New Media Seminar Week 8 Rewind: Education and Top Chef

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Way back in Week 8 of the recent New Media seminar, there was a reading on Learning Webs which discussed current structure of the K-12 educational system and whether it could be tweaked to a more personalized boutique system in which students didn't attend a formal "school", but matched themselves with appropriate mentors in subjects each was interested in.

Others have been raising this question as well including one speaker who asked why should students get a computer science degree from a institution like Penn State when a Cisco certification would be more cost-effective and be just as valuable on the job market.

I think what both are asking is whether a formal curriculum designed for "the masses" is effective. It is an important question, but that week I had one of those oddball connections that made me think there is a value in a well-designed curriculum.

The Top Chef Advantage

I watch a lot of cooking (and fashion competition shows) and there is one truism that most contestants would agree to - there is a huge advantage to any contestant who has formal training in the profession. That is, for any two contestants with about the same number of years in experience, the one who has gone to a dedicated cooking school tends to have an advantage.

Of all the Top Chef winners, only one, Hosea Rosenberg, was not a graduate of a formal cooking school or apprenticeship program (although Rosenberg did work in Wolfgang Puck's kitchen). Very few participants trained exclusively, "on the street" get far in the competition.

This is despite the fact that chefs are judged exclusively on their cooking ability (there are no written exams on Top Chef). The advantage that going to culinary school is giving is not just a matter of being "certified" or learning only verbal knowledge - there is a real set of skills being enhanced.

Thinking on Curricula

I think the advantage something like cooking school can give is that a student is really exposed to different elements of the profession in a way different from just "reading about it." It could involve working with real equipment (labs/computers/knives) or being closely mentored by those in the profession. Students are also often exposed to underlying principles (phonemic analysis for me, proteins and acids for the chefs) and have a chance to be mentored by those in the profession (because they are PAID to mentor you).

I think another element that's important is that sometimes a curriculum may force you to learn things important to the field that may not be so interesting to you. I vividly recall one linguistics advisor informing me that I was going to learn a particular language, whether I wanted to or not, because I had to know it. It turns out that he was on 100% right. But had I been left to my own devices, I might have still avoided it.


That's not to say that I think the system is perfect. For one thing, school, especially a culinary school like the Culinary Institute of America, is very pricey. For another, some curricula really do seem detached from life as the rest of us know it. If you want your education to lead to a paying job, Icelandic studies may not be the choice for you because opportunities are few and far between.

But...there is a point where formal schooling isn't enough and we do have to rely on our life experiences and our ability to learn on our own to carry us to the next step. While it's true that most Top Chef winners have gone to culinary school, it's also true that ALL of them had lots of years in a working kitchen under their belts and all of them had learned to create new recipes other than ones learned in school.

Is the academic curricula doing its job to help our students get to that next stage?

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