A Rant on the State of Education
Photo courtesy of mer chau.

A Rant on the State of Education

Written by Emilie

Topics: Education

For the last two months, I’ve been taking General Chemistry at a local community college here in Chicago. It’s interesting, being back in school after several years. For one thing, you realize that not everyone is as enthusiastic about learning as you are– maybe not even the teacher.

I dove in with such vigor, only to be met with a very slow-paced, rote teaching style. But not one to be discouraged, I pushed on, absorbing (and enjoying) what I could.

I made a game of memorizing the periodic table and simultaneously got the tune of the can-can stuck in my mastermind members’ heads for five days. “There’s hydrogen and helium, lithium, beryllium, boron, carbon everywhere, nitrogen up in the air…”

So yes, I was having a fun time with this stuff, though the structure was making me doubt my choice.

Does school interfere with learning?

(Insert Mark Twain quote here. You know the one.)

Educational institutions have served me well over the years. That is, my weird little alternative high school and the small, interdisciplinary communications program I took in undergrad. These places were perfect fits for me. The average school? Not so much.

Multipotentialites love to learn, and maybe self-study or MOOCs are the best ways of going about this. But sometimes you just want a real life community, a teacher to guide you (with some passion), homework assignments, and a place to GO that involves putting on actual pants and venturing outside.

There are art schools that open their doors to the public and allow anyone to enroll (this place is about a 20 minute walk from my apartment). You can pay a small fee and take an 8-week printmaking class, for example. But even getting to take an introductory chemistry class required me to re-learn high school algebra and take an asinine English placement exam. That’s on top of a ton of bureaucracy that made the whole process even slower and $500 in tuition.

If there’s anything I took away from this experience it’s that it’s really hard to just casually take a science class.

Why is it that you can’t learn about science or math or engineering in a similarly casual manner as you can art? Are these the “serious” disciplines that are not open to “dabblers”? Or is there a lack of demand?

My sense is that it’s the former. One can casually try painting, but to take a physics class, a field that requires true intelligence and commitment? This is not something that we want people to be able to do easily or whimsically.

This protective attitude around the sciences prevents outsiders from stepping in, and it is a problem.

It’s a problem for multipotentialites and it’s a problem for anyone who values curiosity and learning. It also holds the discipline back from evolving, since cross-fertilization is essential for innovation.

How cool would it be to have a school where you could casually enroll in any subject? (Again, MOOCs are great, but I’m talking about something in real life). A school where you could take a linear algebra class for fun? But also where you could take a class in construction or herbology or anthropology?

I don’t know if I will be the one to start such a movement, but someone should do it. Maybe they already are. I just know that here, in a massive city like Chicago, this was the only option I was able to find.

Your Turn

What has been your experience going back to school or trying to take classes outside of your major? Did you face a lot of resistance and bureaucracy?

em_authorbioEmilie Wapnick is the Founder and Creative Director at Puttylike, where she helps multipotentialites integrate ALL of their interests into their lives. Unable to settle on one path herself, Emilie studied music, art, film production and law, graduating from the Law Faculty at McGill University. She is an occasional rock star, a paleo-friendly eater and a wannabe scientist. Learn more about Emilie here.


  1. Beth says:

    Interesting post, Emilie. Funny, I am taking a printmaking class to go with my latest interests! I’m finding myself to be the annoying older student who is too gung-ho. I have not yet made up a song, though!

    I do hear you about how science classes for fun are much harder to get into. I do want to mention a lot of great computer science and machine learning classes online at MIT and Stanford with few barriers to entry. Yes, you don’t have to pull on pants, but it’s a great option.

    Keep up the good work with your site. You have given me much confidence to own who I am as an economist, reformed attorney, jewelry maker, inspirational conference organizer, and graphic designer!

