A few days ago, a good friend of mine who is also a prolific writer, wrote a thoughtful essay about the utility of things we are required to learn in universities and colleges. His gripe was not about the subjects being taught but how they are taught. In his opinion most of what we learn in our colleges we forget over time because it has “no relevance in our lives”. It is a waste of our time. He starts with an example of his experience at a job after post-graduate education in economics and banking. The large corporation he worked for paid his salary in a bank account. Then he realized that despite his education he did not know how to “cross a check” or how to “write an account payee check”. He further laments the effectiveness of learning mathematics, for example, if one “cannot look at an apartment and estimate its area” or after taking classes in chemistry one does not have an idea of “how a favorite pie or ice cream you ate affects your body”. His punch line in closing was “a school or college is a learning location, not a penal institution.”
His essay generated a chain reaction. A few agreed with him and noted that the system of education needs to change. Others, including me, had a contrarian opinion. We believe that no education is a waste whether you use it in your life or not. Granted colleges make us take several courses in a curriculum. They intend to provide us with a fundamental education in many related topics. In every class, we take there are lectures. Then we get homework related to the lecture. During this task, we learn to analyze the problems presented by applying what we just learned to solve them.
A college cannot prepare you for specific tasks that you may need to do when you enter a job market and start living life. The colleges prepare you to be able to analyze and solve problems and be able to learn new areas. Things change over one’s career and one needs to be ready to accept the challenge and change accordingly.
An electrical engineering curriculum would not teach a person how to hang a ceiling fan. But he/she would be able to read the instruction and follow them. Similarly, a mechanical engineering degree would not prepare you for how to fix a plumbing problem in your house.
I received my Electrical Engineering degree from the Osmania University in Hyderabad, India. Upon coming to America, I switched my major and obtained a master’s degree in Engineering Physics from the University of Oklahoma. Over the years I took a plethora of courses including mathematics, physics, chemistry, thermodynamics, quantum mechanics, strength of materials, etc. What happened in real life when I entered the job market was different. I had to learn computer programming, and write proposals to help my company earn new business, and in the last ten years before my retirement, I had to implement processes to measure the maturity of software procedures on our projects. None of these subjects were taught in colleges at the time I was a student. I had to adapt to new environments and be able to overcome the challenges I faced. I purchased books to study the new technologies to help me perform.
Over my entire career, I worked for three large corporations catering to businesses such as construction management, software development, and business acquisition. I give an example of how an engineering education may have helped me in thinking outside the box.
While working at one of the companies, I was in a meeting with our customer, the US Navy, where they were trying to convey to us what they wanted their perceived system to do. The team from the Navy and us were trying to build the system on the fly. The discussions were not going anywhere. I came up with an idea that we should write a user’s manual for the system first rather than talk about the system design. This idea worked well. A few months later I read a small announcement in the Computerworld magazine. The Society for Information Management (SIM) had announced a nationwide competition for technical papers. They were looking for innovative ideas to build Management Information Systems (MIS). I thought my idea of developing a user’s manual first would qualify. I was skeptical though. I was not a famous authority or a renowned professor. Why would they care for a paper from me or would they even read it?
I wrote the paper anyway and submitted it. My manager helped me to write the recommendation letters to be signed by our Vice President. In the meantime, the company selected me to attend a four-month MBA level training in Melbourne, Florida. I had no idea why I was selected. I thought maybe I was a Guiney pig. Our President wanted all aspiring Engineering managers to be trained in the business side of a corporation. He believed that it is not enough for an Engineering executive to be just proficient in managing the technology. According to him, they should also be proficient in understanding the balance sheet to keep the stockholders happy. It was important for him/her to be knowledgeable in other soft skills like Human Resources, Economics, Accounting, Finance, and Marketing.
During one of my weekly talks with Bharati over the phone, I learned that there was a letter addressed to me from the SIM organization. My heart started to throb. I was sure it was a “Thank you for your submission, blah, blah, blah” kind of rejection letter. Instead, it was a letter informing me that I was one of the three winners.
I took a deep breath to settle down and wipe my eyes. I was awarded $1000 and was invited to attend the SIM convention in Denver, Colorado, to receive it in person. My paper was later published in the MIS Quarterly
By the time I retired I had forgotten what I learned in most of the courses I took in the college. Do I regret not having to use the material from the courses I took in the engineering college? I don’t think so. Maybe implicitly I used some of the knowledge without realizing it. Overall, I think I had a satisfying career.
Post-retirement I did not stop learning new skills. I took adult education courses to learn the Spanish language. I attend a weekly meeting to practice speaking the language. I decided to write fiction, essays, and memoir. I have a blog that you are reading. I managed the Northern Virginia Writer’s Guild for six years. I published a book of fiction Choices they Made (https://amzn.to/34rcWUK). I have finished writing a second one. This type of writing requires acquiring a different skill set than the one needed to write technical papers.
Some people think a college education is not necessary. Some non-college-educated people indeed become successful. But, in general, college education gives a person certain gravitas to say to a prospective employer “Look, if I can successfully master this, I can surely handle the task that you may give me to do.” My elder brother always valued higher education. Once he was telling us about a famous actress. The first thing he said was “she has an M. Com you know.” M. Com in India referred to the degree of master’s in economics.
Learning never stops when we are out of college unless we want it to. We learn from books and magazines we read, discussions we have with friends, and sometimes shows we watch on TV or in the theater. It is a lifelong process.
What do you all think? Drop me a line.
12 thoughts on “Reflections on My College Education”
Excellent take, Ashok. I couldn’t agree more. While it’s true that there are less useful studies and degrees out there, going the full distance in college does prove the ability to work, to handle stress, to apply yourself, to attain goals and hopefully to problem solve! It also establishes a personal habit for ongoing, lifelong learning and discipline.
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Thank you for your feedback John.
You only have mentioned the truth. College education gives you certain analytics skills which in turn give you problems solving abilities. This helps you in whatever field you work.
Thank you for your feedback Avi.
I absolutely agree with you Ash. Thanks for sending me your writings. It almost seems as if you are getting prolific in the number of articles you are writing. That’s terrific. Keep it up.
Thank you Chuck. I try to keep myself busy. Hope all is well with you.
Absolutely on target. High school students should read this. I love the User Manual story.
Thank you for your feedback Jim.
Love this story. I can relate. I studied Business and worked in computer technology all my career. My last position was writing RFPs and managing the IT selected vendor installation.
When we took Sachin for his college opening day there was a session for parents only. The presenter asked parents to raise their hand if they are currently working in a field that related to what they studied in college. Only a handful raised their hand. That seems to be the norm.
I agree with you. Although a degree is not necessary to master the craft, you definitely need a system in place pertaining to the industry your interest lies in and I think, a college or university education can certainly shed light upon that.
Thank you Damayanti.