More education doesn’t make you less capable, but universities make you think so

Academia has some serious problems.

I give a lot of talks to graduate students on what they can do after graduate school, though the following applies to undergraduates too. Many of them are worried about finding jobs. I grab their attention every time with this question:

When I was getting my PhD in physics, I thought the only fields I could go into were academia to become a professor, industry to work probably on something military-industrial, or wall street. I didn’t want to do any of those. I felt trapped.

You’ve all heard about people who drop out of school, maybe to start a company, and succeed? With more education, shouldn’t you be better prepared than they are? So why do you feel worse prepared and more restricted?

More education shouldn’t make you less capable nor restrict you more.

This perspective nearly always rivets the room. They see that they’re wearing blinders, keeping them from seeing the world beyond what their department knows. I value academic research, but for a school to lead its students to learn less of the world is, in my view, the opposite of education.

Academia often creates this myopia, probably because the professors only know how to do what they did. Starting a couple companies taught me that my extra education was incredibly useful, not restrictive. Learning the value I can bring to the world, including what I learned in graduate school, doesn’t come from facts a professor can tell you. It comes from taking action, risking failure, and reflection.

This is a big reason I switched from lecturing to teaching project-based, experiential learning, because I find it enables students, not traps them. And why I coach by giving exercises that empower my clients to act, especially the ones who feel trapped. I guess I could thank academia because it brings me clients from all its graduates who feel trapped instead of freed by their education, but I’d just as soon they didn’t feel so trapped.

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2 responses on “More education doesn’t make you less capable, but universities make you think so

  1. The misconception in today’s education is: education is for delivering knowledge and expertise. But the truth about education is, it should teach you how to think, to know yourself better, and know how you can achieve what you want to do.
    I happened had experienced this feeling during the last few days. Since my undergraduate, what i deal the most is mathematics, and now i am continue my doctoral degree in mathematics education. I have been interested and curious about technology and computer programming language for a while, but i have no idea no them. Recently, i want to take these course, but i was very afraid of taking them, to step into a zone i had no idea, and i might break my graduate all A record. However, as a future educator, i convince myself to take these courses, and i believe my previous education prepared me the necessary reasoning skills and the ability of learning new things. So i did a brave thing, and i spend the whole weekends to understand them. So far so good, and i felt so good about myself.

    The truth of learning is a process from unknown to know. Education is to prepare you to be the one you dreamed of yourself.

    • I agree with your first paragraph and have had experiences like yours.

      I took a long time to learn that grades don’t always help students. They are often for the administration. In your case, it seems like they discouraged you from taking a risk. I would think we would want an educational system to promote students taking risks.

      I’m glad things worked out for you. Some people who took risks might have seen lower grades and not gotten into schools they wanted to, despite in some cases maybe meeting those schools’ stated interests.

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