Learn How To Learn And Stop Blaming Your Education

I saw this whiny article in the Washington Post that was just begging for a response. The gist of the article is that the author got a Computer Science degree and wasn’t given his dream job out of the gate. This then becomes an indictment of the education system rather than the typical sniveling millennial i-wasn’t-given-the-world-without-having-to-work-for-it screech that it is. Let’s take a look at some quotes from the posting:

My college education left me totally unprepared to enter the real workforce. My degree was supposed to make me qualified as a programmer, but by the time I left school, all of the software and programming languages I’d learned had been obsolete for years.

The think this belies a misunderstanding of how higher education works – it is not what you are given, it is what you do with it (the whole learning how to learn thing). It is as if he expects to read a book on swimming but never gets into the pool; and ‘surprise’ he really can’t swim because he put no effort into applying the learnings. Also, if ‘all of the software and programming languages’ were obsolete, what were they teaching? FORTRAN?, RPG?, Visual Basic?

To find real work, I had to teach myself new technologies and skills outside of class, and it wasn’t easy.

Poor you. You should have been doing this all along. The Computer Science curriculum should be teaching you fundamental concepts in how computers work, programming concepts and techniques that can be applied across specific programing languages, databases and platforms. Actually, it is a bit shocking how many recent CS grads don’t have a grasp of fundamentals.

Businesses aren’t looking for college grads, they’re looking for employees who can actually do things – like build iPhone apps, manage ad campaigns and write convincing marketing copy. I wish I’d been taught how to do those things in school, but my college had something different in mind.

Businesses are indeed looking for those things, but they are looking for people who can learn and grow and apply what they have learned in the past. If you have a CS degree and can’t figure out how to write an iPhone app you either had a horrible curriculum or slept through most of your class time. The fact that you weren’t specifically trained for that is not a problem with your education. Rather it is a failure to apply what you should have learned.

At least 90 percent of my college education (and that of so many others) boiled down to pure terminology, or analysis of terminology. My success in any given class was almost wholly based on how well I could remember the definitions of countless terms – like the precise meaning of “computer science” or how to explain “project management” in paragraph form, or the all-too-subtle differences between marketing and advertising.

Wow. Ok. So, if that percentage is accurate, I can see why you can’t get a job. When I got my CS degree (many moons ago) that was maybe 1% of what we were taught.

To me, this is the root of our college problem: The average college student is paying $30,000 a year for the chance to learn valuable skills from professors who haven’t had the opportunity to learn those skills themselves. Maybe it’s a crazy idea, but if you’re going to spend all that money for a college education, shouldn’t you expect to learn real-world skills from people who know what they’re doing?

This seems excessively harsh and a bit misguided. If you want to be learning what is new and trendy, go to a conference, a user group, or actually talk with people who are doing interesting things. By the time those things get packaged up into an approved curriculum, the technology might be on the stale side. But, again, if you don’t understand the fundamentals, you are not going to be able to effectively apply new technology and concepts. No one can give that to you at any price.

Solving the issue of inexperienced teachers may be even simpler: have schools relax academic requirements for professors and focus far more on hiring effective businesspeople. With a little more leeway, academically-minded candidates will have more freedom to gain job experience, and schools may even attract more talent directly from the business world. Success in business and success in the classroom are certainly different things, but I’d wager that it’s a lot easier to show an accomplished businessperson how to teach than it is to show a teacher how to be an accomplished businessperson.

So it sounds like what you want is for all universities to be trade schools, focused on cranking out very specific skills and techniques rather than more broadly educating students and preparing them to apply a wide set of competencies to a range of problem domains. This sounds a bit like the certification trap from the 90s – go get a very narrow, often vendor specific certification but still have no practical experience in applying that knowledge. When that vendor falls out of favor, you are a bit stuck unless you can teach yourself the reasoning and abstraction skills you would have learned in college.

To steal the trite closing from the original article: But what do I know, I have been happily applying my Computer Science degree for nearly 30 years with technologies, programming languages and platforms that never even existed when I graduated.

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