Addressing the myth that college == knowledge

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“Schools are designed on the assumption that there is a secret to everything in life; that the quality of life depends upon knowing that secret; that secrets can only be known in orderly successions; and that only teachers can properly reveal these secrets. An individual with a schooled mind conceives of the world as a pyramid of classified packages accessible only to those who carry the proper tags.”

– Ivan Illich

When I began university, there were computer science programs but website development degrees didn’t exist in the way they do today. My friend was offered a great tech job by building a nice site and being active on forums, back in the day.

I am a strong believer in self-directed learning. I’ve decided to write about it because I recently listened to the College vs Open Source episode of the Underrepresented in Tech podcast.

You can listen here:

Because the focus of the episode was College/University, and I have done a lot of research into education, I felt compelled to share my thoughts. Before I do that I want to quickly comment on the podcast. I want to acknowledge that getting to go to College/University involves privilege. College/University tuitions are expensive, eligible students are specially-selected from many who apply, some people have illnesses or disabilities that prevent their attendance being feasible and colleges and universities don’t exist everywhere in the world. Maybe they felt like that privilege was implied because of the nature of the Twitter discussions. Anyway, I agree that contributing to open source as well as being able to go to university, both involve privilege and both require dedicated, unpaid time.

I also want to clarify that in my thoughts below, I am not “calling out” the podcast hosts. That is not my intention at all. It’s more that this post was inspired by both the episode and the Twitter discussions. It is not meant as a critique. I appreciate both of the viewpoints of Allie and Michelle.

Also, about the Twitter discussions, something that I found a bit off-putting was the binary choice. It assumed that there were only two paths to learning website creation, either post-secondary formal education or contributing to open source. In reality there SO many paths and resources for learning. I discuss this more later but reducing this down to a binary set of experiences, invalidates a lot of learning choices that many have made.

I also want to acknowledge that, in relation to what I have written below, choosing any alternatives to traditional education methods also involves privilege. Not everyone is able to choose their own path.

All of that said, let’s get going.

A lot of people have some misconceptions around how learning happens, and around how it happens best. It’s a complicated subject especially when you consider human diversity.

In my opinion, there are six main benefits that colleges are perceived to offer for any degree:

  1. Verification, as a third party, that you know what you claim to know
  2. Verification, as a third party, that you can see a challenging project through to completion
  3. A path all ready and laid out for you
  4. Help transitioning from public school to adult life
  5. Access to other people interested in the same topics to the same extent
  6. It’s what employers look for

These are all important and so I’m going to address each of these in turn.

Verification that you know what you claim to know

What college/university provides you, perhaps more than any other service, I would argue, is a third party “verification” that you know what you claim you know. College == knowledge to many people. A lot of people and employers accept that as fact. If you have a computer science degree, then they assume you know a fair amount about computers. I mean, that’s how post-secondary institutions stay in business. They allow people to hold up a piece of paper and say to employers or customers, “See! I do know about this!”. The problem with this concept is that no third party person or organization can say for sure what you know.

Getting a good score on a test or exam, for example, doesn’t mean that you’ll remember the information for very long after the test has taken place. All it tells anyone is that, at the time of the exam, you knew enough about the topic, and were able enough, to answer enough of the questions correctly without help and within the time allotted.

On the other hand, if you get a bad score on a test or exam, it tells even less information about what you know. People can consciously choose to answer questions incorrectly, even if they know the correct answers. Also, anxiety, among other conditions, can cause your mind to go blank during a stressful setting like an exam, and then you might remember the correct answer immediately afterwards. Getting a bad score, doesn’t mean you don’t know, or are unprepared or didn’t study well. All it means is that now the college doesn’t know whether or not you ever knew the answers. The college can’t vouch for you.

People often wait until the last minute to study for tests, which puts the information into short term memory but not long term memory. So, the information can be remembered long enough to write the exam but can be forgotten soon afterwards.

ASAP Science did a great video about the best ways to study for retention:

Why someone would choose to not study until the last minute or choose to fail an exam is incredibly complicated. There are a lot of valid reasons for this. Disabilities, trauma, life, finances, health (both physical and mental) can all have impacts on test/exam performance and preparation.

Sometimes it’s because people are herded through education with very little personal choice in the matter and aren’t actually interested in the subjects they’re learning.

Whether or not an exam answer is in fact “correct” can be polemical or debatable in some cases. Imagine a test question like “Who discovered America?” and now imagine you’re an indigenous person. What is the correct answer? What answer is the teacher looking for? What answer does the student want to provide? Sometimes, there are multiple correct answers. Consider math problems with different ways to solve them. If a teacher wants you to learn “their way”, they will mark your answer incorrect if you use any other method, even if you get the same result.

