Myths of Teaching & Learning: The Value of College

Heard about the current hot debate over the “Value of College”? I am covering it in my research on the myths of teaching and learning, so here I’ll just give a short extract of what I am writing, based of what the press is saying.

This idea of the Ed Bubble Bursting started somehow when Peter Thiel, one of the founders of PayPal, announced in 2011 they would reward the smartest young people who abandoned their University career or dream to build a startup. {Clay Shirky addresses this in my interview: see the preceding post in this blog}. Thiel believes he can stimulate innovation this way. So, essentially they are saying: College education is overpriced, most university students will not achieve a high return for their huge investment and society at large won’t benefit from it either because innovation is typically absent from colleges. This is a very neo-liberal position, because it assumes that the so-called free market has a big say into the value of education, and it ends up measuring such value in pretty narrow terms. Of course many careers in the University are profoundly distant from the “real world”, but perhaps this is just one the great benefits Universities offer: the bonus of being able to reflect, think outside of the “regular” clockwork of the markets. But this extreme position (however attractive it is, especially to critics of the State’s intervention into Higher Ed), has also a major flaw: it is easy to assume that in the wild currents of the free market’s economy, those who have the guts, intelligence and ability will prevail and create knowledge and successful companies, which by definition are innovation’s starting point. A sober reflection however, lets us understand that innovation and creativity stem out of deep knowledge and need culture to be nurtured. Thus, the “innovation” Thiel and his pals are referring to is perhaps a narrow concept of innovation. Also, we must not take Thiel’s thought out of context: He doesn’t say that the University is bad, after all, or useless; but simply that in some cases and for some people it is not worth the while.

Among those who favor College education, some justify the University’s role saying that “even techies benefit from reading great books and discussing philosophical concepts”
(Princeton Professor Peter Brooks as quoted by J. Temple (Thiel Foundation fellowships have scary premise, May 29, 2011, San Francisco Chronicle; ). However said in an informal tone, this wording worries me in that it embodies two common myths, that is: 1) The myth that College education is essentially about reading “great books”; and 2) The myth that techies (those studying Mathematics, Physics, Biology, Engineering and similar “non-humanistic” subjects) are a bunch of uneducated, unread folks. Just to throw an example, the Google couple of Stanford dropouts (but they were on the verge of getting their PhD) did contribute in terms of knowledge to our society at least as equally as any other “knowledge operator” -the “value” of Google is as great as “Ulysses” or “Guernica”. I am going to treat later the myth of science and technology being non-humanistic, so I’ll drop the subject here.

What I am going to do here, however, is to point to Naomi Schaefer Riley’s article that I got lots of information from to write this post: It is “What is College Education Really Worth” from the Washington Post.

Writes Naomi:

[Thiel] has certainly undermined the worth of a credential. But it is universities themselves that have undermined the worth of the education. It is to their detriment that they have done so, certainly, but it is to the detriment of students as well…

And she is certainly right, even if I am not so sure we use the same meaning for the word ‘value’.

I just would like to add a short video of an interview of Naomi’s interview while presenting her book (that I have not read yet) The Faculty Lounges: And Other Reasons Why You Won’t Get The College Education You Pay For.

Seems an interesting read, especially for her questioning of the old models of 1) separation between teaching and research (Universities get their standing from research, she says, but you want them for their teaching to your daughter); and 2) faculty tenure status.

I agree tenure is a delicate subject, perhaps one of the causes of the current Ed Bubble Bursting, but I would treat it with extreme caution. If fact, here I am not treating it at all!

But the gap between teaching and research I think is one of the myths that need to be addressed urgently. I don’t really see why our universities cannot be research-based structures where everything -teaching, lecturing, experimenting, conversing- is done around research!

Here’s the video.

Are You Really Getting Your Money’s Worth out of College – Author Naomi Schaefer Riley:

Just don’t tell me that a college education is priceless because of all the culture -I am sort of tired of that argument- since I would informally reply that, sure, culture is great, but that seems to me more and more a bourgeois concept almost useless in our postmodern, post cultural world of “barbarians”.

About Antonio Vantaggiato

Professor, web2.0 enthusiast, and didactic chef.
This entry was posted in education, myths, politics and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *