Educational inflation

From Dr. Michio Kaku's Facebook page today: "The space program, particle physics, stem cell research- the US is gradually losing its edge."

He's right of course. We can't coast forever given how abysmal our education system is in comparison to the rest of the industrialized world. Our system is fundamentally broken, and while I think throwing money at the problem might help in certain specific instances (such as underprivileged schools needing up-to-date materials), I think the whole paradigm of education in the U.S. is problematic. 

I can only relate my own experience, and what I think is wrong. I hated my entire educational experience. I've always been more of an autodidact, but there is no question that I learned little in all my years in school compared to what I learned on my own outside of school. Math and science were always taught horribly – as abstract concepts requiring lots of rote memorization rather than real-world application. Reading comprehension, writing and critical thinking had to come on my own. I know many people with college degrees who can barely write a paragraph of proper English and lack even a basic understanding of logical principles.

I took a kinesiology class in college – a subject I'd really been looking forward to learning since my fascination with the human body is what drove me into my current field. The class was literally nothing but the rote memorization of some 200+ muscles of the human body. The entire course was a series of flash cards; the front had the name of the muscle, and the back had the origin, insertion, action and innervation. I did okay in the course (I got a B), but it bored the hell out me and I forgot 90% of it within weeks, as I'm sure most other students did. That's generally the case with rote memorization and no application. 

When I was working as a personal trainer at a new commercial gym back in 2006, they hired a well-credentialed veteran trainer to teach a course on functional assessments and core anatomy. When he taught anatomy, he would pair us up – one of us would do a movement while our partner would place their hands on the muscles in question. He would say, "See, that's x muscle, and it's doing y. Feel the path it moves through..." etc. I learned more in a few days at a free clinic than I'd learned in one semester at a 25k/year college, and five years later I have retained all of it. 

Our grade schools have the wrong focus. Our generally competitive universities have been saving us somewhat, but that can't last forever. The cost of a college degree is skyrocketing while the value of it is plummeting. Once upon a time, a college degree guaranteed a job; now, lots of young people with undergraduate degrees are moving back in with mom & dad because jobs are scarce, and they end up going back to school and accruing tens of thousands more in debt. Meanwhile, jobs that once required a bachelors require a masters, and jobs that required a masters require a PhD. Jobs that required a PhD now often require a substantial investment in post-doctoral research. 

Suffice to say that our entire approach to education is both leaving us trailing on the international stage and driving us into unmanageable debt. A four-year degree at my college now costs well over 100k, and you'll be lucky if it lands you a job at Starbucks. Our whole paradigm must change – we have to focus less on rote memorization of facts and formulas, and more on application, reading comprehension and critical thinking. The path of higher education is clearly unsustainable, and in many cases technical degrees are far more lucrative simply because they do not require the accumulation of tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt. Colleges could make big strides in making education more affordable if they quit handing out generous scholarships to people based on athletic performance, and instead shifted the focus back to education.

There's not much point to this post other than me griping. I wish I had more to offer in terms of solutions. I look back on my educational experience, and it's nothing but resentment and regret. While there were some rare gems, for the most part it was a trudge through bad teachers and irrelevant information. At first I thought it was mainly a problem with the public school system, but when I attended a top 100 private university, I found the same problems. I've been saved to an extent by my passion for knowledge – my bookshelf is stacked with popular science books on everything from primatology to theoretical physics, and I subscribe to Scientific American, Vanity Fair, and Esquire (I also get Rolling Stone for some reason, even though I didn't subscribe). But I can't help but wish the educational system in which I was raised had more to offer.

I'll leave with a great 20-minute talk from reform advocate Sir Ken Robinson:


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