In addition to all of this is potential biases of the person marking the papers/tests/exams. Racism, ablism, sexism, homophobia and other prejudices can all affect results.

Let’s set aside testing for a minute and think also about the goals for education. What is the goal?

Let’s say you don’t know French and want to learn. What is the best way to do that? Is it formal education? Is that the best way? One could argue that going to a French speaking place, reading books in French, talking to native speakers, watching French movies and TV shows, and reading books about French language structure and grammar, using workbooks, using Anki cards or Memrise and apps like Duolingo, Babbel, Busuu or others can provide a lot of good knowledge about French. None of these involve tuition fees, exam pressure, and imposed schedules. And a lot of those methods are far more engaging and interesting (in my opinion). Would you rather write an exam or go to Paris?

Website development, software development, tech and computers is another subject area where there are a lot of paths to learning that don’t require formal education. There are books and documentation on programming languages, articles, blog posts, YouTube videos, online courses, bootcamps, discussion groups on Slack, Reddit, and Facebook. There are knowledgeable people you can follow on social media. There are meetups, mentorships, internships, open source projects. There are magazines and websites like Smashing magazine, A List Apart, CSS-tricks. There are MDN Web Docs, WCAG tutorials, ebooks, email newsletters, conferences. There are one-off college courses you can take on edX, Open University, Udemy and other sites. There are sites like Brilliant, Coursera, Khan Academy, Skillshare and Linkedin Learning (Lynda.com). You can build out websites and software by yourself to practice.

Aside from the massive benefits of enabling learners to work at their own pace, take breaks whenever needed and set up their own surroundings to suit their personal needs, there is another benefit of these alternative paths. That is the ability to stop, quit, pivot and switch gears when something is not helping you. If you spend $200 on a course, it is far easier to quit and try something else, than if you’ve borrowed a $20000+ student loan for one year’s tuition.

None of this means that if you do get a college degree that your time was wasted. My point is that the best way to learn for each individual person might look different. Diverse learning environments is something that it’s hard for schools to be good at. It is far more efficient to seat everyone the same way and teach everyone the same way, at the same time, in any school setting, but everyone isn’t the same.

Also, people can learn a lot in spite of less than ideal learning conditions. You may have gone through a college/university degree program and learned a lot and got a good job afterwards and never ever stopped to question the process, because it did what it said it would do. But that doesn’t mean that some other process couldn’t have helped you learn the topic more thoroughly or more easily or more comfortably or more safely or more affordably.

When you learn anything you’re exposed to new ideas that you never would have thought about otherwise. Colleges get a lot of credit for that. But that’s what any learning is all about. College doesn’t hold a patent on thoughts or ideas.

“It is as true now as it was then that no matter what tests show, very little of what is taught in school is learned, very little of what is learned is remembered, and very little of what is remembered is used. The things we learn, remember, and use are the things we seek out or meet in the daily, serious, nonschool part of our lives.”

– John Holt

Assuming that as Allie mentions in the podcast, contributing to open source in a coding sense also involves privilege, then you end up in the same predicament of needing to find ways to demonstrate your knowledge to others. Open source isn’t taking on that alternative path to validating your learning, if it means that you need to have that validation already established in order to contribute.

Verification that you finish things

Some say, colleges prove to potential employers that you are able to complete a project or task. That you can stick through something challenging until the end. I would say that any project, or course can do that. And I would also question what the value of that is? If something isn’t serving your best interests, why is it good to stick it out? Maybe you should quit and put your energy into something better? Why is quitting inherently wrong?

A path all ready and laid out for you

Just because college lays out a path for you, that doesn’t make it a better path than one you would have created for yourself. It also doesn’t make it a good path. It’s just one path. One option.

I get that the extensive amount of resources out there to help you learn something can often feel overwhelming. You might freeze up wondering where to start. The truth is, you just need to start. Choose any resource and start there. Don’t worry about whether or not it’s the “best” resource to help you learn. Just get going. I would start with a resource that’s free or that has a free trial. Get your feet wet a bit and gauge your interest and don’t be afraid to quit. Do make mistakes. Do get side tracked down fascinating rabbit holes. Do discuss it with friends and acquaintances and on social media. Blog about it. Try a bit of everything as long as you’re interested in it.

Don’t worry about “checking all the boxes” because there is no education system that checks all the boxes. If people could have that sort of absolute reassurance of their knowledge levels, then I don’t think impostor syndrome or the Dunning-Kruger effect would be as prevalent. As it is, every single person has gaps in their knowledge, regardless of their college degrees.

Also, simply the fact that the university or college that you go to matters, proves that not all programs cover everything. As long as there is any truth in the premise that you get a better education at Oxford, or Harvard or Queen’s than a local college or university, means that simply having a “degree” cannot guarantee that you have a comprehensive understanding.

