Friday, November 6, 2009

Stoplights and Freeways. Part 1

Turns out the "road of life" is a pretty good metaphor. On the real road, the one you drive on every day, there are stoplights and freeways. You essentially have two choices if you want to go somewhere. You can take the side roads and pass through multiple stoplights or you can take the freeway. Both have advantages and disadvantages.

Stoplights are slow, every time you have to stop at one you're actually stopping because you need to make a decision. Will you drive straight, turn, or even flip around? The great part is that the choice is all yours, nobody can make that decision for you, but it comes with a heavy cost. The more stoplights, the slower you go. Sure you can get to your destination with pinpoint accuracy, but its a slow road if its far away.

That's why we invented the freeway system. Freeways get us roughly where we want to go, but much, much faster. You see, the speed comes from the fact that there are limited choices. You can take the I-15 to the I-80 to the I-215 if you want to get to Cottonwood Heights, but you could just as easily take the I-15 to the I-215. Both are about the same speed but there are only two ways. However, they are both very fast and are much faster than taking the stoplight approach.

These concepts make a great metaphor for life. If success or happiness or freedom is our destination then we have many ways to get there. Since the topic of this blog for the moment is about higher education, we'll use that as an example. So in that, we have a freeway, which is college. College is a freeway because it is considered the expressway to success and to a career. College is fast, and in general gets us where we want to go...

...except sometimes it doesn't. Sometimes it takes us to places very different than we thought it would. I think there are multiple reasons why this could be and why many graduates finish their college career lost and confused, not to mention college dropouts who recognize this confusion earlier on (oh, we of little faith). If we look at a freeway, which college is one, we can see that it's basically a set path with limited alternatives. You can get on and off at certain places but there is much less choice involved than in the stoplight approach. So you have people getting on wherever they get on and people getting off wherever they get off.

The first problem with the freeway is in its form. A set path rarely gets people where they want to go. In Salt Lake City for example, our  real freeway system is mostly limited to the upper east quadrant of the valley, making it slow-going anywhere west and south. In life, college does this same thing. For those of us that don't enjoy or want to make a career out of academia (e.g. Accounting, Law, Medicine, Teaching) the college system has little to offer us but a piece of paper and a pat on the head. It simply doesn't get us where we want to go, so we find ourselves graduated or dropped-out with a long path ahead of us still. I've uploaded a shoddy diagram to illustrate:

Yes, the "system" doesn't actually look this simple, but give me a break, I made it in Paint! On the actual college "freeway", there are definitely multiple paths, and differing destinations, though not as many as there are stoplights.

People will argue with this I'm sure, but those of us that feel this way know why its true.  It's because the system isn't catering to us, nor is it actually leading to education or learning, not the way it needs to be. It's catering to the academics that hold the institution together because it's their institution and that's the way it's always been. *** edited***The academics have no reason to change the "system" because it helps them get to where they want to go. I'm not saying that we shouldn't include them in the new system, but it shouldn't be all about them.*** edited***

*excerpt from future post* 

"Academics vs Administrators. This is a big one that I'm surprised I overlooked. I remember many professors that despised the way the system worked and many that hated homework and papers as much as I did. Partly because they didn't want to grade them (ha ha), but also because they felt it didn't contribute to learning. Learning should happen in the classroom. I identify with this a lot and almost feel ashamed that I put the blame on the academics. By academics I really meant the administrators, and those academics that do like the system the way it is because it keeps them their job. So really there would be more than one type of academic and lumping them into one category was a mistake on my part. This will likely be my next blog post and I intend to edit the one where this was posted."

*this is the end of the editors comments*

As you can see from the above diagram, some of us have destinations in life that would actually be better reached by (currently) not even thinking about the "freeway". In my mind, these typically involve the arts, creativity, entrepreneurship, innovation, and non-mainstream sports (e.g. tennis, golf, ping-pong, sumo wrestling(maybe)). There are schools out there for these things, but the main idea behind these areas is the more you try and, yes, the more you fail, the better you'll get and the more you'll learn. (These areas cannot be standardized; not if you want to be exceptional.) The real learning in these areas does not come from books, but from experience. And the books that do give you insight are not the books they give you in school. I commend the school that is passing out books by Seth Godin and Jim Collins. I'm sure they exist, but it's not the mainstream. Not to mention you may have just paid several hundred to several thousand dollars to buy a book you could have picked up for $20 at Barnes & Noble.

A summary of points:

  • "the road of life" is a pretty good metaphor. What others can you think of?
  • Stoplights are great when you need a decision, but if you don't they just slow you down.
  • Freeways sometimes get us where we want to go, fast and painless, but they are somewhat boring and you could fall asleep at the wheel... and sometimes they don't
  • The college "freeway" is basically a set path. It gets some people where they want to go but not all.
  • If you're an academic and really like college then that's fine... for you. But for the rest of us, we need a change.
  • Never stop learning. Learning doesn't stop with college, nor does it start with it. It starts with you.
  • I paint better than I draw in Paint.

This is merely the start of this conversation. I have more to follow, but for your sake, I'll keep this one short and post more on this next time. No story today, sorry. =D


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