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.

9 thoughts on “Getting an education in America

  1. I’m an Asian studying at an American university as an undergraduate. Note that this college I’m attending, by way of reputation, is not of the likes of MIT and Stanford, but it’s a top public university nonetheless.

    My experience here in the US has not been much like what you seem to have illustrated here. Calling my entire undergraduate education a “review” of what I did in high school is a bit of an exaggeration: an American who has taken the most difficult AP exams and a couple of courses after that would be at the level of an Asian high school graduate. Besides, you can’t compiler design to be taught in high schools.

    You say “Americans have this tendency to believe that education is made up of facts and techniques,” and I say it’s much worse in most other parts of the world: back in my country, “education” and “rote-memorization” are synonymous. The very reason I came to America was to get the academic freedom I couldn’t get back home. I’ve heard horror stories on CS education in my country, and, there being such a high correlation between market demand and what students pick as majors, kids here are rarely passionate about anything but grades. Plus, the state of actual research here is laughable.

    I think Asian schools are really good at giving out a high average throughput, while it’s more laissez-faire in the US. Americans have ample opportunities to excel, far more than any other nationals. The ones who don’t make use of such opportunities will end up falling prey to the global competition; the top 5% or so need not worry right now.

  2. @GenMaxima:

    I did not say that foreign students experience a complete review of what they covered in high school. I said I’ve heard from a few of them that a lot of what they covered in their undergrad education was review. There was some new material, just not much. I accept that your experience has been different, and I wasn’t saying that what I describe is universal among foreign students. I’ve heard from a few foreign students, a couple professors, and a few news shows that have done a comparison, and what they said seemed to point in the same direction, that the public education here is not as rigorous as it is in some other parts of the world. I got a sense that this has caused expectations to be lowered at universities here. There’s been downward pressure on them to accommodate the lack of knowledge, and the lack of thinking skills that incoming students have. As an example, from what I understand, the CS education at some of our universities used to be much better decades ago than it is today, even better than what I had 16 years ago. Since I’m in this field I can point to two causes of this. One is corporate trends. The other is the state of public education. Public education is influenced by our culture, so that may be the major culprit there. If that’s the case then not much can be done about it without a major push from interested parties to get people thinking that a good education (not just an education of any sort) is important, not just to the culture itself, but to our economic well-being.

    I can relate to what you’re talking about, that we shouldn’t sell our university system short. On a recent trip I talked to a bank executive who immigrated from India, and he said that while he was not satisfied with the public schools here (he sends his kids to an American private school), he was pleased with the university education he was able to get here, primarily because of the liberal arts offerings which he could not get at India’s top schools.

    I’m not saying that our university system is in ruins. I want us to preserve what you and I both see as good qualities of our system. What I’m talking about is I’m seeing a long-term trend of decline showing up, and I’m just trying to point it out. When people are in a situation (I’m talking about professors primarily) and they’re busy, they tend to just pay attention to what’s going on at the moment, addressing the demands placed on them, and miss the bigger picture of what’s happening over the long term, because it’s so gradual. It’s only by looking at the arc of history that one can see it.

    I have heard that our country’s top ranked primary and secondary schools do well when compared to foreign schools. My understanding is there are not that many of them when compared to the entire school system in this country.

    You said: “kids here are rarely passionate about anything but grades. Plus, the state of actual research here is laughable.”

    When you say “here” I assume you’re talking about the U.S.? Just trying to clarify your comments.

    Which Asian country are you from? That may add some context to what we’re talking about here.

    I agree there are ample opportunities to excel here. My sense is we Americans tend to not appreciate those opportunities. I’m often inspired by foreigners because they relish the opportunities with a passion that I rarely see from people who have been born here. For example, we have public libraries with a wealth of knowledge in their books, but they’re being used less and less, primarily because of the internet. Those who would’ve consulted libraries in the past tend to think that all of the knowledge worth knowing is now on the internet. This is not true. We’ve been seduced by the technology.

  3. I wrote that comment in a bit of a hurry, and I’m really sorry about being so ambiguous. I’m from India, and am currently on vacation here. So, in my previous comment: s/here/India/. I believe most of what I said is true for Asia in general.

    Your point on lack of rigor is right on spot. In high school in India, not having embedded the subject matter in your neural structure meant not getting your diploma.

    Those foreign students’ remarks on most of their undergraduate studies being a review are be largely true if they are referring to biology, chemistry, physics, and mathematics only and definitely *not* the humanities.

    Even as a geek who has been programming since he was six and was already familiar with a bit of theory in high school, I feel that the CS education in the university I attend is top-notch. It actually suffers more from “Cold War syndrome” than “vocational education syndrome”, which I think is all right: I also get to do some decent research and work with some amazing hackers. I believe it situation should be somewhat similar for other top ten CS schools in the US. Hell, I can’t even name ten colleges in India that aren’t essentially JavaSchools.

  4. @GenMaxima:

    Re: CS education in U.S. vs. India

    It sounds like you have been fortunate in your choice of university here.

    I’ve heard Alan Kay say that Stanford’s CS program, which has been one of the better ones in the country, has been turning into a “Java certification program”. I believe I’ve posted before about how there are plenty of lesser known universities in the U.S. which have already turned into this, and they’ve denatured their CS program, taking away essential computing ideas. I heard just recently that MIT has tossed aside Scheme, and are instead going to use Python, because they are “changing with the times”. They believe that CS is now about analyzing existing codebases, and figuring out how to best put them together to create an efficient, effective solution. It’s no longer about studying fundamental ideas of computing and design. It sounds almost like the CS education I had from a “no name” university 16 years ago.

    Hearing things like this causes me to worry, because it feels like the discipline is tossing aside jewels of knowledge in computing because we think we don’t need them anymore. What no one is considering is who is going to write the next operating environments, languages, or the next generation of computer hardware? Certainly not people with an education like that.

  5. Alan’s choice of words is odd, since — apart from CS101 — Stanford uses C++ in the majority of its CS courses. I suppose you’ve read GJS’s rationale on MIT’s shift from Scheme to Python. While even I disagree with him, I fail to see what the fuss is all about: reading SICP costs nothing; I did it when I was in high school.

  6. @GenMaxima:

    Re: Stanford uses C++

    Hmm. Okay, I’m wondering now what he meant by that, too. I misstated what he said a little bit. What I remember is he said he had heard Stanford CS faculty complaining about the undergrad major being turned into a Java certification program. The first time I heard this was in an interview he gave in 2004, but he was talking about this as recently as last year. Maybe his information is out of date.

    I’ve read articles about Sussman’s statement on the reason MIT is switching to Python, which had some quotes from him. He doesn’t endorse the idea of this switch. He wished they wouldn’t do it. He just explained the rationale as he understands it.

    I know that SICP is on the web, so it’s free. From what I’ve heard the hard part is the exercises. I’ve read accounts from people who have gone through it on their own (doing the exercises) and it seems on average to take about a year to get through it that way (I guess doing it on their spare time, which may have affected how long it took, given work and family). In my experience you don’t really learn something in computers until you do it. Reading is fine but you don’t learn much that way.

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