The value of a college or university education is a frequent topic in today’s news. “Is higher education worth the cost?” “Is higher education worth any cost?” Much jargon is used in these discussions. Words like “formation” and “socialization”. (Is “deformation” a result of a lack of “formal” education? Are uneducated people “anti-social”?) Often I wonder what professional educators are saying. Like an episode of “Twilight Zone”.
Correct information, and the basic skill of how to use it, is essential to success in human life. Evolution created our large brains. The price for splitting off from the rest of the animals is domestication. For that we have needed to solve many problems that used to be “programmed” when we were wild or “non-domesticated”. Solving problems—and being good at it—is as important to our individual survival as it is to our species.
Problem solving is eternal. Consider farming, carpentry, fishing, chess. Even gardening, photography, knitting, cooking. Can’t fake a bad meal.
Acquired at a young age, these measurable skills are essential to a college education. Young people should learn language and numeracy in high school. But “the three Rs” are warmups. Problem solving is the game of education, whether institutional or self-taught.
Take computers. People design and build them, others design and develop operating systems and still others “write” software. All done by problem solving. Many of the leaders in the development of this industry were college drop-outs. Only a couple were PhDs.
Even further, context is paramount. Computer innovations are created in real life. People program and apply the software to a particular business—steps, processes, operations—and, finally, operators use computers as tools, every bit like a carpenter uses a blueprint, saw, hammer and nails. Make a mistake, things fall apart.
Want to learn these information technology skills? Do them. Take a computer, read the instructions, discover what the machine can do for you, decide what you want to do with it—and do it.
From then on, your “education” consists of solving problems. Just as a camera extends your eye—or more exactly your mind’s eye—a computer extends your brain. It is a robot; it works by taking your instructions. You work by understanding its possibilities and limitations as well as the context in which it’s used. It is not intelligent—you are.
As in gardening (What do you want to grow?), or photography (What do you want to shoot?), you must know how to solve the problems that present themselves. Tools don’t work—you do.
Is college or university going to teach you, your child or grandchild problem solving? Maybe. But if you answer, “Absolutely yes”, you are deluding yourself. It may be that the opposite is true. Perhaps it is best to attend “The College of Hard Knocks”, as they call it.
A good example is learning a foreign language. Rosetta Stone and Pimsleur are a waste of time. Go to the country for two to three months, enroll in a part-time immersion course in any given town or city. They are everywhere. The rest of the day, work a part-time job and stay clear of everyone who speaks English. With the exception of Asian languages (4 to 6 months required), and with a strong desire and a natural gift for attentive talking and listening, you will return to the US with the ability to speak the language.
Cost? With the airline industry deregulated long ago, international travel is dirt-cheap. Ask any business traveler over 50. A safe residential hotel that caters to such as you can be had for little in most countries. Family-stays are even better.
College? Even “foreign language abroad” programs are generally ineffective. First, they are filled with Americans. Unless you are extremely bull-headed, you will acquire little skill in the foreign language.
If fluency in a foreign language is gold, skill at solving problems is pure platinum. It runs deeper than language, extends out into the world of material things and, if you are lucky, you can become an electrical engineer or molecular biologist. However, they share a snow-balling effect. Learn one language and the next is less daunting. Develop the first skill at solving a set of problems—a computer, for instance—and you can approach any problem and at least tackle it. It sharpens the way you look at reality.
Schools, colleges and universities that teach the hard sciences, the social sciences that involve metrics, basic industries, professions, engineering—they have great value, especially those that emphasize apprenticeship and “work out” programs. These institutions are worth attending. Many offer great benefits, related to their costs. One fine example is the University of Missouri-Rolla.
But nothing beats a job. An entry-level position at a well-run company of any size is the quickest and cheapest way for young adults to learn problem solving. Or do what many of our parents and grandparents did: work your way through school.
Despite its prosaic descriptive term, problem solving is the mother of intuition, the heart of innovation, and the core of craft. In contrast, and despite its abstruse lingo, most higher education attempts to turn life into art: a futile, tragic exercise. The true romance of humanity is the opposite: to bring the arts—particularly problem solving—to life.