WSJ Op-Ed: For Most People College is a Waste of Time

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.

14 Replies to “WSJ Op-Ed: For Most People College is a Waste of Time”

  1. Sridhar,
    I went to a state college for my BS in Electrical Engineering in the late 1980’s. I had Professors, not Teaching Assistants, which was good. The state college did not have a Grad Level program in Engineering (of any kind). I think I got a good education, but yes, having to take Art History was a joke of “just getting done with it”.
    My wife got all of her core coursed done at a 2 year community college, then transferred to UW-Madison for Nursing. That was also a good move on her part. Kids get lost in at UW in the core courses, too big, too many T.A. teaching.
    I made most of my career in the IT industry. While having a BSEE has helped by providing me a foundation of knowledge, becoming certified by Microsoft, Novell, Compaq, IBM, HP, Cisco, etc. has proven to be the most beneficial in increasing my status and pay in the world of work.

  2. Sridhar,
    I went to a state college for my BS in Electrical Engineering in the late 1980’s. I had Professors, not Teaching Assistants, which was good. The state college did not have a Grad Level program in Engineering (of any kind). I think I got a good education, but yes, having to take Art History was a joke of “just getting done with it”.
    My wife got all of her core coursed done at a 2 year community college, then transferred to UW-Madison for Nursing. That was also a good move on her part. Kids get lost in at UW in the core courses, too big, too many T.A. teaching.
    I made most of my career in the IT industry. While having a BSEE has helped by providing me a foundation of knowledge, becoming certified by Microsoft, Novell, Compaq, IBM, HP, Cisco, etc. has proven to be the most beneficial in increasing my status and pay in the world of work.

  3. Interesting article. I actually spent years doing Comp. Sci “research” at a mid-level research university here in the States.Sadly, it took me several years to realize that my work, my “research”, was worthless. It was, as you say, trivia. The only real effect was to generate papers and get my advisor tenure. (I was an undergrad, and my advisor was a master of hype and an academic rock-star. Very charismatic guy. He attracted many star-struck young geeks like me.)The research group I was part of did graphics research. Which meant we played around with a lot of toy problems. Most of my time was spent creating cool “demos” so my advisor could get funding and good press coverage.My excuse is I was young and stupid. But, at the time, I honestly thought I was doing real research. I had to compete hard to get my place in his research group. And my advisor eventually ended up at CMU. So the implicit bargain was his recommendation could get you into a top grad school.I would have been better off focusing my energies on mastering the core math, engineering, and science classes my university offered. Especially since, once I decided to reduce my “research” output, my advisor refused to write a recommendation for me. Ah well, live and learn.

  4. Interesting article. I actually spent years doing Comp. Sci “research” at a mid-level research university here in the States.Sadly, it took me several years to realize that my work, my “research”, was worthless. It was, as you say, trivia. The only real effect was to generate papers and get my advisor tenure. (I was an undergrad, and my advisor was a master of hype and an academic rock-star. Very charismatic guy. He attracted many star-struck young geeks like me.)The research group I was part of did graphics research. Which meant we played around with a lot of toy problems. Most of my time was spent creating cool “demos” so my advisor could get funding and good press coverage.My excuse is I was young and stupid. But, at the time, I honestly thought I was doing real research. I had to compete hard to get my place in his research group. And my advisor eventually ended up at CMU. So the implicit bargain was his recommendation could get you into a top grad school.I would have been better off focusing my energies on mastering the core math, engineering, and science classes my university offered. Especially since, once I decided to reduce my “research” output, my advisor refused to write a recommendation for me. Ah well, live and learn.

  5. Owen,
    You haven’t been to a liberal arts program in the US recently, I assume. It is safe to say the only thing they are doing to Shakespeare is to deconstruct him. And on Ayn Rand, you had to have been in India in the 1980s to understand her appeal. By then, it was very obvious the socialist mixed economy claptrap was failing, but the system was morally bankrupt to acknowledge it. “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice” – as Barry Goldwater had it.Sridhar

  6. Owen,
    You haven’t been to a liberal arts program in the US recently, I assume. It is safe to say the only thing they are doing to Shakespeare is to deconstruct him. And on Ayn Rand, you had to have been in India in the 1980s to understand her appeal. By then, it was very obvious the socialist mixed economy claptrap was failing, but the system was morally bankrupt to acknowledge it. “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice” – as Barry Goldwater had it.Sridhar

  7. As one who dropped out of college and learned a trade (thanks to the Air Force), I’ve found that my technical training was more useful than anything I learned in college. I did, however, have the advantage of a high school education from an era where teaching the basics was important.My father taught me that if I could read I could teach myself anything, but if I could write I would never be jobless. He was right.

