Monday, March 21, 2011

Which Type of College Degree Program To Drop Out Of....

The New York Times shares the opinions of Harvard drop-out Bill Gates and Reed College drop-out Steve Jobs, who respectively urge students to pursue "work-related learning" and "technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities". Before, I assume, dropping out to start multi-billion dollar companies. I agree with Stephen Joel Trachtenberg, that they're both right, although my rationale is a bit different.

I know some people in the engineering and tech fields who are avid readers, interested in ideas, like the arts... and others for whom the liberal arts and humanities are beneath their interest, a waste of time. It's in no small part a matter of personality, and those (presumably like Bill Gates) who see little value in the liberal arts shouldn't be pressed to take course after course in the vain hope that they'll wake up and learn to like those subjects. If things don't click, it's a waste of everybody's time (not to mention tuition money). Some people will develop a greater interest in the arts and humanities as they mature, others won't. There's room in our society and workplaces for that personality type - and apparently lots of room for it at Microsoft.

What has Microsoft done very well over the years? Leverage the ideas of others into its products? Microsoft is largely evolutionary, while Apple tries to be revolutionary. Both are important, but the latter is more likely to emerge from somebody with Steve Jobs' mindset than Bill Gates'. While Trachtenberg justifiably praises Gates' philanthropy, his recent statements suggest that he endorses a colorless "work-related learning", "test, measure and retest" approach to education starting at the earliest grades. I'm skeptical that his own children would attend a school that offers a KIPP-style learning environment - if not, perhaps he recognizes that the rich have luxuries that the poor do not, and among those luxuries are allowing their children to explore, experiment, play, paint and develop at their own pace. (But if so, that's not the sort of thing you would expect him to say out loud.)


  1. I was under the impression that the 'liberal arts' requirement was more about the old ideal of a well-rounded education, and less about the idea that engineers will come to adore Shakespeare through forcible exposure.

  2. I have no problem with making Bill Gates-types try out a range of subjects as part of a "basic studies requirement", to try to ensure that their education is well-rounded or perhaps in hope that such an exposure will increase their interest in society and culture. It won't always work; but as you suggest it doesn't have to.

    But what's "well-rounded"? I was surprised to learn recently that most colleges have dropped an "American Government" requirement - the superficial freshman level course that at least tries to give students a sense of how our system of government works. I personally believe that to be an important subject, but I guess I'm in a minority. And you can fulfill a lot of the requirements that are supposed to round out your education at the extremes - at one end with fluff, and at the other end with a much more challenging course that technically fills the requirement but doesn't really offer much rounding.

    Between skyrocketing college costs, student and employer education, and the expansion of college enrollment to a population of students that is educationally or psychologically unprepared for college, we're going to see the continued expansion of the Gates-style conception of education, K-12 and college, as a form of trade school. A significant number of students are pushing for it - they come into college with the question, "What job can I get with this degree program and how much will it pay."

    I'm concerned about the Gates-types who seem to want to squeeze the life out of education - who value nothing (at least, for others) that can't be "objectively" measured and tested. I'm much less concerned with the idea that you might get too much of the liberal arts and end up like Steve Jobs or the "Montessori kids" who started Google. But Gates has a sea of cubicles that he needs to fill each year with quiet, diligent, deferential workers, so it's not too difficult to see where he's coming from....

  3. Gates probably got a better liberal arts education at his extremely expensive private high school than most people get at college. Present high school tuition at Lakeside tops $25,000 per year. For the rest of us he wants factory-style schools structured around standardized tests (he seems to be a big fan of KIPP), teacher wages tied to the results of standardized tests and, if schools are short of money, fewer teachers with huge class sizes.

    "Ask any alumnus what the best thing about Lakeside is, and they will likely mention an environment that promotes relationships between teachers and students through small class sizes." (But that's for the 'haves'.)


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