NYT to Youth: Log in, turn on, drop out

by Justin Esarey

Well well, just one day after a post about the on-line future of academia, the New York Times posts an article about the virtues of dropping out of college to become an internet millionaire!

I'm exaggerating… a little. But I don't think it's controversial to say that this article is part of a pattern of writing by the Times doubting the value of a college degree and making the case for “hacking higher education” by quitting school to focus on task-specific, individually-directed learning in the service of entrepreneurship.

From today's article:

Such attitudes are trickling down to the small screen, too. In a recent episode of the Fox sitcom “The Mindy Project,” Mindy Kaling’s character, a doctor, grills a teenager about his plans for college. “I’m not going to college,” he tells her. “Why should I load up on debt just to binge drink for four years when I could just create an app that nets me all the money I’ll ever need?” Such tales play well in the eyes of millennials, a generation hailed for their entrepreneurial acumen and financial pragmatism. Why pay money if you can make money?

Well, if college is just four years of non-stop clubbing, then I guess I'd have to agree. But this is an easy argument to refute: college is an opportunity, not a forced march of learning. If you're not interested in learning, by all means: save your money and your time, and don't go.

But there are other parts of the article that are far more troubling, and I think have more critical bite on the the state of higher education.

Two years ago, Mr. Goering was a sophomore at the University of Kansas, studying computer science and philosophy and feeling frustrated in crowded lecture halls where the professors did not even know his name.

Well, if your experience of college is (a) being talked at by some tweedy old guy in a 500-person lecture, (b) writing essays where the sum total of feedback received is margin notes like “awk”, and (c) reading on your own to develop understanding of the material… well, yeah. That sounds like a raw deal. The fact that this sounds like a great alternative to college is, to me, an indictment of college:

UnCollege advocates a D.I.Y. approach to higher education and spreads the message through informational “hackademic camps.” “Hacking,” in the group’s parlance, can involve any manner of self-directed learning: travel, volunteer work, organizing collaborative learning groups with friends. Students who want to avoid $200,000 in student-loan debt might consider enrolling in a technology boot camp, where you can learn to write code in 8 to 10 weeks for about $10,000, Mr. Stephens said.

THEY can also nourish their minds from a growing menu of Internet classrooms, including the massive open online courses, or MOOCs, which stream classes from elite universities like Princeton. This guerrilla approach hits home with young people who came of age seeking out valuable content free on Napster and BitTorrent.

These alternatives are all fundamentally one-way and self-directed—a self-motivated student passively consumes and digests information. Education certainly involves a lot of individual reading and struggling, but it also involves a lot of feedback, exchange, and debate. When's the last time YouTube gave you helpful feedback on your ideas, or provoked you to think about new ideas, or challenged your preconceptions? There's material there that might help you do that, but the interactivity just isn't there.

Not to say the problem isn't complex. I think that universities are putting themselves in jeopardy by super-sizing classrooms and neglecting student-professor feedback, but research institutions also need to maintain their scientific profile—and just ordering professors to “try harder” or “do more” doesn't strike me as a particularly fruitful approach. I do think, though, that it's in universities' competitive interest to stop outsourcing the work of teaching to low-paid, untenured, and overworked adjuncts and lecturers. Hiring a cohort of tenured, professionally valued, and scientifically serious PhDs whose primary job is teaching—whose marketability and value depends on the quality of their teaching, rather than on their publications—might be a way to get there.