Is undergraduate education about the transmission of knowledge to students or the development of skills and character? Most college professors would say it is about both, but when it comes to determining degree requirements and designing courses and curriculum, the transmission of knowledge prevails. Professors assume that by some magical process, acquiring knowledge improves skills.
This sloppy and uncontested assumption has created a K-college curriculum that produces too many grade-driven knowledge hounds who simply regurgitate whatever “knowledge” is required into tests and papers. The same system also produces too many students turned off by education who resist learning “stuff” for the sake of it. Lastly, it produces too few graduates who can write, solve problems, use commercial databases and apply statistics—truly valuable skills.
This is the first in a series of posts on why skills should be the primary goal of all education systems. Keep in mind when reading the posts that stuff is defined as what is said to be “knowledge” in the various disciplines. Stuff in these disciplines, specifically the social sciences, includes scholarly symbols, concepts, ideas and theories that cannot be tested.
A student named Susan made an appointment to see me about the fact that even though she had a 3.4 GPA, she was bored with academia and could not get herself involved in anything except gossip and parties. She wanted me to tell her how to get engaged in her education both in class and outside of class. At one level the answer seems easy; just follow Dale Carnegie’s brilliant dictum “to be enthusiastic, act enthusiastically.” At another level, the answer may seem hard to find because it has to do with Susan’s personal development. In most of my experience, students eventually grow out of this partying and gossiping mentality, although not for a decade or so.
As I finished my session with Susan, I noticed a student, appropriately named Faith, waiting outside my office. She was waiting for me to sign twenty certificates of achievement for members of an organization she had headed. She had taken over the organization six months ago. This organization was one of those “give us $75, and you can say you are a member of our prestigious honors society without actually doing anything.” Usually, the president of the organization faces a lack of interest among members so the organization does nothing. I informed her that I was the faculty adviser for the organization only because no one else would do it, and I wanted to give students a chance to make something out of what was basically nothing. So it was up to her. The next thing I knew there was a barrage of events, mostly fundraising and a year-end banquet. She had attracted a band of loyal followers, many of whom she had not known before she became president.
So I asked Faith to tell Susan what made her tick. Faith did her “life is wonderful” routine and said that the organization had such potential, and she just could not let it be useless. When Faith left, I said that this is an example of the Carnegie principle. Faith was successful because she was Ms. Enthusiasm. Susan asked if having Faith there was a setup. I answered, “No, fate prevailed.” I never heard from Susan again. But I am still enthusiastic about enthusiasm, and I know some day Susan will get it.
The irony of the college search process is that students who do it the right way have developed the skills described in my book, 10 Things Employers Want You to Learn in College. Selecting a college properly requires that students have the following skills:
1. Good work ethic: They pursue projects with diligence and prepare materials sufficiently ahead of the deadline. They meet every deadline without stress. They take responsibility for the entire process.
2. Physical skills: They do not get themselves exhausted on their college visits so they can pay attention.
3. Oral communication: They can listen well and provide appropriate responses in interviews.
4. Written communication: They can write college essays without Mommy and Daddy writing it for them.
5. Working with people: They can learn from their peers who are interested in the same college, and they can establish good relationships with admissions officers and college faculty to get their questions answered.
6. Influencing people: They can build a strong case for financial aid and for acceptance of credits from Advanced Placement (AP) and other similar programs. They can use the interview process to help gain admission.
7. Gathering information: They can organize the materials they receive in the mail and keep what is important, and they can search websites to get answers they need.
8. Using quantitative tools: They understand the financial costs and the resources they have so they can project how much money they will need and where they will get it. They can use spreadsheet programs to organize data that they will need to make the decision.
9. Asking and answering the right questions: They can see through the hard and slick sell that colleges use to fill their seats and pay attention to the detail of the course requirements and financial hoops they will have to jump through.
10. Problem-solving: They can treat the decision of choosing the right college as a problem they need to solve. They can weigh alternatives with benefits and costs in mind and reach an informed decision.
Very few students exercise the skills listed and the good judgment choosing a college requires when they are juniors or seniors in high school. Those who do are ready to make the most out of the college experience or, as Bill Gates did, take on the world without the security blanket of a college education.
High schools should help students think of themselves as budding professionals in whatever field they pursue. The terms in the thesaurus for “professional” are “skilled,” “experienced,” “proficient,” “learned,” “trained,” “able,” “adept,” or “masterful” and all collectively express the idea.
