Education, It's Personal

What I Didn’t Get Out of My B.A.

A personal experience sheds light on the flaws in our education system.

In doing my graduate school applications I’ve been forced to take a look back at my undergraduate education, in more detail than I expected, from the professors who knew me to the textbooks we used. Also unexpected were the feelings that have been stirred up by this. I got a lot of fantastic things out of my undergrad years: quantitative and technical skills, some critical thinking, bureaucratic navigational skills, leadership development, and a good amount of fun.

But looking back at the gaps, I see where I missed out or found it difficult. I speak more specifically of my economics degree, but they could easily be applied to other fields and at other institutions. I could talk about everything missing from my undergraduate education, but we’d be here a while, or this might need to be a series.

Not enough work with data. I don’t know why I had to take electives and do an optional paper to get hands-on work with data. We did so much theory that in the end I only knew how to draw graphs–which is fine, it’s great, actually, but is that all that should come of an entire major, especially one as potentially rich as economics? There was only one required econometrics course, and only recently required. And yet students generally complained about having the requirement at all. Why complain? I thought. This is pretty much the only thing you may use in real work!

A dearth of papers. The department’s offering were very focused on tests; you had to be able to regurgitate the information too frequently. I think tests are fine, but one sign of actually understanding the material is being able to argue it coherently in a piece of writing. Especially when it comes to economics; economists do nothing but write papers. In addition, a paper is a product that a graduate can wave around saying “Look what I did, employer/grad school/Mom!” When a course was more focused on discussion of issues, in one class, a professor just ranted to us each class, and expected us to regurgitate this information on tests verbatim (literally, we would get points off if we used the incorrect wording). At least have us regurgitate it in a complete piece, on a current, real issue.

A complete lack of discussion. There are so many interesting, pressing topics in economics today. Globalization, trade, and finance. Government in the economy. Financial markets. Experimental and behavioral economics. The department didn’t do a great job of encouraging discussion among students; the focus on test-taking was a huge part of the problem. We acted like STEM majors when we weren’t, and when our topic had much more direct relevance to the social discourse. (And even CS majors and engineers often talked about their fields more.)

There are important caveats to the above complaints. One, is that not much better can be expected from a research university; it’s likely some of the above are better at a liberal arts college. The second is that the department appears to be making some changes to get students more involved. Too often it’s been seen as a pseudo business major, and I can see they’re trying to change that culture. Third, I was able to amend a lot of the above to make the most out of the education.

That said, no one should have to be that much of a nerd to get these very relevant, useful things. It took me weeks to find a professor that would supervise my honors thesis paper, and I was an outlier for even pursuing one. I was an outlier for pursuing programming skills. I was an outlier for even caring about the subject. Now why, at a school as good as that, should I have been an outlier? And let’s be clear, I got very decent grades. I did just fine doing the tests. But that never felt like enough.

I didn’t get a B.A. I got a half-assed B.S. (that’s Science, but you get the double meaning). I don’t think these things are especially unique to my undergraduate education. We spend a lot of time, money, stress, and lack of sleep on these degrees, and often they turn out to be neither maximally useful or insightful. Often, they’re not good at preparing us for employment, research, or just being better human beings. We might need an overhaul or two.


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