Friday, October 26, 2007


This I think is a fairly well put together interesting video that was recently featured on YouTube.

I watched it and had a few thoughts. The first and foremost being, man am I glad that I went to a school where I got to be in small classes. Average class size of 115? that's ridiculous. Yet I could look at every statement and say yes I know someone just like that, or I am in fact just like that.

I then read some of the comments left for the video, and that is what actually spurred me to write something; there were comments saying well if you didn't use facebook, or just didn't spend as much time would actually get what you should out of an education.

Well, I have two responses to this, one direct and one really the reason why I'm writing here. The first is: the internet is addicting. It is, no questions asked all of the technology that we associate with the internet allows you to become drawn in, and it seems that there are higher returns the more you use something. Blogs: I check the blogs that I read everyday, sometimes more than once a day. The people whose blogs I read don't update everyday, I don't update everyday, but as a consumer of this information I want new information and stimulus every day. I will point out that if you're away from the internet for a week, in many ways you don't miss it at all (or at least I don't, but then we all know that I'm an obstinate hermit who hates technology). Anyway long point made short, the internet is addicting, and is the easiest way to remain socially connected for many college students.

Here is my other reaction to the comments and the video, and I guess society: (today has been a colon day!!!)

The comment was that you have to get this education in order to make a reasonable living. The thing you always hear is well you'll never be able to do anything worth while unless you have at least a BA. Yet not everyone is academically inclined. That is not to say that some people are too dumb for school, but rather that some people are not wired such that they will get anything worth while from a college education except a diploma such that they can get a better job (and ostensibly debt). In fact I would argue that there is a tremendously large population that simply slogs through college because they feel they have to in order to get anywhere in life.

I don't think that everyone should go to college. I don't think that everyone should desire to go to college. I don't think that our society should place such stigma on those who don't pursue higher education. It absolutely can be a waste of your time and your (or your parent's) money, and it may not be because you are lazy and easily distracted by the internet and video games.

we have education for youth up to the age 18 because it is the way that our society has created to try to expose youth to all of the opportunities that they have. All of them, so that means that if they choose to not become an I-banker, or pursue some other profession that does not require higher education, that does not mean that the system has failed them.

I'm not actually sure that our goal should be to get as many kids as possible to go to college. I'm not advocating that there should be a smaller intellectual elite, but rather that for those whom college will not serve to expand their worlds in a manner that they are interested in, perhaps we ought to have other options that are looked at as equally noble endeavors. Apprenticeships to skilled labor, or learning art organically rather than through history, there are so many ways to expand ourselves that are just as worth while as college.

Anyhow I'm not sure this has come across very clearly as I wrote it as I was having thoughts about it, rather than after mulling it over for an extended period of time and the honing it down to something that you the reader might follow as a concise argument. Don't be alarmed if you come back and the post has been edited for further clarity.


Elizabeth said...

It's interesting to me the decline of apprenticeships for skilled labor (and I presume art). There was a time when the way you became a chef, for example, was to get work as an apprentice chef in a restaurant kitchen and learn the trade from a mentor. Now people are expected to go to culinary arts training schools before they are even let in the kitchen at such a restaurant. For many people who just want to cook, this is absolutely ridiculous. Similarly, to get into fashion you don't get someone to teach you how to sew and experiment with design, you study sewing and design at an arts school. Anyone who doesn't is laughable: a seamstress at best rather than a designer. At Penn State there are programs for people to specialize in Frozen Confections, of all things.

I think we're overacademifying these fields, in some ways. And if the apprenticeship or the organic learning has become displaced by a corporate academy, the apprenticeship itself becomes essentially meaningless - just another degree.

Duff said...

Both Chicago's and Carnegie Mellon's physics departments did a fairly good job at encouraging students to get involved in research as undergraduates. This is important precisely because of the virtues of apprenticeship. Further, that is an advantage of not having a huge physics department. Of course things are shaky if you and your adviser don't jive, or there are no available advisers in your desired field. For physics, I'd say the only purpose to classes is to get one to be able to think with and competently use advanced mathematics to describe nature. Aside from that, they are somewhat useless.

IN biology, I've long wondered if things would be better served if they did away mostly with lectures, perhaps limited it to once a week for an hour and a half, and the rest of the time was spent working in the lab. I've always been curious as to what it means to think about biology outside a lab context. That is to say, not that abstract thought about biology cannot be had, but that it must be tied to the laboratory, as biology often does not have a mathematical framework that one can think within. Physics does have a mathematical framework that makes things somewhat laboratory independent, though this can pose more of a problem at times than a blessing. For instance, string theory has wandered off into the great blue yonder, with no real contact with actual physics (they don't even have a model that can reproduce standard model phenomenology while still maintaining a coherent gravitational description).

