My department held its annual alumni panel today, with four graduates coming back to campus to talk to the current students about their experiences in college and after college. Someone asked the panel about their thoughts on having gotten technically-oriented (math and computer science) degrees at a liberal arts college as opposed to a university with a deep but not-so-broad curriculum. One panelist, who I had in several classes as a math major and who is now a risk analyst with a major financial management firm, gave this compelling response:
A college diploma is just a piece of paper that tells people that you know how to learn.
I think that summarizes the purpose of higher education very efficiently. While working toward a college degree, you do in fact master an awful lot of content; this alumna got her job over another candidate with an MBA because she had taken a numerical analysis class and knew about Monte Carlo simulation. But content mastery is a side effect rather than the main effect. The main effect is that this student had the broad intellectual skills to go on and learn new things on your own and using your company’s methodology — like how to interpolate financial data using cubic splines, which this alumna had to pick up basically on her own three weeks into the job.
We educators need to keep the proper balance of content skills and broad intellectual skills in mind. Students need a certain critical mass of content knowledge in order for their broad intellectual skills to gain purchase in the real world. But there’s certain point past which the specific pieces of content a student’s learned in college will fade out of memory, atrophy from nonuse, or simply become irrelevant. (I chuckled out loud when one alumna talked about her Pascal class she had in college.) Students need the content; but it’s not about the content, any more than carpentry is about the hammer or cooking is about the oven.