College vs Experience

Where learning actually takes place

March 30, 2021

So for some reason I started reading What Einstein Told His Cook: Kitchen Science Explained by Robert L. Wolke, so far the most interesting thing said was in the introduction (which is not a very good endorsement). Wolke is a chemist and he spent many years in a university both as student and as a teacher so he knows a thing or two about what goes on in colleges. Wolke writes in the introduction to this book:

Having taught at universities for more years than I care to count, and having spent ten of those years as the founding director of a Faculty Development Office helping faculty members to improve their teaching, I recognize two possible approaches to explaining kitchen science. I’ll call them the college method and the experience method.

In the college method, I would write what amounts to a textbook on kitchen science and then bid my “students” to go out into the world and apply their acquired knowledge to solve practical problems that arise in the future. That approach presumes that all the “course content” will have been mastered and recalled whenever needed. But both my experience as a teacher and undoubtedly yours as a former student testify to the futility of that approach. (Quick: Who fought in the Battle of Hastings?)

Here Wolke is making a rather self aware statement that is rare for people inside the academic world to make, but is one that many people in the real world have come to realize. Wolke is stating here that college really doesn't prepare students for work in the real world, at least in the way we think it tries to. It is unrealistic to think that a college graduate will remember everything they were taught when they need it, especially in classes where entire semesters could be spent on introducing various topics each week where it could be possible (but impractical) to spend an entire semester digging into one of these topics that was only given a week.

This is something that I've had several professors tell me, but also something I've already experienced. I had to take a web development class, since I've never had an interest in becoming web developer (despite having a website) I only ever took an into course. One day I decided I wanted to add that toolbar thing you see near the top of this page to this website. If this web development class had perfectly prepared me for the things within it's scope this shouldn't have been a problem. I spent a few hours trying to bring this thing to life using the things I had learned in that class, but with the knowledge I had retained about HTML flexboxes and stuff I couldn't do it, so I started looking up different ways of doing it. I soon found that while the way I was trying to make this thing would have worked, it was far from the simplest or best way of doing it. The thing is that this other way of doing it was also something within the scope of the class I took, but it was not something that was covered. There are many things that many people (college students themselves included) feel college students should know and learn that simply isn't in their curriculum.

Wolke continues:

In short, the college method attempts to supply answers before the questions arise, whereas in real life, questions crop up without warning and must be dealt with on the spot.

But what if you didn’t have to plow through a lot of science, yet every time you were mystified by something you could ask a scientist to explain that specific problem, no more and no less? While you can’t have a scientist (much less an Einstein) always at your elbow, the next best thing might be to have at your disposal a compilation of answers to questions that you yourself might be likely to come up with, along with plain, no-nonsense explanations of what’s happening. That’s the experience method.

Wolke's "experience method" of learning really amounts to seeking out the solutions to problems when they come up since you can't be prepared for everything. Self affirmatively Wolke doesn't say that the world doesn't already provide adequate resources or this. Elon Musk, the world's richest man, has stated that people don't need college to learn things, he says, "you can learn anything you want for free." Musk is right, and Wolke's experience based method of learning is clearly superior to the failing traditional academic system. I did not learn how to make that toolbar you see at the top of this page in school, I learned how to make it, for free, by looking for the answer myself.

Unfortunately, this fact has not been realized by most industries. While you can go on and get a job in the tech industry without a college degree in many cases, you can't do that if you want to go into Wolke's field and become a chemist. You can of course start a business and become quite successful without going to college, but you can't really get hired to manage a business like this without a college degree. We need to realize the true value of college and we need to stop pushing college onto everyone. Hard work is the key to success and learning, not enrollment in some overpriced university.