I think a side benefit to restructuring biology along these lines would be the elimination of all those pre-meds that survive on their sheer ability to commit strings of characters to memory. Indeed, many intro biology classes often become a testing ground on memorization ability, not whether one can use biology or think biologically. With physics, the skill tested is often mathematical, how well one can apply math. That is why there is a decided lack of emphasis on memorizing. The mathematical acumen gained is useful in general in physics, even if the specific physical theories where it is learned is not where one performs research.

Alex said...


I agree with you whole heartedly about shifting the focus of the general public away from the "I MUST HAVE A BA" mindset and, like you said, provide a separate or parallel track. I have a number of friends who have expressed an aversion to going to college, and for the most part, i agree with them. One of them wants to be an artist: He is 17, part of two bands (one reggae-ish, one punk) and really sees no need to go to college. He is interested in going to art school, but really wants to find an apprenticeship of some kind (graphic design, for example). He knows that he does not learn very well in a classroom environment, and prefers one on one teaching.

It is easy to see why this might be so. He is a little prone to getting distracted, and having a more intimate setting for learning would do him well.

I have been thinking about learning alot (surprise, surprise!) and i think that college/university education, while it is very in depth, only caters to a very small subset of learners, namely primarily aural or visual learners who are particularly interested in theory (in the broadest sense possible).

So to take the case of my friend, who we can assume is at least in part a kinesthetic learner with an interest in practical art would get completely abandoned in a regular liberal arts college.

It isn't fair to make people feel like their calling is insignificant. And the college-centric sentiments that many people have are not helping at al on that front.

Working with this friend over the summer made me realize how pervasive this sentiment is. I consider myself an open-minded person, but found myself asking him about college a few times, even after i knew he was not planning on it. It must be really annoying to keep telling people the same thing time and time again: "I don't really want to go to college, judge me!"

Alex said...

just thought of this. what about schools like IIT and DeVry? I guess these fall more into the category of vocational schools, but there are a lot of them, and they generally do purport to have small classes, as well as interactive classes and internship opprotunities. Also programs like Daniel's engineering gig a few years ago. 3 months on school, 3 months on internship, and then repeat?

Alex said...

i don't mean to keep adding more and more comments, but the reading im doing right now is actually directly related. If anyone here is interested in further reading,

"Foundations of Contemporary Approaches to Experiential Learning" from Experiential Learning: Experience as the Source of Learning and Development by David A. Kolb, Copyright 1974, Prentice-Hall Inc.

Elizabeth said...

@ Duff -- Your claim about biology needing apprenticeships rather than classes is interesting and I have a lot to say about it. It reminds me of a claim that Mango made to me earlier, in which he said that physics was science while biology was engineering. That reply will be on my blog.

@ Alex -- My cousin and sister have similar stories to your friend; they found specialized programs at trade/art schools but would have been better served in all likelihood by a specific internship/apprenticeship. And the thing is that they had to face some of the same stigma simply for not going to a liberal arts college, simply for going to a "trade school". Which is ridiculous.

It's also an interesting thing to consider learning style with all of this. Duff's comments about premeds and memorization (and biology classes are not the only ones guilty of being biased towards people who can memorize long strings of characters) and your comments about being able to learn in a lecture setting are all really good comments. I also think that it does benefit everyone to have most all kinds of learning. The old statement (and this is brought up in the primary video) is that people learn best by doing -- what are we learning by sitting in a classroom, then?

I don't know about DeVry. I have a family friend that teaches at IIT, and from the way he talks about it he's in the exact predicament that was described in the video; teaching large lecture classes to students who mostly couldn't care less. He also has the same problems with kids memorizing things instead of understanding them, etcetera. So IIT is no different than UC in that matter, I don't think. (Or at least not much).

@ Everyone: Have you guys seen Wesh's (I think that's his name, right?) other videos (Notably, The machine is Us/ing us and Information R/evolution)? They are pretty cool.

Nina said...

A couple thoughts:

-- I have learned more on the job about the Federal government and Health Policy than I did in my entire major. HOWEVER, I have not really learned skills. No one has the time to teach me to write, analyze, evaluate an argument, (realize when politicos are manipulating data), go through drafts etc. College was critical for teaching these basic skills in ways that really couldn't be picked up on the job, unless you want to change the role of jobs.

