Monday, December 12, 2011

college as signaling/education/life-coaching

I wouldn't go as far as Bryan, but I agree with his general point that college is often more of a signaling device (I went to college, therefore I am the type of person who gets into and finishes college, therefore I'm a good hire) than an actual educational system in which you acquire the skills you need to excel at your career.

I do, though, think that part of the reason is that college is designed to be good at one kind of education, and that kind of education isn't very general, and out of some combination of inertia and a concern about maintaining credibility and the fact that the pure signaling mechanism already works pretty well at motivating enrollment, that hasn't changed very much over time as college becomes more universal. For example, a traditional college could emulate music conservatories more closely, for music majors, or a trade school education, for people intending to go into those careers. Or they could simply offer more classes that could replace/accelerate/enhance on-the-job training in a variety of careers.

But, despite the fact that I admit that part of the reason college is oversold for a large fraction of students is an avoidable consequence of its current design, and that a major, or even primary, function of it is to be a signaling mechanism, I also wouldn't go nearly as far as Seth Roberts:
At Berkeley (where Bryan went and I taught) and universities generally, the highest praise is brilliant. Professor X is brilliant. Or: Brilliant piece of work. People can do great things in dozens of ways, but somehow student work is almost never judged by how beautiful, courageous, practical, good-tasting, astonishing, vivid, funny, moving, comfortable, and so on it is. Because that’s not what professors are good at.
Um, what? Academics are trained to be brilliant and judged by their brilliance. That's what academia is, a brilliance factory. When you enter academia as a student, of course this is also the standard you will be judged by.

Even if college adopted a more flexible educational paradigm that actually prepared people for careers in the real world (or the arts, I guess, since the standards Seth is describing seem to be relevant mostly to those), it's ridiculous that college would be the place for learning those things. Certain skills are better learned, or must be learned, in the course of life, not in a structured learning environment. Inspiration, passion, courage, etc. cannot be taught because they come from within, emerging organically and unforcibly through the course of life's varied experiences.

I for one would be damn pissed off if I was paying for an education and got a life coach instead.

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