I love education.
I have three degrees and work in the field.
Lately though, I've been feeling like educational institutions share a lot more in common with medieval churches than anything else, and that professors and teachers often act like the priests. For the most part, power in medieval kingdoms was exerted through the control of information and knowledge by the priests of yesteryear. They were often the only ones that could read or write and as a result, the ones that disseminated knowledge to people. To maintain this power, they often claimed some type of relationship with God and implied or directly asserted that they were special or unique and that others could not possibly understand without their help and teachings.
This connection between medieval priests and teachers has been more firmly established in my mind over the past week due to a couple of experiences.
First, several of my students were truly shocked when I informed them that they could Google information they were not clear on. The idea to look beyond their teacher and directly access information for themselves via the internet, thus cutting out the middleman, was something that hadn't even crossed their mind. How dare they drink the water offered by a priest other than the one standing at the front of their classroom? This was a genuine interaction I had over the course of about 30 minutes with several of my students! This represents a failure of the educational systems they have attended to this point.
Second, in preparing for my M.S. in Applied Economics Project, I have begun emailing professors to see if they would share their exams with me. I do not feel I need the exams to assess myself at this point. I create assessments weekly for students and am more than capable of creating assessments for myself. However, having an external form of validation is important in many areas of life and, for this project, illustrates to others that I have really learned the material and not just read a couple books on a topic.
With that in my mind, the first response I received from a professor to my request resulted in the following,
"The faculty at Nanyang, Singapore Management University, and National University of Singapore are excellent. I think it that it would be much more efficient for you to interact with them. If you like the program at Hopkins, I think most of the courses are available online. I realize that this would take longer, but completing the course the traditional way gives you an independent certification that you know the material. Anyone can claim that they know material, but earning a degree certifies your knowledge. I personally worry about people who complete self-study and then miss important details. Details are incredibly important and half-knowing something can be worse than not knowing it at all. There is also very strong evidence that formal education increases income.
Disclaimer: I want to say that I am very grateful for the fact that this professor was willing to share what he did and that he even took the time to respond to me. None of the professors I emailed know me or have any obligation to help me in anyway. In addition, the fact that he offered to grade the midterm is much more than I expected from any of the professors I emailed.
Issues with the Response
Why against his better judgement? Why worry about people who complete self-study? Is managing to complete all six homeworks really necessary?
This response is a perfect example of the general condescension and patronizing attitude of modern intellectuals at university institutions. The idea that someone would want to skip sitting in classes for three hours at a time while listening to inane conversation from other students who mostly haven't done the reading to begin with, is threatening to their position of power. How dare someone bypass their lecture? After all, they have been "chosen" to share this special knowledge with us lesser endowed individuals.
Self-study goes so far as possibly being worse than not attempting it at all. "Half-knowing something can be worse than not knowing it at all." Really? Certainly in areas such as surgery or other life threatening scenarios. But a statistics class? That's similar to saying only taking one semester of Spanish is worse than not taking it at all because you won't be completely fluent or native-like.
There are certainly many situations where partial knowledge is much better than zero knowledge. Having partial knowledge also allows you to build on something in the future if you decide to take on even more within the chosen academic field. Everyone has to begin somewhere.
How we learn a subject should be irrelevant. It also shouldn't be anyone's business what methods we have used to acquire the expertise as long as we can demonstrate that expertise upon request.
Standards are necessary. Lawyers have the bar examination. Doctors have the board exams. Actuaries have a series of ten exams that often take up to ten years to complete, which they do study independently for while working 40-80 hour weeks!
These are how credentials should work. If you pass the examinations, you have proven your knowledge. If you believe exams don't represent proficiency, this is a problem with the exams, not the principle that credentials should be examination and standards based. Make better exams.
Once the standards are set, people should be completely free to study for them however they see fit. Whether this is done through self-study, traditional classrooms, or by hiring professional tutors should be completely up to the individuals.
To quote Carl Rogers for the second time this week, "The natural place of evaluation in life is as a ticket of entrance, not as a club over the recalcitrant" (p. 239).