Higher Education Is Losing Its Way

I come from a family of people who worked in the trades. My dad was an electrician. One of my uncles was a pipefitter. Another worked on an automotive assembly line. I have cousins who are sheet metal workers, carpenters, and HVAC techs. You name it; they can fix it. They have great, useful skills that are very much in demand, and people pay top dollar for their services. They went to trade schools, worked apprenticeship programs, and became certified. They are successful and vital.

I work in IT. I can fix your computer, troubleshoot your network, and set up and secure your IT infrastructure. I can remove viruses from your computer and figure out the best backup plan for your important data.

But that’s not why I went to a four-year university.  Four-year universities are not trade schools.

Please do not misconstrue this as a value judgement. I am not one of those ivory-tower folks who think the “Academy” is this pristine garden of esoteric intellectual delights whose wrought-iron gargoyle-lined gates keep the under-educated plebes at bay. The truth is, the Academy is loaded with all sorts of odd-ball, inept characters who try to hide their ignorance and insecurities under layers of diploma-parchment wrapping paper. I am not making the argument that Lewis or any other four-year university is inherently better than schools that prepare people for the trades.

What I will argue, however, is that a trade school is a far more direct option for learning a specific vocation if you are certain that what you most want to do is engage in that specific vocation for the long haul. In terms of convenience, there is no way that a four-year university can prepare you for IT certifications and IT support work as efficiently as a vocational school can.

I make this claim based on simple math. Depending on the university, you’ll take between 30 and 54 hours of general education course credit and 18 to 30 hours of free elective credit in addition to your more vocation-focused major courses. Sandwiched between those two sets of graduation requirements are your major courses, some of which will be more theory-oriented, let-us-learn-how-to-think-critically kinds of courses instead of ones designed to prepare you to address a particular customer’s networking problem. There may be some courses whose content prepares you well for a particular certification or to do a particular kind of task, but certainly not all will.

If certifications and specific skills are what you’re most after, using a four-year degree to get there is as an inefficient as panning for gold in Lake Michigan. You’ll occasionally find someone’s gold tooth, but it’s going to be a lengthy, frustrating process.

Yet, I wholeheartedly believe in the traditional baccalaureate and graduate school model. Here’s why.

I earned a Bachelor of Science, Master of Science, and Ph.D. in Electrical Engineering from a top-five engineering school. The truth is, I use hardly any of the technical content I learned during my twelve years of undergraduate and graduate work today. Instead, I found my way into the IT industry, first as a software developer, then as a data specialist, and now as an IT security consultant. I can fix your network. I can clean your computer. I didn’t have to go to school to learn those specific things.

Instead, college taught me how to think and to learn. It taught me to teach complicated things to myself. In doing so, it made me agile enough not to get stuck.

I’ll begin my thirteenth year teaching Computer Science to undergraduate and graduate students this fall. I’ll also be entering my fourth year chairing a department that has more than doubled in enrollment over that time. I didn’t go to school to learn what I currently teach, to do what I currently do. Instead, my father, the electrician, paid for me to go to a place where I learned to learn.

Learning is the “skill” Cousin Eddie would liken to the Jelly of the Month Club: it’s the “gift that keeps on giving”. Giving students an opportunity to learn that skill, to practice that art, is the single biggest reason why I teach. It’s the gift my dad gave me when he paid for me to go to the University of Illinois. I believe it’s the reason why what I do can have value and can help people. It’s the most valuable gift I can give my students, and it’s the thing I take most pride in professionally.

And yet, I look with great consternation at what it seems higher education is becoming. It’s contorting itself into this compromising hybrid. In feeling pressured to answer some poorly conceived challenge to give bang for the buck, it starts doing odd things like tying certifications into its curricula, offering entire series of courses on just one narrow skill set, and teaching a specific vendor’s tools as the basis for a degree. And then it markets these compromises as virtues and strengths.

There was a time not long ago when four-year institutions marketed themselves as distinctly different from vocational schools. Now, some are trying hard to be them.

It would behoove us all to remember that the computer scientists who invented programming, the relational database model, and the Internet were not Cisco-certified. They were thinkers, prepared by traditional universities who celebrated learning as a catalyst for labor. In the current rush to out-vocation the trade schools, higher education is losing its unique ability to prepare such innovators. This trend must stop.

I’ve actually had to argue with people who claim that Computer Science is all about theory, not application, as if the theory could ever really be divorced from its application, or vice-versa. I’d find it humorous that I’ve had to have such discussions if it weren’t so alarming that that view is currently being used to justify curricular “innovations”.

In truth, knowing the theory – the intimate details of how something works – has never prevented anyone from learning how to use it. Knowing how a light bulb shines doesn’t make me less able to turn it on. However, if I don’t know how it works, I won’t be the one to create the next great light source. Neither will my students.

Unfortunately, higher education is at risk of losing its light.



About Ray Klump

Associate Dean, College of Aviation, Science, and Technology at Lewis University Director, Master of Science in Information Security Lewis University http://online.lewisu.edu/ms-information-security.asp, http://online.lewisu.edu/resource/engineering-technology/articles.asp, http://cs.lewisu.edu. You can find him on Google+.

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