  8. As one who dropped out of college and learned a trade (thanks to the Air Force), I’ve found that my technical training was more useful than anything I learned in college. I did, however, have the advantage of a high school education from an era where teaching the basics was important.My father taught me that if I could read I could teach myself anything, but if I could write I would never be jobless. He was right.

  9. The American liberal arts education is similarly stratified, but within departments and universities rather than across them. I added what was essentially an official second major in literary studies by picking and choosing courses across departments for teaching-oriented professors, while officially majoring in economics (which is close to hard science but yet so far). Perhaps at the same time we decouple the BA from professional qualifications, we should liberate it from the constraints of majors that subsidize bad teachers with students’ required attention.

  10. The American liberal arts education is similarly stratified, but within departments and universities rather than across them. I added what was essentially an official second major in literary studies by picking and choosing courses across departments for teaching-oriented professors, while officially majoring in economics (which is close to hard science but yet so far). Perhaps at the same time we decouple the BA from professional qualifications, we should liberate it from the constraints of majors that subsidize bad teachers with students’ required attention.

  11. I like the certification concept, and I agree that the relatively importance placed on research relative to teaching at prestigious research universities can cut into their investment in undergraduate education.That said, I’m pretty impressed with the folks coming out of MIT and CMU, the two schools I was lucky enough to attend. Granted, a lot of their talent reflects the filters they apply at admission time. But I spend enough time with current students to see how those students advance over time.I’m not suggesting that you can’t obtain a fine engineering education for less money or at a less prestigious school. But, conversely, I think that the idea that top schools aren’t educating their students doesn’t pass empirical muster. And I can say for myself that I learned an enormous amount at both schools.Perhaps computer science and math are different than other subjects. I’ll concede that I don’t interact as much with English majors.

  12. I like the certification concept, and I agree that the relatively importance placed on research relative to teaching at prestigious research universities can cut into their investment in undergraduate education.That said, I’m pretty impressed with the folks coming out of MIT and CMU, the two schools I was lucky enough to attend. Granted, a lot of their talent reflects the filters they apply at admission time. But I spend enough time with current students to see how those students advance over time.I’m not suggesting that you can’t obtain a fine engineering education for less money or at a less prestigious school. But, conversely, I think that the idea that top schools aren’t educating their students doesn’t pass empirical muster. And I can say for myself that I learned an enormous amount at both schools.Perhaps computer science and math are different than other subjects. I’ll concede that I don’t interact as much with English majors.

  13. Interesting stuff and I think you are spot on about engineering. BUt you are completely wrong about liberal arts. What people fail to realise is that the point of a liberal arts degree is NOT to learn the material. It is to learn to understand, to think and to write. And to do all of them across a wide range. For example, while your reading of Orwell and Russell is great, your failure with Marx is troubling and I’m sorry, but liking Ayn Rand shows exactly what you missed with a true liberal arts degree. And what about shakespeare, chaucer, keats, yeats, austen, Lewis, goethe, etc etc?Having said that, I think the opposite is true in liberal arts to engineering in terms of what school you attend. A community college will teach you almost nothing (unless you are very lucky with your particular teachers) and nor will a big name academic mill. Instead an old liberal arts only institution is what you want.Having said all that, what do I know? I was educated in England and learned a LOT more in high school than University. I got a degree in mathematics and computer science and ended up being a writer and editor.

  14. Interesting stuff and I think you are spot on about engineering. BUt you are completely wrong about liberal arts. What people fail to realise is that the point of a liberal arts degree is NOT to learn the material. It is to learn to understand, to think and to write. And to do all of them across a wide range. For example, while your reading of Orwell and Russell is great, your failure with Marx is troubling and I’m sorry, but liking Ayn Rand shows exactly what you missed with a true liberal arts degree. And what about shakespeare, chaucer, keats, yeats, austen, Lewis, goethe, etc etc?Having said that, I think the opposite is true in liberal arts to engineering in terms of what school you attend. A community college will teach you almost nothing (unless you are very lucky with your particular teachers) and nor will a big name academic mill. Instead an old liberal arts only institution is what you want.Having said all that, what do I know? I was educated in England and learned a LOT more in high school than University. I got a degree in mathematics and computer science and ended up being a writer and editor.

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