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Wednesday, March 30, 2011

For homeschoolers, education reformers, and open-minded citizens: a paraphrase of JS Mill

If the general public realized how difficult it is to enforce the idea that every child must go to school and learn what is being taught there, they would not have to constantly discuss what schools should teach and how the schools should teach. If the government would make up its mind to require that every child receive a good education, it might not have to actually provide that education. It could allow parents to get that education for their children where and how they pleased, and only play the role of subsidizing the tuition of those who cannot afford to pay. The problem with government run education is not the requirement that children be educated, but that the government has decided that it should do the educating. No part of education should be run by the government. Because people are different and have diverse personalities and diverse needs, education needs to be diverse as well, with many different options. Government driven education is really just a method of making people exactly alike one another. Every government has the desire to tell students what to think and how to think it and they will do so if given the opportunity.

This is a paraphrase in modern terms of John Stuart Mill's thoughts on education taken from On Liberty published in 1859.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

“Don’t worry, he will go to college”

Someone I know had their three year old son, who was acting oddly, evaluated by a psychologist. He was diagnosed with something that translated as a mild kind of autism. The psychologist then said: “don’t worry, he will go to college.”

I found this remark hilarious at first but now see it as a very sad commentary on our college-obsessed society. The same day that I was pondering this, The Chronicle of Higher Education ran the following story:

Nearly a Third of College Students Have Had Mental-Health Counseling, Study Finds

“About a third of college students have sought mental-health counseling, but they are much more likely to say they experience anxiety and stress than they are to report trouble with more-severe problems like violence or substance abuse.

When responding to statements about academic distress, more than 70 percent of students reported a positive attitude about their academic ability, but 21 percent of students agreed that "I am not able to concentrate as well as usual" and 25 percent agreed that "It's hard to stay motivated for my classes."

32 percent of students have attended counseling at some point.

The report also included statistics about suicide: 9 percent of respondents reported that they had seriously considered attempting suicide before college, and 7 percent said they had considered attempting suicide either after coming to college or both before and after coming to college. Five percent of students reported that they had made a suicide attempt.”

In general, as anyone who has been there can attest, college is a stressful experience. It is an experience that doesn't necessarily result in a better job at the end, and one that allows students to major in subjects that in no way lead to a career. The social anxiety at college is palpable. Students are worried about classes and grades, but not so much they actually show up to all their classes or do the work expected of them. They are worried about their social relationships, but it is rare for them to actually be taught about such things in college.

But yet, going to college is seen as the ultimate issue. As long as the kid can go to college, he will be fine. How sad that we actually believe this.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

The U.K. about to shut down engineering and science?

This just in from the BBC:

"Several universities have warned they may be forced to close science and engineering courses if the government limits visas for foreign students.

Sixteen university vice-chancellors have written a joint letter to The Observer saying the plans would have a profound effect on university income."

I really like the honesty expressed here. The reason universities want foreign students is so they can make money from running courses that those students want to attend. The interesting part here is that the issue is science and engineering courses.

I have been noting of late, the U.S. President's obsession about teaching science and math. Although this story is from the U.K. the lesson is the same. Either American and British students simply don't like science and engineering, or else their universities have produced far too many science and engineering degree programs.

It doesn't matter which of these is the case really. It is clear either way, that the reason President Obama is saying science and math nonstop is that he is getting pressure from many quarters, especially universities.

Now as a long time professor of Computer Science, I am well aware that the vast majority of students in U.S. masters programs in computer science are from India and China. This is true of engineering as well. If the supply of Indians and Chinese were limited in the U.S. most university graduate programs would shut down.

Now, I have no stake in this whatsoever, but I do have a point of view, that the British and American authorities might want to listen to. The math and science programs in high school (and college too) are so awful that they put off most prospective students. The Indians and Chinese persevere in their country's version of those programs because they know that that is their ticket out. The U.S. and U.K. students have no such motivation.

We might consider building curricula that cause children to get excited about science and engineering, if that is indeed so important to do, by making some compelling programs. I am building a first grade engineering curriculum at the moment, not because I care about what happens in graduate school but simply because I know little boys like to build things and I think it would be fun for them.

In order to make a change in who applies to graduate school, you will need to change high school. But high school has been the same since the nineteenth century.

Get rid of the nonsense that is high school math and science and teach kids how to reason scientifically and how to build things and we will see a change.

