There are indications that something is seriously wrong with the U.S. education system. This may be especially so with our system of higher education. To be sure, colleges and universities are successful to a degree in preparing students to take their places in our economic, government, healthcare, and other major institutions. Yet, 40% of students drop out of college every year in the United States (https://www.thinkimpact.com/college-dropout-rates/, 2022). One alarming consequence of this high withdrawal rate is that college dropouts earn on average 35% less each year than college graduates, leaving many of them with debilitating debt, lower-paying jobs, and overwhelming poverty (2022).
Students give the high cost of education and the competing demands of holding a job while attending school as the most prevalent reasons for leaving college (Admissionsly.com/why-college-isnt-worth-it/, June 23, 2022). However, there may be additional, more complex sociological reasons why students leave school—reasons the scientific method can help address.
Toward an Understanding of the Problem
Since its founding, sociology has attempted to uncover the often invisible social forces that lie behind the obvious reasons for a problem. Max Weber, a founder of sociology working over 100 years ago, discovered that the way in which modern industrial institutions are organized can lead to feelings of disenchantment for the people who work within them. In higher education, this includes students, faculty, and staff. Weber saw that bureaucracies, with their strict, rule-bound hierarchies and specialized divisions of labor and knowledge, can make work (and study) boringly routine. These organizations also make communication difficult among those who work in or study specialized fields of knowledge. In short, workers and students become devoid of passion for their work and studies, feeling trapped in what Weber refers to as the iron cage of bureaucracy (Economy and Society, 1922).
This concept is useful in understanding why students feel trapped and believe that their education is not relevant to their lives. They are likely to leave what they perceive to be prison-like institutions of higher education focused more on how to do a job in a work organization than on how to study and learn.
Faculty are encouraged to show students how specialized knowledge will lead to specialized jobs. However, in line with Weber’s observations on the specialized division of labor in bureaucratic institutions, they are not always encouraged to show their students how their specialized knowledge will help them throughout their lives in their vocations, communities, and families.
Toward a Scientific Solution
The younger generations today are suggesting ways to bring more relevance and engagement to education. Many of them have shown that outside academia they can “learn multiple things from different alternative methods of education that can keep a person savvy and adaptable to new opportunities” (Admissionsly.com/why-college-isnt-worth-it/, June 23, 2022).
The Brazilian educator Paolo Freire shows us a picture of what goes on inside the “iron cage” in many of our classrooms today. He noticed that when classrooms are passive, students confuse lecturing with learning. Students perceive that the professor knows everything, while they know nothing, and the professor’s authority is often set against the students’ freedom to learn in a variety of ways. The professor talks, and the students meekly listen (Pedagogy of the Oppressed, 1972).
In contrast to Freire’s description of education, the scientific method is, by definition, more active and engaging because it involves hands-on learning. This is because at the heart of the scientific method, scientists (and anyone who uses the scientific method) must devise ways of measuring change, and then they must consciously observe these measurements to determine if their hypotheses are supported. In other words, in any experiment, people must engage with the environment in which they seek to solve problems.
More systematically, Bernard Phillips and his colleagues have shown that the scientific method—which they see as one of humankind’s greatest inventions—can engage students in experimentation and can be taught throughout the higher education curriculum (Creating Life Before Death, 2020). This is because the scientific method engages all the innate capabilities of the student’s personality: the emotions (wanting to solve a problem), the intellect (devising a hypothesis to be tested), and action (testing the hypothesis to solve the problem, and then devising and implementing policies to actually solve the problem).
According to worldvisionsolutions.com (2022), if the scientific method can engage students in every subject they learn, they will be released from the “iron cage” to develop all their innate human capacities. For example, two students can interview each other about their backgrounds and their future goals. Then each student can come up with a hypothesis about which future goal their interviewed student will decide to try to achieve. Each student will then develop, say, a short questionnaire to give to the other student and then, based on the responses, develop a conclusion about his or her hypothesis.
The beauty of these types of micro-scientific experiments is that they can be taught in almost every course in a college’s curriculum, they involve all parts of the scientific method, and they are highly motivating to students. What can be more engaging than that?
Name a college course you have taken or are taking. Then, explain what you found to be the most and least interesting and most and least motivating parts of this course, and why.
Consider the course you described in the previous question. How could the course have used the scientific method to make it more interesting and motivating?
What aspects of your family are the most and least bureaucratic (that is, have the most and least division of labor and the most and least hierarchy)?
Based on what you perceive to be a group’s division of labor and hierarchy, which group that you belong to is the most bureaucratic, and which is the least?
Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, New York, NY: Herder and Herder, 2000/1972.
“Goodwin University Enews,” December 17, 2018.
Bernard Phillips, et al., Creating Life Before Death: Discover Your Amazing Self, Champaign, IL: Common Ground Research Networks, 2022.
Mary Romero, Introducing Intersectionality, Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2018.
Think Impact, https://www.thinkimpact.com/college-dropout-rates/, 2022.
Max Weber, Economy and Society: A New Translation, Keith Tribe, ed. and tr., Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2019/1922.
World Vision Solutions, worldvisionsolutions.com, 2022.
Other Sources on Problems in Education
Sir Francis Bacon, “Letter to William Cecil,” (ca. 1593), in The Works of Francis Bacon, 14 Vols, James Spedding, et al., eds., 1870.
John Dewey, Reconstruction in Philosophy, Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1948/1920.
Ivan Illich, Deschooling Society, New York, NY: Harper and Row, 1971.
P. D. Ouspensky, The Fourth Way: A Lucid Explanation of the Practical Side of G. I. Gurdjieff, New York, NY: Vintage Press, 1957.