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 Codeacademy.com 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.