Late learners

Our education system may turn out way too many “dummies,” writes Robert J. Samuelson in the Washington Post. But our informal, ad hoc “learning system” helps us succeed anyhow. Samuelson is talking about “community colleges; for-profit institutes and colleges; adult extension courses; online and computer-based courses; formal and informal job training; self-help books.”

First, it provides second chances. It tries to teach people when they’re motivated to learn — which isn’t always when they’re in high school or starting college. People become motivated later for many reasons, including maturity, marriage, mortgages and crummy jobs . . .

Second, it’s job-oriented. Community colleges provide training for local firms and offer courses to satisfy market needs . . .

Up to a point, you can complain that this system is hugely wasteful. We’re often teaching kids in college what they should have learned in high school — and in graduate school what they might have learned in college. Some of the enthusiasm for more degrees is crass credentialism. Some trade schools prey cynically on students’ hopes and spawn disappointment. But these legitimate objections miss the larger point: The American learning system accommodates people’s ambitions and energies — when they emerge — and helps compensate for some of the defects of the school system.

Stuart Buck also writes about the value of formal vs. on-the-job education. He asks: What would you need to know to open and run a McDonald’s? You won’t learn it in school — except, of course, for Hamburger University.

About Joanne


  1. The largest factor other than my lack of discipline or study habits which contributed to my flunking out of engineering school was that my high school trigonometry teacher was totally incompetent and I graduated without understanding that basic prerequisite. A decade later, when I started doing real world structural design (what little I’d absorbed in engineering school helped) it took my boss half a day to teach me how to use trigonometry as a tool.

  2. It’s true that most jobs involve a lot of information specific to the job. But there is also a body of knowledge and skills required by most activities in business. You need to be able to read and understand complicated documents, and to write clearly and persuasively. You need to be able to speak in public, and to make logical arguments while doing so. You need to be able to think clearly about cause-and-effect and to evaluate evidence, including quantitative evidence. All of these thinks fall under the heading of what was once termed “liberal education.”

    Hamburger University isn’t going to be able to teach someone how to get permits from the local government if that someone can’t read and interpret the documents he receives from said local government. GE Crotonville is going to have a hard time teaching someone about Six Sigma if he doesn’t understand basic math.

  3. Walter E. Wallis says:

    Having designed a kitchen or so in my career, I agree with the need for understanding and reading to get a restaurant approved. My last job fell out because a neighbor objected to the possibility of an occasional cooking odor. I used to say it took me five years to learn to write like an engineer, and 25 years to learn not to.

  4. georgelarson says:

    Hamburger U was not about the processes of zoning, construction permits, marketing, advertising, construction or design of facilities or food science. McDonalds contracts out the functions or has specialsts who are Hanburger U graduates with additonal outside specialized training and degrees. A long time ago it required these specialists to spend time working in restautants for a few days every year. I do not know how it is now. Hamburger U is how to manage a restaurant. I think Whopper College is the same.

    It is a lot more difficult for a smart high school kid to get beyond a restaurant manager position than it was in the 70s when I was involved.

  5. Indigo Warrior says:

    Back to the original point: community colleges (and the like) are not so much second chances, but first chances for their target clientele, many of whom missed their wasteful 12-year sentence that should have been their first chance.

    It tries to teach people when they’re motivated to learn — which isn’t always when they’re in high school or starting college.


    People become motivated later for many reasons, including maturity, marriage, mortgages and crummy jobs . .

    Or maybe, unlike the public K-12 schools, the community colleges treat the students like students, not inmates.

    Community colleges, unlike government K-12, don’t give a whit about chronological age, or force students into certain activities or roles based on such. They also lack the political correctness of academic colleges and universities.

  6. So, to what extent should we allow our educational system to continue in its present form, consuming an ever growing amount of resources?

    In my state, you can continue in most community colleges (at very low out-of-pocket cost) without making progress toward a degree. Does this serve anyone well?

    Old engineering motto: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” But the corollary to this must say that we need to fix our educational system, not just continue doing more of the thing that has failed.

  7. I am currently a student a my local technical college. I was the classic underachiever in High School 18 years ago, stellar test scores and a terrible GPA, which led me to a career in the Air Force. Now at 36 I have learned my lesson and plan on going to University full time for a degree in Engineering after my retirement in three years. In the mean time, I am able to knock out most of my general education requirements at the local college on a schedule that works with my full time job. If it wasn’t for the local 2-year school, my education would continue to be put on hold.