Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Grumpy Thoughts On University Educations

Today a friendly acquaintance on Facebook asked "What's the purpose of a college education" and I - rather full of cynicism replied "For some degrees, to provide new consumable/expendible and conditioned resources for the Captains of Industry... for others to pay money to a human farm for a worthless piece of paper that served no purpose but to keep the lights on and staff paid at the University itself, and for both... to provide a monthly cashflow to the holders of the debts acquired for the obtaining of that piece of paper for 10+ more years afterwards. After 200+ years since the coming of the industrial age, the educational system is now horribly and unsustainably broken. We're just waiting for the bubble to pop.

I then had a much longer followup and I don't want it to be lost... so I'm turning it into a blog post. 

This post is framed by and within the US Public School -> University machine/system in which I participated. 

Background 
I completed my degree (BA History Minor in Italian Language & Culture), I have paid off my debts (roughly $70k), and I did the whole horse and pony show (graduated high school and college with honors, did well on all my standardized tests, etc. etc. and I now have a lucrative IT job that has absolutely #$&* all to do with my degree)... I even wear a lovely gold ring with my school's logo on it and cheer on my properly colored tribal warriors on the football field each year when they do mock battle on the field of astroturf honor. 

History
I went to Uni to get an double degree in Art and Computer Science, in 1995 the idea of a degree in computer graphics/animation was not yet vogue. After two years of taking mandatory classes and incurring half of my debt I realized that all I did was absolutely kill any desire I had to be creative (I had to make art I did not enjoy to comply with arbitrary standards to show mastery of arbitrary skills) and I was learning programming methodologies that were already 2 years behind the bleeding edge and paying money for the privilege. So I got a wake up call, decided to pursue my original love of History and went back to self-study of what is now my career - web design. The degree was ONLY to get me through the "HR filter" so that I could get a corporate job. 

Mostly Blah, Some Good, Some Bad
I believe Gaussian distribution (the bell curve) applies in all things and over time the curve becomes more pronounced. Nearly 20 years after I started at Uni, I've come to realize that the classes where I grew best as a human being (the leading edge of the curve) - I could have done in 2014 via a social media group or a Meetup group, chatting about politics at a pub or coffee house, or even just opening my mouth to talk to a new stranger I just met on a train in another country. Or... by joining the armed forces. The only thing my professors really did for me, was provide me with bibliographies of good books... which I can now get just by asking my Facebook colleagues or reading Amazon "top sellers" lists. For the rest of my time at Uni, the rest of the bell curve applies - and I paid good money to sit in a room and learn stuff I could have learned on my own, to talk to people with nothing interesting to say, and to fulfill "my requirements" ... and sometimes, I paid good money to sit in the most arse numbingly boring classes imaginable just to fulfill a "requirement." (trailing edge of the curve). But I had to pay it, because I had to get enough "hours." 

Hours Über Alles
... in the US, that's a minimum number of "hours" and schools are paid for by how many "hours" you take in a semester. In order to complete your degree, you MUST purchase a specific number of hours, and the content of those hours varies by degree plan. Showing mastery of a subject allows you to - sometimes - get credit for the material (so your degree plan is satisfied) ... but you still must now fill the gap with hours (that you pay for) somewhere else with some other subject. If you should transfer to another school... you must pay for a specific number of hours at the new school in order to graduate from that school (even if you show mastery of all subjects required for the degree you want... we go to Uni to learn right? So if I learn the material why can't I get the diploma earlier? ). There are even Universities now that offer "general studies" degree plans, where you basically pick and choose whatever courses you wish, and once you hit your "hours" you get a - you realize a decade later - very expensive piece of paper from "a good schoo." (that now in 2014, you can get from home, via an online degree program, provided by a business that realizes that you're just after the piece of paper and so charges you a fraction of the money just to get in, get out, get the paper).

Book'em Dano 
Then there's textbooks - invariably in the US, the classes with the heaviest churn always have brand new text books every year so that there's no used books available. These new books are absurdly expensive, but students don't care because they're getting loans anyway. Curiously convenient confluence there that helps pay the textbook industries bills. Then you have professors that require their own books in class (fortunately there's usually used available). Then labs, which carry fees... conceptually to pay for the materials consumed in the labs... but most of the time you have to buy additional materials as well with your own money. Then there's "general fees" for things like the student health center and photocopy center (but you have to pay for any services rendered yourself also). 30,000 people attended my Uni. when I went... each of them paid $5 for student health services. You still had to pay for any injections, serious medicine, etc. yourself... but at least bandaids and Tylenol were free. Thank goodness for that. 

By GED you've got it!
If I could do it all over again, I'd go back and tell High School me to tell the public schools to piss off, go get my GED at 16, study for the SAT standardized entrance tests myself, pass them earlier, go to a local community college to get my "core curriculum" goals met, and then transfer to my Uni. of choice to pay for only "the hours" necessary to get my fancy paper and gold ring with a prestigious logo on it (assuming I didn't just get the paper from an online University mill) and save myself countless thousands of dollars. 

I'd have paid a fraction for the paper that got me through the HR filter to my current job, saved years of my life, and probably been very similarly (professional) situated as where I am now - because nothing I learned necessary to do it came from the Uni. 

Oh well...
Obviously there are other circumstances outside of simply the University/Degree situation involved. I love my life, let me repeat that I LOVE my life and I wouldn't - in fact - go back and change a damn thing. But I can at least acknowledge that, in the end, I was bilked for $70k of money to get a piece of paper "the right way" (or rather, the way "everybody else does it") that, had I known more as a kid, I might not have had to do so. One of the things that "contrarian philosophy" (a mindset I did NOT learn at school by the by) teaches us is that... if "everybody" does something a certain way, that's the only evidence necessary to tell you that there's got to be a better way.