Friday, October 1, 2010

What is Education? Is MIT a “Vocational” School? : Hacker and Dreifus

Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus have written an interesting book, Higher Education? : How Colleges Are Wasting Our Money and Failing Our Kids—and What We Can Do About It. As one might expect from the title they spend a good part of the volume criticizing colleges and universities for providing an inferior product at exorbitant prices. Their critiques are right on target. The authors produce an interesting and informative description of how a modern institution operates, and they provide insight into what motivates this behavior. I really liked this aspect of the book and I highly recommend it.

I begin to have a problem with the authors when they philosophize about the ideal education. They seem to believe that the only fruitful way to spend the four years after high school is in pursuit a liberal arts degree.
“The very phrase liberal arts induces hushed respect. In an era when bachelor’s degrees are awarded in sports management and fashion merchandising, hearing of students who are majoring in philosophy and history still evokes our esteem. The liberal arts may be viewed as a classical education and an intellectual adventure, as learning for its own sake and pursuing the life of the mind. The most admired purlieus of higher education are its liberal arts colleges, which generally enroll only undergraduates and eschew vocational programs.”
They then take this ancient and highly suspect opinion and couple it with this sage advice.
“We’d even hazard that twenty-one or twenty-two, the usual ages of college graduation, may be too early to decide that dentistry or resource management is the career for you. The best thing after receiving a bachelor’s degree may be to find a semi-skilled job—Best Buy or Old Navy?—and keep your eyes and mind open about career choices.”
There are so many things that one could say about the above quotes, but time and space will limit us to only two comments: one on the purpose of education, the second on the notion that if it isn’t liberal arts it’s vocational training.

The authors point to three major findings of the study How College Affects Students.
“The college educated are more knowledgeable and more proficient at becoming informed than individuals with only a high school education”

“College students learn to think in more abstract, critical, complex and reflective ways.’

“College is linked with statistically significant increases in the use of principled reasoning to judge moral issues.”
The authors state that these points sound reasonable, and then, as if realizing that if colleges do those good things it would imply that colleges are successful—counter to their thesis—they denigrate the findings as being “too academic.” Several pages of irrelevant rambling follow as they seek to undermine the conclusions.

I think the three points made above indicate the intellectual skills that a college should engender in students. Whether they do or not is another topic. One does not go to college in order to acquire knowledge per se. The purpose of a college education is to teach (train if you wish) the student in how to learn and how to think. Learning requires thinking in “abstract, critical, complex and reflective ways.” Part of learning how to learn is becoming “more proficient at becoming informed.” In this era of five-year careers, what is more critical than being intellectually flexible enough to move in a variety of directions as circumstances dictate?

If one can acquire the indicated intellectual discipline and also acquire specialized knowledge that will get one started along a career path—go for it! The authors say they are in favor of ending “vocational training” in our colleges. Just what exactly do they consider “vocational training?”
“In fact, vocational training has long been entrenched in America’s colleges. Even now, more students at MIT major in engineering than the sciences.”
So—MIT is a vocational school, and science is an art while engineering is a mere craft. What century were these people born in? They would prefer that a student who wants to learn how to build the new bridges and dams that we need, or the smarter, more efficient electrical grid our society demands, should forego that for at least four years and spend their time learning why ancient philosophers didn’t know what they were talking about.

Absolutely mind boggling!


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