Value of an Education

By John Dilworth · October 27, 2010

The Value of an Education

On Monday morning this week, I happened to read the article “The UX Design Education Scam” by Andy Rutledge who spilled out a rhetorical lashing on the state of today’s University Education System. My first response to the article was to immediately dismiss it as “the kind of crap that people who didn’t go to school always say” – but after reflecting on it, I realized that there are many points which are absolutely true, difficult to swallow, but true none-the-less. I do feel, however, that the overall premise is misguided, sensationalized, and not an accurate characterization of the real state of things.

I’m teaching a class in web design right now for a local university, and I presented Andy’s article as a topic for conversation. These students are smart, they are not looking for a handout diploma to guarantee their success. They know there are weaknesses, and they know that there’s lots of work they will have to do on their own. They also feel that they are learning, and they are excited and eager to learn. They will be unprepared professionals when they graduate, but so is the guy who didn’t go to school when he or she starts looking for a job. They will have 4 years of experiences, different than those of individuals who jump right into the workforce, but not irrelevant or useless.

There are points that Andy makes that are spot on – and need to be addressed by educational institutions or they will become irrelevant. Here’s what I think is true:

A few real problems with university education

  1. Things are changing faster than the University System can keep up with. 15 years post the web revolution, and most colleges are just barely starting to think about the importance of maybe creating a web design emphasis. Most of them don’t know how to do it, or are doing in a way that seems wrong to working professionals.

  2. Often, academic curriculum is not guided by industry or demand. It’s decided by the interests of the faculty. If they are more interested in making animated characters – that is where they spend their money and build their programs around, regardless of demand, or business need.

  3. Web design is often approached as learning a tool, not a craft.

There are also a number of things that Andy mentions in the article that make for great reading if you ever want to justify your decision to not go to school, or if you did go to school and need a wake up call because you are still hoping that you’ll get a job in web design without further learning or working on your own.

Rather than debate the article, I thought I’d share my own experience with education. I graduated completely inept, and unprepared to begin a job in the field of web design. I did not even have one single web design class in all of my schooling (it was 1990…). I was capable of working with a few tools, had learned how to follow a simple design process, and I had confidence and desire to use what I had learned.

I didn’t expect my education to do everything for me, and I put in many hours of self-study and work to augment what I learned in school. I established relationships with other artists and designers that I value today. I still consider my professors to be my mentors (even if they don’t know anything about web design.)

My experience

I pulled up my official transcript and looked over the classes I took over the course of 5 years. Nothing applies directly to web design and nothing I learned would have prepared me to start working in web design immediately out of school.

That said, every class that I took provided value to me. I paid for school with my own money, supported by scholarships and grants, and I think it was worth it for me. Here’s a list of every course I took and a short summary of what I learned from it over the course of my undergraduate work:

