Thoughts on college

27 04 2007

On the Larry Moran and PZ have recently commented on this article, discussing the lack of critical thinking/science home-schooled creationist students get exposed to. Being that such homeschool programs lack scientific content, create mistrust of scientists, and intellectually shortchange the kids through a lack of critical thinking in the lesson plans, I have no problem saying that such courses shouldn’t be accepted for credit and those students should have to take remedial-level science courses. If they don’t like it, there’s always Liberty University, right?

This isn’t to say children in public schools are doing better, science taking a back seat to the most important topics on standardized tests (language skills and math). The only standardized test I ever took with a section devoted to science was the ACT, and I scored a 95% in that section (much better than in math, let me tell you). When I was in high school the standardized testing blitz was just becoming more apparent, weeks out of the school year taken out to devote to not only the actual tests but prototype versions of tests that would be taken in years to come, and as far as I can recall there was no major difference between any of them. PZ recognizes this as well and states;

In my perfect world where colleges are not facing a painful lack of support from their state governments and were we aren’t scrabbling for students to keep our funding up, I’d tighten up admission standards across the board: you don’t get into any college unless you can read and write grammatically correct English, unless you know the elements of trigonometry, unless you’ve had at least a year’s instruction in a foreign language, and you’ve been exposed to at least algebra-based physics and have had a good lab course in chemistry.

No problem with the English part of it; I placed out of both semesters of “Expository Writing” because of my AP scores (to tell you the truth, I never even read Hamlet but I still nailed the essay). The math part though, that’s a different story. Math and I don’t get along, and I typically do whatever I can to avoid it (which is now impossible; I have to take precalculus and statistics before I graduate next year). I’ve never done well in that subject and likely never will, and if my admission to college depending on knowing basic trig and algebra-based physics, I probably wouldn’t be in college. Granted, math education is important and I’m not about to say “Math, who needs it?” but I think it’s also important to note that not every student is the same. In my case, I did exceptionally well in english classes but passed by the skin of my teeth (if that) in my math classes, yet I showed an aptitude for science; what am I to do?

Perhaps it’s the college I’m in an the courses that I’ve taken, but I have to say that I feel the college professors I’ve come in touch with generally haven’t done a good job at education either. Huge lectures where ppt slides go whizzing by and the students are told to buy a $100 book that is never referred to or used don’t exactly strike me as the pinnacle of higher education. Even in some of the smaller classes a lecture is merely a place for a professor to stroke their own ego for an hour, and overall I can’t say I’ve really learned much of anything during my years at college. Perhaps it’s my fault; I have changed majors a few times and haven’t always been the best when it comes to class attendance, but I’ve learned far more in one year of private study than I have in nearly 6 years of college. Sure, there might be some vestiges of understanding here and there, but I generally feel like I’m just paying to get a degree because that’s what I have to do; I don’t feel like I’ve been prepared for any type of career, profession, or to be any kind of scientist.

I’m sure the story is different elsewhere and other people have had more pleasant experiences, but I think the American education system is fraught with problems from top to bottom. Hopefully I’ll be able to escape the education system for a time (although graduate school is going to be necessary), but for the amount of money I’ve spent on tuition I would have much rather kept the money and educated myself.




6 responses

27 04 2007

I don’t feel like I’ve been prepared for any type of career, profession, or to be any kind of scientist.

Such preparation is not the point of any undergraduate degree at a 3- or 4-year university.

“Career” is a slippery word that high-school guidance counsellors were continually redefining towards meaninglessnesss, so I won’t deal with it.

“Profession” is a useful term. There are “Professional” degrees available, many of them to be taken post-BA or BSc, such as Veterinary School, or the various specialties of medical doctors (e.g. Dentistry, Psychiatry), and some to be taken instead of a standard BA/BSc, such as the various types of certification for the skilled trades. Taking courses in basic Biological theory and fact, and learning how to do Trigonometry or appreciate great literature, are never going to prepare someone for specific situations in the “real world” the way on-the-job training can. The underlying idea of a degree is demonstrating an ability to think clearly in certain patterns, and to gain the skill of reasoned argument.

As for becoming a scientist, that’s essentially not possible without further graduate degrees, at the M.Sc. level or higher. Sure, there are plenty of anecdotal examples of people who made significant contributions without slogging through graduate school, but they are very few and far between compared to the everyday sort of scientists, who do consistently make contributions to both theory and knowledge. I’m not trying to discourage anyone from anything, especially am I not trying to discourage budding scientists. Nor am I implying that applying scientific skills and critical thinking to every-day type situations is not a great idea. But my definition of “scientist” includes (recent) Publication and continuing Research, two activities unlikely to be conducted by anyone not either in/completed grad school or independently wealthy.

