Thursday, July 2, 2015

Two Ends, Too Obtuse: An Essay on the Well-Roundedness of the American Higher Education System

by Nguyen Dinh Giang
engineer-in-training, Hoftsra University


Society continues to move at an unprecedented pace. The world is ever smaller, thanks to a combination of the accessibility of long-range travel, the lightning-fast sharing of information, and relative global stability. The breadth of our field shrinks along with the world we inhabit, while the depth of our skills moves inversely, as more and more expertise is needed in each and every occupation. When a household microchip is smaller than the smallest thing the human eye can see, how can one rationally dream of being a polymath, of being a Jack-of-all-trades? Specializing has always been how one becomes valuable, but nowadays being highly specialized is not just a goal – it is a necessity. As the most prevalent higher education form of the present time, should colleges and universities become more conscious of their position and follow the bleeding edge? As with every issue, the question of how specialized or how well-rounded should the outcome of higher education be is not a simple one. In this case, however, I propose that the very form of higher education is behind the time, and that it is not the question of choice and rather the question of how – higher education is both not well-rounded enough and not specialized enough.

First of all, let us think about the state of institutionalized education of the present time. Although universities and schools enjoy a romantic identity of being a hall of enlightenment and a place of freedom in intellectual growth, the reality is much less so. Thanks to the changes towards a freer society, no doubt enhanced by the information freedom of the Information Age, reality is no longer behind closed doors and hidden statistics. Parents know how their children are not working at their fullest potentials; countries pool resources to fix faults in educational systems. Online outcry over education is, thankfully, a much more common occurrence. But the system stands thanks to decades of successful societal engineering.

To better understand the present we need to know the past, and looking back, the modern style of institutionalized education is not as old as people would think. In the US as well as in most of the world (we envy those who has reformed enough to be labeled “broken free of the system” like Finland), the educational system is either Prussian-inspired (the 1830s system) or Soviet-inspired (set heavily by the 1st and 2nd Five-Year Plan around 1928 –1937 – itself heavily inspired by the Prussian system). The US, for instance, was so impressed with the system that the government applied the Prussian system almost verbatim early 19th Century, and erased most of the open-education reforms around mid-Cold War with the Sputnik crisis reform (after October, 1957). In essence, American educators reformed the system to the Prussian system twice!

Widely known in academic circles as a successful social cohesion tool and simple education for the masses, the Prussian system does have undeniable advantages for its time – compulsory schooling leads to a strong base level of knowledge, introduced educational funding, salaries for educators, and a school system with emphasis on national identity as well as the introduction of science and technology to the masses. The strict rules and ranking of grades were meant to familiarize the masses to the stages and stairs of the society at the time, as well as getting the populace used to a ranked power system of the military. Out of school, the Prussian student is ready to be put into almost any contemporary occupation, will not be a hazard in war time, and possess a strong national identity that is useful to the monarchy at all times. The strict class, the heavy atmosphere, the rules, the grades and the massive lectures are all still-very-functional remnants of a more troubled era.

This is the 21st Century, however, and such drastic measures are no longer needed, and even the most traditional of educators can’t see the use of the system above the moral forming age. While many of the problems met by the Prussian monarchy and the Soviet politburo are still there and will probably here for generations to come (salary disparities, gender balance, poverty, etc.), the ones that are fixable by the system have already been fixed. In the developed world and even in most of the third world, the use of compulsory schooling has achieved what the Prussians set out to do – building a basic level of literacy and a national identity. In the most basic of educational levels, compulsory schooling and strict societal rules of the moral-forming years are still as important as ever. But compulsory classes and strict rules can only go so far in many facets of life. For example, according to Lawrence Kohlberg’s level of moral development, the successful moral outcome of the majority of the student will be around stage 3 (I do it because the society think it is acceptable), or optimally 4 (I do it because the law and order said it has to be so). Any attempt to climb higher than that will require personal growth outside of the system whether through books, debates, or other personal experiences. When it comes to highly specialized fields of this era like stock markets, computer processors, cellular engineering, nano-technology, computer programming, the nationalized common curriculum can no longer suffice.

One can no longer hope to be as ready as a Prussian student to a Prussian society after the current, outdated system. Even the Boomers are better prepared for the Boomer days than the Millennials of today. Despite tremendous efforts to “fix the holes” by talented educators, pressure from worried parents, efforts from students and occasionally help from the government, it seems like things are inching towards a standstill akin to Zeno’s paradox – where Hercules takes half of the last step as the next step towards the turtle every time. And the Information Age does not move like a turtle. The wind of change of this era is greater than any before, and it is not just the turtle – even the hare can’t compare. Higher education is, therefore, more functional and fitting for the modern age if it is not bound by the thinking that it is merely an extension of the system that came before. The efforts of society while not useless will yield little results if this first fact is not well understood – you can keep a boat afloat for longer if you plug in the holes, but it will be useless if you finally come to the sea. And a sea of change is ahead.

A successful education needs discipline and an industrious quality in both the educator and the student, but being hardworking is only half of the equation. To strive for the heavens and free oneself in the mind, one also needs a spark of inspiration that turns into a fire of passion. A free and ideal university is one that uses the industriousness of the student instead of forcing it on them, gives them the spark of inspiration they need, and feed that spark to a bursting flame of passion with fuels from books, clever classes, open discussion, frequent intellectual challenges, and even from the flame of passion of the very professors themselves.

