Musings on education

Please read the foreword to this before continuing reading. Pretty please with Royce chocolates on top? 

I think in a way we have to grudgingly admit that some of the less prestigious and well-known colleges are actually doing their job better than your first tier universities. In our heated debates as to which university has propelled the traditional tertiary education model to its greatest glory, how many of us actually stopped to think if the model itself was anything good to begin with?

The fundamental concept of education is to educate people so that they may serve their purpose in social dynamics, hence it would be logical to state that education ought to cater to people, not the other way round. Yet, after spending 13 months searching for the ‘right’ college, I find myself more often than not doing the complete opposite. What started off as a search for a college that suited my needs quickly turned into me trying suit myself to a college and its programs. Admission requirements aside, since when did the people start conforming to the needs of education? Were education not meant to satisfy people’s needs?

Here’s the history of education crudely summarized. Old Greek men decided to gather and exchange philosophical ideas in the form of discussions. Stripping this concept of its bare basics, we are left with a want and a means to satisfy said want. It’s basically the concept of supply and demand in its most rudimentary form as it is with most things in this world. Ironically, whilst most facets of human society have managed to adhere to this theory, education has not.

The following list outlines what most high school juniors, seniors and parents look out for when sending their kids to college, in order of importance:

  • Prestige, ranking, reputation
  • Cost and financial aid
  • Distance from home
  • Safety on campus

After entering college however you then realize that what you should have been looking out for were:

  • Quality of education and faculty
  • Quality of student body
  • Quality of administration staff
  • Quality of campus facilities

Why is it that the above 4 points have never made into aspiring college freshmen and parents’ of freshmen’s heads is simple. If the college is prestigious and costs a bomb then its facilities, faculty and services should also match up to that. And I will not argue with this concept. It is perfectly logical. A large, prestigious university is bound to have greater financial assets and wider network to hire better faculty, build better facilities and pay for better staff. So why is it that only when you have enrolled do you realize the level of, for the lack of a better word, crap, you have involved yourself in?

Here’s a simple analogy. No matter how good the ingredients and machinery are, a shoddy recipe will always yield a miserable cake. It does not really matter how good your faculty may be or how great your facilities are, if the whole education system is flawed then the results will be flawed. Perfect execution will only redeem a good idea so much; if a university has top notch professors but no decent courses or degree, whilst many will flock to the school, but how much of the education will actually be revelant?

In fact, let me summarize the problem with your traditional university education system:

  • Universities are so caught up with rankings that it is more important for students to score well rather than learn
  • New information are being discovered and created every day, knowledge is constantly becoming outdated and social dynamics are always changing, yet no one’s actually making any persistent effort to keep up with the change, favoring old ways, just with new names
  • Quality education is not going to those who deserve them and or put them to actual use
  • Poor execution of the system
  • Biggest whited sepulcher of the commercial industry

As stated in the very first musing, vast majority of us dedicate 12 years of our lives to get into a good university, with the definition of good being prestigious. The 12 years however are not the biggest sacrifices we have made. I would say that after 12 years of education, many of us have somewhat come to a conclusion as to what we want in life, to varying degrees of course. The main issue lies in whether or not there are universities offering the right degree and most important prestige that caters to what we want. Chances are, as decades pass by, more and more of us find the answer to that question to be “no”. I am sure you like me have had such experiences during your tiresome college search.

You find a university of suitable prestige and fees only to find it not offering the course or degree you want. It is one thing to be unqualified for a college of your choice, be it academically or financially. It is another to be deprived of an aspect of education at a quality in which you deserve. Here is a true example of my friend who is holds high aptitude in the area of fine arts and is equally blessed to be academically inclined. She has made the brave choice of giving up academic prestige for a specialized arts education, never mind what society says. However, how many of us have such courage. An even better question would be how many more areas of study have not recently been propelled to more acceptable status as arts have?

I shall cite distance learning aka online degrees as a brilliant example. Internet was invented to allow for a more flexible and productive lifestyle, to reduce distance and encourage diversity in life. Hence distance learning should not have earned its infamous reputation that it has today. Fake online universities and unaccredited universities aside, the true reason behind the sullied reputation of distance learning is because most ‘prestigious’ universities that have ventured down this path all declared it a failure, thereby declaring the concept a failure in general. Columbia University’s online degree venture ended in a measly 3 years as did NYUonline.

Ironically, the smaller, much less prestigious The New School have managed what those titans could not, they created a successful and efficient online learning module that actually benefitted people. Crux of the matter however lies in the fact that despite its benefits, people who have to resort to online learning to finish their education, usually for good reasons such as work or family and are disciplined enough to complete such a degree through sheer-self motivation are not receiving what they deserve reputation wise. Note the term used here, reputation but not quality. By ignoring traditional tertiary education systems, The New School has managed to create a new education system that catered to the people’s needs and most importantly worked.