27 04 2007

Thanks for the clarifications Martin; you’re absolutely right that words like “career”, “profession”, and “scientist” get thrown around a bit and overall I agree with your definitions. I suppose my current dilemma is that I feel mired in undergraduate work that is of no use to me for no other reason than I have to get a degree in order to get a job or move on to grad school. I do want to finish and I don’t really have any other choice, but I do feel like I’m just “playing along” rather than actually getting anything for the $13,000 I give Rutgers annually. Here’s the course description for my major;

“The ecology and natural resources curriculum provides an understanding of how natural living systems function and how they can be managed to provide benefits to people. Students may pursue course work that prepares them for traditional careers in resource management or they may take a broader array of courses that meets interests related to the conservation of natural resources and the ecology of natural systems. Graduates may pursue further study at the graduate level or find career opportunities in academe and in public or private organizations involved in the management of natural resources. […]

Conservation and Applied Ecology.�This option provides a broad general understanding of the functioning, significance, and conservation of living systems. The flexibility of this option is intended to meet a variety of student interests and needs.”

I feel I’ve essentially fulfilled the goals stated here, and sometimes I wish I could just walk into my advisor’s office to cobble together some sort of degree out of the 120+ college credits I now have under my belt. I never expected to come out of a 4 year undergrad program and be ready to take on the world or be a real scientist, but I guess what I failed to accurately articulate is that for me college has essentially become a really expensive waiting room and has contributed little to my intellectual development (be it my fault or theirs). I do fully intend to get at least one doctorate someday and actively engage in research and publishing (which requires going through the academic meat-grinder), but at the moment I feel a bit mired down taking courses merely for the point of saying that I’ve taken them and nothing more.

27 04 2007
Chris Harrison

I can empathize with your distaste for math Brain. A biology major here requires 2 semesters of calculus, and I’ve already failed the first semester of differential, so I’m looking to get both it and integral out of the way this summer at a nearby community college.

I’m dead set on my major, so hopefully my collegiate career will be a little more positive than your own. But like senor Brummell said, grad school will be where you become “science ready”. I’m just jealous that you bastards are way ahead of me!

27 04 2007

Thanks Chris; I’m hopefully going to take Precalc this summer by itself to get it done with, although it’s likely I’ll have to take stat during the fall or spring along with a year of physics & the second half of chemistry.

I’m set on my major as well and I hope you have a more positive experience than me as well. Part of my problem was that I got academically dismissed from college twice because I wasn’t doing well. This meant that I had to take a lot of courses over and when I switched majors there was a whole new set of requirements I had to go back and fill out, so I didn’t exactly put myself in the best position.

I wouldn’t get too jealous of my position though; hopefully I’ll graduate next spring but that’s given that I pass everything between now and then. I really botched up my own college career through being lazy during my first 2 years or so and have paid for it big time, and I am a bit worried that even if I graduate I won’t be able to get a job or go to grad school because my average will probably still be a bit low. Either way, I am looking forward to a change and getting into a job to get some experience or grad school to start getting the kind of education I really want; so close, yet so far.

27 04 2007

I hope I didn’t sound too negative in my earlier comment; thinking about this a bit later made me wonder if I was knee-jerk-reacting to a subject that comes up in discussion around here periodically. Some soapboxes get a little worn.

Graduates may pursue further study at the graduate level or find career opportunities in academe and in public or private organizations involved in the management of natural resources.

That sounds like a meaningless cop-out, to me (to get back to sounding negative). The cynic in me (77% by volume) reads that as “once you graduate, you’re on your own. Others who came before probably did well, we really didn’t keep track.”

…grad school to start getting the kind of education I really want; so close, yet so far.

In my experience, and from much of what I’ve heard from other people, attitude and personality interactions count for almost everything when it comes to grad school admissions (money [funding] explains most of the remaining variance). Your attitude, as expressed on your blog, looks very very positive, which is great, so I feel confident in wishing you ‘good luck!’ on your endeavors. Then Chris can be even more jealous! (until he finds out what grad school pay is like)

2 05 2007

[…] sure I’m not going to shock anyone by saying that my college experience hasn’t exactly been pleasant, but I do wish that I had found out about undergraduate research opportunities earlier. In fact, I […]

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