by Danny Rogers
A few weeks ago, Mike Lazaridis, the founder of the Blackberry-maker Research in Motion and the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics, delivered a plenary speech at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science entitled “The Power of Ideas.” In it, he described his experiences as a 10th grader taking honors classes in math and science along with shop class—a curriculum you would rarely see nowadays.
He recalled reading a manual for a dual-channel oscilloscope in his school's electronics shop and connecting “...the abstract math and science concepts I was learning upstairs with the devices I could touch and do cool things with downstairs.” He pointed out that this was before any distinction was made between science courses and shop classes—a separation that he describes as an “...upstairs-downstairs mentality.” Mike's words are prescient, and they say a lot about the current state of science and education.
What’s a degree worth?
At its core, a modern university is a place where young people go to obtain a a certificate stating that they have obtained a certain proficiency in a given topic. Twenty years ago, when most young people didn't go to college, meeting the standards of an accredited university carried significant weight with employers.
However, in today’s environment of legacy admissions and for-profit colleges, the value of the degree has weakened. To paraphrase Glenn Reynolds from the Washington Examiner, overpriced degrees and cheap student loans have inflated the value of higher education in much the same way that cut-rate mortgages blew up the U.S. housing market, leading to a bubble.
As Joseph Cronin and Howard Horton argue in the Chronicle of Higher Education, a 440 percent increase in the average tuition over the past 25 years supports this idea. Peter Thiel, renowned Silicon Valley entrepreneur and PayPal founder, argues in a recent interview that the bubble is about to burst. He posits that credentialism—the pursuit of degrees in lieu of a determined, practical, hands-on career path—creates a false sense of accomplishment and ultimately stifles innovation. In fact, he blames the higher education bubble in part for what he observes to be a stall in technology development over the past 50 years:
“...There is something like $1 trillion in student debt. A cynical view is that that represents $1 trillion worth of lies told about the value of higher education... Bubbles end when people stop believing the false narrative and start thinking for themselves. So many students are not getting the jobs they need to repay their debts, are moving back in with their parents, and the contract both parties signed up for is being revealed as false.”
Of bubbles and brews
How did this bubble come about in the first place? Oddly enough, I think beer can shed some perspective (as it does on so many issues!). In a recent article for Slate Magazine, Dave Conz, a professor at Arizona State University, discussed his love for home brewing—a passion I happen to share. It is a hobby that has permeated science and engineering communities everywhere. (If you are an OSA member, chances are that you know someone who home brews.) He points out that home brewing not only illustrates the creativity and industriousness it takes to be truly innovative, but also demonstrates the shortcomings of credentialism.
He cites Matthew Crawford, author of Shop Class as Soulcraft, who “...argues that the elimination of industrial arts and home economics classes from public school curricula has left us dependent on machines that we don’t understand and frustrated by the outsourcing and off-shoring of production.”
While many of today's science and engineering students can comprehend how machines work, most of that understanding is likely theoretical—simply because that is how it is taught. And why is it taught that way? Because it is generally cheaper and easier to present facts and work out problems on paper than it is to actually play around with things in the lab.
A matter of taste
However, there are holdouts. Dan Meyer, a visionary math teacher from California, teaches his students to compute volumes using drawings and formulae, but then he gives them a bucket, a tape measure and hose and tells them to check their work. He admits that this type of hands-on teaching is more difficult (and probably more expensive), but his students come away with a true appreciation for the math they learned in class and might even go on to become the next Mike Lazaridis.
Conz points out that DIY brewers make beer using anything from their kitchen stove to an “...arduino-controlled, fully automatic, trailer-mounted 'brew sculpture.'” However, to most homebrewers, one’s “rig,” as it is often called, does not matter. The key concern is how the beer tastes.
A post-credentialist future
This is the ultimate counterargument to credentialism. Budweiser—America's largest brewery—has state-of-the-art facilities across the country. They culture their own yeast, and their teams of enthusiastic scientists perform exhaustive quality control. And yet, despite these indisputable credentials, their beer just doesn’t taste very good. I'll take the smaller, lesser-known microbrews from Baltimore or the beautifully complex sour from a Belgian abbey any day.
The same should go for science. The solution to the education bubble is valuation based on technical merit, work product and quality, not credentials. I have often advocated for a double-blind review process for journal articles. Reviewing would be more difficult since referees would be forced to judge work only on its own merit, but a double-blind process would eliminate the inflated value of credentials over work quality.
In a post-credentialist world, hiring would be based on ability rather than transcripts, and students would be encouraged to take shop class and honors math. Good mechanics or plumbers would be widely venerated as the talented craftsmen they are.
Ultimately, the value and quality of what we create should be our key determinant of worth in the workplace. In the end, it really is the taste that matters.
Danny Rogers (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a member of the professional staff at Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab in Laurel, Md., U.S.A.
Note: The opinions expressed in this post are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of OPN or OSA.