The job market right now is not one where "learning on the job" is a fabulous thing. You're a liability to your employer, you're a time drain. Frankly, so are interns unless you stick them in the back room with nothing substantive to do. Although employers expect to have to teach you some basic facts about your field, some programs, etc., they aren't paying you to have to teach you basic time management, maturity, interpersonal skills etc. Which is what happens when you hire someone without a college education.

-- 2nd thought. As I've mentionned to many of you before, apprenticeships in Switzerland are still alive and thriving as a professional option. The upshot is that you have to make a career-changing choice at the age 15 and there's no going back. When my friend Mark decided that he wanted to become a landscaper, the "track" was to leave the academic route after 9th grade and engage as a full time apprentice. There's no discrimination or bias in this. However, you also don't have the option to change your mind and decide at age 18 that you want to be a surgeon. You just can't, there is no option. So another boon for college is that it extends that period for discernment to a time when you're probably more mature and more prepared to make that sort of life committment.

I'm a big fan of technical schools. But college for everyone has its advantages.

ps. I remember having this conversation with Duff and Alex and Doran back in summer '05. Duff and Doran went on about how everyone needs some cultural basics, and about how kids without college would never have access to basic texts, world-expanding ideas, etc, and how that was not okay. I seem to remember that I was on the 'con' side of the fence in that discussion, but it does bring up the question of "what cultural background do we as a society want to inculcate into our citizens?"

Nina said...

pps. "they aren't paying you to have to teach you basic time management, maturity, interpersonal skills etc. Which is what happens when you hire someone without a college education."

By that I meant, someone who goes into the job market when others go into college, so at age 18.

Elizabeth said...

Nina is full of good points!

I have definitely had the same experience that you have in regards to where you learn best, and you summarize it much better than I can/could. I have probably learned more in lab than anywhere else, and it's stuff that I use on a regular basis. However, I don't think that learning in lab should replace learning outside of lab, because the things I learned in a classroom made it possible for me to have the positive lab experience.

You are also certainly right that forcing the "what do you want to do with your life" question even earlier does not necessarily solve any problems, and that apprenticeships do push that decision earlier. I hadn't thought of it that way. I know, however, that medical schools and graduate schools accept people with abnormal backgrounds in the States, and universities accept people later on in life (sometimes without a high school diploma). What's to stop someone who decides at 15 to go into an apprenticeship from changing their mind later, getting a GED, going to college, and continuing on to academia? If they're passionate about it, it would certainly be more difficult but it would be possible.

Duff said...

I think Elizabeth is correct about a key difference between European system and American system. Firstly, there is no real reason to start apprenticeships at 15 rather than 18. Particularly if you are going to live to be 80 anyways! That is just how they do it in Europe. A priori, I see no real justification in this. Secondly, second chances from what I hear are rare in Europe. There is no notion of re-inventing yourself. Yes going back to school is hard to do when your older, both monetarily and in terms of time, but that is no real argument for making it impossible to go back to school. Thus the importance of community colleges to provide that option.

With regards to the maturity issues, that is something that just needs to happen at ages 18 to 22. Companies just don't want to foot the bill. That said, from talking with engineers, they view most of college training they receive as a waste of time in regards to how they conduct their profession. Also one begins to wonder why people are immature at age 18. Of course generalities here are dangerous, I've met plenty of 18 year olds (or 16 year olds for that matter) who would qualify as mature and responsible, I've met plenty who don't. Thus I don't trust ancedotal evidence. But it is telling about our particular culture that we do see 18 year olds as relatively immature, when in Roman times citizenship was given at age 16! Here I am suspicious of the influence that industry and marketing have, as there is a decided advantage to have 18 year olds as immature with regards to spending habits.

What I would advocate then, is not restructuring of high school as it is in the States. Indeed, I think the ideas behind our high school education are sound with regards to (mostly) their goals. Most problems seem to come from poor teachers and inability to pay people who would be good teachers and thus retain them. Rather, at age 18, the choice ought not be college or failure, but a broader range through apprenticeships, etc. But then we also need to inculcate the expectation that at age 18, you need to think about doing something, that you will have responsibilities.

Further, I think much of the "minimal" cultural value education could be achieved in high school. College if you want to delve deeper, but much of the basic knowledge in high school. I mean, most of my ability to write was derived not from my college experience (it was certainly honed there to a finer degree), but from just high school English classes.