Getting an education in America

I like keeping myself informed about what’s going on with education. I’ve been increasingly alarmed about what is happening at our universities. It began first with a sense of alarm several years ago, when I read that at universities like Princeton and Harvard, going back to the 1980s, the arts and humanities had been taken over by post-modern thought, and rather than studying the classics and history, they critiqued them, turning out people who were not taught to care what the masters of the arts, literature, and history thought, but to instead criticize them from their own uninformed vantage point. I’ve since heard that Princeton has made a positive change, bringing back classical liberal arts.

I started hearing accounts of CS graduates who can (not) (program). Around the same time, I was hearing complaints from universities about the inadequate high school education their incoming freshmen were getting, and how they required a lot of remediation. I saw M. J. McDermott’s presentation about “reformed math”, and I heard about a new Applied Computing major the undergrad CS department at my alma mater was starting up, and it was more popular than the traditional CS major. I definitely got a sense that gradually over time, there’s been an almost imperceptible movement towards watering down, some would call it “dumbing down”, university education, with some bright spots that run counter to the trend.

What’s gradually dawned on me in the last few months is that our universities at the undergrad level are slowly being turned into vocational schools. I’ve pondered the question, “Why is this happening?” and I’ve done a little research here and there. It turns out this has been going on for a long time, since at least the early part of the 20th century. Captains of industry back then believed that a university education was useless, because graduates didn’t have any skills that could be put to work in industry immediately. In my grandparents’ generation, college was seen as the ticket to a high paying professional career. My experience is in my parents’ generation, it was seen as a path to a good paying career, but not stratospheric. This POV has not been lost on universities that want to recruit students. So there’s been pressure to tailor curricula towards teaching vocational skills that can be of use right away in industry and specific professions.

Last summer, I read an account from an anonymous English/Literature professor at a “no name” college, who taught night classes to non-traditional aged students, called In the Basement of the Ivory Tower. It provides much needed commentary about a movement that started in the 1990s towards “universal access” to higher education. The professor said he flunks most of his students. Why? Most of his students do not have the requisite skills for his class. No matter. The university keeps recruiting the unqualified in the name of “universal access.” Most of his students come to his university to enhance their career prospects. They need the college credit, or a degree, to meet the qualifications for a better paying job, but they’re unqualified to be there in the first place. He said some of his students would be better off going back to high school. What’s heartening is the author refuses to water down his curriculum, and has received no pressure to do so by the administration. He is fortunate in that respect. I’ve heard from another professor that’s felt some pressure to water down what he teaches.

The anonymous author of the article couldn’t help the feeling that it’s all pointless, though. He said he would’ve loved to have taught students who could learn the material, but most of the ones he gets can’t.

College is the new high school

There’s another force at work. Foreign students who graduate from their high schools are farther along in their education than our high school students. A couple years ago, I heard a few first-hand accounts from foreign students who have gone to our universities for their undergraduate education, and they said a lot of what they learned in college was REVIEW for them! This brought home a little story Alan Kay told in a video that was made out of an interview with him called Education in the Digital Age, made in 1998. In it, he said he attended a dinner party in the UK, and a woman came up to him, and said, “You Americans have the best high school education in the world.” Kay was taken aback. She chided, “Too bad you have to go to college to get it.” Ah,…British humor, but it’s the truth. A high school education used to be enough to get a job that paid enough to support a family in this country. Today, this is no longer the case, by and large. Has anyone asked why that is? Why is it seen as necessary that in order to compete in a globalized world, we must send more students to college, just to maintain parity? It isn’t that more foreigners are college educated than we are. It’s that our undergraduate education in many cases is like their high school. And it would appear that we are slowly but surely turning undergraduate education into a high school educational experience, minus the standardized tests for measuring aptitude. The big difference is with college, parents and students have to pay tuition.

John Stossel wrote a piece called College Not Worth the Price of Admission?. In it he indicts many of our universities for suckering unwitting parents and students into a system that will ultimately make them financially worse off than if the students had just gone to work right out of high school. He says for these students, vocational training is often enough for them to get jobs that pay well enough to have a decent standard of living. This can be done at the community college level, or at centers where students can apprentice.

