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