Irrational Exuberance!

On Education, Self-Responsibility and Manure

December 2, 2007. Filed under education

A much favored topic for modern intellectuals is to bemoan how the standards for modern colleges have plummeted to depths that not only insults the concept of manufacturing educated alumni, but indeed the standards are so low that the mere thought of the state of our colleges is akin to ripping off a somewhat sizable piece of the disheartened intellectual's soul.

Its just that bad.

Or we can ask the talented students whose darling schools are being diluted by muggle-bloods... eh, I mean talentless and uncaring hacks. Indeed, a more challenging system would obviously be easier for these exceptional beings, because they simply can't be bothered to care about such a backwards cirriculum, and would effortlessly rise up and improve themselves if only the professors and schools asked for more.

Thus we have a lot of very bright people who are convinced of the failure of the college and university system in modern America. I've been in that camp myself. Sometimes it feels the system is irretrievably broken. It isn't serving the best students well, and the average student is declining in quality.

Often those opposed to these complaints respond that because the quantity of students entering college is rising, it is inevitable that the quality of the average student will fall. This argument is solid, and reasonable, but it doesn't find traction with the intellectuals or talented students because it doesn't address their particular concern: that the system isn't serving the best students well (who they either were, are, or believe they would be if the system wasn't in such a bad way).

The Roots of American University Education

I am certain that definitions for "serving the students well" is one that varies greatly from individual to individual. Most of those definitions, however, are probably not consistent with the German university system that we copied more than a century ago. The fundamental design of our universities (students who come to listen to lectures from professors) is not intended to maximize the education of students, but to maximize the professors' research, which happens to coincide with minimizing the amount of time and effort devoted to teaching.

So, we are upset that a system fundamentally designed to maximize research, does not optimize the learning experience of its students. Its true, although not particularly surprising, the system's design is not sympathetic to educating students.

When The Hell Did Education Become A Passive Experience?

This section's title gives away a bit of the fire, but we're going about this the entirely wrong way. Up to this point I have used the term "serving" frequent. As in "colleges are not serving their best students well." Although seemingly unimportant, it holds within it the hidden cancer that has ruined the quality of colleges. Instead of complaining that colleges are not turning out quality students, shouldn't we be asking why the students are allowing this to happen?

We have a generation of students who view it as the obligation of the universities to educate them, and not their obligation to reach out and grab the education for themselves.

The mindset is no longer that you are paying to recieve access to a marvelous resource, but instead that you have paid for an education, and the school is obligated to deliver your education--with complementary red bow and giftwrap--in a timely and convenient fashion.

Places Without Instructions

We are a generation of institutions. And one defining aspect of institutions is that they have guidelines. And rules. And instructions. And recommendations. Infact, a truly great institution can eliminate any need for original thought. In such institutions, if a task doesn't have explicit instructions, then it doesn't exist.

Ask a few college students these questions. My expected answers are to the right in italics.

  1. How do you become a doctor? Go to college, go to med school.
  2. How do you become a lawyer? Go to college, go to law school.
  3. How do you become a politician? Go to college, major in political science, get an internship in DC.
  4. How do you become a teacher? Go to college, get a Masters in Education.
  5. How do you become a professor? Go to college, get a PhD in something.

The professions that children are taught to worship are all attained through simple formulas. (As it happens, all of those formulas also involve undergraduate education, but only as a gateway towards something more important.) And so today's youth are following those formulas, because they lead towards a predictable and positive outcome.

People following instructions don't often stop to improvise along the way. They follow the instructions to the end, and then they improvise afterwards. College is no longer a final step for the majority of students who enter it. Instead, it is merely a stepping stone towards bigger and better things. Unfortunately, this isn't going to change until we stop teaching our children, and ourselves, to worship instructions with such religious intensity.

The awkward origin to this circle is that our schools (used here in the sense of all institutions of education, preschool onward) are complex systems that attempt to mold their students, and the lesson they are stamping into each and every one of them is that they must follow instructions to succeed. Modern education is killing itself, and us. And, as we stand today, will continue to do so until we find an instruction sheet for fixing it, along with an institution to inform us that it is indeed the proper course of action.

The failing of modern American universities is painful to behold because it combines systemic and individual deficencies to lend a staggering interia to the current system. Still, as we are slowly learning, the systems which encourage stringent instruction following are incapable of sustaining themselves on a diet of their own manure.