As an aspiring media and entertainment management major, a major that is rare and offered by (what seems to be) few legitimate universities, I have found myself at the heart of college education’s inadequacy. Reputable universities either offer my desired course only at MBA or Masters Level and the less reputable one simply do not have the right resources to make the most out of their stated curriculum. Living or at least studying Japan has always been one of my aspirations, yet recent research and attempts in trying to apply for Japanese universities have shown me that despite finally moving into providing English taught degrees, the top Japanese institutions never once stopped to review if their current education system was flawed when translated into the western culture, or even on a whole. I can point out several to you without trying. There is a distinct lack in flexibility, all courses are pretty much set in stone, the area of studies are rigid and stringent and highly Japanese-centric, this includes the major that is provided which is highly irrelevant to the global society (Study of Japan in east Asia hardly qualifies as a major in demand).

As a firm believer of value for money, I believe in getting the most out of your college education; and the first step to that would be to be paying for something you actually want to learn. Hence I have considered throwing the concept of prestige out the nearest window and attend the closest school with the degree I want, but as I have said, these schools hardly have the resources to execute their pedagogy to its intended effectiveness. To the few institutions that do, another problem would be the student body. Yes, the course can be exactly what you seek and the faculty may even be decent, but it is important to ask yourself, do you want to be in a class full of de-motivated and demoralized peers who are either drop outs or people who have opted for these degrees because they have no better options?

Of course, you can reply that it is all about one’s personal integrity but mind you that the bulk of your grades in college do come from course work and projects that rely on team efforts; your grades rest as much on your shoulders as it does your classmate who probably ditches group meetings for drinks and parties. This creates the wonderful vicious cycle of smaller private institutions that has great ideals and pedagogy. Low quality students enroll into the institution, this puts off better students from enrolling thus reducing student body’s increment thereby hindering the financial and reputational growth of the institution which continues to attract low quality students.

Amazingly, for all the bad rep that these less prestigious, probably for-profit universities have, they are actually doing their craft right for once. In being frank in their monetary motives they provide the service that comes with the price tags. Admin shafts are less common, the employees in the office tend to be much more helpful and polite, when complaints are lodged, actions are actually taken; this compared to your prestigious private and public institutions where administration is a nightmare is probably what you would expect from the reputation that Ivy League equals have. This just further proves the point that many of the smaller, less prestigious universities are actually doing their job right. At the very least, they are providing supply to the students’ demands.

To add on to the already disturbing revelations here, a friend of mine once read a book on how Brown University catapulted itself into its Ivy status today and let me tell you that the entire process was not as glorified as most would like. It turns out that the recipe to educational prestige and success is the same as every other product in the world, exclusivity and a hefty price tag. By limiting its yearly student intake and marking a high price for its cost of attendance (financial aid aside), Brown quickly attracted a brilliant student body and before long rose to fame. LV did the same and was successful, so did Givenchy and Audi, it is all about making the product ‘limited edition’ and ‘insanely expensive’.

NYU certainly has got this concept down pat with its recent opening of NYU Abu Dhabi, branding it as the world’s honors college and boasting an acceptance rate lower than even Harvard with its already astounding NYU price tag, before the graduation of its first batch, it has already created prestige that might have otherwise taken years to forge. Perhaps the only downfall of these less prestigious and small scaled universities was their immediate desire for profits, by accepting as many students as possible regardless of quality to increase revenue; they have created the image of a second-class school that takes in only the desperate and not the motivated.

When you think about it however, what choice do we have? In the world of education, it is not about supply and demand but customer’s compromise. To survive in the society that has built itself around clamoring academic excellence in name rather than quality, many of us have little choice but to force ourselves to conform to degrees and courses that we know do not actually impart us with anything and or that do not (intellectually or technically) contribute to our future goals. Those of us opinionated non-conformists try to rebel this inevitable fate end up in second-tier universities, grudgingly accepting the fact that socially we will never receive what we deserve reputation wise whilst most of those who do parade around with degrees exalted with ‘years of tradition and excellence’ mock the resources and investments wasted on them by consistently diving back into the world of the scholarly and never actually contributing to our physical society.

At the end of the day a prestigious university degree is about as valuable as an LV handbag. It cost you a bomb, gives off all the right impressions and is a coveted status icon, chances are however it will never be as durable as your Samsonite backpack that looks like shit, nor will it have all the compartments you secretly want and need, it will probably not follow you wherever you go because its precious and fragile self will never survive a mountain hike or a tour in the less auspicious parts of Thailand, yet you will still buy that LV handbag just because society tells you “You need it.”

Musings on education

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