What should colleges do?

Ben, a young entrepreneur who is pondering college, has an interesting post on the role of Colleges & Universities. Here’s a bit of his post:

This troubles me and I think there are a number of consequences. First and foremost it means our education system will be churning out people who are very specialized and focused on their one area. Just as public intellectuals and academics now specialize in the most narrow areas imaginable, students are getting put on this track too. This may mean you can be successful at that one career, but what if it’s not a passion? What if it gets boring? Being successful doesn’t make you an interesting person who has knowledge in a wide range of areas and thus will only take you so far up the totem pole. I believe going to college should be about intellectual stimulation, not which hoop to jump through next.

As someone who started college at 16 and graduate school at 20 with the single goal of becoming an academic PhD scientific researcher, I completely agree that this type of focus will lead to a very deep but narrow knowledge base. For some career paths (e.g. mine), this sort of training is essential to success, although as Ben says above, it may not make for generally interesting or knowledgeable people.

I am now teaching a required course for Honor’s Undergraduates in the Sciences. I will confess the students, all non-science majors, detest the fact that they must take a science series and further detest that they are required as Honor’s students to take a specific series. I understand their frustration with their lack of choices and the sheer number of requirements imposed on them. However, if we all stay in our comfort zones, and choose only those courses that are easy or interesting for us, there again will be serious gaps in knowledge.

For once, I think I disagree a bit with Ben. I think "college should be about intellectual stimulation," AND "which hoop to jump through next." Many students are in college as a means to enter graduate programs (pre-med, pre-law, pre-business school, etc). To achieve this goal, there will in fact be numerous hoops that must be jumped through. However, at the same time, it can also be about intellectual stimulation & the creation of a diverse base of knowledge. Do not succumb to the "tyranny of the OR" (shamelessly stolen from the excellent book Built to Last).

And finally, what if your chosen career path becomes boring or your skills become obsolete. My personal solution to this is to go back to school, acquire new skills, & fill in the gaps in the knowledge. It’s never too late.