Learning Things & Learning to Do Things

For most students, this is by far the most important distinction to make in considering the value of education.

There are times when a student learns things that are of no real importance, but learns skills that are of great value. In law school, for instance, it is commonly said that students are taught “to think like a lawyer,” and it is undoubtedly true that in many cases the actual law learned is of lesser importance: the key is acquiring the skills and mindset necessary to devise the legal issues raised by a novel problem; the answers to these questions are then just a matter of research.

On the other hand, particularly in hard science fields, there is a greater premium on actual knowledge conveyed. Without a doubt, important skills are also learned in a science education (and in some cases skills may predominate, probably most so in the engineering disciplines), but the shear depth of (meaningful) information in such fields requires a person to internalize a great deal of it to perform useful work. Further, some graduate degrees (med school, etc.) have entry criteria that create de facto knowledge requirements.

It should be obvious that the greatest concern is for students of the liberal arts, many of whom are learning useless information while acquiring (or perhaps not) useless skills. There are practically no jobs outside academia, and vanishingly few within, that will hire a graduate because of the things he learned pursuing a liberal arts degree. What then, is the value of the degree? Well, did the student learn how to do anything that an employer will pay for?

Probably, the closest thing to a useful skill many liberal arts students can point to is an amorphous notion of research ability, and maybe writing, although most of them probably can’t write coherently. But will anyone pay you for this?

Can you think of a reason that someone would pay you for it? Or, put another way, if you were starting a business based on the skills you’ve learned in college, what would you sell, and who would buy it?


Professional Academics Is a Video Game.

Playing affects your status with everyone, but only other gamers care about your skill.