Knowing what we do with our own alternative to college in India, multiple people sent me this op-ed at the WSJ by Charles Murray For Most People College is a Waste of Time, asking for my opinion. Before I proceed, let me first state one thing clearly: the problems I have with Indian college education, which inspired our alternative, are of a different nature than the problems (I do have some!) I have with American college education. I have experience with both, and I believe the issues are fundamentally different.
Charles Murray mainly attacks the traditional (if that is the right word here) liberal arts component of American college experience:
Outside a handful of majors — engineering and some of the sciences — a bachelor’s degree tells an employer nothing except that the applicant has a certain amount of intellectual ability and perseverance. Even a degree in a vocational major like business administration can mean anything from a solid base of knowledge to four years of barely remembered gut courses.
In my experience, American undergraduate engineering education is very, very good, but you have to know where to find it. A “middling” or even a “low” school is better for most students because the faculty is more focused on teaching vs a “prestige” school, where the faculty is purchasing that prestige through research (more on that later) so teaching is a chore for them. The humble community colleges offer the most bang for the buck (literally) in most basic math/science/engineering courses – and indeed, that has been our role model in our own internal initiative. If you are short of money, this is the path I would recommend: take all the basic math/science/engineering classes in your local community college, and then transfer credits to a middling state school for more advanced ones. You can get a fine engineering education for very little money this way.
On the subject of research, let me state it very plainly: most research in engineering, even in prestige schools, is bunk (note: I didn’t say “all”, I said “most”, there are rare exceptions). Academia at that level is a tenure-chasing paper production game. You master the art of packaging trivia in impressive sounding language. In hard sciences and engineering, the language that truly establishes your superiority over the rest of humanity is mathematics, so you end up writing highly unreadable – I doubt even dissertation committees truly read that stuff – mathematical garbage. I had seen it when I was doing my PhD in the early 1990s (I was well connected, with tons of friends from India across a broad range of schools) and most recently I see it clearly in programming language research in Computer Science, which I have attempted to follow.
On liberal arts American education, I fully agree with Murray. Let me give a bit of background to this. When I was an engineering undergraduate in India, I found myself utterly bored and miserable with the education that was on offer. There was a period I did nothing but read, read and read. George Orwell, in particular, was my favorite (I was recently reminded of it at Hacker News, and ended up re-reading Nineteen Eighty Four) – I read every one of his works. I was also well schooled by Bertrand Russell, attempted to but failed with Karl Marx, and found inspiration with Ayn Rand. None of it had anything to do with my “official” education in Electrical Engineering – let me just say that I sacrificed Maxwell for Orwell – but by then, I had decided I was going to do it on my own.
So why is that relevant here? Orwell’s Politics and the English Language proved even more educational than I realized, when I came to America, with liberal arts faculty providing the perfect, if unwitting, illustration – here is a link on deconstruction for you.
Returning to engineering, there is a fundamentally different reason I believe alternatives to college education are needed, and that has to do with contextual knowledge and the ability to hold the interest of students. Think about a subject like programming languages. A typical “good” Computer Science program (assume a really good teacher) gives you a very good grounding in parsing, compilers and such. The issue I have is the psychology of most students. No matter how well this subject matter is taught, it is going to be boring for most, because the context is all wrong for them to pay attention. There is no shared purpose in that classroom context: when it comes right down to it, the typical student is focused on getting through with the torture and getting a decent grade, so he or she can get on with their lives.
More on the subject of contextual knowledge later.