Why be bothered with a university education?

The distinction between university education and other post-school education can be hard to grasp. Many emotional arguments are advanced. “We only need a handful of people who speak Latin” is one argument, for example, that came up in my Twitter stream.  Often, our argument expresses no more than the emotions we are experiencing as the world shifts about and what we do or have done seems more or less highly valued.

In an earlier post, I tried to list three features of university life which make university education worthwhile though hard to understand from the outside, and hard to get used to when you first arrive as a first year fresh from high school.

I am doing a uni course right now coming from the other direction.  I have a lot of hands-on experience in a field and I wanted to work backwards – so to speak – and formalize my knowledge.  I find the course fairly frustrating because I cannot always relate what I am hearing to a practical situation and some of  the practical exercises are simply better done with a combination of a crib sheet and some trial and error.

So I have to ask myself : why am I still there?  Why haven’t I transferred to a polytechnic type college which would be better organized (from the students’ point of view) , and where the lecturing would frankly be more coherent and the exercises better thought out?

So I’ve had to write down my thoughts (to get them out of my head) and they may be useful to you.

#1 Professors tell the story of abstractions and the failure of abstraction

The job of a professor is to look out on the world and to describe what is common across a whole set of similar situations.

When they do a good job, we can use their generalization like a formula.  I can convert Celcius to Farenheit, for example.

Or, in the case of my course, I can understand how to set up some tables and store them in a database in the most efficient way possible.

The difficulty comes when the generalization or abstraction

a)       Is already known in real life (there have been people making almanacs and look-up tables for generations)

b)       And it turns out the generalization solves some problems but not all (or creates a few side-effects).

The professors then go back to the ‘drawing board’ and try to solve the problem with their own abstraction that they just created with their solution!

This drives students crazy, particularly the more practically minded.  They don’t really want to know this long story of

  • Make this formula
  • Oh. Oooops!
  • Well make this formula.  It is better.
  • Oh. Ooops!

This is particularly annoying to students when they have the spoiler and know the current state of best practice (and are perhaps of slightly impatient temperament).

But. this is what professors know about it and after all, there is not much point in asking them about things they don’t know about!

So the question becomes – shall I keep asking them, or shall I ask someone else?

# 2 Professors prepare you to manage the interface of new knowledge and reality

Well, let’s fast forward a bit to 10 or 20 years’ time when knowledge has advanced.  Of course, you can just go on another course.  And you probably will  go on another course to find out the new way of doing things.

But let’s imagine you are pretty important now and it is your job to decide whether to spend money on this new knowledge, spend money and time on the courses, and to decide whether or not to changing work practice to use the new ideas.

Of course you can find out the new method in a course.  Of course, you can hire consultants to give you the best guess of whether your competitors will use the new knowledge and how much better than you they will be when they put it into play.

There is another question you must ask and answer even if you answer it partly by gut-feel.  You must anticipate what the professors have not answered.  What will be their Oh. Ooops!  Your judgement of the Oh. Ooops! tells you the hidden costs.  The company that judges those correctly is the company that wins.

Everyone will pick up the new knowledge.  That’s out there. Everyone and his dog will take the course and read the book.  What we will compete on is the sense of the side-effects. That thalidomide will be a disaster.  That going to war will increase attacks on us.  To take to well known examples.

The professors won’t be articulate about the side-effects of their new solution. Not because they are irresponsible but because their heads are fully taken up figuring it out.

It is the leaders in charge of the interface between new knowledge and the real world who must take a reasonable view of the risks.  Just as in the banks, it is the Directors who are responsible for using technology that had unexpected side-effects.

When you are the Director, you want a good sense of the unknown unknowns and you develop that sense by listening to Professors. They tell you story of how we found the general idea and then went Oh. Ooops!.  The story can be irritating because it is mainly the story of cleaning up their own mess and sometimes the whole story is nothing more than Oh. Oops!  that ends with “Let’s give this up and start on another story”.

But as future leaders students, practise listening to experts at the edge of knowledge, relating the solutions to real world problems, and getting a good sense of the Oh. Ooops! that is about to come next!

#3 Uni education can feel complicated and annoying

That’s uni education.  Don’t expect it to be a movie that charms you and tickles you ego.  It is irritating.

But rather be irritated there than create a medical disaster, a ship that sinks or a financial system that collapses when you were in charge and jumped into things naively.

See you in class!

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