My education has been quite extensive; built on these three pillars:
- University degrees (3 of them from two different universities)
- Countless courses at technical centers
- Lots of reading on my own
By far the most valuable of the three was the reading I did on my own time and based on my interests and ambitions. It’s what enabled me to build my own business and learn the skills needed to succeed. The rest of the aptitudes I got from my upbringing.
I largely agree with Bryan Caplan’s view that formal education is mostly signalling. This is the view that school doesn’t so much teach you valuable skills, but helps filter society by which people are smart, conscientious and conformist enough to put up with it. This filtering can explain why schools seem to teach so much useless stuff, yet are nonetheless a requirement for almost any good job.
This way of thinking does not apply to all professions, however. There are several professions such as law and medicine where it would be foolish to think that you can study on your own and attain anywhere close to the knowledge that actually going to university would give you. What I disagree with is society’s relentless push for all young students to go to University as if not going would be a failure in itself. There are only a limited number of courses available at university and an infinite amount of human aptitudes and talents, so if young students feel that no course suits them they should seriously consider skipping University.
I’ve personally had mixed experiences at universities. I don’t consider my experience at the University of Malta to have helped much in helping me build my character or way of thinking, and the skills learned there could have been easily learned online. I had to go through many boring lectures and just study information that was utterly outdated and useless just to be able to regurgitate it on the exam paper and get my pass.
At the University of Loughborough however, I had a wonderful experience. I didn’t find my course especially interesting, although it was more professionally done than what I had experienced in Malta. Facilities were much better in general at the computer department where I studied.
However, the biggest difference between the two for me was the actual campus and how students behaved on it. In Malta, almost all students live with their parents and go to University by car or bus to attend a lecture, then just go back home. You get very little interaction with people beyond actually going to classes or hanging around on campus. Sports facilities were dismal and clubs were very few. In Loughborough, on the other hand, you had a multicultural environment, countless clubs and societies for any hobby or interest imaginable, an incredible campus with some of the top sports facilities in Europe, and even a Students’ Union which included various discotheques/clubs that opened daily. Then there were several canteens with good food (unlike the horrible one we had in Malta).
Add to that the fact that most students actually lived on campus or nearby, eliminating the daily commute (I went to university by bike every day), so you got to actually live and interact with other peers 24/7. This resulted in a much better experience for me as I had the opportunity to get to know people from different countries, religions, interests, genders etc etc. It helped me grow immensely in that one year, especially considering that it was my first experience living away from my parents and having to figure out the practical things like cooking, shopping, washing on my own.
I would definitely repeat my experience at Loughborough University, but I would skip the University of Malta. That is not a direct critique at the Maltese university or the lecturers there; just that I had drastically different experiences as described above.
Therefore, while getting a degree at university can be a great experience, in my opinion, the greatest benefit is that of interacting with other students and great lecturers and actually living on campus, rather than learning the course material itself. I would argue that for many people the course materials are better learned on their own time using a MOOC system or other ways. That would make that portion of the education more customizable, less boring, and way more efficient in terms of time needed to complete it.
Universities waste resources by teaching the same courses over and over again, when they should be pooling resources to create basic, big-budget lectures with Hollywood-level production standards. Check out Tyler Cowen’s YouTube videos on Economics, for example, and I bet it easily beats the drudgery that it taught in most schools and universities.
Online courses shouldn’t be a passive experience. They should be active and social. Using platforms like Zoom, students can feel close to their teachers, chat with other students 1-on-1, and get instant feedback — all within a 90-minute session. Over time, online education will be more scalable and more intimate than most in-person learning experiences.
One other key thing is that learning is a social experience. You can’t just download information. You have to wrestle with ideas and make them your own.
To conclude, here’s a video illustrating Alan Watts’ thoughts on the education system: