Monday, May 05, 2008

The Essays 4: An End to Universities

Well another pop at another sacred cow. (This is turning into the seemingly dropped radio show Heresy). Universities the home of enlightenment, of elucidation or education.

Only of course it is not, which is why I say, down with it. Having survived its mangling, I feel I have a valid standpoint on this. The joke is always given:

A means of the information in the lecturers notes passing to the students notes, without the information passing through the brain of either.

Which people laugh at, as it is ridiculous. But this is how it is. As a student I was part of a compliant at one of our lecturers, as he was so bad. But really we should have fired 90% of them. The could not speak publicly, they cared little if they got their message across and the actually practical application of anything was beyond them.
These are the sort of people who complain of “dumbing down”. These are the people who say you “read a subject” at university. These are the smug so and so's who ruin education. Because they keep it a competition.

Rather than trying to get everyone educated – that is all understanding things, universities are an exercise in proving who is good at cramming for exams. And yes there are essays, and The Thesis, but exams are really it.
All universities tend to teach is how to pass written exams. Want actually someone who knows something, then universities are not the best places. Find someone who makes a living out of it, tends to be a better bet. Even in really practical subjects like computers and engineer, the real clever people are inventing Yahoo- how many of the internet pioneers were actually university professors and how many clever youngsters. How many professors were involved in designing Concorde? The Channel Tunnel? Inventing mobile phone networks? Start very successful companies? Very few.
Ok, it is a very sweeping generalisation, and not really true. There are lots of clever professors making money. And the universities have clever people in them. But universities are rigged not to help you learn, but to test you. You have to spend days getting a reading list. You have to research yourself things. No one shows you how to do anything. Most lectures are just the lecturer repeating his book at you – which is oddly the course book and costs £40.
So when these graduates come out what can they do? Well they can sit for three hours and regurgitate facts and formulae no problem. Actually rewire your house, fix your car, find a cure for some disease – then my faith in the system falls down. Truly stupid people get degrees. Really clever people sometimes do not.
The problem in England, which has spread I fear is that universities have some scared glow that rubs off on graduates. And actually no one asks -”So what does that mean you can do?” that is until the get to a work place and find, “oh dear I have to solve a real problem not regurgitate a known answer”.
In a meritocracy you are judge by your merit. Your worth to that society. Universities were born in the medieval period and hang overs from the class and rank system are still there. The value thing is “pass this test to prove you are clever”. It is not “pass this test to prove you can do x, y, z”.
I have a degree, actually. Makes me no better than anyone else, until I use that education to do something better than other people. Which I do not do. Most of what I studied does not affect my daily working life. Like a lot of graduates.
So the degree thing is like a club. A badge. A show off thing. And it makes me laugh when an estate agent or Bank Manger has BA (Hons.) or BSc (Hons) after his or her name on the business card. Because it proves nothing apart from you have bought into the “I passed the exams so I am clever” lie.
No, you are just good at sitting exams. If you could sell my house or arrange not to not lose my current account then you would have merit.
So what would I change? Make universities actually educate so people can do something other than pass exams.