If you do find gaps in your knowledge or understanding, guess what? You can stop and fill in the gap. And at that point, because you had that realization, you might fill the gap more fully. At that point you are aware of the need for the information and your interest is peaked. This is connected to the release of neurotransmitters that help your synapses transmit electrical impulses in your brain. That said, I’m not a neuroscientist. Please ask someone who is if you would like to know more about this connection.

When you take an alternative path, you can make connections between seemingly unrelated ideas that other people won’t be able to make. Because unlike the path everyone else went down, you probably read some different books and explored different ideas.

Help transitioning from school to adult life

Well, here’s where things get interesting. I would argue that all of these ideas promoting self-directed learning also apply to the public school level.

I would encourage everyone to explore the writings of John Holt, Alfie Kohn, John Taylor Gatto, Shinichi Suzuki and others who have researched how humans learn and what are barriers to learning.

I think the need to transition from school to “real life” shouldn’t exist. If you were always creating your own paths and following your interests, and if there were real supports in place in society to help young adults, regardless of whether or not they were in post-secondary education, you would feel a lot less need for help navigating the world.

Also, if you set aside the cost of tuition, and used that money for health insurance and rent and to join some clubs or community spaces, you may find that the support you’re looking for still exists.

Other people interested in the same topics

Building communities and friendships is hard. Finding people who share your interests is also hard. The environment that school sets up that facilitates that is artificial and is never seen again in life. After school ends, you’re never again in a cohort of people your exact age, navigating through a unifying experience like school. Because of school, many people never learn how to build a community from a world of strangers. They don’t know where to start and what the hurdles are.

For sure, there are benefits to making friends your own age, but if all of your friends are the same age it also leads to biases against others of different ages. How many friends did you have in public school who were in different grades? In college, how many friends did you have in different programs?

It’s not easy. I love my university friends. But after university, there was a lot I still had to learn about making lasting connections with people and how to find or create communities. Also, a lot of my university friends moved on to new life experiences around the world. Suddenly, they were no longer steps away when I needed them.

Once you’re done with school there will be many new things that you will need and want to learn that may not have anything to do with your job. Your college friends will not know about everything.

You will need to continue building communities and friendships and networks. If you learn how to do that from a young age, you will be better equipped and supported all throughout your life. I’m still learning about that. I know many people who go to church for this purpose. You can also make connections volunteering. But whichever way, this is an important skill to have.

What employers look for

There is one more benefit that should be addressed, employers. If the job requirements specify “a college degree”, then what? Then I would say, build up a portfolio of your experience, and any research and education that you did do, and apply anyway. If you learn anything thoroughly and well, it will show.

As I said previously, the real key is finding ways to demonstrate your knowledge to others. But there are a variety of ways of doing that. For website development, that could involve creating a portfolio, creating demos on Codepen, using public repositories like GitHub, blogging, participating and helping others in groups and forums, posting on social media, writing articles, taking courses, collaborating on paid projects, volunteering… the list goes on and on.

I do need to acknowledge here that if your goal is to become a medical doctor or lawyer, there are laws in place that require you to complete a degree and specific exams. Sometimes there simply are requirements. That is unavoidable in those special cases. But so many career paths out there do not need that same level of government oversight.

Personally, I think when employers for most jobs require a degree, they’re making a mistake and weeding out some of the most creative, self-motivated and self-directed people available. That’s their loss.

This is your life

Many people are fully capable of directing their own learning. That said, there are things that make learning easier:

  • interest in the topic,
  • access to accurate information,
  • a community,
  • a willingness and an ability to dedicate focussed time to learn about it,
  • any physical ability needed,
  • the ability to be honest with yourself,
  • and money, of course, is always a factor.

Remember, you are the one doing the learning. It’s crucial that experts and teachers exist and are offering to share their knowledge but you are the one tasked with the job of absorbing the knowledge offered to you.

 “Learning is not the product of teaching. Learning is the product of the activity of learners.”

– John Holt

If you don’t want to learn something, the best teacher in the world won’t be able to teach you. If you are interested in something, the worst teacher in the world won’t be able stop you from learning. The best example I’ve read about that proves this point is how children learn to swear, but no one actively teaches them.

Many people give all of the credit to the teacher, instead of even acknowledging the learner. That Harry Truman quote, “If you can read this, thank a teacher” is actually really demeaning. Teachers should absolutely be appreciated but it’s the learner that is doing the learning and, in my opinion and from my experience, learners learn best when they understand that.

That said, you may be one of many people with barriers to learning in general. But I still feel as though a learning solution customized to your abilities and your interests will get you farther and serve you better than the one size fits all solution that is offered by most schools.

Study what you’re interested in and learn to connect with those related communities.

Take ownership of your learning. This is your life.