The widget factory

A recent graduate, a friend of mine, likened his graduate school experience to a widget factory, where each student is a mass-produced commodity used for public consumption with economic value measured by grades and degrees. I was upset by this analogy, feeling objectified and reduced to a product in an economic system. I cannot be a widget. I am unique. My desire to feel special stems from years of hard work. These sentiments are understandable after eight years of post-secondary education and more than $400,000 of educational expenses. I want to feel comforted by my educational achievements and milestones.

My response to my peer’s statement tells me the essence of the underlying problem. The educational system teaches us to measure our self-worth by defined, fixed achievements and personal attributes: degrees, grades, honors and awards. Professional and graduate schools use these measures to admit students, pressuring students to adopt these values for their own motivation.

If one observes an 8-year-old in a music lesson, it’s obvious that children learn through playful experimentation and genuine curiosity. We are programmed to be curious. Curiosity is how we learn about our world, absorbing massive amounts of information in the first decade of life. The objective and performance-based measures in education gradually reduce children’s pure interest and curiosity in the world to linearly focused career training that does not adequately prepare them for the real world. On March 14, the Obama administration announced that the government is raising awareness about the lack of gainful employment for recent graduates from for-profit colleges, leading to high debt and low wages. College students wrongly think their degree and grades will be the key to their career success.

Linear thinking and objective-focused learning are resulting challenges from our modern higher education system that provides advanced training for the masses, a feat once unimaginable. Technological advancements in communication, production, agriculture and health care have given us the luxury to pursue lofty artistic, scientific and business feats through education and specialization. The massive growth in education in the last century has greatly increased our productivity as a society. These same fruits create new challenges that require reform in higher education. Large universities with tens of thousands of students no longer have the best capacity for fostering individualized learning and creativity for every student. Online courses and nontraditional colleges offer alternative options, but a degree does not guarantee transferable job skills or gainful employment.

Last June, the New York Times interviewed Laszlo Bock, senior vice president of people operations at Google, who said, “One of the things we’ve seen from all our data crunching is that GPAs are worthless as a criteria for hiring, and test scores are worthless — no correlation at all except for brand-new college grads, where there’s a slight correlation.” The process of learning, applying and transferring knowledge remains more significant than a degree label. Nevertheless, the focus of programs and students is still more on grades instead of learning itself.

It is never too late to adopt values for lifelong learning and personal development. People have the capacity for growth, given that their mindset is focused on the joys of learning and challenge, rather than the pressure of performance-based and objective measures. The power for reform lies with the individual. While the structure of education and the workplace motivates linear trajectories, the answer is in the mindsets of the students themselves. If a student can make connections and learn outside of the curriculum of a specific degree, then there is hope. All it takes is listening to your passions and developing all your interests. You want to be a doctor, great, but don’t discount the value of your literature courses, which develop your ability to empathize and critically analyze other points of view. Don’t forget the performing arts, which allow one to embody emotion and expression in a physical manner.

As college students, we may be widgets in some form or another, small components of a complex global economic machine, but nothing is stopping us from following our passions and nurturing our curiosities to invent new machinery with which we will improve our world.