The Signals of Education and Reality

I find it interesting that there is so much focus on our society on higher education as a signal that a person is educated and therefore more employable. If you look at what education and higher education actually teach, there is a major gap in teaching people how to think through problems in a way that they can actually implement elsewhere and they lack an ability to teach people to prepare and organize their capabilities in a way that they can be extremely effective. These are both things that some individuals learn after getting their education and some... never learn at all. So why is the signal of an education from a university so desired in business?

Thinking about the content that I learned in high school and at university, there was certainly some good things; however, there was a serious gap between what I learned about society, history, and how things work in the world and what reality is. For example, the story that is told in The Ascent of Money: A Financial History of the World is well more than anything that I ever learned in high school or college about the financial system or history. Why aren't these concepts covered as a part of history class or the concepts in Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World? Here are two stories about forces that formed modern society in a very broad and overarching way, yet we ignore these components of history in our regular study and this lack of content means that students also skip the historical context of things like starting a business or free trade. These aren't the only two books out there that describe the historical concepts of business, trade, and how those things have influenced society as we know it. There is The Corporation that Changed the World: How the East India Company Shaped the Modern Multi and The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger... both provide this same insight. It seems the education system has been overtaken by the same forces that are explained in books like these and these forces are motivated to sell more expensive text books that re-evaluate the same handful of wars and religious practices in the world. I'm not saying that those aren't important as they are; however, I am saying that it is frustrating that businesses in our society have put the signal of higher education on a pedestal when that signal is weak.

Understanding the context of business isn't my only example of course, math is another HUGE area where we ignore the reality of how we acheived the capabilities we have acheived in math. For all of you readers that aren't math majors out there - when was the first time you had an intellectual discussion about the people who dreamt up the basic math that we are doing today? Mind you these guys were alive a LONG time ago and literally spent time playing with sticks, strings, a pencil, and paper and came up with the foundation for all mathematics - because they thought it was interesting. Look at the story in The Golden Ratio: The Story of PHI, the World's Most Astonishing Number. The list goes on with nearly every subject where the concepts are roughly taught to students and the context and inspiration behind those concepts is never conveyed to students providing maybe half of an education.

The main goal of this signal for people doing the hiring is that the job candidate is motivated and capable enough to get results - or willing to be taught to do anything. I know we have seen a lot of problems with the latter signal in the financial industry where greed and unethical practices were the culture and those brilliant students from elite universities who were willing and gullible enough to expertly execute anything that was put in front of them caused problems for everyone.

The former reason for the signal does play out. We see athletes being recruited out of high school more and more because they are motivated and capable to produce results (in fact we just all watched Missy Franklin - who will be a High School senior next year - get the world record) and occasionally like in the case of Missy - they turn down the endorsements. This is extending beyond athletes and into high tech as well with developers and designers who have built great things being hired out of high school. Perhaps this expansion of employers beyond pro athletes to look closer at signals of people being able to produce results will affect hiring in the future. There is certainly a growing pool of resources where those self made students can learn the skills to create those signals and most universities are realizing this with things like the EdX program and other Free University courses. My son Quentin started teaching himself Java because he wanted to learn to code, I sent him and he just went to town teaching himself to code. There is no shortage of ability in the world and there is a growing pool of content that includes both traditional content from the school system and less traditional content from well researched and written books in society. The difference will really be on how employers read these signals... if they do.


Comments (2)

  1. Steven B Nelson

    So, to some extent I would agree, however, the point of higher education has never been to qualify people for the business world. Business schools only became part of the higher education process in the last 80 years – a short time by academic standards. No, higher education teaches, not specific skills in many cases, but (at least in theory at reputable universities) different ways to think about problems in general, and an exposure to alternate ways of thinking and information that can effect the outcome of this thought process. For a higher education location that is focused on specific skill, the proper place for that (IMHO) is currently, and should continue to be, either the various technical schools, or Community Colleges. These are much more focused on various “technical” educations. I even believe that developers (guys who write code to spec) should be “trained” at these locations, but if they want to advance and/or think about why the code is designed that way, understand the theory behind the code, architect new solutions, or even perform research, then the university route is the way to go.

    A lot of this problem stems from the effects of WWII and Korea. Before these wars, most high school graduates could find positions with a minimum of abstract thinking. However, largely as a result of many advances that occured as a result, an increasing premium was placed on abstract thinking – and the benchmark of the time was the university education. However, as technology and education levels have increased, this benchmark has not changed – as you say, there are many positions that require the new assembly line worker – but instead of working with tools, they work with data. These require the same education that would be equivalent to a mentorship program that is done for trade professionals today and represent the majority of work that is out there.

    However, the problem is that HR directors and business leaders still have not adjusted their thinking to the new assembly line – if the job is in the office, a university education must be required because it is not a trade profession.

    So, the problem is not necessarily that the colleges/universities are not doing what they are designed to do – they are – teaching abstract thought. The problem is that business does not seem to accept that for many positions within the office, lower levels of education + mentorship/apprenticeship programs are what is needed to provide the “assembly line” skills of today.

    Just my $0.02…

  2. Josh Maher

    My point is that even though they weren’t designed to teach students to be business experts, they still fall drastically short of teaching the right information for students to correctly problem solve or think through modern problems in our society. Most of the university education is general or specific and skips a contextual understanding of the content. Understanding context is critical for modern problem solving.

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