There was no moment of celebration or sigh of accomplishment when Erik McClure’s 2013 University of Washington diploma finally arrived in the mail.
He set aside his degree – Bachelor of Science in Applied Computational Math and Science: Discrete Math and Algorithms – and wrote a bonus essay to all UW professors.
The essay sums up in five words what he learned from the UW.
Creativity in education is useless.
We are teaching our kids skills that are being made irrelevant in a modern economy. We are preparing our children for a world that no longer exists. At the same time, while I could write a series of blog posts outlining an effective educational system, it will never be implemented in public schools. The establishment is too deeply entrenched.
Foolish startups repeatedly and continually attempt to “disrupt” the educational system without realizing just how laughably outmatched they are. This is not something you can fix with a cute website. People complain about global warming, space travel, all sorts of adorable little problems, but miss the elephant in the room.
The greatest challenge our species has ever faced is the educational system itself.
McClure, who was in gifted education programs through his primary years, fantasized about how fascinating learning would be in college.
“I wouldn’t have to worry about all this ridiculous test taking and I can finally pursue my intellectual desires,” he says. “Then I found out that college is just more test taking and it’s even worse.”
Taking mostly math courses, McClure realized by his second year of college he didn’t even need to go to lectures. Instead, he read textbooks and only went to class to take a test or turn in homework.
“I earned my degree by becoming incredibly adept at memorizing precisely which useless, specific facts were needed to properly answer questions,” he says. “I was never asked nor told how to apply these to real world scenarios.”
Maybe it’s just math. Other courses likely required more analysis and less rote learning. Actually, he found a literature class was just as “enraptured” with tests.
“This is so ironic,” he explains. “We were analyzing the Surrealism movement in art, and you could not possibly rip out all the creativity – the entire point of this movement – in any more efficient way than reducing it to a bunch of ridiculous test questions.”
McClure’s essay has touched a nerve with many parents and some profs who agree with him.
They recognize the education system is essentially run the same way it has been for centuries. Although technology advances, lectures and tests don’t change.
A few educators have been critical of McClure, saying he didn’t apply himself and therefore didn’t get the most out of a college education.
“I don’t think they understand that there isn’t much to get out of this system in the first place,” he says. “I threw myself into college as much as I could and then I realized there’s nothing here. This is barren wasteland of creativity. Everything in college is memorizing facts and spitting them out on a test.”
He graduated with a 3.23 grade point average.
McClure acknowledges it’s easy to point out the flaws in an education system is “completely obsessed with tests,” but he doesn’t have a solution. He does have some suggestions.
“My area of expertise is math, so I’ve been giving a lot of thought to how I would teach math to young children. With math we need to go from counting to introducing abstract concepts as soon as possible,” he suggests.
“I think a lot of people are skeptical about that because they don’t think kids can understand it. I think we’re underestimating kids consistently. Sometimes some kids won’t get it and then we just lower the bar for everybody until everyone can learn. That is a disaster.”
By LINDA THOMAS
McClure’s full essay: What I learned in College