June 13, 2012

Experimentation In Higher Education

I went to my five year college reunion, and all I got was this stupid blog post.

College is an important time in an ever-growing number of young peoples’ lives. It’s often the first time you move away from home. Sometimes it’s the first time you pay rent. More often than not, it’s the first time you take on debt. And almost always, it’s a huge growth period for social connection and human engagement.

And yet none of those things are college’s purported purpose: higher education, and a gateway to the working world of adulthood.

This fact is troubling to me, particularly as tuition costs skyrocket and the bar to a college degree is constantly lowered. I don’t mean to suggest that broadening access to higher education is inherently bad, but it detracts from the value that those increased tuition costs are intended to justify, creating an imbalance.

You can see this imbalance play itself out through the frustrations of recent college grads. Their expectations going into college were to get a degree in order to be more employable, yet most are discovering that isn’t necessarily the case. Many hide in graduate programs, adding to their debt and hopes that they will become employable, but many find themselves only slightly better off employment-wise, and rarely much happier. Others find themselves taking jobs that really don’t require a college degree, just to pay their bills and avoid moving back in with their parents.

Why is this happening? What’s happened to our beloved college system that, just as its become a more universally attainable right of passage, its value in pointing the way to a fulfilling life post-passage has diminished?

I believe that the learning part of the institution has simply not yet evolved as the admissions and operational parts have.

The key factor that hasn’t sunk in is that the fundamental product offered, knowledge, has been commoditized. Everyone has access to several orders of magnitude more knowledge instantly, at their fingertips, for free than any university and its libraries could offer.

But that doesn’t mean college is inherently irrelevant, for many of the reasons I listed earlier. It can still be an incredibly powerful transition to independent living, it just needs to rethink what it offers.

What I find fascinating is that the elements for this restructure are already on campus, and have been for nearly as long as college has been around. Ask people across generations what college is all about, and the two most common words you’ll hear are “learning” and “experimentation.” Yet somehow college administrators believe that learning should happen in the classroom, whereas experimentation should happen outside.


The two are, and should be, more tightly coupled than any college administrator cares to recognize. The best way to learn is by experimenting. The best teachers are not those who impart the most knowledge, but those who help shape paths to productive experimentation.

Sadly, on most college campuses, experimentation is a word that’s relegated to the science wing. And even then, most “experiments” are routines that hundreds of students have performed before, all yielding the same result if “done right.” Those aren’t experiments, they’re demonstrations.

Experiments are empowering. They are designed to teach that failure is inevitable, and more revealing and exciting than success. They keep you coming back to try again. Imagine a world where college students are as excited to go to class as they are to get drunker than they have before and try new ways of getting other people to share their beds.

It’s not impossible. And I don’t mean to replace the parties and idiotic-in-retrospect choices we all make in college — those failed experiments are just as important to learning.

The issue is not that kids aren’t experimenting in college, it’s simply that they aren’t being taught that experimentation is a great thing. It doesn’t just result in hangovers and STDs. It results in greater, more rewarding successes than college kids are even allowed to dream of today. It results in the ability to change the world and control your own destiny. It results in innovation and discovery.

Aren’t those the results we always wanted from our college experience?


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