To what purpose ‘higher education’?

I am no education expert.  I’m not sure there really is such a thing.  More and more I am convinced that most schools and institutions of so-called ‘higher education’  are reactionary instead of visionary.  They focus on teaching based on what is – which is tantamount to teaching to the past because of the speed at which technology and therefore the needs in society, change.    Somewhere I read that if you go through a four year program on, say, computer science or computer programming, the information you are given as a Freshman will be obsolete by your Senior year.

In this country there is tons of focus on improving schools and getting kids into and through college.  The golden key of the college diploma is supposed to unlock the door to career, wealth and happiness.  At least, that is what it used to do – in the old days, which, depending on the market, could be as little as 15-20 years ago.   Now the paradigm has shifted, but the focus of public and organized education has not.   An article on the front page of the Times today (the Sunday Times is three for three over the past few weeks with education related articles) had the title, “China’s Army of Graduates is Struggling”.  Really?  China?  But over the last few months, more than a few articles and films have discussed the greatness of Chinese public education.   The discipline!  The successful testing!  The focus and drive to succeed that is magically instilled at a young age and that will make China the next superpower, leaving us poor American sods with our low math and science scores in the dust.   Isn’t China supposed to be the ideal to which our educational system should aspire?   Could there be trouble in what has been portrayed as education paradise?   Apparently there is.

According to the Times article, after 12 years of focus on bolstering higher education, there are now 6 million college graduates a year hitting the job market in China.  Many of them head to Beijing from the provinces, diplomas in hand, ready to enjoy the good life.  Except.   Except there aren’t enough jobs in the fields for which they have been trained; primarily accounting, finance and computer programming.   These were up and coming areas a few years ago, but now that the supply of those with degrees seems endless, demand has plummeted, and wages along with it.   Basically, if your family isn’t connected, you aren’t going to find work.   The irony is, of course, that the blue collar work these young people were told to eschew is now in demand, with higher wages than most college grads will make working grunt jobs in Beijing, trying to break into the fields for which they are trained.   One young man who moved to Beijing after graduation and spent five months pounding the pavement without finding work summed it up quite well.  He said, “Now that I see what the outside world is like, my only regret is that I didn’t have more fun in college.”

Right.  Because make no mistake, the Chinese educational system is no fun.  Regimented, strict, disciplined, yes.  Fun?  No.  And what a drag to have spent your entire childhood  having no fun because that’s what you were told you need to do to succeed, only to find out that success still eludes you.  It’s the same everywhere, it seems.    If we continue to believe that the purpose for learning and ‘higher education’ is to get the right job – to train for a specific career, then we are going to continue to flounder.   Our graduates will be narrowly focused, and if the market changes, they will have no ability to change with it.

From my layman, not expert, point of view, it seems a better approach would be to let children and young adults learn about things they are interested in, for no other reason than that they are interested in it.  Learning for its’ own sake.   Facilitate their ability to teach themselves whatever it is they want to know.   It’s like the old Chinese proverb says, “Give a man a fish, you feed him for a day.  Teach a man to fish, you feed him for a lifetime.”   All too often, a degree in a specific field is like being given a fish.  If you’re lucky, you’ll get a meal out of it.   But the ability to teach yourself anything you need to know, or want to know?  Well, that is like knowing how to fish.   You’ll be better fed, and life will be a lot more interesting and even fun.   Shouldn’t that be the purpose of higher education?

One comment on “To what purpose ‘higher education’?

  1. Miriam Brougher AKA Mom says:

    As in “Shop Class As Soul Craft” ??? Yes.

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