Erik Torenberg / Uncategorized

Why I’m Making My Own Syllabus (Erik Torenberg)

I did it again: I just spent 5 days memorizing 50 esoteric concepts scattered over 500 note cards. Each day cramming for my Extreme Weather class cost me hundreds of dollars. Learning the intricacies of cumulonimbus clouds — and I’ve already forgotten them — over the course of the semester has cost me thousands.

Freed from the fetters, I sprint to the classic I’ve been yearning to read. Now that exams are over, I can actually learn something: I can read one of the greatest works ever written; I can spend a day with a mentor; I can work on a project with my friends. I hurry, suspecting that I only have a few days to learn before class starts.

Has it really come to this?


Last year, Peter Thiel hailed Higher Education as the third great bubble, and, putting his money where his mouth was, initiated a fellowship that granted 20 students under 20 years old $100,000 under the sole condition that they do not go to college. Students, he believes, would learn more from starting a business, pursuing their own learning plans and having access to successful mentors than from sitting in classes that constrain and stifle creativity.

The fellowship came after a large and growing litany of complaints against Higher Education. Some proponents, thinking practically, claim that students learn virtually zero real world skills, such as financial literacy, business basics or applying for jobs, within the realm of the university system. Others, thinking personally and holistically, claim that students aren’t encouraged to express or develop their creativity; they’re not reflecting or discovering what they believe in — and, instead, they spend much of their time jumping through hoops and regurgitating ancient and antiquated material.

In short, not only are students learning little about how to make a living, students — who aren’t debating, experimenting or exploring — are learning squat about  how to live a life worth living.

And of course, there’s a hefty price tag involved, too, which, combined with the other factors, has caused many to re-think their educational paths. DIY U: Edupunks, Edupreneurs, and the Coming Transformation of Higher Education, a book by Anya Kamenetz, chronicles how worldwide, students are attempting to simulate structures such as a learning community, a skills portfolio and personalized syllabi that — once exclusive to university students — are now available to anyone with an Internet connection.
And yet, while it’s fun and empowering to forge one’s own learning path, people who attempt to do so quickly and forcefully realize that formal education provides three structural mechanisms without which learning becomes more difficult.

The first structure is community: It’s difficult to recreate the all-encompassing living and learning milieu that college provides. The second is feedback: Without a professor and grades, who do students have to keep them accountable — not only to monitor their work but also to evaluate their progress and offer recommendations for improvement? And the third is credibility: Perhaps the most valuable service that college offers is its universal stamp of approval — that is, a diploma — to the working world. This structure, too, can be simulated, but it requires remarkable talent and a proactive disposition.

The difficulty in recreating these three structures has prevented many top students from diving into personalized learning, no matter how attractive the future seems behind the present piles of note cards, problem sets and debt.

In other words, Higher Education may have substantial problems, but, for now, it’s the best we’ve got.


That’s how things look from my vantage point, at any rate. In terms of actual learning, I believe that college doesn’t need a major overhaul — it just needs some tweaking.

It could start with the social dynamics of the classroom, or lack thereof: In fact, I barely get a chance to develop relationships with my classmates or professors. I realized this after attending a Start Up Weekend, where, by speaking at length with experienced employers, and by spending two consecutive days on a complex project with my team, I learned more and developed more lasting relationships than I ever have in an entire semester-long course.

Another element that could be tweaked is the depth of subject matter. I will forget 90 percent of what I learn — which is OK, as alumni proudly tell us, because the life lessons will not come from what we learn, but in the work ethic required to ace our exams. (How intellectually comforting). If most of the information is irrelevant, why not shift the paradigm from “know-what” to “know-how”; why not, for example, instead of taking an accounting course, take a three day accounting retreat where you soak in its practical applications and actively simulate said practices in groups, developing friendships and mentorships in the process, rather than impersonally and inefficiently learning, I mean memorizing — in installments of one-and-a-half hours, two days a week — significantly more information than is useful?

The university structure is what it is, and change has always been slow-from the top-down. So I’m going rogue, within the context of a university community, and experimenting from the bottom-up.

I’m creating my own syllabus, equipped with reading lists, entrepreneurship projects, mentors, a board of advisors and a blog. I’ll be shadowing and interviewing and experimenting and reading and writing and, hopefully, learning much about myself and about the world along the way. And, in putting myself under the microscope, I’ll be putting Higher Education under the microscope, asking questions such as these: What should the future of Higher Education look like? What does it mean to prepare oneself for a 21st century economy and lifestyle? How can such preparation be taught — or learned, rather — effectively, affordably and in a manner that’s accessible to the masses?


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