Beating the System

Having had a bit to say on the subject of education, I was intrigued today by an article by a professor from the University of Houston [where I will be Monday] about a university student who completed five undergraduate degrees in six years in 1998.

Instead of finishing in four years with one degree, he finished five college degrees in only six years. He amassed 340 credit hours with a grade-point average of 3.70. His degrees are in political science, psychology, sociology, criminal justice, and communications. Coyle has taken as many as 64 credits in one semester, which qualifies as absurd. He's also been accepted into seven fine law schools. Naturally, his university is less than delighted. The provost feels that Coyle has mocked the academic process.

I would be more impressed if there was a serious degree in the bunch. Each of those subjects qualifies as a voodoo science. It is definitely unfair of me to assert that, but nonetheless true. Each of those subjects, considered unto itself, I would consider interesting. I just have serious doubts about any of them taught in an American university. Each of these disciplines as taught has a great deal of overlap, and do not require the mastery of a complex, cumulative body of knowledge. Coyle could not have amassed 340 credit hours in the same amount of time if he had chosen mathematics, physics, chemistry, biology, and mechanical engineering. Go ahead, try it. I dare you.

I know this to be true, because I studied physics and mathematics at the same time. It was extremely common for physics students to double or triple major. Common adjunct majors included astronomy, mathematics, and engineering.  However, this was only truly possible because the requirements overlapped to such a large degree that only a few courses [as few as five] were required for the double major. Even the dreaded engineering physics major only required 129 credit hours.

I also know this to be true because I had a friend who completed a triple major in Criminal Justice, Political Science, and Psychology at NAU. She graduated with over 200 credit hours, which was only possible by gaming the system. NAU also does not feel that you should amass ridiculous amounts of credits, even if you are able, so there is a strict cap of 25 credit hours per semester, with over 21 requiring the dean's approval. My friend would take classes at the local community college and then transfer them, to evade the credit hour cap. I remember her as busy, but quite sane. Someone who tried to take the equivalent number of classes in a hard science would have to be inhumanly smart, insane, or both. Probably both.

There is one thing such an accomplishment shows, a very high level of conscientiousness. My friend was always organized and on the ball. I never could understand how she got so much done. Actually, I do now. She is exceptionally conscientious. In retrospect, much is clearer now. My friend also went to law school,  there seems to be more than an accidental relationship here. I should point out that my contempt is reserved for the present system, rather than either Coyle or my friend. You need to be an exceptional person to be smart enough to figure out this is possible, and be sufficiently organized to actually do it. Coyle says he isn't smart, but I don't believe him.

I do agree with the provost of the University of Nevada, Coyle did make a mockery of the system. I just feel the system deserves to be mocked.  The subjects Coyle quintuple-majored in are just not hard enough to prevent this kind of thing from happening. This kind of behavior is rare both because no one thinks of doing it, and also that the vast majority of college students don't have sufficient conscientiousness to pull it off. For a lot of smart young people, college is a very pleasant way to spend four [or five] years. Choosing a major that is not too hard can be a good way to ensure that you are still employable [given sufficient smarts], but not cramp your social life. Doing 340 credit hours in two years definitely cramps your social life.

I am largely in agreement with Charles Murray. Far too many people are going to college. This whole episode is really just a symptom. Lienard, the UH professor, relates a story from his youth where he was denied credit for exceptional drafting ability because he is dyslexic and consequently was doing poorly in high school. Lienhard did three years of classwork in one semester, but only received one semester's of credit. The school system current, both secondary and tertiary, cannot accept that people have wildly differing levels of ability in many different spheres. Some people are much smarter than others. Some people are much more organized than others. Some people can visualize in three dimensions much better than others.

This is not a bad thing. Paradoxically, I also assert that it is not a bad thing that some people are less smart, less organized, and less able to visualize in three dimensions. This is simply a fact, that must be acknowledged.

Plus, someday the last shall be first.

h/t John D. Cook