What is College For?

David Brooks, the New York Times columnist, tries to answer this question:

Are universities [he means undergraduate education] mostly sorting devices to separate smart and hard-working high school students from their less-able fellows so that employers can more easily identify them? Are universities factories for the dissemination of job skills? Are universities mostly boot camps for adulthood, where young people learn how to drink moderately, fornicate meaningfully and hand things in on time? My own stab at an answer would be that universities are places where young people acquire two sorts of knowledge, what the philosopher Michael Oakeshott called technical knowledge and practical knowledge.

My answer: Almost all college students want to figure out what job to choose. The answer will depend on what they do well, what they enjoy, and will have a big effect on the rest of their life. The better the answer, the more successful and happy they will be. For them, that is above all what college is for.

This doesn’t even occur to Brooks as a possibility. I suppose professors like this state of affairs (a smart person — Brooks — can’t even think of this). If no one mentions it, they are that much further from having to consider it. Trying to help students reach this goal means giving up power. The more a college helps students learn what they enjoy and what they are good at, the less professors can do exactly what they want.

There is nothing terrible about college classes. I don’t say that this or that humanities course is “useless”. The trouble is lack of balance: too many normal classes, too few “classes” that explicitly help students to learn about the world of work and how they might fit into it. Only a few colleges — often low-prestige “trade schools” — do much to help students learn about possible jobs, what they enjoy, and what they are good at.

Judging by how Berkeley courses are taught — they do little to help students decide what job to do, unless they are seriously considering being a professor — most professors have little or no interest in helping students this way. I suspect, however, they don’t know what they might gain from doing so. At Berkeley I taught a class called Psychology and the Real World whose goal was exactly that: help students find their way (a particular problem for psychology majors, few of whom go to graduate school in psychology). They could do almost anything, so long as it was off-campus. It was little work for me and the students learned a lot. I enjoyed seeing them begin to find their way. This is what I think isn’t obvious to professors: the more you help students learn what they want to learn, the easier and more satisfying it is for you.

13 Replies to “What is College For?”

  1. Alex,

    From the article you linked, opening paragraph:
    “What works in science and math education? Until recently, there had been few solid answers — just guesses and hunches, marketing hype and extrapolations from small pilot studies.”

    It’s true that there have been few solid answers. It’s false that this is because education researchers have been only “extrapolating from small pilot studies.” Even a cursory google search (or better yet, looking in ERIC) will find large scale experiments dating back 30+ years.

    Overwhelmingly, findings have been that stuff you think should matter doesn’t. For example, both group-based and lecture-based teaching can work… or might not. As the article even mentions, it’s not unusual to call What Works Clearinghouse “What Doesn’t Work Clearinghouse.”

    My guess? People are different. There aren’t going to any “solid” answers of the sort until this fact is recognized. Medicine doesn’t work the same for everyone, why should education?

  2. Seth,

    I like your general thinking on college education. You may as well extend it to parts of K-12. One of the wisest, smartest people I know finished only 4 years of school. It taught him how to read and write, do arithmetic, read maps, and a bit of history. That was enough. Sure, “modern age requires more than that” but it’s not like modern (US) education does a particularly good job teaching more than that.

    Personally, I can’t remember almost anything from grades 7-10 other than a bit of Latin, some basic geometry, and a few books I read and liked. I’m sure there’s more I learned, but I’m equally sure it wasn’t terribly important. At least in grades 11 and 12 I read mostly enjoyable books and studied Calculus, though I’m sure many of my classmates cared for neither.

  3. Seth,

    I agree with much of what you said regarding the current nature of education. I’m an undergraduate student and am worrying about the same things you mentioned at the beginning of your posts: what is my desired career path and what do I need to do in order to live my desired future. Most of the classes I’ve taken for my majors (Human Biology and Cognitive Science) haven’t helped me acquire the skills I’ll need in the real world and perhaps that’s due to teachers not caring about the students’ needs and wishes.

    Since high school, I’ve kept a folder on my computer titled “Continued Education,” which contains much of what I’ve read on my own in order to provide myself with the education that I really want (i.e. one that improves the skills I want to master). So far, my self-directed education may have been as valuable as the formal education I’ve received so far–it’s a little depressing.

    Anyway, I’ll stop ranting. Thanks for the insight.


  4. I am not sure if I have a well formed thought on this. I think college is for different things for different people. I for instanced liked math and knowing how things worked. I would have preferred a math degree, but when I asked the guidance counselor what I could do with that, she said “You could be a math teacher.” Given the school I went to, it was a huge de-motivator. When I asked my father, he said “Engineers have to be good at math and they get paid well at the shipyard.” As a result, I went to engineering school. It was brutal at first, but when I made it to the more specialized courses, I really enjoyed it. In addition, the courses I chose were heavy on math, e.g. fields and control systems. I liked Psychology as well, but when I suggested switching, my father, who generously paid for my education asked “Are you going to pay for that?” In his own estimation, he didn’t think it would give me the best livelihood.

    I went on to be an engineer, but surprisingly the engineering part of my career was very short. I quickly moved into project management, then management, consulting, and ultimately executive management. There is always a technical edge to what I do and I find I rely on the methodical, analytical, and systems-thinking mindset I learned from engineering, but it is far from true engineering work and I definitely miss the math. (Financials are dull, and I have taken every opportunity to make it interesting through statistics and modeling, but that is still not enough).

