The Ill-Posed Questions of Modern Collegiate Education

‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’

This is the first in a line of posts concerning key differences between education vs training and how when we misclassify these types of problems we create ill-posed questions that may have answers but not necessarily correct or optimal ones.

Fixed or Patched?

There is this idea that college should prepare you for a job. And I am not arguing that it shouldn’t. This post is not aimed towards those types of occupations. Most jobs these days are not life long and probably shouldn’t be. You are probably not going to work at the same job for 25-30 years and then retire. If you are a software developer or other project minded occupation this can be a good thing (unless you’re the CEO). You should outgrow your environment if you’re a software developer. You should learn what you can organize it, develop it, learn it forward and backwards and leave before you get bored enough to develop bad habits to a new company where you can expand and grow. If you are coding you don’t so much have an occupation as you do a vocation (hopefully).

An occupation is typically a particular job or set of similar jobs which you have been trained to do. A vocation however is something you feel compelled to do or for lack of a better word ‘called’ to do. Now I am not suggesting one is necessarily better than the other only that they require different tactics to become more than just proficient.

An occupation has a better chance of becoming automated leaving you out in the cold than a vocation. For example, a long time ago you wouldn’t ever be completely irritated by the automated menu system of companies you wished to call. You would reach an operator and they would direct your call to the appropriate department or person. We no longer have the need for as many of these operators as we did in the past; we still employ a few but not nearly as many as were employed before. A teacher or professor on the other hand is a vocation. You can’t teach a computer to handle an individual student’s problem with where they are stuck on their homework. A computer may provide a solution and highlight where you went wrong but it cannot analyze and help you correct the line of thought that got you the error. It cannot tell you how you should think of something if you were thinking of it from a particular view point. Likewise if you a programmer who actually likes coding. If you love coding you typically learn as much as you can about it. You may learn many languages or many specialized areas or methods but you typically are not limited by those methods and languages.

This is where I am drawing my distinction between an occupation and a vocation. An occupation is any job that has an expiration date. A particular job for which you have been trained and which does not require too much outside exploration to become proficient in. A vocation however not only does not have a foreseeable expiration date it also means you are never done learning it. You may become a proficient programmer but there will always be an upstream release you must learn or a new idea you must understand in order to improve or optimize your system.

What is my point? Modern collegiate goals are not only unsuited for the discrepancy between an occupation and a vocation it can be harmful to the process of becoming proficient altogether. We want quick and fast results; and you can have them over shorter time scales with short term outcomes. But the long view requires more intense and sustained research. You can quickly patch a hole in your tire but it takes more time to replace it and fix the problem altogether.

We do require short term solutions but they are not the only solutions we require. Many times when we patching a solution we forget the problem that caused it and why we had to patch it to begin with. We are relieved that the problem seems to be fixed and we are now allowed extra time to fix whatever caused it to begin with. But humans are procrastinators, no matter who you are there is something in your life that you deprioritize enough to be completed later. That is when the time we are given by the short term patch becomes a problem. We simply don’t utilize the extra time given to fix what caused the problem we forget about the problem until it happens again and frantically scramble to come up with another short term patch when the underlying problem hurts something else. We learned about the patch we did not learn about the underlying problem. You can easily learn how to fix a symptom but it requires considerably more time to analyze and determine a fix for the larger underlying problem that caused it to appear. It is in some ways similar to watching a movie vs reading the book. In either case you did learn something but reading the book gives you considerably more information than the movie.

College has become more akin to a technical school than it has an educator of its students. The goal of higher education should differ from that of technical schools or there is no point in continuing the distinction. The goal of a technical school is to prepare for an occupation. The goal of a college should be to educate. Which is a significantly different idea altogether.

I believe the problem starts when we ask your children ‘what do you want to be when you grow up?’ Which seems innocuous and innocent enough. But it introduces the idea that a teacher is the same type of thing as a telephone operator which is not only far from true its highly confusing.

We have to learn to properly classify our problems into their proper disjoint subsets. I can teach you how to solve for x. I can tell you why you should. I cannot however I may try tell you why you should want to do that. I cannot teach you how to want to learn or adequately express the satisfaction even I myself receive from learning new things.

I don’t know what’s the matter with people: they don’t learn by understanding; they learn by some other way — by rote or something. Their knowledge is so fragile!
~Richard Feynman


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