Why isn't this avenue the one that is being taken? Simply -- because it would take longer to do that than any politician's term will take. No politician ever proposes a long term strategy. High test scores and more testing is a short term strategy that will never achieve any result at all.

Make it interesting and they will come.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Confused about what college is about? Sex at BYU and Northwestern

This week we have had a fascinating set of stories emanating from two major U.S. universities, that make clear why our conceptions of college are muddled. Since many of my readers do not live in the U.S., I will briefly summarize these stories.

  1. BYU, a university run by and for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, suspended one of its star basketball players, (on a team headed for the national championship) because he had sex with his girlfriend.
  2. Mike Bailey, a psychologist at Northwestern, had a live sex demonstration in his class on Human Sexuality.

How are these stories related? There has been much discussion of them, not necessarily in the same articles, but as they happened at the same time there have been some comparisons being made in various publications.

My connection to these stories is not too great, but as I was a member of Northwestern’s Psychology department, I am familiar with the Northwestern scene and with Mike Bailey. And, although it hardly makes me an expert on BYU, I did spend a few days there not long ago interacting with faculty and administrators, generally discussing education.

BYU has a strict honor code to which all students must adhere that stems from their church’s religious beliefs.

Northwestern is a more typical U.S. campus which means students come from everywhere and from every culture and all live together and interact with each other in the way that kids in their late teens and early 20’s who have no real supervision are likely to act.

As a professor, I always felt that kids should be kids, that they should enjoy sex and drugs and football if they like, but that it would be nice if they didn’t confuse those activities with getting an education. Alas, there is nothing I can do to change the idea that kids who are on their own for the first time should probably not be going to college. It would be far better if they got the partying out of their system beforehand and pursued serious education when they were ready to be more serious.

So, I am more in tune with BYU’s philosophy than with Northwestern’s only because I think university education is wasted on students who are pre-occupied with growing up and finding out who they are (and drinking excessively in the process.)

But, my view point is actually irrelevant to both of these stories.

The real issue behind these stories is determining the answer to the question “what is college really about?”

At BYU the answer is, one would suppose, preparing students to be productive citizens who live within the rules and philosophy of their particular community.

At Northwestern, the answer would be, one would suppose, the same, except the community is much broader with much more varied rules and options.

But, I can tell you, neither of these schools actually does this.

At BYU, when I spoke there, I chided them on copying, more or less verbatim, the curriculum offered at Harvard and Yale. One obvious reason that they do this is that their faculty have PhDs from such places, so they teach what they learned there. But, the goal of Harvard and Yale, is, pretty much, to produce scholars, and possibly to produce future leaders of the country.

BYU exists in a place and in a community that needs a much different approach to education. They are not producing the nation’s scholars, and while they may produce some national leaders (Mitt Romney comes to mind) that isn’t an everyday occurrence nor should it be their goal.

I think that BYU is right to teach, and to enforce, the rules of its particular world, but curiously they fail to do this, in that the university education they provide is more or less just the same as that offered everywhere else.

At Northwestern, the focus should be on producing people who can get jobs that exist in the real world and making creative people who can function well within that world. Yet, Northwestern emphasizes scholarly pursuits, and it offers up a smorgasbord of courses that allows students to pick and choose ones that seem like the most fun. Of course, Human Sexuality seems like fun. And, since the students actually do need to learn about sex, it makes sense to have such a course.

But that course exists along with thousands of others that are about random topics that fit into no coherent whole that might possibly enable students to have any idea of what they should do or can do after they graduate. Northwestern doesn't care that much about producing people who can go to work. They just let the faculty offer the courses that they want to teach.

Mike Bailey has been pushing the envelope on that for some time. He seems to like the ruckus he causes, and I personally don’t blame him for actually teaching what he is supposed to teach.

But, the fact is that he will be censured in some way for doing this because Northwestern, like most universities, is really about getting students to know things rather than getting students to do things.

The real problem in university education is that no one knows what it is really for any more. It used to be solely about making scholars. Now that the masses go to university in extraordinary numbers, university education is about appealing to the masses. This means providing entertaining courses and Mike Bailey, while he will likely get into trouble for it, has done just that.

BYU, on the other hand, has actual principles. They are not my principles but why should they be? They are at least trying to do more than entertain. At least they should be. But they offer the same stuff that Northwestern offers, more or less.

Perhaps it is time to re-think college education and ask what it is really there for and what students are actually supposed to gain from the experience. When we answer this question we might want to consider what they will actually do with what they have learned after they graduate.

Just a thought.