    • Emilie says:

      Haha thanks for the comment, Beth. I don’t think I’m quite the “older gung ho student,” at least not outwardly. I didn’t write a song, just used one I found on Youtube to help me memorize the periodic table. And I did not sing it for anyone in the class. Ha. We have that person in our class too, and she is super annoying. :)

  2. Catherine says:

    I have tried start my post-Bachelor’s education at 2 community colleges – in fact, one in the Chicago burbs! :) I found it ridiculously difficult to jump through all the hoops (needed a lot of pre-req’s because I was able to take a lot of unusual classes at my college instead of the standard ones) and many of the classes were boring and had terrible teachers. A lot of students were rude and disruptful or were soley focused on getting the minimum of info for the tests. Even online courses have a lot of busy work – why can’t we get credit for when science is fun to learn? There are lot’s of resources out there, but not in school. If the activities of STEM were open-source, the world would be a better place.

    • Emilie says:

      Sounds like we had very similar experiences, Catherine. I wonder if this is particularly difficult in Chicago for some reason, or if it’s just as bad in other places.

  3. Andrea says:

    Emilie, quick question to address your frustration with science taught at the community college level: what is it that interests you about science? Are you interested in learning how to apply the scientific method or more interested in learning science facts that have been discovered using the scientific method?

    • Emilie says:

      I think my main interest is to understand how the body works. I’m particularly interested in functional medicine because it’s played a big role in my life, personally. I’ve done a lot of research on my own about specific conditions but I find that I lack a general understanding of basic scientific principles. I would love to take biochem, but to take that you need bio and chemistry prereqs. Not that I don’t find chemistry interesting in and of itself.

  4. Evelin says:

    yes! I feel exactly the same way! I recently started being interested in math and science again so I signed up for some classes. I did try a Chicago community school and dropped it after two weeks. I had the same experience…teacher only semi-cares and lot’s of bureaucracy about the structure of class. How is online interaction on “Blackboard” helpful to chem? Why do I have to make a minimum of three responses? Why is it even offered as an online course? Not only is the material dense but you need to see experiments happen with your own eyes. At the university level it is better I think, because the professors do care and love to talk to you about the matter, no matter how basic. (oohhh) Sadly there are still the students that are disrespectful during class and it pains me to see the look on the professors face. He already mentioned talking is rude and disruptive but that only encourages people to be more disrespectful. I still wonder how any first time higher education student get’s their gen ed’s done at a community college.

    So I guess that was a rant in response.

    Anyway, glad other people see it too. And yes! STEM classes should be more available. Some of us are curious about how machines work.

  5. Saul says:

    I completely agree! I’ve had my share of unfulfilling educational experiences over the years, from film school (which was a great place to learn some technical skills and leadership, but not much else), to yoga teacher training (which was a fascinating physical education regimen buried in mysticism). My current sense is that it’s best to pick and choose individual courses based on the value you’ll gain from them, and not on the specific credential you’ll end up with. I’m tired of guilting myself over rewarding educational experiences (“should I go to WDS this year?”) when my traditional college education cost me far more and taught me far less.

    • Emilie says:

      It’s interesting that you found this to be true in other disciplines as well. I agree with you. Personal value should be our motivating factor. I guess what’s so disappointing is when the value you get from a particular experience is far less than you were expecting. I guess you can’t know that till you go for it though.

      (btw you will not regret WDS. :)

  6. Josh says:

    My experience with Portland Community College has been really positive. For me personally I have trouble doing things like teaching myself html and css. A class forces me to learn it by giving me traditional assignments and deadlines. And through the marketing class I met some awesome people in the local scene.

    As for dabbling, my dad likes to do math for a hobby…why? I have no idea…

    School has actually been a challenge for me. But you think it moves too slow you can challenge a lot of classes. Jay Cross at do-it-yourself degree has a program that helps people with the process of challenging and moving faster. For me personally it’s going just fast enough. :-)

  7. Andrea says:

    The challenge with science/math is that mastery is predicated on previous knowledge/pre-requisites (e.g., we can’t really perform advanced math until we understand basic arithmetic; the same could be said of writing–we need to learn the alphabet first). Science is also learning and understanding a vast collection of facts about the known universe (the blacks). Grad school is where all the grappling with the more complicated questions occurs (the grays). Incidentally, graduate school and the sciences were born of the monastic tradition–not exactly the most multipotentialite-friendly pedagogy. That doesn’t mean, however, that improvements can’t be made!

