The Problem with our Educational System

When I was 11 years old, my parents made the decision to move to the United States, so that I could get the education and have the opportunities that I needed in order to “land a solid job” and have “a stable career.” America is the land of opportunity in the minds of all immigrants; I thought this was going to be an exciting journey to for me, especially college. I thought I was going to learn about real-world problems and how to solve them. I thought I would develop a skill-set that I would be using in my future. I thought …

Going to college wasn’t even a question. High school was a joke as I coasted through my classes by simply memorizing facts and got into SJSU to study Computer Science. I didn’t have any prior programming experience; I was very excited to learn about programming and solving real world problems.

So I took my first Intro to Programming class and … long story short, I didn’t enjoy it. Not that I didn’t enjoy programming — I didn’t enjoy the class because I wasn’t learning the way I wanted to. I was learning about strings, conditionals, loops, arrays, but now what? What do I do? I was constantly learning more and more material and I thought to myself, “why am I not doing anything with this “pool” of knowledge that I’m being fed with”.

It’s like learning how to ride a bike and you’re attending lectures about how to ride a bike, how each part works, etc. And after 4 years, you get a degree on how to ride a bike, yet you still haven’t touched the bike. You can’t learn if you don’t physically ride the bike. You learn by doing, but I wasn’t doing anything.

College teaches theory — Companies want experience. If you’re a hiring manager and were looking for a candidate, would you pick Alan who has previous job experience in the industry or Joe, a fresh college graduate with no experience? Of course, you’d choose Alan because Alan would be able to provide value to your company right away. Degrees don’t translate well into the work field, experience does.

To get experience, you need a job, but to get a job, you need experience.

I understood why high school was all about memorization. In high school, you’re learning for the sake of learning, only because you need to have a basic understanding of things. However, I was expecting college to be more useful and practical. I was wrong. It turns out that our educational system has become nothing more than memorization and regurgitation. Students are just practicing rote memorization to pass their tests for letter grades. Grades, which will likely have no effect on their actual success in life.

Our educational system is a bureaucracy that forces learning and inhibits curiosity. Students miss classes, not because they’re not learning enough, but because they’re not learning about the things that matter to them. When we (college students) study for things that don’t matter to us, we put them in our temporary storage and erase it right after the midterms/finals. So what’s the point of spending time on something to forget it right away?

It’s like learning how to ride a bike and you’re attending lectures about how to ride a bike, how each part works, etc. And after 4 years, you get a degree on how to ride the bike, yet you still haven’t touched the bike yet.

As the finals week of the semester is approaching, libraries are filling up with students, cramming for their finals and pulling all-nighters. They’re spending all of that time studying for things that, perhaps, don’t have a significant value to them, other than a letter grade, which I guess “defines your intelligence.” Just imagine if students spent their time on things they’re actually curious about, things that they enjoy doing and building things that would improve lives. If college students had more freedom to do this, we could have a more positive impact on the world.

Many of my classmates and friends that I’ve talked to believe that they’re spending money that they don’t have, on education that they’re not getting, learning things that don’t correlate with their dreams.

If there’s anything that I like about college, it’s the opportunity to meet like-minded people and network. People who have similar aspirations and goals to make a global impact, yet all of my friends that I look up to find no real value in college either (other than networking).

And even then, networking is hard in college when you have papers, assignments, and projects due every other day. If I hadn’t taken advantage of networking opportunities, I wouldn’t be where I am today (still got a very long way to go). Let alone networking, students don’t even time to work on side projects or read the books they want because they’re spending time learning things they don’t care about honestly.

Students miss classes, not because they’re not learning enough, but because they’re not learning about the things that matter to them.

I’ve learned things, not by sitting in my classes, listening to professors or doing homework assignments, but by building useful applications on the side. The projects that I’ve worked on and the internships that I’ve gotten are all results of self-learning and networking. I still have so much to learn, none of which I’ll be taught in college. A stranger messaged me on Facebook a few months ago and said that he’s been using one of the apps that I’ve made for his projects and I felt like I was doing something right. I was able to help someone by doing building applications they could use.

If I’m supposed to be learning outside the class, then why am I even in college? We live in an era where information is right at our fingertips with this amazing thing we call the “Internet”. There are so many online courses you can take. Whether it’s learning how to code or how to grow your business with marketing strategies or how to design. RIGHT AT YOUR FINGERTIPS. There are open courses from Harvard, Stanford, Berkeley, MIT online that you could learn from, FOR FREE!!

