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The value of a brick and mortar school

October 31, 2011

This is a continuation of my previous article, the Liberal Arts Pedagogy vs. The Other Education.

One of the commenters to the Facebook discussion raised a question in light of Gerald’s article:

If a college education were just about receiving knowledge from smart people, we could all go to University of Phoenix. What makes a traditional ‘brick and mortar’ school a more valuable experience? How does that translate into the Vision 2020 mission?

Here, it seems like Gerald really does have a valuable message. The traditional “brick and mortar” school offers something in particular over University of Phoenix, or over commuter campuses, or over distance education. Namely, it offers the opportunity for interaction. For the crucible that occurs whenever people with different ideas, goals, and plans actually meet to try to enact and further those different ideas, goals, and plans. There is conflict. There is coordination. There is communication.

But how does that translate into the Vision 2020 mission? Well, once again, I don’t know much about Vision 2020, but here’s what I can say:

I can say that there are some classes that have tried to do something different than “facts and figures.” I think the bane of all students’ existence is the “group project,” because group projects force us to work with different people, which isn’t a problem in and of itself, but the problem is that there’s always some free riders. People who will not be as motivated as we are. As a result, our effort will not equate to our outcome, because we rely upon others.

I think group projects are one way to take advantage of the face-to-face dynamic that brick and mortar schools can offer, but it is a flawed one. It’s flawed because most group projects are not designed to be group projects, so they unfortunately teach students to dislike working with others (and maybe that’s an important lesson…after all, sometimes, you’ll be in sucky teams.) By mandating that group projects are necessary, teachers force solitary products into being group projects.

I’ll just state it like this: if your group paper can be divided and conquered, and the parts of that paper are interchangeable between group members…then it’s not a group paper. If one person can reasonably cover another person’s part (or do the entire project himself), then it’s not a group project.

However, what even the most flawed group projects force students to learn (even if the teachers do not explicitly point out this crucial evaluative goal) is how to communicate, to work with others, to solve problems. To manage, to lead, and to find and exploit opportunities.

I think these are the soft skills that truly bring value to any education. And I think these are the skills that compose what proponents of liberal arts education describe as teaching people “how to think.”

But if this is the case, then a liberal arts education (or learning “how to think”) isn’t just the domain of history or women’s studies or whatever.

I will give a business school class example. One of my favorite classes I’ve taken has been tax research, and there’s a reason why. Most of my tax classes treated the tax code as a beast to be handled one section at a time, without much thought being given to the jurisprudence behind it. So, after corporate tax, I come out learning several tax code sections that I could throw around like buzz words, but in actuality, I’ll forget 80% of them within a year.

That’s exactly what Gerald criticizes.

Things were different in tax research. We weren’t learning specific sections. Rather, we were learning the framework for how the code is structured, how it interacts with the courts on one hand and with the administrative branch on the other…but more importantly, these “facts” and “theories” and “frameworks” weren’t the point at all. Because after a brief introduction, we were thrown into an unfamiliar situation.

We couldn’t rely upon the facts of what we already knew, because the situation was something that was relatively cutting edge. Instead, we had to think it out. What were the relevant facts from this scenario? What were the relevant issues from the fact pattern? What rules apply (and where would you find out? Keep in mind that this process is iterative…because sometimes, the rules would clue us in to necessary facts that we hadn’t thought to keep track of, or of issues that hadn’t crossed our minds) How do you analyze these rules? And finally, what’s your conclusion?

In this sense, tax research is very much a class about how to think. And that’s really the point. Ultimately, I’d be willing to bet that in both accounting and engineering, being taught how to do specific things is ineffective, because in the working world, one will need to instead learn how to research and solve novel problems with novel facts or issues.


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