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Wednesday, June 27, 2012

The Misconception about Education and Competitiveness

To prepare yourself for the job market, you first have to clear a widespread misconception about education, which is what this post is about.

The Influence of Confucian Philosophy

Under the influence of Confucian philosophy, the Chinese (and probably other Asians as well) place an overwhelming emphasis on formal education and academic results. Kids are raised to believe that they need to do well in school in order to have a bright future.

This phenomenon is spreading to other parts of the world. When Asian American children do well in exams, Caucasian parents feel the pressure to push kids to study harder.

This claim may not do justice to Western intellectual traditions though. In fact, knowledge and critical thinking have always been held in high regard in the West too, as seen from the ancient Greek civilization to Francis Bacon’s famous saying, “Knowledge is power.” Today, this tradition continues as politicians and commentators insist that higher education is the key to a country’s future.

No doubt, knowledge is valuable, and academic research is important to the progress of human civilization. But media reports that equate education with success have led many kids (and many parents) to believe that the smarter you’re and the better you’ve done in school, the better your job will be in the future. The question is, Is this really the case?
The Myth of Education

Sadly, that good grades today mean a good job tomorrow is nothing but a myth. If only life is so simple. The truth is, except for a few science and engineering jobs, employers don’t care that much about the knowledge you’ve acquired in college.

What your future boss cares about is the value you can generate for the organization. As you can imagine, a profound knowledge of Roman history or planetary systems doesn’t help the majority of businesses and organizations achieve their objectives. While knowledge is the focus of college education (and one may argue this should be the case), skills are what employers are looking for.
Please don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying college education is unimportant for your career. A college degree is now a prerequisite for many jobs, and good grades from a good university signal to potential employers that you’re smart and can self-learn effectively. Besides, most successful people, including most successful entrepreneurs, have a college degree.

Yes, education is important. But as Benjamin Franklin said, “Half a truth is often a great lie.” Students will only be disappointed if they falsely expect a college degree – even with many A’s on the report card in this era of grade inflation will translate into a dream job (though the reputation of a top school like Harvard and Princeton will undoubtedly help).

Students need to remember that college curriculum isn’t designed with the specific aim to prepare for one’s career. Good grades and high qualifications don’t necessarily translate into productive work performance, even for technical fields like engineering. As Michael Schrage points out, there is no guarantee that a PhD in computer science is also a good programmer.

The Purpose of College Education

So, what is the true purpose of college if it isnt doing a good job to prepare us for our career? To the society as a whole, one main purpose of college education is to train students to be an independent thinker and to build a more civilized society.

On an individual level, college is the place to explore and expand your academic interests. It also gives you a wonderful opportunity to find yourself and understand your values and motivations.

In any case, formal education is only part of the equation when it comes to job search and career development. If you want a promising career, a lot of your learning should take place outside the classroom. Well discuss what skills you need to work on and practice outside school in the next post.

P.S. From this post onward, Ill ask questions at the end of each post to stimulate your thoughts and invite participation. Hopefully we can collect and share more ideas and insights on this site.
Questions: Do you believe that today’s college students overly rely on formal schooling in their career preparation? And what do you think is the true purpose of college education?

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