    One has to be careful drawing too many conclusions from personal experience and granted it was a limited group of people I was dealing with, but nonetheless, they had the opportunity, understood it, and chose not to take it. You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink. Universities and society provided the opportunity in financially accessible forms to people with the ability to take advantage of it, and many of them chose not to take it. Whose fault is that?
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    Fabius Maximus replies: Do you have any data showing an IQ difference between graduates of the elite schools — to whom a disproportionate fraction of job opportunities go — and lower tier schools? I very much doubt it.

    Like

  18. 2 November 2009 1:59 am

    FM: “This sounds nice, but I must disagree. I know little about many of the subjects discussed here. And that little taken decades of study to accumulate. More broadly speaking, I believe my area of knowledge is a candle shining amidst a great darkness.

    You know enough about the subjects discussed here to discuss them intelligently. You also have the knowledge needed to separate out the chaff and the grain from the debates of our day. Is this too much to expect out of our college graduates?

    The constant references to your own inadequacy have prompted a bit of reflection on my own part. You have decades of study behind your words and judgments – most college undergraduates have but a few. Despite this disparity in knowledge, our political system treats you quite similar — one vote for one man, regardless of age or education.

    The American state intervenes in areas of justice, security, economics, science, and culture. How shall a system built upon the rock of an informed citizenry function if its citizens do not have a solid grounding in each of these disciplines?

    Like

  19. Murray permalink
    2 November 2009 2:58 am

    I’m not going to share my opinion on this article other than to say that Bloom’s book is on my ever growing list of books to read. I’m a product of a military academy, and I was wondering how that fits into all this? We all had to take history and English and political science. We all had to take chemistry and calculus and aeronautical engineering. The engineering majors hated taking geopolitics, the history majors hated physics. But there definitely was a view to establishing a common background, with specific required classes to establish something like a liberal education on top of the requirements of a major. Most schools shouldn’t strive for a vision like that of a military academy, but I figured it would be worth pointing to one example. I’m not going to get into the success or failure of it, and would be the first to criticize all sorts of things at my school (and the others) but I would say there are places that offer a coherent vision. Then again I very well could be pointing out the exception to the rule.

    Like

  20. financial crisis permalink
    2 November 2009 6:43 am

    The question is – What does it say about the society we live in when most sensible and pragmatic people attend universities for careerist purposes rather than striving to become more broadly educated at least to their own satsifaction?

    Monetary concerns make pragmatists of most everyone, unfortunately. Individuals who could potentially have become tremendous philosophers, it seems to me, will increasingly choose more practical (lucrative) areas of study. America has produced few great philosophers, compared to say France or Germany, only slightly mitigated by its young age. Most Americans, college graduates or not, cannot name an American philosopher.

    Which is to say, the humanities are underappreciated, perhaps dying in America. I find I can’t get a handle on the ramifications of this.

    I feel like a sucker for attending college without a clearly defined career path. The future law enforcement agents in my sociology and criminology classes whom I could tell were just waiting to trade in the cell phones on their utility belts for guns, surely now make more money than I do. They were not good at philosophy.

    As teacups it is knowledge of oneself that marks the truly educated. Vast and complex areas of study are man-made and arbitrary in comparison.

    I’ve learned much more talking with intelligent people and reading on my own that I ever did at school.

    Also, apologies if this was linked in a related article, but Lewis Lapham wrote an excellent, even beautiful, essay on this subject:

    http://www.laphamsquarterly.org/preamble/lewis-h-lapham-playing-with-fire.php

    Like

  21. J. D. lindskog permalink
    2 November 2009 3:24 pm

    These are the simple survival rules I offered my children.]

    1. Learn a survival skill. When the economy gets difficult you need a job to get by on. It may not be your passion, its usually the job that got you through school. Bad times don’t last and good times don’t either.

    2. Find and know your passion and learn what it takes to support it. The formal Ed, the street Ed, and, the inside industry Ed, you need all of it.

    3. Persistence, Persistence, Persistence. It’s the only that counts in the real world.

    Like

  22. anna nicholas permalink
    2 November 2009 10:53 pm

    My education was aimed at producing Godfearing , patriotic , upright , hard working pillars of society . Living in 2009 Soviet EU , I think this was the ‘last war ‘ mentality . What kids may need in 2020 is instruction in how to lie , to milk the system , to spot holes in processes ,to threaten ,to forge , to disguise , to disemble , to bribe , to travel undetected , to live outside the database or in multiple guises within it , to delete records , to alter information , etc . Are schools addressing this ?

    Like

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