Higher education is messed up. The incentives for learning and the structure of that learning is all wrong.
So what's this perspective? Well, let's define elements of this proposition. By "wrong", I mean "not conducive to the best mastery of the material" and by "structure of that learning", I'm talking about the overlap of classes — the simultaneous learning associated with taking more than one class during any one period of time. By "incentives", I mean "grades".
Grades suck. Just about every student who's been evaluated and given a letter to indicate achievement will agree: tears have been shed and jobs have been lost — careers ruined — because of a letter.
At grade-obsessed Cornell University, the grade is the entire reason anyone seems to do anything. High grades are rewarded and low grades are punished. But do grades actually measure the success and mastery of the material, or do they just exist to weed out "smart" from "stupid?" I'd argue that grades say nothing about true mastery. Rather, they say "I can take a test well," or "I can write you an essay you think is good." But they don't necessarily say, "I know this and understand every bit of it." Too often, students memorize but don't truly understand. Grades exacerbate this problem.
Teachers — at every level — should ask more questions which force students to synthesize their knowledge and understanding — and not bother trying to label the "success" or "failure" with a letter. These letters try to boil a student's worth down to an arbitrary orthographic symbol. We, the students, should learn by reading and asking questions. The more time we have alone with the material — for intraspection to develop true understanding — the more likely it is we will achieve true mastery. Until the teachers believe we have mastered the material, we must continue striving for understanding.
Structure is also a problem. We take up to 6 or 7 courses simultaneously. We ought to focus on just one and work through it until we have achieved true mastery. We must not be distracted by other things. We must immerse ourselves in the topic entirely for an extended period of time.
The simultaneous class system must go. Take a class, perhaps one every three or four weeks, and do not move on until you have mastered the course material. Once one has reached the mastery equivalent to that which the professor believes is true and perfect, then a new topic can be studied. Until then, we mustn't move on — mastery is the highest value of education.
A New System
This new system will guarantee that every student has the same level of mastery and develops a personal connection with the masters and the material. One topic at a time and commitment to mastery rather than arbitrary grades and skewed test results, this alternate system relies on the intuition of the master. Only the master can know when the student has achieved his or her potential.
Incentives are misaligned. Today's schooling is no longer about learning — it's about being told you're learning (often when you're not). It's time we realign incentives and strive to master the material.