Why are universities doing this? Maybe it’s greed, or perhaps a misguided commitment to universal access. It used to be that universities were picky about which students they admitted. With many, this is apparently no longer the case. According to Stossel, universities are recruiting from the bottom 40% of the high school class in addition to the students who would normally qualify. Why? They figure most of them will not graduate college, but they’ll spend a year or two trying. During that time, they pay tuition, which goes into the university’s coffers. Some people excuse this saying that even some college is beneficial to students, as they pursue their careers. What gets swept under the rug is that many parents and students don’t understand that a college education is just that. It’s a more rigorous education, one that hopefully expands one’s horizons and perception. It doesn’t necessarily get you a higher paying job. That’s the truth. There are always some who get that four-year degree, who end up not being able to find work that pays enough to live on, and pay the crippling student loan debt they’ve accrued, because they majored in “basket weaving” (I’m using this as a generic metaphor. If you majored in basket weaving and are well off, I apologize). The show profiled some college grads who are making the same wages as high school graduates.

According to Stossel, what many universities are selling is an illusion, that a “university education,” no matter what students study, will help them earn “a million dollars more on average” in their careers than if they just tried to get work with a high school diploma. What Stossel’s segment points out is that if you look at the stats in a broad sense, this is true, but there are some high-powered individuals that skew the average. It’s reasoned that these people would be earning more than the average person, even if they never went to college. What makes the difference is ambition and drive, not a college education.

When I went to college to get my BSCS in the late 1980s, there was some of this mentality around, that a college education was going to lead to a good paying career. I remember some students training to be engineers talking smack about history, philosophy, English majors, etc., saying the only thing they’re going to be able to do with their degrees is become college professors, teaching other students who will go on to get “real jobs.” I remember seeing a large poster being sold at the student bookstore that had a luxurious home up on a hill, with a detached, stylish garage just a little ways below it, with about ten sparkling, expensive sports cars in it. In big bold letters at the bottom, it said something like, “THE VALUE OF HIGHER EDUCATION”. At the time, I almost believed it. Somehow, I must’ve gotten the message that a college degree would bring me a hefty salary. I even saw this poster in a couple students’ rooms. A nice vaccine for me against this sort of marketing was that I enjoyed computers for what they were. I wasn’t taking CS for the money, though I knew students who were. I had misperceptions about my career prospects, but they were my own, and were not strongly influenced by popular perceptions.

In summary, I’ve gotten a sense that our educational system is eroding under our feet. I think a big reason for this is the raison d’être of education has been lost, or confused. The classic purpose of education in our country was to shoot for an ideal of having an educated citizenry, and ultimately a few who would become educated leaders. Universities were not designed to be vocational schools. That’s why as a rule, they suck at it. Let’s stop trying to make them into what they are not.

I personally believe that the problem is our system of middle and high schools. Our students start falling behind our international competitors in middle school, and fall further behind in high school. Bill Gates said several years ago that our high school system is “obsolete.” By this he meant that even if our high schools totally functioned as they were designed, they would still be inadequate. He didn’t say this as a slam against high school, but as a 2 x 4 across the forehead to get people to pay attention to the fact that we shouldn’t be satisfied with what we have. It can be much better.

A modest proposal

I can’t say I know how to fix this, but I have a few ideas. We Americans have this tendency to believe that education is made up of facts and techniques, things which have been discovered and need to be conveyed. Once students have acquired the requisite facts and techniques they are considered educated. Our educational system’s approach to standardized testing reflects this.

Morris Kline said, “The logic of discovery is more interesting than the logic of the discovered.” I reflected on this a bit. Why was the movie “The Matrix” so fascinating, and its sequels kind of flat? The reason was that in the first movie, we were discovering along with Neo who he really was, and the truth of the reality he existed in. The sequels were kind of boring, because there wasn’t much new to discover. They mostly dealt with the “big ideas” that we as the audience had already discovered. What was new was mostly new characters, and flashy new action sequences.

