30 November 2013

The faculty fallacy -- how university education confounds pleasure and applicability and miseducates millions

Whenever I see a fresh university graduate struggle to find a job I feel sad. The choice of university program to take seems so easy and seamless for someone who just graduated from High School. Many students will just think of their grade school subject which they liked the most and study that. So easy back then! Such a nice transition.
But once education is over and young people have to choose an actual career, things can be way harder for them. Of course, some university programs have a strong connection to practice and lead directly to a certain kind of job or group of jobs. But there are other programs where the mapping is harder and jobs often require a range of skills which are not covered by the university program at all. And then there are programs which could lead to a whole lot of different jobs and besides needing some decision or commitment to a certain area they also often need additional skills and training which the university program doesn't provide. Often students just have to learn really important things during internships because there is just no course on it. (And I am talking of skills that are actually teachable in courses. It's simply that academia is not interested in teaching those important skills.) Even worse, there are programs which lead to a certain group of jobs, but the number of jobs available in the area is consistently and gapingly smaller than the number of students educated in that field. The gap is sometimes and order of magnitude. And this has been so for decades without anybody fixing it.

Old universities still have structure that too much resembles their medieval (and pre-medieval!) roots than their presumed contemporary purpose. When the first universities were founded, their purpose was not prepare the majority of young people for their adult professional life, but they were educating a small minority of people of the upper classes who didn't need to work. Only later they started "professional education" for theologians and lawyers. But, on the other hand, "liberal arts" and the "humanities" in particular are still to a large extend based on an education ideal of the leisure class from two thousand years ago.

A recent McKinsey report found that a large proportion of college graduates feel "overqualified and underprepared" at the same time. Many students even from the top 100 universities "couldn't get a job in their chosen field". For liberal arts graduates the report blandly states that "they fare worse than average in all measures". In my opinion the reason for this is very simple:

  • universities teach a lot of not-very-useful things
  • universities don't teach a lot of very important skills (especially soft skills like self-management, project management, interpersonal communication, holding meetings, ...)
  • the catalog of courses of a university mentions highly practicably applicable courses (like medicine, most or all kinds of engineering, marketing, law, ...) next to courses who don't have any direct (or even just not any) application in professional life. There is no warning sign for the latter kind of courses!
I think the fact of mixing professional classes like the ones mentioned with leisure-and-passion type classes like literature, fine arts, and music is not necessary a problem per se. Aesthetics and beauty are part of being human and there is nothing wrong with that kind of beauty flourishing at universities. But what would be fair towards all the hopeful young people who enter university is to tell them clearly which courses have professional value and which ones mainly serve the spirits. 
Of course, it is possible to study music or literature and later make a living as a musician or a writer. But for the majority of music-making or fiction-writing people, this art will rather be a hobby than a profession. And it might all be fair and right that universities don't just prepare for the work life, but also prepare for a good human life by teaching some good hobbies and high-cultured pass-times. If you think that those intellectual subjects teach at least some critical thinking skills then that's wrong for about half of the students according to a studies explained in a book which is aptly called "Academically Adrift". 
The problem with the current system is simply that those hobbies are listed right next to the professional courses with the effect that our society is in the double-crises of lacking professionals in fields like engineering, medicine, and leadership, while at the same time being confronted with tens of thousands of arts majors of whom only a fraction can actually make a living of their original education while most of the others (according to the Kinsey study) end up "in restaurants and retail".

PS: If you're interested in alternatives to the current broken system, UnCollege seems to be a promising one. Forgo college until it is fixed ;-)


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