In past posts, I’ve said how I’d change grade school, PE class, medical school, and school in general. Today I’ll tell you how I’d change higher education—colleges and universities. This was the hardest one yet to write because the “purpose” of college is so open-ended and vast.
What is the purpose of the university? Is it to train people get good jobs? Establish careers? Is its purpose to help students figure out who they are and what they believe—to “find themselves”? Is it a grand filter, a way for society to establish and separate the “elite” from the rest? Or is college the grand equalizer, a way for anyone and everyone to obtain a quality education and find their way up in the world?
It can’t be all of those things, and yet it tries to make it work.
It’s where elites go to get eliter.
It’s where kids from poor backgrounds can go to make it and stand out, where your background doesn’t matter anymore—only your ability.
It’s where you experiment with substances and subcultures and belief systems.
It’s where you buckle down and work hard to get ahead.
It’s where you go to party and make friends for life.
Are these disparate goals and identities sustainable?
This is why it’s so hard to make blanket recommendations about college. College is many things at once. If I were to change higher education, though, a safe starting bet would be to make personal responsibility the highest guiding principle. Not blame. Not guilt. Yeah, responsibility would undergird everything the school did—professors, administrators, and students alike.
Responsibility Over Blame and Guilt
Blame foists the problems onto “those people.” It removes you from the equation, changing you into a child who can’t do anything but whine and point fingers. Even if “blame” is accurate, it doesn’t get you anywhere. Blaming others absolves you of the responsibility and most importantly ability to change the trajectory of your life (or the world). It allows you to flail and complain and that’s about it.
Guilt feels like it’s enough. Guilt feels like you’re doing something, but you’re really just feeling sorry for yourself. Nothing moves forward. If anything, because you feel worse about yourself, you’re less likely to make any positive changes or take any steps forward. Also, guilt is often blame in disguise.
Responsibility is the answer to almost all ills.
The beauty of this is that it takes care of itself. If you just stop blaming others or indulging your sense of guilt, you naturally shift toward taking responsibility for your thoughts, actions, and future. If wallowing in unproductive guilt and blame aren’t options, assuming the responsibility and taking the reins are all that’s left over.
Eliminate unnecessary general ed requirements.
As I remember it, everyone, no matter the major, had to take basic classes in literature, math, biology, and other sciences and humanities. It sounds good, right? We all want well-rounded individuals entering society with a broad overall knowledge base. Right?
Well, that’s not how it goes. Kids end up taking classes they don’t really care about, often going over things they already took in high school. Either that or the introductory classes are also “weeder” classes that make the material so onerous and boring to filter out the people who are majoring in the subject and don’t really have what it takes. It filters out people who aren’t serious about really being an English major, but it also makes students who are just taking it to fulfill a Gen Ed requirement lifelong haters of reading (or biology, or art, etc).
Incorporate physical culture into the college experience.
Instead of loading up on general ed requirements, require that students take at least one physical training class every quarter or semester.
Teach boxing or jiu jitsu.
Have a wide range of Olympic lifting, strength training, sprinting classes.
Bouldering and rock climbing and rappeling and parkour.
Dance of all sorts.
Imagine if, instead of just packing on the freshman 15 and binge drinking every weekend, college students were also engaged in the pursuit of physical culture. Movement sessions before tests. Walking lectures. You can’t really stop the partying, but at least you can try to balance it out with some healthy physical activity.
The ability to move one’s body, to strengthen it, to extend its utility and improve its aesthetics is the most general human requirement of all. Higher education should not neglect it.
Medical school has a great “internship” system. You actually perform work as a doctor as part of your education. You do the thing you’re going through school to become. This is an obvious requirement when you’re training to save people’s lives and decide how to proceed on life or death matters, but I’d argue it belongs in all majors.
An internship would throw people straight into the fight to see who’s actually a good fit. Students who aren’t great students but excel actually doing the work in a realistic environment would rise to the top. Students who aren’t actually suited for the work would be identified and given the chance to switch paths before getting in too deep.
Make it more like technical or trade schools.
In a technical school, you get in to learn the skill or set of skills and get out. You’re there to learn a skill and prepare for a career. You’ll often have a job guarantee upon graduation. Employers have close relationships with the schools, both promoting and supporting the curriculum. This would work with other disciplines, too—not just car mechanics and computer technicians.
The “mystique” of the “college experience” is important, but not for everyone. Some people just want to learn a marketable skill and join the workforce.
I’m not going to go too deep into how we can reduce costs. There are entire books written on the subject, and I won’t try to squeeze it all in here. But the price of a college education has risen dramatically since I was applying and it’s either making college unaffordable for people who could thrive there or forcing people into assuming massive debt just to get a degree. Here are some ideas:
Make colleges accountable for some portion of student debt. If a graduate is 200k in the hole with no sign of being able to pay it back, the education they received probably wasn’t very good. A college should shoulder some of the load. This sounds “unfair” and would be at first but would incentivize better lending. This could go hand-in-hand with job guarantees—student doesn’t get a job within the allotted time frame, the school starts picking up some of the loan.
Eliminate unnecessary bureaucracy. An enormous portion of a college’s education budget goes toward paying administrators who have little to nothing to do with actually providing education. I’d love to see colleges become more spartan institutions, focusing on teaching and research rather than accruing an ever-growing population of administrators.
Alter government-backed loans. A government loan is a free license for colleges to continually raise tuition costs because the most powerful entity in the nation will always be there to pay for it. I would suggest implementing accountability measures on the shoulders of academic institutions who accept government-backed monies, and placing limits on tuition increases in a given timeframe. As it is, it remains largely unchecked.
Make it easier to start a university. Provide more supply and the price drops. A bonus is that it will also introduce more interesting, innovative institutions. I’m not talking about scam universities that take your money without providing a sufficient education. I’m referring to legitimate, accredited institutions. More of those.
Break it up?
Maybe colleges should be broken up into smaller schools that specialize in specific disciplines. Every major becomes its own technical school, perhaps loosely affiliated with other schools so that a student could take an elective in a different discipline if he or she so desired. I don’t know if that would eliminate the institutional bloat and inertia or just rearrange it under a different name, but I think it would be a step in the right direction.
As always, the devil is in the details. These are big picture items that would need to be fleshed out in a forum beyond the capacity of a blog post.
But one thing occurs to me as I read over this post: Maybe we should just blow the whole thing up and start all over. The university is ultimately a medieval institution—not in a bad sense, but in a different sense. It was created for a world that no longer exists, a world where knowledge was secret and bound up in physical tomes. If you wanted access to that knowledge, you had to enroll and be accepted. Today, knowledge is cheap, widely available from the comfort of your own pocket, yet the existence of the modern university still assumes the presence of secret knowledge only obtained through direct physical access to exclusive halls of learning.
Is college still relevant? I don’t know anymore. Can it be preserved? Probably, but it’ll have to change.
What do you think, folks? What would you change about higher education?
About the Author
Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.