The College Blindspot
Today I saw a retweeted tweet from Sahil Lavingia that got under my skin:
This is a common sort of one-line quip from VC/founder twitter. Sure, it’s reduced to a single sentence and removed from any nuance because a) it’s twitter and b) it sounds more edgy and gets attention, but this sort of take on formal education — especially when it gets shared in this nuance-free context– is detrimental to the field of technology.
At this point many people in tech agree that a formal college education in computer science or related STEM field is not a prerequisite for a good software engineer. A good understanding of CS theory is important for those who work with this theory but it can be learned many ways that do not require a college degree, nor is a deep knowledge of CS theory necessary for most daily software tasks or the majority of software engineering roles.
So I agree that for some people college is an overpriced waste of time. You don’t need a CS degree to go far in the tech field. Why do I dislike this tweet?
When we talk about education we often reduce college to a cost-benefit issue around the time and money spent on a degree and the face value of that degree. A piece of paper from a top engineering school does not mean someone is a good engineer (for whatever your metric of “good” is), but hopefully you aren’t hiring people from top engineering schools simply because they completed the degree track course requirements. You are hiring someone who worked with top researchers and teachers in the field. You are hiring someone who spent four years working with peers and mentors who are deeply invested in tech and have access to the latest and greatest tools and, more importantly than that, the latest and greatest ways of approaching the problems we face as engineers.
What we are telling people with comments like this tweet is that there is nothing they get from a college education that they couldn’t get from RTFM. Obviously this is false. Putting aside the important social growth college brings for most young adults the most important part of a college education is the exposure to a wide range of other people and their experiences, their expertise, and their opinions.
I went to a liberal arts college. I went into school with two fields in mind that I knew I wanted to work in. One, software engineering, was a background I had already self-taught for a number of years and would continue to self-teach after I left school. In fact, the CS courses I did take in school were not very compatible with my learning style, and while I did enjoy some of the activities I did in those classes, they were not the best use of my time during those years. But what was important to my education during that time had very little to do with writing any code. I also got an arts education.
Specifically, I was deeply involved in theatre which is a field that is only possible by collaborating with other artists. While we can look to the bootcamp model of learning technical skills, many fields cannot be learned with just a laptop. As a designer for stage being on a college campus was the only way I would get access to the tools and people I needed to learn how to do my craft. I had taught myself the basics of the technical elements and technique of the job before I went to college. I could have gotten my hands on equipment and facilities by working in the “real world” but I never would have had the chance to try out the various roles and responsibilities with those tools in hand like I did in school.
I did spend a lot of time wondering if I should have put the money I was spending for this education to a different use so I could work and get “real world experience” instead. But there was a major part of my time in school that I would have been much less likely to find if I had started working directly out of high school: interdisciplinary skills. I graduated with a thesis project that was not technology nor was it art. I graduated by showing knowledge of how to bring together these fields and pull from the skills and tools each provided.
My thesis focused on how technology could be applied to a field in a way that matched the user’s needs and resources. I didn’t learn how to write code in college. I didn’t learn how to design a show in college. I learned the skills I needed to learn how to apply these to each other. I would not be nearly as strong a software engineer (nor a designer) if I didn’t know how to do this.
I use the CS theory I learned in college (what I remember of it, at least) rarely if ever. I use the experience I gained in building technology that fits the user and environment it is intended for every day.
After I left school I did more specific technology training and learning, not dissimilar to a bootcamp. These programs were great for learning technical details of the constantly evolving tools I was using. But these course would never have taught me what a bachelor of arts did about how to make a product that fit the user or the environment.
So what does “college is an expensive book club” tell us? It doesn’t tell us that college is not necessary for everyone and that we can be good engineers without it. It does tell us that College is nothing more than an overpriced version of Not College. It implies that there is no value from four very formative years of one’s life and career being spent in a place that is designed to bring together a wide range of ideas, philosophies, and disciplines.
I wish that everyone who went to college (or wanted to go to college) could get the quality of the education I did. Many schools falls short of preparing students for the “real world” applications of their fields. But this is not an immutable fault of higher education, it is often the result of a shift to looking at college as nothing more than training for a specific career path.
The expensive part of expensive book club prevents many talented individuals from ever getting the chance to explore in that sort of environment. It results in those who do attend wondering if it was really worth the money as they then search for a job after, often specifically with the goal of paying off loans for that education. Accessibility of formal education is not universal and we should absolutely not use it as an arbitrary measure of one’s ability to do a job well. But for those who can access it, we should be looking at what strengths and weaknesses they have from that education.
So back to the tweet. I don’t think Sahil is saying that he thinks a college education is an all around waste. But what can we say that is more constructive than an edgy generalization? Education should not be allowed to be no more than an expensive book club. We owe it to ourselves, students and graduates in our field, and our entire industry to make sure a college education isn’t a waste.
Those who teach our trades should not be regarded as out-of-touch and inexperienced in how the real world works. They are the ones who teach the next generation. We should be supporting them in preparing their students for productive careers. If you oversee interns or recent graduates, what chances do they have to bring the wide range of experiences they are exposed to in school to the workplace? If you build tools used by others, what can you do to encourage students to learn these tools by using them in new and innovative ways? If you write thinkpieces like this one about what makes a good, well-rounded technologist, what lessons can you bring back to current-students to ensure they get the best value out of their education while they still have time to shape the direction of their education?