I recently finished reading Charles Hugh Smith’s book The Nearly Free University & The Emerging Economy.  Overall, I found his main thesis well supported, namely that higher education is broken and floundering in a centuries old model that is no longer efficient delivering education in today’s technological environment.  However, I have several critiques that I will cover shortly.

Let’s start with what I feel are his most compelling arguments.  First, he points out that expensive campuses and basic research pursued on those campuses place an extraordinary drain on resources that does not serve the student.  He is, in my opinion, mostly correct on this.  A related point is that most colleges and universities today are run for the benefit of their faculty and administrators.  As a life-long pursuer of higher education, I would wholeheartedly concur that this is absolutely true.  A related corollary that Mr. Smith does not really touch on (except in passing) is that it is run for the benefit of tenured/core faculty and administrators.  Adjunct teaching is notoriously underpaid and quite frankly, somewhat abusive to those trying to break into the college level teaching cartel.

Secondly, he does a great job of articulating the eight soft skills all college graduates should exhibit:

  1. Love of life-long learning
  2. Flexibility in applying knowledge across problem domains
  3. Being adaptable
  4. Entrepreneurial skills
  5. Working collaboratively in both local and remote settings
  6. Be professional, responsible and accountable
  7. Build human and social capital
  8. Possess practical knowledge of finance and project management

However, this is where he and I start to diverge.  On the one hand, Mr. Smith correctly points out that many of the above skills are not explicitly taught at university.  On the other, he has an engineer’s bias towards privileging the study of STEM subjects and an inordinate concentration on college as the vehicle to teach “job skills.”    I cannot agree with him here.  College was never intended to teach “job skills.”  Trade unions, vo-tech schools, internships absolutely.  Colleges, not so much outside of professional degrees such as law, medicine and business: these absolutely are oriented specifically to learning job level skills.  However, if we take education back to its philosophical and religious roots, particularly looking at Socrates and the Socratic method, college is NOT about teaching job skills, rather it is about teaching students how to think critically.  I think he and I would both agree that today’s colleges and universities do a poor job of this with their “trigger warnings” and “safe spaces.”  I’m reminded of the old joke:

  • When I got my bachelor’s, I knew everything about everything…
  • When I got my masters, I knew everything about one thing…
  • When I got my PhD., I knew nothing about anything!

To his point though, many students today are skipping college and going to schools that are essentially vocational in nature.  The rise of programming/tech boot camps in the bay area are a prime example of this.  With their focus on hands on skills based training and tremendous success at placement in high paying jobs with low (compared to college) tuition, many are going down this path.  This ties in with another major theme of Mr. Smith: accredit the student, not the school, which I again, am in violent agreement with.  However, here again Mr. Smith strays.  For one of the most beneficial aspects of attending an elite university is the culmination of the eight skills he labels as social and human capital: namely, the alumni network.  If you go to Harvard, you are immediately vaulted into the elite and probably never have to worry about employment for the rest of your life.  Is it worth $250k+?  I don’t know as I have never attended an elite institution, but I have friends who have: none has ever wanted.

In the end, I concur with the major themes of this book and recommend reading and assimilating its contents.  He is correct that the technology is nigh that portends the breakdown of the old college model.  Much can be accomplished by accrediting individuals rather that institutions.  However, his lack of appreciation for the liberal arts approach to learning non-practical subjects weakens his thesis.

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