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July 18th, 2012

Opinions on college education


 The extremes on this debate are absurd.  College is not useless; it has many benefits to students. On the other hand, it would be surprising if the most efficient way to provide those benefits was exactly the social institution of college in America as it exists today.

The signaling function of college works pretty damn well.  Yale/Princeton/MIT students are, on average, brighter and more conscientious than students at less elite schools, who are, in turn, brighter and more conscientious than people who never went to college.  (It's not just signaling, I think; it's also secondary socialization and developing an identity from your peers.  Princetonians learn to behave like Princetonians.)  You don't want to casually destroy a functioning social institution without thinking about the consequences.  

Any scientist will tell you that one of the best ways to improve the quality of your work is to surround yourself with smart people.  Any employer will tell you that finding smart, conscientious employees is a leading challenge of running a business.  If you want to claim that you have a filter for smart people that works better than college, my question is, "Why ain't you rich?"  If such a thing existed, it would singlehandedly replace the recruiting industry.  I'm interested in experiments in new ways to evaluate people's competence, but so far I think that field is in its infancy.  Employers won't really read your Github any more than they'll read all the publications on your CV.

Online education can democratize only a small part of what people get out of college.  I can see Stanford-style lectures being very useful for informal self-teaching, potentially a major boon to homeschooled children or people in developing countries without access to world-class universities.  But how much more valuable is a video lecture course than a textbook at the public library?  Both are merely formats for displaying information.  (I'd learn more from a textbook than a video lecture, myself.)  There have always been autodidacts whose "college" was a public library, but most people have never taken full advantage of libraries to replace education, and I don't think most people would take full advantage of online lectures.  One of the problems with tech people is the assumption that "innovation" means "consumer internet" -- it's a temptation for all of us to think that way, but it's inaccurate.

The real problem with college education, of course, is that it's very bad at educating.  The teachers are professors and graduate students -- for them, teaching is a speed bump, a hassle they're required to get through on the way to doing research.  (Those who actually like teaching get a status hit.) So teaching is done in the lowest-bandwidth form possible.  Lectures, a midterm, and a final.  Two data points of feedback. People don't learn that way, unless they're independent enough learners that they didn't need the teacher in the first place.  

One-on-one tutoring is vastly more effective.  So some people imagine apprenticeship replacing college.  Want to be a biologist?  Be Craig Venter's apprentice.  But this is problematic in itself...you'd need many years of courses to be knowledgeable enough to be any use to Craig Venter as an apprentice.  

If you separated signaling, consumption, and learning, and optimized a "school" around each of them, I could imagine three separate stages of young life.

Learning: something like a "cram school."  Intensive tutoring, extremely frequent tests.  Sophisticated data analysis provides a very fine-grained profile of the student's strengths and weaknesses.  This would be a focused, boot-camp-like, time of life; all studying, all the time.  The only thing you do is acquire competence in a subject and come out demonstrating exactly how good you are at it.  I think it would naturally be a single subject only, and works best for quantitative subjects: two or three years spent getting up to B.A.-level competence in math or chemical engineering or whatever.  It's meant to get you up to speed.

Consumption: young people, if they have the chance, do need time to relax, to learn who they are, to explore identities, to enjoy intellectual stimulation and the proverbial late-night dorm-room discussion.  It's part of growing up.  But because this is an experience valued for what it means to an individual personally, there's no reason it has to be the same for everyone.  I actually think the Grand Tour or Great American Road Trip serve this function.  A stint at a low-effort job, with lots of time to shoot the breeze and try to write your novel, also works.  Some people really want the dreaming spires of academia, and classes you take just for the fun of it.  If our society bit the bullet, and admitted that periods of idleness, if you can afford them, are good for self-discovery and lifelong happiness, then we wouldn't have to shoehorn everybody into the same model.

Signaling: this is, more or less, an apprenticeship.  Or graduate school, or an internship. Find your role model, and work under him or her.  If this requires specialized knowledge, you've already gone to a cram school by now.  If you wanted to take some time off and find yourself, you've done that.  You might be 30 when you're ready for an apprenticeship; you might be 16.  All you have to do is demonstrate to your mentor that you're worth his or her time, and you can do useful work while you learn the business.

I think the modern American college education has elements of all three types of "schools," but shortchanges the learning part. We'd probably learn more if we had a separate institution that was just for learning, and just for learning the specific things you need to know.

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