Instead, college needs to be a human accelerator that drives innovation, enthusiasm, and excitement among its students. It should teach students how to take risks, how to innovate, how to become better human beings, how to make a difference, yet it is paradoxical the way our educational system is setup. The best way to learn something is to try doing it over and over again. Colleges need to be a place where students fail iteratively with real world projects (Here’s a case study done by Sam Houston State University on Project-based learning in higher education).

Like one of the newest connections I made, Tam Pham (a wonderful and humble guy), said in his Medium post:

Instead of focusing on classes, why not have young people working on a real problem? Have teachers guide them along the way (mentorship) and have students fail again and again until they succeed (experience)?

I agree, 100%. Why can’t we (college students) work on some real world problems and learn that way? Sure going in, not everyone is going to have the skill-set to immediately make an impact, however, that’s exactly where professors (mentors) come into play to guide you. The only way I’ve built and learned things is by failing, not sitting in my classes listening to my professors and copying from the whiteboard. That’s memorization, not learning. If you don’t fail, you don’t learn. Most students don’t fail (or fail enough) because they don’t try enough.

The master has failed more than the beginner has even tried.

One of my friends tried to create his own internet startup and he stumbled upon a networking/security problem that he couldn’t figure out. He, then, looked up a professor that taught the class and went to his office hours and had an hour long discussion about the topic. Not to generalize, but average Joe in that Networking and Security class wouldn’t be able to go up to the professor with a specific problem like that. Actually, Joe probably doesn’t like the class. He’s being fed with so much material that he’s going to forget most of it by the end of the semester because he doesn’t know when he’s going to use it.

Professors in college have industry knowledge and experience that student could benefit from — they are our point of resource and our mentors on campus. However, professors are underutilized in the current collegiate education system. Since the system places more emphasis on passing memorization based tests than it does on learning, students have no need and no motivation to interact with their professors.

I tried to create my own startup with a friend of mine that I first met at SJSU Startup Weekend event, Ameya, during my freshmen year and both of us were newbies at startups. Of course, we gave up too easily and failed, however just going through the entire process of creating a business, talking to customers, doing interviews, and learning what it takes to build something valuable has taught me more than college has so far.

College should be an eco-center for innovation and creativity, yet that’s exactly what it doesn’t do due to its poor structure. To graduate college, I must take x, y and z, but I don’t care about the x’s and the y’s. I’m never going to need to know about them in my life. Steve Jobs said something very powerful in his Stanford’s 2005 commencement speech (which I highly recommend you watch):

Because I had dropped out and didn’t have to take the normal classes, I decided to take a calligraphy class to learn how to do this. I learned about serif and sans-serif typefaces, about varying the amount of space between different letter combinations, about what makes great typography great. It was beautiful, historical, artistically subtle in a way that science can’t capture, and I found it fascinating.

Jobs dropped out and attended the classes that he actually was curious about. The rest is history. Why don’t we allow students to attend classes that they’re curious about? If I want to take a class about Social Media Marketing, Financial Accounting, or Animation Fundamentals, I can’t do that because I’m not a business major or design major — I’m a Computer Science major. If I want to take those classes, I MUST minor in it (Goodbye 4-year plan and hello student debt).

I feel trapped inside my dorm room every day because college isn’t what I wished it was. I really wish college was about finding your passion — I really wish college sparked curiosity. College has helped me grow as an individual and through experiences, I’m not saying it’s pointless. However, there needs to be a change, because as it is, it is disengaging the bright and aspiring students that want to make an impact.

Just imagine college as a human accelerator. Instead of a rigid structure, imagine allowing students to pursue coursework and take classes they’re curious about. An institution where students work on real-world projects they want to work on to improve the lives of others, with your professors, as mentors, to guide you. An institution that help students to invest time in themselves to become a better leader, a better speaker, and a better person. An institution that encourages collaboration which drives creativity, innovation, and enthusiasm. That’s the college I always imagined to be.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once had a dream — today, I have a dream.

Originally posted on https://narulakeshav.com and on LinkedIn. Check out my personal portfolio, some of the projects, and the Twitter case study I’ve worked on.