Here’s Your Box: The Dismal Nature of Higher Education

How often have we begged, pleaded, or cajoled our students, “You have to think OUTSIDE the BOX!”

I know I have. But, a couple of years ago, I got tired of using this aphorism (link: “Destroy the Box”). More contemplation led me to believe this is really a weak proposition. Last week, I came to the conclusion I was correct, and The System is not helping, not really evening paying attention to endemic and entrenched inefficiencies which continue to impose “In the Box” thinking upon our student populations. I have two somewhat related examples to support my contention.

A week ago, I gathered some interested faculty and staff at a local cafe and deli. I invited 16 folks from across campus to meet and discuss the interest in developing some MakerLab-type sites on campus. Eight were in attendance, and others gave their RSVP. I knew from many conversations over the last two years several faculty were doing things with RaspberryPi and Arduino, were building little educational robots, programming them to carry out simply tasks, engaging some students, writing mobile apps for Android and iOS, and such. I recognized there was a lack of communication on campus about these projects, that some of the faculty I spoke with had no idea what was going on outside their college, unless they actively went out and explored. A few did, actually, and had initiated some relationships, but there was no real concerted effort to discover what was going on across campus in terms of STEM-based projects, research or activities.

Knowing STEM is a “hot” topic now, and education is trying to push STEM education into the student populations, to entice females and minorities into STEM fields, I elected to try to improve the communication of STEM activities on my campus. Personally, I feel compelled to help people make a better life for themselves, their families, with the idea this will improve our neighborhoods, personal relationships, race relationships, and create a better and more educated electorate, resulting in better state and national leadership. Yep, I’m both idealistic and naive. I’ve heard that my entire life. And?



OK, I’m working from another idealistic philosophy students need exposure to a wide variety of topics, information, field, disciplines, and experiences. Furthermore, I don’t think they should have to wait until after graduation to begin gaining a diverse experience. Students will be much more valuable and employable by gaining early exposure to working with wildlife biologists, chemists, physicists, computer programmers, designers, graphic artists, engineers, and geographers.

To be able to gain this experience, students need to be put in contact with experience people in representing these fields and disciplines.

But, here is how Higher Education works. A person applies to college, is accepted, is enrolled, registers for classes. Then, after a year or two, the student has to “pick a major and minor, or area of study.” I pointed this out at our deli meeting. “Universities want to push this notion of developing critical thinkers; then we tell students to “pick your box,” and then they live in that box the rest of their college career, unless they double-major, or change major a lot.” This elicited a few chuckles.

Here’s your box.

Colleges and universities require students to pick a major and minor, or area of study, at a certain point in order to graduate. So, let’s think about this:

After a semester, or two, (or, in my case, five) a student has to make a plan, pick a field or discipline, and officially declare, “Hear ye! Hear ye! This is my chosen box!” The student holds the box high and the audience nods wisely, and we move on. Next month, the student changes her major and who cares?

The current protocol of Higher Education is at odds with itself. On the one hand, we want students, i.e. people, to develop awesome critical thinking skills by exposing them to a variety of stuff. Then, we force them to “please check the box of your intended box, er.. major.”

Then, we get them in the classroom and chastise them for not thinking “outside the box.” I think we need to destroy the idea of “the box.”

Maybe we need to tell them to “take a hike on the Trail of Ideas,” or “jump into the Pool of Serendipity,” or something. I’m not sure.

On to my second example.

Recently, a colleague of mine forwarded to me a NSF “Dear Colleague Letter.” I’m honestly not familiar with these, had never heard of a “Dear Colleague Letter” prior to the one which appeared in my email inbox. Don’t be surprised; I’m not in a lot of loops.

This “Dear Colleague Letter” (DLC) was especially of interest to my colleague and I. We had just pulled together a meeting of interested folks from across campus to discuss improving communication, developing stronger relationships, all with the underlying premise to enhance student experience in cool STEM-related work and fast-growing 21st century technologies. This NSF letter directly reflected our desires.

The purpose of the letter was to invite interested people to apply for the opportunity to travel to a week-long meeting, “aimed at incubating innovative approaches for advancing undergraduate STEM education in three disciplines (biology, engineering, and the geosciences)” and “bring together relevant disciplinary and education research expertise to produce research agendas that address discipline-specific workforce development needs.”



Part of me is confounded by the limited scope of disciplines, biology, engineering, and geosciences. Being in geosciences myself, I do feel somewhat prideful my discipline (though I really have allegiance to geography) was identified as a focus discipline. My experience in sciences makes me suspicious by the exclusion of other disciplines and the corresponding experiences those disciplines offer. I wonder if anthropology is included in geosciences, for example. Or, archaeology. Some colleges include each in Humanities or Social Sciences. My university, fortunately and rightly so, I think, houses these disciplines in the College of Science. Part of me responds, “Well, this is just more box-think, with the goal of identifying more boxes, and resulting in a different set of boxes becoming available to students. The end result hasn’t changed: “Please choose your box. Please step to the end of the table and collect your box. Here’s your box.”