Despite the clear advantages of such a forum, it will admittedly be still not enough. Freer, more open higher education system is obviously intellectually liberating, but there lies still the question of what is well-roundedness, and whether it is still needed. Yes, we now have a roadmap to getting a better tool – the open university. But a hammer no matter how beautifully crafted can only hammer a nail as good as the craftsman’s swing. What is well-roundedness? “Pleasingly varied or balanced.” “Having a personality that is developed in all aspects.” “Covering well the necessary areas of education.” Those are the words of the venerable Cambridge, Longman and Oxford dictionaries, and in the most general of senses they are correct. While in an education debate we would need something of more details, the aforementioned definitions serve as excellent roadmaps.

“Covering well the necessary areas of education” needs a better definition of what it means to be necessary. Some information, while invaluable for all profession, is still omitted for most university majors. You are a biology major who just got out of school, and are lucky enough to land a beautiful job thanks to your stellar grades and brilliant research. The research lab sent you the new hire files, along with some government forms on jobs. You know nothing about the hundreds of forms that everyone has to trudge through to get a job in your well-rounded education? Fear not, at least you know the mitochondria is the powerhouse of the cell.

To be well-rounded in this sense is to be ready for life with the basic educations for the life of a well-rounded adult. While a class that teaches dry humor and clever quips would certainly be beneficial (not to mention immensely popular), small workshops of necessary-yet-often-overlooked things like obtaining a foreign visa, filling important government forms, personal finance and budgeting, traffic etiquettes, etc. would be very valuable. Regardless of major, knowing these seemingly insignificant things would improve society immensely – in my opinion, having classes like these would both indirectly and directly affect life positively not just for the students but also the people around them. A 20-something who knows to drive politely on the streets? Unthinkable. Young people budgeting smartly, saving for houses, practicing stocks and vote responsibly? Yes, please.

Some knowledge, on the other hand, is getting superfluous. In my field of engineering, for example, some knowledge is no longer needed thanks to the advent of the computer. The work of an HVAC engineer, for example, is reduced to a clever use of the software and the memory. My father, a professional and well-respected civil engineer specializing in structural engineering, laments the system I have to study. “You still study Calculus to this degree?” he said incredulously. “ This is no different than the Soviet system I had to study. You would have thought the Americans dumped this already.” Some of the knowledge is certainly still necessary, but some of the deeper or cumbersome mathematics is usually ignored or done by computer now. A skilled engineer only messes up arithmetic due to fatigue, and machines don’t get tired. The fact that a computer can calculate in seconds what takes a team of experienced gentleman days is also a bonus. When an Asian engineer thinks the system that his son uses is still stuck in the Soviet times, that denotes a serious problem.

At the same time, the knowledge is not in depth enough in universities. With the exorbitant cost of studies in a university, one would think there is a class or at least a tutor session in which the professor (usually a brilliant PhD educator) would spill the knowledge worth that gold. Sadly, there is none, or optimistically, little. Often in class I would be bored to death (Physics is a notorious example). Not that I don’t like the subject (I actively pursue nano research), or that I don’t do well (I average in the mid-90s nowadays in tests and quizzes). The class is boring because I know Physics could be so much more than the things of the 1800s –I have already studied by myself the whole book in the first weeks, and read about more on research journals. The people who want to go into purely HVAC engineering, for example, can skip all the college Physics for life and still succeed in their fields. Someone with a knack for research like me, and a thirst for knowledge, is left annoyingly unsatisfied by the courses offered. And it’s not just research –computer programming, processor building, space and aeronautics, even gourmet cooking – are not fulfilled by many universities but the most unobtainable of ones. I used to be oblivious by these facts, but now I’m furious at times. Indeed I have a horrible track record of being a studious student before, but does that mean I will never realize my dream of being a scientist?

The current university is, therefore, ill-equipped for the business life or the academic pursuit. On one hand, it is not well-rounded enough – students leave the university like fresh chickens out of the coop, thinking they are ready for everything while they are ready for nothing. Many of the unnecessary knowledge is wasted while the basics of life is still behind the bulwarks of feeding chain – school is supposed to help you earn experience quickly, not the other way round. At the same time, it is not specialized enough –you can’t hope to enter a high-interest field nowadays with a bachelor degree alone. Extra research, internships, journals and projects is needed to enter fields, thus revealing the favorite Catch-22 of this generation: you can’t get an internship without experience, but you can’t get experience without the internship.

It is true that many, if not a majority, of students manage to do well or at least mayfly their life away in an acceptable way. In my opinion, that is horrid. The university should be such a place that at least what you get out be equal to what you put in, not where you end up having a life like a high school graduate! A 100,000 or 200,000$ investment could yield a great many courses tailored to your need, a few years of volunteer trips that turn you into a much more intellectually and emotionally mature person, or a company of your own that teaches you a lot more than most universities can right now. The reason why universities still get, in a way, the exorbitant cost they possess, is because people still live passively and still believe in the expected value of the universities.

In a way, universities are inching towards that goal of being both well-rounded and specialized, but in my opinion, it is in an indirect way. I improved my debate and English skills due to the constant debates in all areas stretching through the night with my friend on and off the Internet. I received my spark of inspiration through a Hollywood movie, and my flame of passion through the lab work of my own initiative. While the end result seems fine, universities could have done more – I doubt people know the facilities existed, and even if they do, I doubt they would have used it without a spark of their own.

All in all, while they are heading in the right direction, universities and higher education in general is still ill-equipped for both well-rounded and specialized educations, where a result would often be an engineer not skilled enough to work in his field, yet not well-rounded enough to file his tax or budget his finance without guidance. The system needs to change not just the details, but come back to the very root it started with – the full-bodied, well-rounded personal growth and an enlightenment of the mind, creating specialist that fits. I could only hope that the ship starts to change shape and do more than going full steam ahead – right now both ends are obtuse.

This essay and others can be found at Giang's website (see under blog):

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