    I’m not a DaVinci scholar, but it is probably reasonable to say that he built his scientific aptitude over a very long period (perhaps not all at once or even exclusively, but gradually over time). I strongly believe that multipotentialites have much to offer science and are important to advance all fields. But without an accumulation and firm understanding of the body of knowledge that undergirds the sciences, which realistically is accumulated through a degree of commitment to the discipline over time, the contribution could be limited.

    Perhaps this challenge of commitment and discipline is what could be fulfilling to a multipotentialite–a sort of stretch goal. But of course, only trying it on and seeing if it is a good fit, even through some rough patches, will give that individual the information needed to know whether or not it is fulfilling on the whole.

    Of course, there are still many ways for multipotentialites to contribute and be involved in activities such as citizen science which are important enterprises in the field. There is an entire culture around science (and law/medicine) that is very much wrapped up in seeing peers go through the same ‘suffering’ as they have and appears to simply be “hierarchical hazing” that is actually detrimental to the practice.

    However, at its core, fundamental knowledge and skills in science are built around concepts that are, just simply, challenging. Without the mastery of those building blocks, it can be hard to build a house. Da Vinci’s genius necessitated mastery.

    • Rene says:

      I second this. I am trained in science and have been watching the way science progresses, especially in terms of education. I have also been taking a whole lot of arts courses (local continuing education courses), and, while art allows you to dabble and learn one technique first, then another, or the other way around, science and math are often built one concept on top of another. Organic chemistry is built on advanced chemistry, which is built on basic chemistry, for example. Useful linear algebra often involves quite a bit of calculus, which is built on everything from geometry and trigonometry to basic maths, etc. You can teach yourself the basics to get to the more advanced stuff, but if you don’t you can get hopelessly lost.

      That being said, here you can take basic chemistry, astronomy, etc. classes for a nominal affordable price with the continuing education courses. Higher-level stuff are usually not available with them because of lack of interest. (Most people take organic chemistry because they have to, not because they want to torture themselves – it’s a notoriously difficult class.) You can get higher level classes at local community colleges and such, but it will cost you. It’s the same as arts courses (I looked) – the more advanced the things you want to learn, the more you will have to pay, because you’re not going to find that kind of advanced education at continuing ed.

    • Emilie says:

      Really valid point, Andrea. I hear you. For me, personally, the basic classes are all I’m looking for. And yet, they were still incredibly hard to get into for a variety of reasons (they wouldn’t accept my Canadian transcripts, I had to re-learn high school algebra, do an English placement test…). I got discouraged more than once and end up pushing it nearly a year, and now I end up with an incredibly dispassionate teacher and a whole lot more bureaucracy.

      But I hear your point about the cumulative nature of science. I do think that there could be a middle ground. I’ve experienced it actually. I’ve learned an incredible amount about how the body works from “casual” sources like Chris Kresser‘s podcast and books like this one. They are what left me wishing I had a stronger grasp of the basics and what led me to seek out introductory science classes. But I do think that there’s a way for scientific concepts to be explained in a way that is clear and more inclusive, without dumbing things down too much. I think there’s space for that.

      • Ben says:

        I’d like to add a corollary to Andrea & Rene’s point about STEM being built one idea on top of the next: the people* who are truly passionate about their chosen subject(s) will eventually reach the top of the pyramid of blocks, and probably start doing research at a big research university. They still “have to” teach intro classes – but only some of them see it as a burden. I took a couple intro math classes from a guy who … let’s just say it seemed like he was taking a break from teaching Advanced Evil Robotics 501, just to gush at us about how cool math was. I haven’t taken anything at a community college, but everything I hear about teacher motivation (or student motivation) has been negative.