  • Drawing I (4) – learned basics of form, perspective, drawing by hand.
  • Design I (4) – basic design principals, gestalts, form, contrast, etc.
  • College Writing (4) – learned research, basic writing skills
  • Computer Aided Art (3) – introduction to creating art with a computer (on a 1991 Macintosh SE)
  • Painting I (3) – learned composition, color, mixing of paint, how to stretch a canvas.
  • Elementary PC Keyboarding (3) – learned how to type 40+ words a minute on DOS Word Perfect.
  • Enjoying the Movies (3) – Gained an appreciation for classical film
  • First Year Spanish (9) – Learned a second language
  • Second Year Spanish (9) – Improved fluency in second language
  • Visual Arts Orientation (3) – learned the benefit and value of art in society
  • History of Art and Architecture Paleolithic–200 (4) – learned the influence of art in history
  • Psychology – Interpersonal Relations (3) – learned basic skills for dealing and communicating with other people
  • Advanced Spanish 1 (4)
  • Design 3-D (4) – learned principles of working with 3-Dimensional materials (wood, paper, metal, etc)
  • History of Art and Architecture 200–1600 (4) – introduced to the Renaissance masters
  • Visual Communications 1 (4) – Intense study in how to communicate visually
  • Advanced Spanish 2 (4)
  • Drawing 2 (4) – learned drawing from one of the best draftsman I’ve ever seen
  • History of Art and Architecture 1600-Present (4)
  • Botany (field class in Costa Rica) (3) – on site learning about botany and importance of ecological -r esponsibility
  • Spanish 390 (study abroad Costa Rica) (4) – 5 weeks in Costa Rica, need I a say more?
  • Spanish 393 (cultural studies) (4)
  • Spanish 394 (studies in literature) (1)
  • Spanish 401 (applied language studies) (3)
  • Physical Geology (5) – Learned about rocks
  • Basic Photography (4) – Learned how to use a 35mm Camera, and how to develop my own film and photos in a -d arkroom
  • Drawing on the Land (3) – Landscape drawing, innovating with natural materials in a week long camping trip.
  • Painting 2 (3) – Improved techniques of painting, developed the start of a visual style
  • Public Art (3) – Worked with a multi-disciplinary team on conceptual project dealing with cows, dairy, and -c ompost.
  • Color Theory (3) – Understanding how color works and how to use it to communicate
  • Visual Communications 2 (4) – Study of typography and graphic design problems
  • Computer Animation (4) – Exploration of techniques for computer animation
  • Offset Printing Workshop (4) – Learned old-school methods on how to prepare documents for printing (rubylith -a nd x–acto)
  • Aerobic Swimming (1) – 24 minute mile!
  • Contemporary Art (4) – Survey of all the crap that is called “Contemporary Art”
  • Visual Communications 3 (4) – Guided work on real-world graphic design problems
  • Advanced Computer Aided Art (3) – More messing around with the computer
  • Field Workshop (Drawing & Art) (3) – Exploration of sketching and observation in the wild
  • Karate Elementary (1) – learned to kick ass, or how to not get my ass kicked
  • Introduction to Anthropology (3) – Basic study of human societies and behavior
  • Intermediate Photography (4) – More messing around with cameras and image making
  • Visual Communication/Advanced Design (3) – More guided work on real-world graphic design projects
  • Co-Op Work Experience (1) — Internship with graphic design company
  • Individual Studies (3) Guided study into areas I thought I might have missed in my studies.
  • The Art and Architecture of India (4) – Study of Art and Design from perspectives other than the traditional -W est
  • Poster Design Workshop (1) – Makin’ Posters
  • Teaching Assistantship Experience (3) – Helped teach a graphic design class
  • English – Mountaineering Literature (3) – Learned to love the mountains
  • Spanish – Applied Language Studies (2) –
  • Introduction to Ceramic Arts (4) – Learned it’s ok to get my hands dirty
  • The Art and Architecture of China (4)
  • Figure Drawing & Anatomy (4) – How to draw people when they are naked.
  • Visual Communications Advanced Design (3) More guided work on real-word graphic design projects
  • Sculpture 1 (4) Escaping flatland – taking design principles to 3-Dimensional space
  • Metals and Jewelry 2 (3) – learned how to melt metal, weld, and solder
  • Visual Communications/Advanced Design (3) – Guided study on real world design projects.
  • BFA Seminar (3) – Preparing my portfolio, finding work

I’m estimating that this list represents 3,375 total hours spent in the classroom or studio, and at least another 6,000 hours outside of class studying, working on projects, and trying to master and validate what I had been taught. I’m sure they exist, but I’ve never met an individual who has put together on their own, or even with a mentor this kind of comprehensive study program.

I learned web design, and am still learning it on my own. It is true that the University didn’t help me much, and honestly there was no way that they could, because when I started college, web design didn’t even exist.

Would I have been further ahead had I done it on my own? Maybe.

I did walk away from school learning something that I think is more valuable than any course I took, and I hope that Universities are still teaching that. I learned how to keep learning, and I try to do that every day, on my own, and with the aid of professionals, and even the demonic University System when that makes sense.

What’s your experience? Thoughts?

NOTE: Just so you know, If you find spelling mistakes or other grammar mistakes in this article – I don’t care, it was late, and I thought it was more important to kick this out than to fuss around with making it perfect. Maybe I’ll fix it if I get a chance, but probably not.