    I think there are at least two groups of people in college. The ones that do it for a love of learning and pursuing an interest, and the ones that are convinced (either on their own or from parental pressure) that it is a necessity. Also, the selection of major can either be by interest or expected financial return. You may be smart enough to be a doctor, lawyer, engineer or software developer, but it doesn’t mean you should be one. I think this is why there are so many disappointing doctors, lawyers, engineers and software developers (I believe it is Paul Graham that said there is a logarithmic difference in the productivity or value of software developers, I would assume the same in other knowledge workers). They may be smart, and they may have done very well in college, but that doesn’t translate to performance at work or happiness at work.

    It was interesting at the shipyard. Those with above a 3.0 started as a GS-7 and those with below 3.0 GPA started as a GS-5. There own statistics showed that GS-5 reached a GS-12 faster on average than the GS-7. The reason wasn’t known, but the theories included that GS-5’s didn’t walk around like prima donna’s and got down to working. Not sure if I concur, but it is true that many of the engineer’s felt that some things were just beneath them.

    I don’t think a diploma means much more than some level of commitment to a body of knowledge. I wouldn’t say commitment to a profession, as only a subset of what is learned is used in the profession. Also, I don’t think a college degree should mean much more than a head start in many pursuits. I had worked with many technicians that were at least my equal if not my better. Most of the best had a deep seated interest and many had engineering related hobbies, e.g. ham radio, designing audio amplifiers, etc. My own father had no degree, but is an adept problem solver in addition to be very gifted in working with his hands. He worked his way up from an apprentice pipe-fitter to the highest position possible in the shipyard before retiring. As an apprentice, he was given the opportunity to go to college, but having tried it decided that he preferred working and making overtime to support the family (and pay off his house in seven years).

    I think the idea that everyone has to go to college is a mistake, and I think companies do themselves a disservice on passing on people that a) don’t have a degree or b) don’t have a degree in the desired specialty. Of the two best project managers I ever employed, one had no degree and one had a biology degree (we were a technical/engineering organization).

    One of my favorite interview questions is to ask people what they enjoy doing in their free time. My best employees free-time activity is very similar to their work activity. The sys admins have racks of servers and networking gear in their basements. The developers are tinkering with mobile apps, setting up home music servers, trying out new technologies, etc.


    Seth: I agree about the free time question. I write this blog in my free time…and it is about the same stuff I do research about.

  5. When I was in high school I was taught that I should already have decided what I wanted to study by the time I got to college. Obviously college is much more beneficial to kids if they arrive with a major already decided, and a lot of it will end up being wasted time if not. STEM majors in particular depend heavily on the first two years of math and science core courses for the second two years where the real coursework begins. If you aren’t already taking the core STEM classes in Freshman year, by sophomore year, you’ll have forgotten much of your high school math and it will be nearly impossible to catch up.

    I can’t see much value in spending thousands of dollars a year “finding yourself” by taking random electives. You’re supposed to be doing that in high school.

    Seth: “Finding yourself” is more profitably accomplished by doing internships, which better teach what this or that job would be like. If you are advocating for a gap year, I agree with you.

  6. I’m not a fan of gap years. I think enriching the high schools with more interesting electives would be the better plan. Let junior and senior year high school students pick more of their own classes and offer a variety of ‘101’ type humanities along with AP math and science. Econ 101, Psych 101, Poly Sci, World History, etc. could all be taught senior year of high school.

    Seth: I think you overestimate what a high school (more interesting electives) can teach relative to what the rest of the world (gap year) can teach.

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  8. Students are very different. I’ve had students who came in knowing exactly what they wanted to do, others the opposite, older students who needed a degree to get promoted….

    What strikes me is how college education is being homogenized – one size fits all and we just have to find the magic bullet seems to be the implicit philosophy now.

    Seth: I agree. And not just college education.

  9. I don’t mean this as a criticism of Seth, who’s trying to improve things, but part of this was called in the olden days “working your way through college”.

    That’s what’s a lot different now. My father in law could work his way through Northwestern (late 1930’s). I could work my way through Missouri as a commuter student (late 1960s, tuition $1250 — that’s $1250 total for four years). Now what you can earn by working 16 hours a week or so doesn’t make much of a dent in even a state school’s tuition, so perhaps there are fewer students working (or feeling that working while going to college is an important part of their financial/educational process, as opposed to a bit of spending money).

  10. Great post Seth,
    I agree that most of the dialogue is missing this critical part of the college purchase. Mentoring, coaching, counseling…whatever you call it, this was definitely something I was looking for from my undergrad education, and like many people, I ended up finding it outside of the “system.”

    It sounds like your psych and the real world course is similar to point #4 in the “University 2.0” concept. I’d love to learn more about your experience with this type of education, and I welcome any feedback on the straw man concept.


    1. My Psychology and the Real World class is easy to describe: 1. Students found their own internships/volunteer work. I didn’t have to do anything or push them. Only students with something in mind took the class — about 12 of them. 2. During class, we discussed what they had learned recently from what they were doing. This required no preparation on my part. So the class was extremely easy to teach, if “teach” is the right word. 3. After the class, some students said it was a great class and they had learned more from it than any other class they had taken. I think I gave all of them A’s. They wrote a short paper about what they’d learned.

  11. The ridiculous part of the education system is that we shouldn’t have to wait until college to be given the opportunity to find out what we like and are good at. Most of us have no idea how to even begin to answer this question because we have been sitting in a classroom being told what to learn and how to learn it for almost a decade and a half before we are even presented with any kind of choice concerning our education. Forced curriculum does nothing to help kids find their individual talents and interests. This is why I am homeschooling my children. My 11 and 9 year old sons are already well on their way to choosing their future career paths because they are allowed a say in how their education unfolds. Self-directed curriculum is a far better way in which to learn how to set goals and achieve them and when they get to college they will know exactly why they are there and what they need to do to get where they want to go.

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