On Education 1/29/23

Opinion with Richard Bleil

Just a few minutes ago, I finished helping a young man who was having a little bit of trouble (not as much as I think he thought) with chemical bonding.  His mother, a former student turned friend of mine reached out to me asking for help, and of course I’m happy to do so.  I think I managed to impress him as he, according to his mother, said he wished I could be his regular teacher.  She added her opinion, saying that it shows that he doesn’t enjoy teaching.

That’s not really a surprise.  There is no incentive for good teachers to remain in education.  The pay is low, teachers are shown very little appreciation, they shoulder a lot of misdirected blame and the administration shows no loyalty to them.  It’s worse in the physical sciences, especially at his age where it’s difficult to come by teachers with the proper expertise and education.  I’ve known biology professors forced into teaching chemistry and physics in primary and secondary levels, including some who have sworn to me that they would never teach the subjects.  I even know of a school that had the gym teacher take on the chemistry course despite no education in the subject at all simply because they had nobody else willing to teach it.  If their teachers don’t have a passion for the subject, what chance will the students have?

I’ve written before of my friend’s sister who is a teacher at a private primary school in charge of teaching chemistry.  I asked her what her degree was in as an undergraduate, and she said “education”.  Oh, I asked, so your master’s is in chemistry?  “No, my master’s is in education.”  I shouldn’t have, but I pushed the subject, and asked how she learned chemistry.  She responded, very soberly, confident and seriously saying, “I don’t have to know chemistry, because I know how to teach.”

So if she had never spoken a word of Russian, does that mean she’s qualified to teach the language?  I’ve had a passion for chemistry since I was in middle school.  I’ve studied it, learned it, loved it and that gives me the tools I need to explain and teach it.  Apparently, my knowledge is superfluous. 

What he does know is computer technology.  His mother apparently told him that I’m building my own system, and I answered a few questions about the components (the motherboard, CPU, memory and so forth).  He immediately recognized many of the pieces and was very impressed.  Well, I’m building a monster system (I’m going to call her “Shelley” once she’s up and running, after Mary Shelley and her Frankenstein monster), and I’ve no doubt that he could, even at his age, build his own computer.  He has that technical knowledge, even if not the skill to solder or read electronic schematics. 

The point to all of this is to raise the question of the importance of education.  Our teachers don’t know the subject matter that they are teaching, and important technical skills that will be needed in the future are apparently being learned on the streets, much like I learned sex when I was about his age.  These days, corporations are just as happy with certificates of completion in technical skills as they are with a college degree.  I myself am tempted to go to the local community college to learn the skill of welding, something I’ve always wished I could do. 

This isn’t necessarily bad.  For the past half century (or more), companies have happily required a college degree for jobs that could just as easily be done by someone with a high school diploma, not because they planned on utilizing those degrees but simply because there were so many people with college degrees seeking employment.  It’s been estimated that in the ‘80’s a college diploma was as valuable as a high school diploma in the ‘50’s for this very reason.  So why seek a higher education over a technical degree?

To me, the greatest reason to get a college degree is critical thinking.  If you take a major in college, say computer science, you had better have gained the technical knowledge (although, ironically, I taught in a college where, for a time, our computer science majors were graduating without ever seeing inside computer cases).  This is what you learn in a technical school, but with a college degree you should learn so much more than that.

You should learn, with a college degree (even a Bachelor’s degree) the theory, the history, and topics beyond the scope of your major.  You should be learning to question, critical thinking, and problem-solving skills far beyond basic diagnostics and repair.  It’s been shown that graduates from college often start at the same level and pay as people with technical certificates, but with a college degree the advances are far faster and higher.  This isn’t an accident.  I never learned about building computers, and yet I am building one because I’ve learned how to learn.  When it failed, I figured out that it must be a problem with the motherboard, which it is.  Even without taking computer diagnostics, I figured this out because of my critical thinking and problem solving skills that I had learned in my undergraduate and graduate studies. 

Not everybody needs this.  If a student’s fondest desire is always to work as a computer technician, then a certificate or technical degree is fine, and I would never denigrate that.  If the desire is to go beyond this level, then a bachelor’s degree would be more useful.  I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again; choose the education to fit your dreams.  Avoid building dreams so you didn’t waste your time on a degree.


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