The Role of Education?

Posted in Philosophy by AST on Monday, May 16th, 2005

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I was reading through my ACM TechNews email this evening and was struck with how well it is put together. I get a lot of summary mails because I don’t have a lot of time to surf or read RSS feeds, but I want to try and keep up with what’s happening in the industry. I can’t escape email, so at least it’s in front of me rather than having to deal with RSS. I have to say that the ACM article summaries are some of the best I’ve seen. Some of the articles were condensed so well that I really didn’t get any more out of reading the full article. Well done, ACM.

Anyway, why I’m bothering with this entry has to do with this article from MIS Magazine’s Asia Edition. The title of the article is What CIOs need from IT schools and includes quotes from Steven Miller, dean of Singapore Management University’s (SMU) School of Information Systems. One of these is:

As a university, it is our job to prepare students to enter the workforce, and to adapt to what we know will be a very dynamic and uncertain future over the next several decades.

I don’t know much about SMU, and considering this quote is from a magazine focused on MIS rather than Computer Science, I’m guessing that it would be classified as more of a business college or something similar in the US. I do have a major issue with the dean of something called a university (even in Asia) making claims that the goal of education is to make people employable. I believe the fundamental goal of education is to teach people how to think, and to think critically. If you can do this, you can learn nearly anything else.

To be fair to Mr. Miller, he does also mention that they must focus on both the near-term and longer-term needs of their students. Balanced education is certainly a good thing, but if you’re dealing with a fixed amount of time, I wonder what kinds of topics get priority and which are left on the cutting room floor. I deal with a number of people on a daily basis from a wide array of backgrounds. The ones that continually stand out are the ones who both know their own capabilities and limitations and who can figure out how to solve problems. This can be computer problems or people problems.

The article also points out how more vendors are establishing relationships with colleges and universities so that students are exposed to their tools and products. Of course, they say it’s so the students are prepared for the “real world” and are ready to be employable. I say that this is simply a well known marketing tactic put to good use (and one that has been done for quite a while). Of course, if you use Oracle or some other product when it’s free, you’ll take the experience with you into the “real world” and be more inclined to use it when you have to convince someone else to pay the licensing costs. It worked for me and NeXTSTEP (I bought one when I was still in school).

However, clever marketing aside, the real question here is if the student is learning the concept or the tool? All too often, the focus is on learning a specific tool without the underlying concepts. This is especially true of “Tech Institutes”, Business Colleges and other educational institutions of a similar nature. The problem with this is you get a person who doesn’t understand the why, they only know the how. When the how breaks, it takes them much longer to figure out what happened. It also serves to constrain their thinking into what is possible/easy to do with a given tool rather than what you can accomplish with any tool of a given type (or what was used to build the tool in the first place). People who can think and who learn the why are more likely to achieve anything they decide they want to do.

I’m sure SMU will be successful in their curriculum. The IT market is picking up all the time. Maybe the broader background will force some of their students to learn to think, maybe it won’t. I know that I was pretty busy with getting to take all the classes I wanted to and still graduate before I was 60. However, my experience with the US educational system was pretty good: I learned how to learn. These days, I do a lot of reading, and I’ve recently dusted off my critical thinking cap to push myself to be better at what I do. What this means to me is that I’m reading stuff on psychology, philosophy, business, software architecture, security, leadership, software development, process improvement, management and history. I can do this effectively and without a lot of supervision because I learned how to learn.

It would be a dark day indeed if education really became “how to make Joe employable” rather than “how do we teach Joe to learn”. It’s really back to the whole idea about giving people the tools they need to be successful (teaching them to fish). If you look around, there’s an awful lot of people out there looking for a free dinner. We don’t want to encourage this behavior anymore than we have to do.

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