Students need to understand that career success in our complicated modern world takes a set of skills associated with the concept of “professionalism.”
When talking to high school students, I asked them the difference between a high school basketball player and a professional basketball player. Their initial answer was “MONEY.” Obviously, students failed to recognize dedication, hard work, following the rules, teamwork and experience. These are the characteristics that students need to develop.
I do not believe it is too early to plant the idea of professionalism in the heads of ninth graders. Our teenagers may act like children and feel more entitled than ever before, but they also have more opportunities to take on responsibility, whether it is raising money for charitable causes or reckless sexual activity and binge drinking. They are ready to be provided a model of a successful adult and should be encouraged to follow that model.
Planting the seed, however, is not enough. High school and post-secondary programs must also provide practice that will entice and enable students to develop a broad set of professional skills that are vital to their own survival and the survival of the country. Now go forth and plant, but make sure the seed grows!
True believers in the value of a liberal arts education usually present themselves as an alternative to the narrow, mundane and overly specialized nature of professional school education. The professional schools counter with the argument that they are relevant and that they provide students what they are paying for. Having evolved from liberal arts colleges and faculties, professional schools have too much liberal arts-envy to see or tell the truth.
The truth is that liberal arts colleges are more vocational than the professional schools. The goal of most liberal arts faculty is to find the best and brightest students and then turn them into academic prodigies.
An academic prodigy is a student who has the commitment to the narrow and specialized activities that lead to living in the world of academic scholarship. They learn and practice the trade associated with gathering information, proper citation, doing lab work and generating product in the form of books, articles, presentations and curriculum that meet industry standards.
No matter what the liberal arts apologists say to the contrary, they provide specialized morsels of knowledge that are defined by the rules and regulations of the scholarship industry. Terms like “well-roundedness” and “critical thinking” are used to package their output to unsuspecting parents and students. They use these terms to convince themselves that they are not vocational schools.
But liberal arts programs are the most vocational of them all. This would not be a bad thing for those who choose it as a vocation if the thousands of students each year who want to join the academic profession did not have to spend 9 years—on average—after college to get their Ph.D. and then find out that only 10% of them can actually find jobs.
A traditional liberal arts advocate once told an audience of students that college is like a great intellectual feast, sort of like Old Country Buffet for the mind.
The definitions, concepts, facts, quotes, models and theories transmitted through lectures, readings and other activities can be viewed as ends in themselves, just like a good meal.
Or, they can be viewed as the process material through which you practice the skills that will get you a good job and make you a good citizen. They are like the food you eat. From that food, you develop muscles and healthy tissue and have fun in the process. But the process is not the purpose. You don’t live to eat; you eat to live.
Unfortunately, far too many faculty members think the stuff they are transmitting is what’s important. Knowing the definition of cytoplasm in freshman biology becomes one of their educational goals. They see their role as the transmitters of knowledge rather than the builders of skills. In their minds, academic credit is only worthy of such goals.
Don’t be confused by their vision of a great feast of stuff to learn. The skills you learn are the vitamins and nutrients. The rest ends up… well, you know where.
No doubt that you did some community service in high school. Some of you did it because you are god people and the reward was in the doing. Some did it as a requirement to graduate, and others saw it as a way to beef-up your college applications. Whatever the reason, volunteering in programs on and off campus can help you develop the skills every employer wants. Employers want skills such as a strong work ethic, communication, writing, teamwork, problem solving, and many of the crucial attributes which cannot be measured on a 4.0 scale.
It might seem harsh to say, but non-profit organizations depend on volunteers and low paid workers who may have limited commitment or skills. These organizations have no choice but to give you experiences before you are really ready for them. For example, a local community center might like to have a monthly newsletter to distribute but does not have the funds to hire a professional. If you have some basic skills in Microsoft Publisher or PageMaker, the center will give you a chance if you just ask. As someone with no experience, you now have an opportunity to be a newsletter designer, editor, writer and publisher. If you do a reasonably good job, you could have a product to put on your resume or in a portfolio when you seek a job.
Volunteering at a non-profit like the Boys and Girls Club that really needs you solves the following paradox: you cannot get a job without experience, and you cannot get experience without a job. As a volunteer, you can run after-school programs, summer camps and club sports teams for younger kids. In the old days, craftsman offered apprenticeships that gave novices experience in exchange for their labor. That’s how Benjamin Franklin became a printer, which led to him owning his own press. Today, volunteering at a non-profit provides evidence of your experience to future employers.