That is the nihilist, fatalist, pessimistic me, thinking. When I realize I am being that way, I have to counter with a more rational thinking. And, there is possibility I am wrong.

“While it would be beneficial for applicants to have some prior knowledge of the challenges associated with undergraduate STEM education and workforce development for biology, engineering, or the geosciences, it is more important that applicants demonstrate an enthusiasm for cross-disciplinary research, as the future of this research area will require input from many disciplines.

The phrase, “more important that applicants demonstrate an enthusiasm for cross-disciplinary research,” I do find somewhat soothing, tempering my frustration some. Perhaps, we really are moving to a new paradigm of pedagogy (oh, shit, did I really use those two words in the same sentence?!?), of realizing the analysis and interpretation of our Earth’s issues cannot fall completely within the domain of any single discipline.

Or, no; that isn’t it, I don’t think. Let me rephrase.

“…of realizing the methods, analysis, and interpretation used to frame our Earth’s concerns must be addressed by people whose experience has been drawn from the domains of different disciplines.”

Meh. I’m honestly not sure that is any better, and I’m fairly convinced only a few people could ever achieve such experience, anyway. What makes me think this? We would have to “destroy the box” which our educational culture adores, first of all. We would have to rethink how our system of majors and minors work. Currently, partially because of budget cuts and people whining about how long Higher Education takes, how expensive an education is, and so on, colleges and universities across the United States are reducing the number of hours required for graduation. Brilliant. Education and economic growth pundits promote “critical thinking” and preparing young adults for critical economies of the 21st century. Meanwhile, the same groups (maybe not the same people) reduce the requirements for graduation. Eventually, a university education will require only slightly more time than a degree from a community college as the demands of a university education collapse toward the middle. The other end is a high school diploma.

I’m not sure how we (a) create a multidisciplinary experience for students, and (b) reduce the number of hours required for graduation, hoping to (c) develop critical thinkers, while (d) still insisting student choose a box, and expect (e) a technologically adept 21st century workforce, especially since (f) Ken Ham (CEO of the Kentucky Creation Museum) insists more Creationists need to be teaching the youth of today the insane notion the Earth is no more than 6,000 years old, plus some change, and if no one was around to witness something, then there is no way it could have happened.

I don’t have any solutions, no answers. I have questions and concerns, and some motivation to see what solutions might be appropriate at my scale. I do enjoy engaging with like-minded people to challenge my biases, and to challenge biases when confronted by them. I become completely baffled when I encounter circumstances which do not make sense to me, though. I discovered today students at my uni cannot use their student ID card to purchase items at the bookstore. A completely separate bookstore card is required for that. The bookstore, at some point in the past, opted to install a POS (“point of sale,” not “piece of shit”) completely incompatible with the POS system used by every other place on campus. Bonkers, if you ask me. Utterly bonkers.

Perhaps “dismal” is too pessimistic to use in my title. Corporations have to shake themselves up once in while to make sure they stay innovative, productive, to stay exciting, fresh and new. Corporations are responsible, at least in part, for driving economic progress and cultivating economic well-being, for themselves, and by association, the well-being of their stockholders and employees. To not shake up corporate structures, to not innovate, research, and design, essentially leads to stagnation and eventual corporate death.

Universities, on the other hand, with some exceptions, have been living by the same rules, the same governing structures and protocols for at least a century. Corporate-think is creeping into university administrations, slinking into oversight boards. I’m not sure how I think about that.

(Source: unknown)

(Source: unknown)

In some regards, corporate attitudes might do universities some good. Universities need to examine budgets, return on investments, they need to develop relationships with potential students, maintain relationships with current and former students, and garner support among the community. Like corporations, universities need to consider employees, working environments, and foster good working conditions. Universities need to provide opportunities for both individual and groups to excel, to augment skills, and to explore and support innovative ventures. Universities need to examine complementary activities, the real corporations and businesses which hire their graduates. Universities also need to scrutinize and learn from their competition, the local community colleges and regional universities. From the bottom-up to the top-down, universities need to constantly self-evaluate to ensure both administrative and academic efforts are effective and efficient.

We may be approaching an age when we really need to contemplate fundamental changes to The Box Engine, our public university system. The United States has produced hundreds of thousands of educated people, smart, productive, and energetic, and then shoved them back to their country of residence (much to the delight of some). As this strategy continues, one outcome is almost certain.

Somebody will build a better Box Engine and it won’t be the United States.

Thanks for reading.


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