What Europeans learn at their top schools is the important ideas; concepts, ways of thinking, and how to build relationships between them, not just facts. This is a more powerful form of learning. Facts can be applied to problems, but they don’t help solve problems beyond the obvious. Techniques are useful shortcuts in solving problems, but they are brittle. If all you understand is a set of techniques, what do you do when you encounter a problem outside of them? Are you better off knowing a set of facts and techniques, or knowing how to be a skilled and flexible thinker and learner? Are you better off learning “how to” manipulate quadratics, “how to” solve them, “how to” program, “how to” balance atomic formulas,”how to” write an essay, “how to” paint, “how to” draw, or “how to” play an instrument? Or are you better off discovering your inner mathematician, scientist, modeler, writer, and artist? Technique is helpful. I’m not saying that “how to” content is worthless, but it doesn’t get to what’s powerful about the subject matter. What’s powerful about education is the development of our faculties, and trying to replicate the same realizations that masters from our past have achieved (while making it easier for students to realize than it was for the masters), not pasting a bunch of “post it” notes all over students’ minds. Some factual reference points are good to have, but I think our educational system should use facts (and techniques) wisely, not with abandon as it has done for decades.

There’s a catch though. I believe that teaching this way requires that teachers are actually competent in their subjects, and this means in part that they’ve already discovered their inner mastery of their own faculties. I’ve heard in recent years for example that we often have P.E. teachers teaching math. Having a fact and technique-based educational system is amenable to this sort of setup. A teacher can follow an education guide for teaching a subject, give assignments by number, and grade against a key. This will not do if we want to improve the quality of education our students receive.

Edit 8-4-09: I just found this article in the New York Post that makes John Stossel’s point quite well, about how colleges are misleading parents and students into believing that getting a college degree will guarantee gainful employment. And now it’s coming back to bite them. A young woman who graduated with a degree in IT is suing her alma mater for the amount of her tuition, because she says getting the degree, and the college’s career services, has not helped her find a job. I don’t know if the mother is exaggerating, but she said they’re facing homelessness under crushing student loan debt. The former student probably won’t win her case, but it shows the kind of dishonesty that some academic institutions are engaging in.

The benefits of CO2

“We will restore science to its rightful place”
— President Barack Obama at his inaugural address

I heard this past weekend that the EPA has classified carbon dioxide as a pollutant that is hazardous to public health, and therefor needs to be regulated. What I feel is being left out of the discussion is that this much maligned gas is plant food. I assume we all learned about the process of photosynthesis in high school biology. In our society we apparently talk a lot about being “green”, but it appears to me that the EPA’s decision is actually anti-green.

Here’s a refresher on the process of photosynthesis.

Carbon dioxide is essential for plant growth

More carbon dioxide means greater biomass in plants (more plant growth)

There are a couple interesting things to note. One is that CO2 is heavier than air, so it has a tendency to sink towards the Earth. The Greenhouse Effect takes place in the upper atmosphere. I imagine there’s a bit of CO2 up there. The amount of it in the atmosphere as a whole is minute, about 380 parts per million. Here’s a decent article on the chemical composition of the atmosphere, and what’s known about its evolution since the Earth was first formed. It’s a bit old (it said CO2 was (currently) at 360 PPM).

Secondly, the chemical equation for photosynthesis (see the 2nd link called “process of photosynthesis”) shows that an equal amount of oxygen is produced from the amount of carbon dioxide that was introduced into the process. So more CO2 at the start will eventually produce a more oxygen-rich environment.

I understand there are concerns about global warming stemming from rising CO2 levels, but this side of the science is left out of the discussion, and it shouldn’t be. CO2 has a good side as well, and what these videos show in the small is that our biosphere has a natural response to higher carbon dioxide levels. It is absorbed into the bodies of plants and more oxygen is produced. We can think of plants as our natural carbon scrubbers. More than that, more plant growth leads to more food for us and animal life.