        Oh, and I’m fairly certain that community colleges lean so heavily on the online bureaucracy because they’re desperately scrambling to make the most of MOOC-esque technology, to get the best bang-for-buck. Along the way, they’re basically experimenting – not always with good results. That kind of useless bureaucracy has been light or nonexistent at university, in my experience.

        What I’m trying to say is, you might have much better luck with auditing freshman-level courses at a mid-to-large university, if you are willing/able to part with the bigger tuition check.

        *Yeah, most of the people who go that far are NOT multipotentiates, but there are exceptions. For example: in college I double-majored in Math (concentration in engineering), Computer Science (concentration in networking), and minored in physics. I’m currently pursuing a PhD in Aerospace Engineering (“the jack-of-all-trades of engineering”); last year, when I got burnt out on that subject, I distracted myself learning computational neuroscience. When I get my final degree, I intend to transition to researching AI and/or artificial life and/or automated design (using AI to design things). I’m basically a techie multipotentiate. Then again, all that came at the expense of NOT doing any creative writing (beyond logging ideas in a journal), not nearly enough travel, etc., etc. It really does take a huge time commitment.

      • Andrea says:

        Hi Emilie,

        Thanks for sharing some more detail about your interests. Functional medicine (aka Holistic/Integrative medicine in the U.S.) is gaining a lot of mainstream popularity. And maybe I’m wrong, but maybe what could help you understand the concepts better is actually learning some of the medical language.

        If you talk to any scientist, they will likely tell you that learning just some basic latin and greek roots will carry you well. If you learned just 10 a week, in about 6 weeks you’d have a nice set to decode a lot with. As you probably know, law is another language too and once we get a handle on the semantics, it flows a lot smoother.

        Learning the basics of science if they interest you is absolutely worthwhile–and I think you are right that MOOCS can help fill that gap for the casual lifelong learner (if it’s new to you, check out Yale Medical Center’s list of free online offerings on integrative medicine: http://medicine.yale.edu/integrativemedicine/education/resources.aspx). I believe the Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine is Andrew Weil’s project.

        Having a good teacher can make a HUGE difference and I feel your pain on this one. Nevertheless, if you can also add to core instruction a basic understanding of the scientific method & statistics (legal analysis skills are compatible here) you may find that it helps with getting a much firmer grip on some of the concepts and, probably most importantly, which research deserves your time and attention.

        Hope this helps in finding some more fulfillment in your science odyssey :)

  8. Tania says:

    I’ve tried to finish some courses on Coursera, but I failed. I need more motivation, I think. And I wish I could enroll in any subject I want. But unfortunately our educational system requires to take general courses that are mostly not useful in real life.

  9. Jocelyn says:

    May I ask why you’re taking chemistry? I think the educational system is pretty crazy, in general. It’s such a commitment and scary for kids and adults these days :(

  10. Jennifer says:

    YES! So relevant.

    I graduated with a BFA in fine arts. I’ve done some continuing education since and I find it very frustrating.

    I took some post bac classes at a 4 year univerity, Chemistry in Sculpture. The sculpture class was awesome, the chemistry class was ok, huge lecture hall type situation. The professor was decent. It was WAY overpriced though, but hey I was trying to be useful while I was unemployed and a little lost.

    I am now taking 2 classes at a community college, a Project Management and a Principles of Management class. I understand you don’t get the same “level” as a 4 years school, but I was hoping to at least benefit from the academic environment again. Not so much. Super dry! I feel like I could have gotten more out of the subject by reading a book or listening to a TED talk, but would really love to learn with a group of people, and even in person if possible. I have been considering an MBA, since I am interested in the subject, but it would be a huge commitment and Im not sure it would really be worth my investment in the long run since I don’t really want to be an exec at someone else’s company…

    I wish colleges were more open to the idea of continuing education and saw it as a $$ opportunity, not just a halfhearted offer.

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