Higher Education: the real problem is not the cost

Even though there is a lot of talk about money and cost, the real problems in higher education are the mistaken ideas that have gained respectability through the motion of the cultural herd we all live in. Here are four such ideas:

(Mistaken Idea 1) Everybody should go to college after high school because most jobs actually justify requiring a college degree as a qualification.

I do believe that everybody should have the opportunity, when they have real desire, to learn more deeply, to go to college and interact with mentors, etc. But the current way in which college is a knee jerk path to jobs is just silly. Giving people something they really don’t want in response to ill-founded ideas on what is useful to them is a recipe for very unhappy situations.

(Mistaken Idea 2) Adding computers and the Internet to the educational enterprise makes it better.

In fact, the way most people use the Internet changes the way they think, making it very hard for them to focus, think independently or deeply about anything.See for example the research cited by Nick Carr in his (possibly too) provocative book “The Shallows”.

This constant tweeting, emailing, texting, surfing, video-gaming that college kids are immersed in is seriously degrading their ability to focus deeply. I come to that conclusion through a combination of direct observation of the lower level classes I have taught — differential equations, business calculus and linear algebra — as well as the results reported in Carr’s book, as mentioned above. Another very interesting talk to listen to is David Levy’s Google Tech talk “No Time To Think” which can be found on youtube here.

 The illusion of greater knowledge hides the fact that less is being internalized, reasoning powers are weaker, and that the capacity for depth has been seriously degraded.  While it is true that a disciplined use of the Internet can be very helpful in research, the ways it is used by the vast majority has little to do with these positive uses.

(Mistaken Idea 3) Grant money for research has improved the overall quality of education.

In fact, the addiction that universities have to grant money has driven them to pay lip service to education while in reality, by any organic measure, they have relegated education to a least important role.

Grants have evolved from a luxury to a necessity in the sciences (and many other areas of academia). Universities are now completely dependent on that funding, and the drive to get that funding takes precedence over everything else. In particular, while professing a great focus on teaching, a close look at status/promotion/pay/etc at institutions of higher education (other than the teaching colleges) will show that teaching is most definitely not a top priority. Of course, an important part of the blame for this is the decreasing revenue from states, which necessitates an even greater emphasis on grant getting and an increase in class size. This last trend – bigger class sizes – has a seriously negative impact on teaching quality. Teaching is inherently a one-on-one or one-on-few exercise. Mentoring and training on the large scales that is being adopted to deal with the lack in funding is very difficult unless one agrees to the (large) drift in the definition of education that accommodates the growth in class size.

(Mistaken Idea 4) Education is what happens in a lecture class, by reading a book, or by searching the Internet.

Education is about helping students discover and follow their passion, in collaborations with teacher/mentors. It is also about training the students to develop and exercise their moral muscles. Independence of thought and action and the exercise of compassion and generosity results in an education that is robust and versatile, forming a foundation for long term creativity and happiness. It leads to a sustainable society.

So, books and lectures and Google Scholar can all be tremendously valuable to the process of education, but education is very far from the simple mastery of some subject of study. Even if the lectures are very inspiring, the books extremely well written and all the papers that are needed can be found and downloaded, these are merely a small to medium sized piece of an education.


Education — which should be about helping students discover and follow their passion, in collaborations with teachers/mentors — is severely hampered by the mistaken ideas outlined above. The acceptance of those ideas greatly disadvantages students and professors, and in the long term, our entire society. Independent and creative (yet disciplined) thought is a critically important ingredient of a happy society. When there is a shortage, as there currently is, everything from economics and technology to moral strength and community suffer. But because the time scale at which this happens is longer rather than shorter, it is invisible to politics as we know it. As a result, positive progress will come from the bottom up, from the grass roots.

The main task at hand, is the fueling of a grass roots movement by helping people realize they are operating on mistaken assumptions, that the real crisis in higher education has nothing to do with the cost and debt, but rather with the nature and substance of education.