He’s Uneducated: Rethinking Our Models of Learning

Dilbert Comic - He's Uneducated

This comic is several weeks old, but I keep pulling it back up again and again. In just three small panels and in about 30 words, the strip speaks a pretty clear message of how the idea of education is shifting.

The more I thought about the comic, though, the more I realized we can actually read it two different ways:

  1. The interviewee is trying desperately to use the appropriate (yet empty) buzzwords that give him the credibility he needs. But to the Boss, it’s being translated into a completely different message: I’m a high school drop-out who failed three times at starting my own business. I’m not competent enough to make it through the formal education process, so I just try patch together the skills I need here and there. Instead of going to school, I went online and signed up for a few free courses, and printed off the completion certificates myself.

  2. Or, we can take what the interviewee is saying at face value: I was bored with high school and found it irrelevant because I spent all my time outside of class reading and learning about the things that actually interested me. I skipped my last year of high school and started not one but three successful start-up companies with a few of my buddies.  Although much of my knowledge is self-learned, the online course I’ve completed are designed and taught by ivy-league instructors from institutions like Stanford, Yale, and Duke. The technology field is constantly changing, so I continue to work and learn, diving into projects and learning the skills I need to be successful with those projects.
Regardless of our interpretation, however, Pointy-Haired Boss (that’s right–he doesn’t actually have a name in the Dilbert comics) is less than impressed, and he ultimately determines that this guy is uneducated.

Which leads us to the question: What is education? And how does that idea of “education” determine a person’s ultimate success? 

Does education mean having a piece of paper with a degree stamped on it? Peter Theil, co-founder of PayPal and founder of the Thiel Fellowship, says maybe not. Does it depend on the prestige of the school you attend? An article that ran in the Atlantic several weeks ago says it most certainly does.

One thing is for certain: Our ideas of learning, education, and competency are shifting. And everyone involved in education–from the suede elbow-patched academic in the ivory tower to the 18-year-old kid on her laptop, enrolled in a MOOC with 13,000 other students)–is thinking about it.

Last week, the Wall Street Journal hosted the 2012 D: All Things Digital Conference in California. The event brings together thinkers and innovators from media and technology and this year it boasted a speaker list that includes people like Aaron Sorkin, Jeff Weiner, Tim Cook, Ed Catmull, Michael Bloomberg, and Mary Meeker. What caught my attention, though, was a conversation between Standford University’s President John Hennessy and Khan Academy‘s founder Salman Khan about the shifts in our current system of higher ed.

Here are just a few of the points they hit:

Go watch the video of the conversation highlights. It’s worth 18 minutes of your time, I promise.

Am I trying to devalue degrees or question the importance of higher education? Well, that would be silly of me… I’ve spent the past seven years of my life in a university. I wouldn’t be doing this if I didn’t see it holding any value. But I also realize that people are motivated to learn for different reasons, and I am happy to see that we are starting to really reconsider our learning models and our standards for what we consider “educated.”

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3 thoughts on “He’s Uneducated: Rethinking Our Models of Learning

  1. I am so very glad this discussion is starting, but we are so far away from a society where the guy in the comic is seen as educated/qualified. As someone who has a ton of knowledge about my field, I can’t even get to the interview process most of the time because I am lacking a degree. No matter how much I work to become better, it is for nothing if I can’t get my foot in the door to show them. That degree is the key. The worst part is the degree could be for recreation and fitness with a minimal amount of tech and education experience, and I could get into an interview for a technology education position, but if I had years of experience in technology education and no degree, my application probably won’t even be reviewed.

    • We really do have to sit back and question a few things when we live in a world where ANY degree is ALWAYS worth more than no degree at all–even if the degree is in a completely unrelated field. I guess I *sort of* understand the argument that a completed degree demonstrates perseverance and teachability… but does it REALLY? You and your experience indicates that this is certainly not always the case.

      I suppose I still hope for the romantic ideal that people pursue higher education in order to stretch their minds, to experience new things, to become well-rounded individuals–in addition to developing skills that make them attractive and successful on the job market. But it’s hard to foster a love for true life-long learning among students when such a strong emphasis is placed on that one method of credentialing.

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