Unlocking knowledge

By NINA MACLAUGHLIN  |  January 12, 2011

Kamenetz, a Yale graduate and the daughter of two professors, says that much of what she's learned in her post-college life has been the unlearning of what she was taught as an undergrad in New Haven. "I learned not to take too many risks, to stay in my comfort zone. I didn't learn anything I wasn't comfortable with; I was afraid to fail," she says. "I had to unlearn what I learned about communication. If you're pitching your speech to a high-level seminar, you want to sound erudite. Once you get out into the world, you need to talk to be understood." It proved, she says, that "our education can be ill-suited for even the best students."

The most crucial part of a successful education system, Kamenetz says, is teaching people how to learn. "Forget about giving the guy a fish," she writes in DIY U, "or teaching him how to fish, either. Teach him how to teach himself, and he'll always be able to acquire the skills he needs to find food, skills you haven't even thought of yet for things you didn't know you could eat." These sorts of skills, she says, "are no longer served by a classic liberal-arts curriculum."

A learner — and institutions — need to be "constantly testing the relevance" of their education in a real-world context. A result of not doing so is the situation we're in right now in which highly qualified PhDs are facing an impossible job market.

Active and connected
Cole Roskam is one of the lucky ones — and he had to move to China for a job. He graduated with a PhD from Harvard's History of Art and Architecture department last spring. "I was the only person in my class to graduate from the department last year with a full-time tenure-track job," he says over Skype from Hong Kong, where he's now an assistant professor of architectural history at the University of Hong Kong.

Roskam explains his relocation as a result of the economic situation: "States are giving less money to universities and colleges." As a result, "more and more people are looking abroad for jobs," he says. "People are going to be seeking opportunities in Asia, in Europe. Ultimately it comes down to money. It comes down to schools being able to hire professors. To do that, the tenure-track system does need to change, so that schools don't feel trapped in lifetime contracts with professors."

Roskam also mentions a glut of qualified candidates. The New York Times ran a story in January 2010, headlined "Recession Spurs Interest in Graduate, Law Schools," and cited the record 670,000 people who took the GRE in 2009. "I do think that more and more people feel like a BA isn't enough to get them onto their desired job track or the profession they want before they've even really explored the job market, so an MA, law degree, and PhD becomes almost like a default move."

DIY U's Kamenetz suggests that the so many PhDs, so-few-jobs situation is the result of "the over-reliance on education as the primary means to get ahead." She adds, "It's not their fault. They're taking a passive consumer model," one that makes the promise, if I consume this much, I'm owed a good job.

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