College is for…

A not-too-uncommon game is to criticize colleges for something: high tuition, liberal faculty, ostentatious dorms, semi-pro athletic programs.  And as college education is one of the biggest investments many families make, it is a good target for criticism. Over the past couple of weeks we’ve seen higher education attacked in a much more central place: not providing an (adequate) education (you can look at an article in the NY Times and the letters to the editor it inspired, a blog post republished in Salon with the provocative title “College is a ludicrous waste of money”, and another NY Times piece reconsidering the Salon piece). More specifically, not getting graduates into good jobs.

Now this is at some level mildly amusing because, of course, college graduates have a much lower unemployment rate and higher earnings than non-graduates and that gap is widening. If college is failing so badly, what alternative looks better? 

Of course, there is no doubt that education can be improved, and suggestions for adding career skills to a college curriculum, broadening a network of friends to include those with different views or encouraging those less apt to benefit from a college education to enter a true vocational education program are fine (though a note to votech advocates: this is a path to career inflexibility, so be careful here).

Anyways, all this got GG thinking about the geoscience classes he teaches and what really is the point for the students in those classes.

There are three levels of coursework in universities: lower division, upper division and graduate.  You can further subdivide into non-major and majors.  For our purposes let’s just consider non-major vs major courses.

Non-major courses are obviously not geared towards a student’s future work; many students find themselves asking “why am I being made to take this course?” (A blog entry elsewhere provides a nice example from a geology student’s perspective).  We often take the tack that this is to produce a well-rounded member of society.  We’d like college graduates to be aware of the broader world out there and to be able to interact with it.  Beyond that, we are infusing students with a greater degree of flexibility: high schools, for instance, rarely teach geology (and when they do, it is often pitched to those not going to college), so our students pick up some breadth that can serve them professionally.  Note that Al Gore sat through a class on climate change that altered his priorities in a rather prominent career as somebody other than a climate scientist. You never low when some basic knowledge of geology or archeology or physics or chemistry might serve you better than you expect.  

There is something more here, though, and it passes far too many students by.  There are different ways of looking at problems and solving them.  The art of politics involve finding common ground to move forward (yeah, news to Congress, but that really is the goal); in science, it is in identifying the crux of the difference between different views in order to test which is right; in law it boils down to persuading others your position is right.  Even within science there are differences.  Lab sciences conduct controlled experiments; historical sciences (mainly geology, planetary science and astrophysics and, to whatever degree it is science, economics) have to devise tests from existing conditions. Gaining the perspective on how different people will approach problems and learning when these approaches are most appropriate can be a tremendous insight.

Well, OK, but what of the upper division major courses; these are certainly vo-tech, right? To a significant degree, yes.  We instruct students how to read a Brunton compass, how to make a geologic map or measure hydraulic conductivity or seismic wave speed.  But we are also teaching how to take a collection of facts and integrate them, how to visualize structures in 3 or even 4 dimensions, how to devise tests of hypotheses, how to really critically approach a hypothesis. While the former might prove to be dated (few of our graduates will ever make a geologic map as a professional, for instance), the latter won’t be and furthermore can be helpful in other fields.

So what is college for?  Realistically, it is for what you make of it.  A four year bacchanalia before entering the daily grind? Some students choose that. A gateway to a good career? Sure. A window on a broader world? We can hope. A way to become a more agile member of the workplace? If you keep your mind open.


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