The Trivialization of Higher Education

Posted on December 21, 2010

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It seems that we are more adept to follow gimmicks than to actually strengthen our industrial and innovative potential. Just recently venture capitalist Peter Thiel offered scholarships for potential innovators aged 20 or less. You can see those news at slashdot:

http://news.slashdot.org/story/10/12/19/0441251/Drop-Out-and-Innovate-Urges-VC-Peter-Thiel

That on itself is a worthy endeavor except that it implies dropping or skipping school altogether to pursue a dream. Dreams are a dime a dozen. Some opportunities cannot wait for one to finish school, granted. But most do not.

This comes just after Bill Gates made some interesting comments regarding higher education. Namely he suggests that higher brick-n-mortar education will be less relevant as people take upon self-learning on the internet:

http://www.dailytech.com/Bill+Gates+Who+Needs+a+College+Education+When+You+Have+the+Web/article19294.htm

Being a distance-learner from a brick-n-mortar graduate school (WPI to be precise), I can agree to the value of distance/self learning. However, it is a dangerous proposition to presume higher education will be less relevant as times goes by (with Gates being a very bold proponent of education reform that left one scratching heads till going bald.)

For all their entrepreneurship acumen, these individuals seem to believe (or pretend) that their unique educational experiences can be applied in a cookie-cutter manner to every single starred-eye young pal trying to make his mark in this world. It does not work that way. For every Zuckerberg, Ellison and Gates, we have hundreds, thousands who have nothing to show after dropping school.

There are a couple of things that we must take into consideration:

India and China combined produce a million engineers a year while the US only produces 200K a year [1][2].

Not to mention all other branches of science. Not to mention competition from Japan, Korea, Taiwan, Malaysia and Singapore.

And this does not count emerging tech competitors from South Africa, Brazil, Argentina and Eastern Europe.

And this does not take into account that graduates in many of these countries (Argentina for instance) have to go through a 5-year engineering program as opposed to a continuously watered down 4-year engineering programs as we do…

… and with a far more solid pre-collegiate HS background than ours.

Against such a backdrop, and with our manufacturing potential going down the toiled, do we do we really want to f* around with higher education any further?

We need to strengthen our engineering potential; get government-sponsored R&D going (just as it was until a few decades ago); extend our science and engineering programs into 5-year programs just to catch up with other countries; strengthen the requirements for entry rather than watering them down to produce quantity-over-quality numbers.

For all their business acumen, it is obvious that their ideas on education (however well intentioned) are not infallible or even sensible. The last thing we need is to have self-made billionaires telling young people “here is some money, drop out of school.” Ideas are a dime a dozen.

We need to fire up innovation and entrepreneurship, but not like this. You might as well cut the nation’s wrist and let it bleed to oblivion while other nations pass right above us.

Other nations (China and India) are not doing what they propose. Quite the opposite they do, and they are emerging well. But here we are, contemplating educational gimmicks that are obviously stupid to anyone but us.

If this is the best our top-notch businessmen and capitalists have to offer as solution to our educational problems, we are screwed.

[1]http://engineering.curiouscatblog.net/2005/12/13/usa-under-counting-engineering-graduates/
[2]http://nces.ed.gov/pubs/eiip/eiipid14.asp

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