“What is the purpose of college?” is too broad a question

By way of Tyler Cowen we find this rather good piece by Noah Smith:

As Tyler says, RTWT.  It’s interesting, and probably insightful.  But I part company with Smith right about here:

Economists (including at least one in my PhD graduating class) have dedicated untold numbers of papers to showing that college doesn’t produce useful skills. But I think that this is missing the point; useful skills, which you mostly learn on the job, are not the only valuable form of human capital. There are three extremely important forms of human capital that you can’t acquire on the job:

1) Motivation,

2) Perspective, and

3) Human networks.

These, I believe, are the types of capital that college is designed to build, both in Japan and in the United States.

(Emphasis added.)

For most people, “college” means a four-year bachelor’s degree, so that’s what I’ll focus on.  In my case, I gained the vast majority of my motivation and perspective in a single 16-month internship.  Everyone else I spoke with in my cohort of the internship programme reported the same thing.  As for human networks, I’ve remained in touch with a whole three people I met in undergrad (and if we’re keeping score, none from the internship), but I treat human networking much the same way as I treat getting up before ten or owning a phone — an irritating and distasteful thing I have to do in order to make interacting with the rest of you meatbags a less painful process on the whole — so I’m probably not all that representative.

On the other hand, my undergrad education did a fucking amazing job of teaching me useful skills.  On my very first day at that internship, I sent my 300-level algorithms prof a gushing thank-you email for beating graph algorithms so thoroughly into my head.  I learned Perl and XML on the job, among other specific skills, but if I’d had to learn (say) software engineering and graph theory on an as-needed basis I’d have produced some truly awful and inefficient code.  (Incidentally, that’s how I learned differential geometry in grad school — “on the job”, “as-needed” — and I’d have been much better off simply auditing a course in the math department.)

So is Noah Smith simply wrong?  Not really; his post is credible and insightful.  But I think it highlights a difference between STEM fields — which require a broad and deep background of specialized training before job-specific “useful skills” can be applied — and traditional liberal-arts fields.  Let’s chuck law and medical school in with STEM, there; I think it’s clear that freshly-minted doctors aren’t expected to learn anatomy on the job.  (Either that or I’m staying the fuck away from hospitals.)  I get the feeling that this scratches the surface of the perennial “how to fix higher ed” question.


4 Responses to ““What is the purpose of college?” is too broad a question”

  1. June 11, 2012 at 18:37

    I used to hire and mentor newly minted field scientists and engineers. Sadly, they rarely, if ever, picked up any valuable hands-on skills in college and they typically learned a lot more math than we needed them to (there’s an algebraic approximation or bit of code for pretty much all of that). Writing skills were hit or miss.

    I looked for people who had previous work experience that demonstrated they had a good work ethic and were willing to follow directions. Grades didn’t matter much to me, and I only cared which school you went to if it meant I had contacts outside your chosen reference circle.

    New graduates were only truly useful to us after we’d had them about a year.

    • June 11, 2012 at 18:56

      What variety of scientists and engineers were you hiring? IIRC the computer engineering folks I drank with in undergrad spent most of their first two years learning to solve PDEs by hand and work out statics problems in a “general engineering” stream before getting on with the programming and machine architecture. Even so, they ended up with plenty of relevant skills… I’m surprised to hear that the STEM folks you hired and mentored didn’t learn anything relevant in undergrad.

      • June 12, 2012 at 19:35

        Hydrogeologists, biologists, chemists, civil engineers, and geotechnical engineers for the most part. And I was hiring them to do field investigations and design treatment systems at contaminated or potentially contaminated sites. They didn’t know how to collect field samples, operate field testing equipment, run field tests, investigate site history, or write reports to be submitted to regulatory agencies.

        I’m not saying they didn’t learn *anything* relevant, just saying there were HUGE gaps in their learning that would make them eminently more employable and could easily be fixed. And as someone who worked in my field for seven years before going back to grad school, I found that the folks I interacted with in academia weren’t terribly interested in filling those gaps.

        • June 12, 2012 at 21:40

          I think we’re arguing different parts of the same point. My point is that most of my take-away from undergrad was “useful skills”, followed by “perspective”, with “motivation” a distant third and “human networks” mostly hypothetical. It’s for damn sure that I had (and still have) gaps in my skill-set which I had to (and will have to) learn as I go.

          The “too much math” thing is a bit of a sore spot for me — my guess is that engineering programmes don’t know exactly what math their students will need in industry, so they throw it all at the wall and hope the right bits stick. For example, I’ve never needed to solve an integral by trig substitution since… what, ten years ago? If I’d gone into the rendering part of graphics instead of the geometry part, I’d probably have done so regularly, but maybe not needed any of the graph theory.

          So you hire civil engineers, and they know a whole bunch of utterly superfluous math plus the little bit you need. Some architectural firm hires civil engineers, and they &c. And so on, and so on — but the little bits of math are all different, and sum up to maybe a fifth of the general-engineering math curriculum. Add in MechE and SparkE and everything else, and you get the curriculum committee’s path of least resistance. :-)

          Incidentally, you might be vicariously pleased to hear that my graduate institution added a “writing for programmers” course while I was there, and I had the dubious pleasure of TAing it three times. Turns out that programmers make pretty good tech writers if you give them the right set of tools to work with.

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