David Brooks on Why You Shouldn't Go to College (again)

Judging from his previous column on the utter baselessness of college admissions, one would think that David Brooks really hates college. But this column which critiques esoterica in academia makes a much needed point:
It is no accident that Worthen and so many others are drawn to a teacher who is not a lifelong academic, but who was active in the real world. Yet our universities operate too much like a guild system, throwing plenty of people with dissertations at students, not enough with practical knowledge.

Why aren't there more scholars, like Hill, Gaddis and Kennedy, who teach students to be generalists, to see the great connections? Instead, the academy encourages squirrel-like specialization.

Too many universities have become professionalized information-transmission systems, when teaching should instead be this sort of relationship between the experienced Hill and the young Worthen, on whom little now is lost.

All of the professors that have inspired me in some way have been involved in multiple real-world things in addition to their scholarly work, even if that just means applying their scholarly work to real-world scenarios. This must be the case with other students as well. Most people attending college aren't looking towards four more years of academic schooling after graduation, so naturally they're going to find more guidance in people who have found ways to apply the knowledge of academics to their real-world activities. Yet, those who rise in academia and become in charge of the education of whole generations of college students don't have to be - and often aren't -  exposed to anything other than the academic system. It just doesn't make sense that the people in charge of educating the next generation of citizens have most of their experience in an area that most college students will not pursue.

Perhaps there is an argument here that the contemporary higher education system is designed so that practical training doesn't occur until graduate school. I would agree with this. Still, the point is not that kids should be receiving vocational instruction in college but that college is the first time they're exposed to the greater world. This means it's the first time they're living without parental supervision, given total freedom to make their own choices and learn from the consequences, hold their first real job, to vote, for most kids. So it should also be the time to introduce people to ways of thinking about the world. The colleges do this in the context of academics: you learn about the history of presidential elections, the way economy works through introductory economic models, the progress being made to cure diseases through the study of the genome, the basics of the legal system through studying scholarly works like Aristotle.  The problem is when you take a class on Aristotle where you only talk about Aristotle, and how his writings changed over the course of his life, and how this coincides with certain important biographical events. That kind of analysis is for specialists and scholars, not students who are being educated to be citizens.

Another argument might be that the goal of education is to create a society of sophisticated and cultured people. The argument goes something like intellectual engagement makes for a more civilized citizenry. That may be true, but ignores the fact that half of the reason for our educational institutions' existence in the first place is to produce research that is useful in the public and private spheres. If all we really wanted was to create legions of civilized people we'd send them to college at finishing schools and that would be sufficient. Instead we have universities, which is the model of institution the majority of college students attend, which it seems to me serve the role of bringing together knowledge-producers (professors) and knowledge-acqurirers (students) in a single environment, hence the "uni" in university. The remoteness of much of the college education from anything applicable is, as Brooks suggests, the result of the trend of overspecialization which breeds professors who are too invested in the trappings of their own academic sub-world to have an appreciation for how their work fits into the larger picture.

At the very least, even on a purely intellectual level, it's more interesting to be introduced to knowledge in the context of a problem to be solved.  Part of the appeal of college is that you're finally learning on a high enough level that the knowledge can be used to apply to real world problems. For instance, your high school biology curriculum has to introduce all of the historical work that has been done in biology so far before you can understand the current work. At the college level you're finally dealing on a level that allows you to understand the work that's currently being done and the problems to be solved. For me, being able to understand the problems of the day is certainly more motivation to learn than being able to say I've completed a course or have met my teachers' standards of competency.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Specialization is inevitable as our knowledge branches out to every known and unknown corners of this world, physical and theoretical. There is indeed, more and more to learn, and more basic information in every subject to swallow. The question is, at what point should we start specialize and does specialization put us on an irrevocable path that is devoid of real world attachment and application?

I, on the other hand, have thought that your undergraduate education provides what you probably will never experience once you step into the work force. Classes in esoterics, ancient history, classic theories and advanced science are doors that will likely never be opened again for you after college. Certainly, most of them have no practical value in the real world. They don't necesarily make you a better citizen. The society as a whole teaches you how to be a good citizen, not an institution. In college, you still have time off school to get a little taste of the the world outside of the academia through your part-time jobs, internships, traveling, etc. In school, it depends on the individuals to seek out problems to solve and challenges to take on academically and socially. Out in the real world, problems thrusted upon you no matter how ready you are. So it is a personal choice as to how much exposure of the real world you want to have before entering the jungle; college neither limits or, in your words, broadens such opportunity. The main aim of college is to educate us in academics. After all, where else can you go for an education like that?

Given that many people pursue professions different from their undergraduate majors and still do well, there are things they learned (in college or in society)that are general, applicable and adaptable to real life situations.

The ideal is to have education be comprehensive and be able to integrate related and seemingly unrelated subjects into what we learn. The truth is not every teacher can perform this task and we must seek a balance between being specialist and generalist.

I agree with the importance of problem-solving. We should be spoonfed more of those.

(toast to my first post!)