The premise of education

I read a very interesting article today, linked from an article on ifacethoughts (a blog I read). The article itself is about undergraduate Computer Science majors, but I felt like the premise goes far beyond that specific example. In reality it speaks to the terms of higher education in general, and I’m going to try to take it to heart in my own education.

See, I seldom think about the professional nature of the physician anymore. The way they throw facts at you in Anatomy and Physiology (not to mention Pharmacology and the rest to come), it seems like anyone with half a brain and a whole lot of hard work can memorize them all and become a successful physician. After all, there are government recommendations and guidelines for treating almost everything. While this may be true, I’m reminded of something I heard here at Rush (although I can’t remember where) that was reflected in that article. In it, Braithwaite probes at the nature of the undergrad CS major, who claims that more class time should be devoted to teaching more computer languages and detail in programming. If most of their students simply go to work for businesses who want them to be programmers who can produce solutions for them, why isn’t more time spent on teaching the ins and outs of various programming languages?

You are describing a vocational job to me. The rote application of practical principles is nothing more and nothing less. How is what you’re describing any different than a job as an accounts receivable clerk or a dental technician? Or a land surveyor? Or a architectural draftsperson?

He goes on to point out that there’s nothing wrong with vocational work or being a technician as long as you’re not lying to yourself about it. His greater point is to emphasize that it is not incredibly difficult to earn a degree, even with high marks, while understanding very little about the field.

The reality is that your degree is only a pacifier, a way to make you feel good about yourself. The industry is selling you the illusion of respect. I’m telling you this because the sooner you figure out the game, the sooner you can start playing instead of being played. If you really want to be more than a clerk, you can pay more attention to what is to be done and how much freedom you have to do it and less attention to whether there is a title or a degree involved.

It’s easy to get lost in the minutiae of details presented in class every day and forget about the bigger picture. But the point is that it’s not enough to just know the facts. If you do, then you are just a form of “clerk”. You need to understand the processes, why things are done (and even taught) the way they are, and why the field is going where it’s going. Otherwise you’ll not be in charge of your professional career and where it’s leading you. This is one of the main goals of education, although it’s often lost somewhere along the way.

On a sort of tangential note, this is an aspect of being a full-time practicing physician that worries me. In a linked article to the one above, he speaks about the role of academics in progressing the field, citing that most of their advances come from academia. I worry about becoming a person who only practices a craft as opposed to being a developer.

2 thoughts on “The premise of education

  1. Thanks for your comments. Alas, the article was meant as a bit of a hypothetical, a response to people arguing that Computer Science degrees ought to have less Science and more practical elements.

    I was trying to say that undergraduates choosing programs emphasizing vocational skills were headed towards jobs as clerks, and if you want more form your career–as you obviously want from yours–you need to get out of that trap.

  2. The sneaky part of that trap is that it pays really well in the short-term. At least in the case of computers, being a very good technician is an easier sell in the world of business than being a very good abstract problem solver. I’m not sure if that has a parallel in your world.

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