TITLE: The University as a Gym for the Mind AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford DATE: May 07, 2012 3:21 PM DESC: ----- BODY: In recent years, it is becoming even more common for people to think of students as "paying customers" at the university. People inside of universities, especially the teachers, have long tried to discourage this way of thinking, but it is becoming much harder to make the case. Students and parents are being required to shoulder an ever larger share of the bill for higher education, and with that comes a sense of ownership. Still, educators can't help but worry. The customer isn't always right. Rob Miles relates a story that might help us make the case:
the gym: a university for the body
You can join a gym to get fit, but just joining doesn't make you fit. It simply gives you access to machinery and expertise that you can use to get fit. If you fail to listen to the trainer or make use of the equipment then you don't get a better body, you just get poorer.
You can buy all the running shoes you like, but if you never lace them up and hit the road, you won't become a runner. I like this analogy. It also puts into perspective a relatively recent phenomenon, the assertion that software developers may not need a university education. Think about such an assertion in the context of physical fitness: A lot of people manage to get in shape physically without joining a gym. To do so, all you need is the gumption (1) to learn what they need to do and (2) to develop and stick to a plan. For example, there is a lot of community support among runners, who are willing to help beginners get started. As runners become part of the community, they find opportunities to train in groups, share experiences, and run races together. The result is an informal education as good as most people could get by paying a trainer at a gym. The internet and the web have provided the technology to support the same sort of informal education in software development. Blogs, user groups, codeathons, and GitHub all offer the novice opportunities to get started, "train" in groups, share experiences, and work together. With some gumption and hard work, a person can become a pretty good developer on his or her own. But it takes a lot of initiative. Not all people who want to get in shape are ready or able to take control of their own training. A gym serves the useful purpose of getting them started. But each person has to do his or her own hard work. Likewise, not all learners are ready to manage their own educations and professional development -- especially at age 18, when they come out of a K-12 system that can't always prepare them to be completely independent learners. Like a gym, a university serves the useful purpose of helping such people get started. And just as important, as at the gym, students have to do their own hard work to learn, and to prepare to learn on their own for the rest of their careers. Of course, other benefits may get lost when students bypass the university. I am still idealistic enough to think that a liberal education, even a liberal arts education, has great value for all people. [ 1 | 2 | 3 ]. We are more than workers in an economic engine. We are human beings with a purpose larger than our earning potentials. But the economic realities of education these days and the concurrent unbundling of education made possible by technology mean that we will have to deal with issues such as these more and more in the coming years. In any case, perhaps a new analogy might help us help people outside the university understand better the kind of "customer" our students need to be. (Thanks to Alfred Thompson for the link to Miles's post.) -----