The Current Paradigm of Education and the Information Age
If college is about anything, it’s about getting the wheels inside one’s head to start moving. It’s a sad, but true, fact to point out that too many people in our world today simply do not do enough critical thinking. In order to combat that, a few bright and intellectually curious students at Boise State have, in conjunction with the Honors College, decided to organize a weekly discussion group called the Friday Forum. Every Friday a number of people will gather to discuss, debate, and engage in a (hopefully) lively conversation about a previously chosen topic.
Yesterday we held our first meeting and I can say with the utmost enthusiasm that it was a success. There is always the fear that these types of things will be plagued by frequent, and awkward, periods of silence as people sit back and refuse to voice their opinions. Thankfully, we did not have this problem. In fact, I believe everyone had their say (many times more than once) and if subsequent meetings are anything similar to the one today I believe this will be a huge and lasting success.
For our first topic we decided to discuss education. Of course, that is a rather broad topic and could include everything from elementary education to voucher programs. We purposely made it a point to try to shy away from the politics and public policy debates in our first meeting (as those can get rather heated) and went with something more along the lines of the philosophy of education. We asked people to come and discuss the pedagogical aspects of education- how we should be learning and what can be done to improve learning in the classroom and throughout higher education.
Although that might at first sound like a dry and boring subject, it quickly became evident that the students present had a good many things to say about it. Because the topic was purposely broad I expected the discussion to follow a number of different rabbit trails, weaving its way throughout the numerous aspects of how best to educate and be educated. This is exactly what happened and we covered everything from the role of GPAs in measuring success to personal motivations to do well in school.
One of the more interesting aspects of the entire meeting, in my opinion, had to do with the question of equipping people for the jobs of the 21st century. As one student noted, today we are attempting to train people for jobs that do not yet exist. This is to say, technology and markets move so quickly that one cannot predict what will be on the horizon even five years down the road. This led to a belief, seemingly shared by most of the people in attendance, that schools needed to focus on education that is more skills based rather than the typical method of training students to regurgitate information for the next test (knowledge 95% of them will forget the minute the semester has ended).
People went around and around arguing about what “skills-based education” would look like. One of the suggestions had to do with breaking students into smaller groups led, perhaps, by older students who would get the experience of teaching but also engage the students in a way a lecture hall filled with one-hundred students and one professor may not be able to.
My small contribution had to do with asking whether focusing on how we teach is the only thing important here. Perhaps just as important is to focus on what we are teaching. Or, maybe, a combination of those two questions is optimal. At any rate, I would like to clarify exactly what I meant when I spoke.
It seems to me that if education is supposed to prepare people for the real world, and if the real world is often changing, then what we learn in school is going to have an incredibly important impact on how we function in our day-to-day lives. Clearly, being taught electrical engineering two hundred years ago would have been pretty useless. So if we’re still using the same core curriculum as we were two hundred years ago, is it possible that some of those subjects are useless today?
Allow me to explain. Each year, thousands of students graduate with degrees in sociology, English, literature, gender studies, communications, and so forth. Tens of thousands of dollars are spent teaching students Hemingway, theories of social stratification, and the more technical aspects of grammar structure. I think we can all quite easily see why it could be important to know some of these things, but the real question boils down to a cost/benefit sort of analysis. Is it worth the cost- to the individual student as well as society in general- to be paying tens of thousands of dollars on learning subjects that will not help secure a job in the digital and information age?
Philosophy is another example. I love philosophy, but is knowing Hegel’s works on aesthetics really crucial to getting a job in today’s work environment? Will it even differentiate you from all the other graduates going after similar jobs? Probably not. Plus, it’s expensive. Here is an example of what I am talking about. A student spends $200,000 on a four-year degree in sociology. Think about that for a moment. $200,000 dollars on a worthless degree. Her monthly loan-payments will be more than many peoples’ mortgage. Is this a wise investment for a country to make? Even before the collapse of the housing bubble and the job market, is there anyone who would argue that degree could have net her a job that would justify $200,000? Let’s be honest: with a bit of dedication that student could have gained the same amount of knowledge about sociology by spending $500 dollars on books on Amazon and a few devoted hours a day studying them.
I want to emphasize that I am in no way denigrating those fields of study. I think they are fascinating and enrich our society in ways that, say, accounting cannot (no offense to those accounting majors out there!). And if someone really wants to study those subjects more power to them. But, as those of us studying the economy are constantly reminded, there are constraints and limits in life. Resources are finite. It would be great if we could all drive absurdly expensive cars, but we can’t. It would be equally great if we could all spend ten years in higher-education studying the humanities or other equally interesting subjects. But, again, we cannot. And if we as a society are going to spend the hundreds of millions of dollars we do every year on higher-education, it seems to me we should be investing in fields that will give us a decent return.
So what does that entail? It means that we start focusing more on subjects that will help students secure jobs in the information age. Many Asian countries are already doing this. The focus is mainly on math, science, and engineering. That’s why they’re beginning to out-compete us. Along that same line, many Asian and European countries are channeling resources into trade and vocational schools, as well as internships. In other words, they want to send their students into schools and work environments where they actually learn the sort of things they will be doing when they graduate. A United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) study published in 2004 notes that,
Vocational and technical education and training is a high priority in most of the OECD countries studied. Various models are used: enterprise-based training with apprenticeships; school-based training with or without placements; a combination of school-based and enterprise-based training; or different variations of these three main models.
These options seem to me a positive way forward for American higher-ed. We are, today, at a sort of crisis. Many economists and analysts are warning of a “higher-education bubble” that may soon burst. Defaults on student loans are rising rapidly, a trend that can be expected to continue as the unemployment rate for recent college graduates moves upwards. Opening the options to students by encouraging alternative schemes of learning as in Europe and Asia could do wonders for education in this country. Trade schools and internships also tend to be considerably cheaper than a full-on, four-year education. Unlike most of what is learnt in college, those sorts of opportunities would focus on skills-based learning.
It’s time to make some hard decisions before those decisions are made for us. $200,000 sociology degrees are not sustainable. It’s time to take a good, hard look at what we are taught in college. With the rise of the internet, teaching oneself philosophy or psychology is much easier than it used to be. Books can be obtained relatively inexpensively from Amazon and other online sellers. Specifically educational websites, such as the free Kahn Academy, allow one to learn from the comfort of wherever one happens to have a computer.
How we learn is a crucial question that needs to be answered. But we ought to be equally concerned about what we learn, and what we’re willing to devote scarce and expensive resources towards. If we can answer those two questions never again will there be doubt about America’s education system.
And with a group like the Friday Forum asking these hard questions, I think we’re well on our way to that goal.