Employers recognize these experiences as valuable in three different ways. First, volunteering off-campus is evidence of willingness to be adventurous. Second, it can show skills associated with the work you did. Tutoring nine-year olds is a test of patience, communication and focus—all of which employers value. Third, it shows that you are care about something bigger than your own narrow self-interest.
Does the undergraduate experience help to prepare its graduates to be responsible citizens? Given that the public relations machines of higher education spin out biased news and frequent lectures about being a good citizen, students need to look at the downside.
• The high costs of a college education mean more debt for graduates who then have less time to volunteer, serve on community boards or even pay attention to public policy discourse. Graduates instead spend their time trying to make as much money as possible to pay off these debts.
• The low value relative to the high cost of higher education makes students distrust most societal institutions. Students come out of college unprepared for the work force and dissatisfied by so many courses that were poorly taught and not related to their interests.
• Despite occasional token representation, students are ignored in curriculum design, faculty selection and program requirements. They are treated more like serfs than citizens in the decision-making that affects them. Students should not have power over these decisions but should be consulted on a systematic basis.
• Courses offered in political science and history tend to be theoretical and focused at the national level when local government is the best place for any neophyte to start learning about and practicing citizenship skills.
• Few, if any, colleges require all their students to take courses on government which sends a clear message that either citizenship is not about government or that developing citizenship skills is not as important as learning, for example, MLA or APA citation procedures.
• While college faculty help students become good citizens by educating them to have an open mind (one of the few systematically documented outcomes of a college education), they overdose them on questioning authority and ignore the importance of respect for authority.
• Community service rarely generates academic credit and is rarely integrated into the academic curriculum making it very clear that citizenship is much less important than academic scholarship.
The next time you hear some college administrator or faculty member brag about citizenship and whine about how students do accept the responsibilities of citizenship, remind them that citizenship is best taught by example, not exhortations.
Business people know that the first 20% of the time they spend selling their product will yield 80% of their sales; the last 80% will yield only 20% of the sale.
Survey researchers know that they will receive 80% of the responses they are going to get within the first 20% of the time they allotted for the surveys come in.
Students should know that the first 20% they spend on doing a term paper or cramming for a test will yield a B, but they need to devote four times that to get an A.
The big question that the 80-20 rule poses is whether or not spending the 80% to get the last 20% is worth it. In simple economic terms, it’s a question of the benefits outweighing the costs.
Perfectionists, those whose persistence has overcome great odds to succeed, and good surgeons would say yes. Those who have chosen half a loaf, cut their losses and can figure out what is important and what is not, would say “it depends.”
Interns who see themselves as victims of injustice need to get a grip. They don’t realize that beginning as a photocopying, data entry, fax sending, mail delivering and list-checking maven is the road to internship success. These are basic skills that can lead to an opportunity to learn more advanced skills.
Internships are not the only way to get experience. A real job in the summer might provide more of an education depending on the student’s interest. Working as a camp counselor at a summer camp makes a lot of sense for students who want to go into education, for example. No matter what field, telephone or door-to-door sales job develop critical communication, time management and work ethic skills. Flipping hamburgers may seem like a dead end job, but don’t tell that to current McDonalds President, Jim Skinner, who started that way at 15 in Sydney Australia and became a store manager.
Students need to understand that they have to pay their dues as interns. I had an intern once who, when asked to make a copy of a contract by a paralegal in a lawyer’s office, quit. Presumably, he thought he should be writing the contracts, not copying them.
Contrast that with another student of mine who took a job with a public interest lobby group in D.C. He told me that all the interns were sitting around complaining about having nothing to do. He volunteered to do all the copying that he could during the first two weeks. The next week he was put in charge of a major campaign for the organization, and the complainers were working for him. Students who tell me that that they were given nothing to do are telling me that they failed.
These kinds of skills get the attention of supervisors and can lead to an experience way above expectations. A student working for an established public relations firm wrote me recently “the people here just think I am a genius because I can make things ‘pretty and organized’ as they say. Today was the icing on the cake when the principal of the firm came to me and asked if I was able to do something in excel then put it into a word document and hyperlink that document. I completed the task while he was standing there. I honestly think he would have hired me on the spot.”