Teach Them Yo Damn Self

Tim Egan writes, in the midst of some sensible commentary on Walmart and Starbucks’ role in combating inequality:

It’s a sad day when we have to look to corporations for education…

But there is a certain kind of education–especially in the technology sector–for which it makes eminent sense to “look to corporations for education.”  To wit, we should expect corporations to train their employees in the particular technical tools that might be needed for them to perform their jobs well in their environments. This would be a boring and staid enough point were it for not for the pernicious effects that result from its being ignored by all concerned–universities and corporations alike.

I taught for several years in the computer science department at Brooklyn College, and during that period, served on the undergraduate curriculum committee. A constant refrain sent our way by those apparently in the know about the job market our graduates were entering was that we needed to make our education “more relevant.” Invariably, on closer inspection, I found that our department was being asked to provide instruction in highly specific computing tools and technologies–the current flavors of the month, if you will. We were constantly excoriated for concentrating too much on ‘abstract theory’ and not enough on ‘applied stuff’ – material that would help our graduates succeed in the job market. (Most of these jobs, as might be expected, were in the financial sector.)

It seemed to me then, as it does now, that an academic department was expected on take on a task, at its expense and time, that rightfully belonged to the employers. The department’s task–at the undergraduate level–as I understood it, was to provide basic instruction in the fundamentals of computer science so that our graduates could then go on to master more advanced concepts and techniques alike. It most certainly was not to displace aspects of this education in favor of instruction in specialized, domain-specific tools which would all too soon become obsolete. The net effect of following the advice of our corporate masters would have been to produce graduates severely lacking in an understanding of the fundamentals of their discipline, one which would enable them to transition smoothly to new technologies as and when an opportunity to apply them arose.

The corporate strategy was transparent enough to some: raise a din about the irrelevance of current university education, pressure universities to change curricula, and most importantly, cut training budgets to increase profit. Perhaps you wouldn’t even need to provide retraining when new technologies rolled around; you could dump the old, and just hire a new batch.

Note: In the past, it was standard practice for American research and development powerhouses such as Bell Laboratories to set aside fairly large budgets to provide post-graduate education to their new hires. An engineering or science student would typically be hired straight out of college with a bachelor’s degree, receive some training in his particular area of research at the labs, and then return to graduate school to earn an advanced degree. Tuition and expenses would be paid for by the labs. The graduate would then return to work on completion of his degree. I do not know what sort of post-degree commitment was expected, and whether any such programs currently survive.

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