meep (meep) wrote,

A little digressive, but it's a Sunday afternoon

My letter to the WSJ on Charles Murray's education v. credentialling op-ed piece: (it's not bitchy, so I doubt they'll run it)

I was disappointed in the letters published in the weekend edition (Aug 16-17, 2008) in response to Charles Murray's op ed. Too many people are shackled to the current conception of education and credentialling, that it makes sense to be wrapping them up in the same package. Where for other situations, such as financials that need to be audited by an outside party, everyone can immediately see the conflict of interest.

Similar to Murray's example, I am very familiar with the credentialling process in the Society of Actuaries. Various committees set the syllabuses for various areas - financial mathematics, life contingencies, probability, actuarial modeling, etc. Separate committees assemble the exams based on those syllabuses. Exam-takers are given references of sources and learning objectives -- and they are given the latitude to pursue any path to achieve that learning. There is a recognition that some may be able to teach themselves from the original sources, some may need supplementary exam manuals, and some may need the help of seminars (live or online -- I happen to teach a seminar both online at and live). Most people take these exams while serving what is essentially an apprenticeship, usually being rotated to various areas in insurance companies, if possible. The incentives are that raises and promotions can be dependent on these exams.... and if you fail too often, you can be out of a job. In addition to the basic education requirements of passing a series of exams, the SOA and the U.S. organization overseeing the actuarial practice in the U.S., the American Academy of Actuaries, requires continuing professional education so its members remain up-to-date.

As a teacher of an actuarial exam seminar, I am devoted to make sure my students learn the syllabus and most especially how to apply it in an exam situation; the Society of Actuaries has the incentive to keep up the standards of the profession so as to maintain the reputation of actuaries (exam committees are composed of SOA members); employers want to make sure their employees aren't wasting time in study techniques that do not work (and want to make sure they've got employees who can manage the work); employees want to be successful in their careers.

Let us compare this to the current college experience, where the professor sets the syllabus, assigns the study materials, and sets all the exams. There is rarely an external measurement of what knowledge or thinking skills one has attained during college. There is a great deal of variation in rigor between colleges (which is usually taken into consideration by employers), between different departments (again, usually taken into consideration, using broad generalizations), and between different sections of the same class (which is usually not taken into consideration, because it requires too much knowledge on the part of an employer). Many students are in college to get their piece of paper, their credential, as they see this as a pathway to a good career, which their teachers and parents have been telling them for years. But the credential means little -- accreditation measures only the inputs to the college experience, inputs that many times have only marginal impact on the amount of education received. Why should it matter how many physical copies of books the campus library has, when any student can get on the Gutenberg Project or and look up the info online?

Even more so, many of the elite institutions are sharing their information with the world for free. The best example of this project is MIT's OpenCourseWare: MIT has put up material from each one of its classes, and even some special classes from special sessions not officially part of the curriculum! If I want to learn, not caring about the piece of paper, I go there and download videos, pdfs, spreadsheets, slides, assignments and exams -- and to think I thought I;d never afford an MIT education! Many other institutions have followed in MIT's path. Kudos to higher learning here.

But let us not be parochial. There are countless free podcasts, produced by enthusiasts with great knowledge and love for their subject, which provide education beyond the physical classroom. My personal favorite is History According to Bob (, where I have learned more about the French Revolution, Ancient Mexico, pirates and royal mistresses, World War I, and many other history subjects than I ever had time for while in school - or even had the maturity or perspective to appreciate while an adolescent. I myself have produced a series of fun math lectures (well, I think they're fun), which I've posted at YouTube --

Then there are the excellent cable channels: the History Channel, Discovery (and its varieties), A&E, BBC America - countless others educating people. There are private companies such as Rosetta Stone and the Teaching Company who make their money off of teaching people in pursuit of a particular goal. They do not credential -- if one wants to prove fluency in a foreign language, it's best to face an external test. Customers are satisfied by these companies, these channels, and these podcasts to the extent the customers see they are learning something. There is not the adversarial situation one often gets in teaching a college class, where the student demands a particular grade or to ease up on the assignments, as, after all, they are the customer and the customer is always right.

Self-study and hands-on learning is the mode one is in for most of one's adult life, and the college method of conveying information seems archaic next to modern forms of information sharing. Colleges and universities have an important role to play as centers of thought, but it's not clear that they should be seen as having a gatekeeper function to being considered educated. I have several relatives who do not have college degrees, but who are most definitely educated in the wider sense. A college degree is now seen as a class marker, and those without it are denigrated -- the assumption is that one must be stupid or lazy to not attend college, when the opposite may be true: one is intelligent enough to be able to teach one's self and energetic so as not to want to waste time sitting around for four years.

Thank you for your time and consideration,
Mary Pat Campbell
Croton Falls, NY
Tags: education, intelligence, math, rant

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