Educated fools

The venerable Prof. Ian Plimer- perhaps best known for his vociferous, uncompromising, and (usually) rigourous take-downs of the pseudoscience that is most properly known as the "Anthropogenic Global Warming" theory- had some typically blunt things to say about the quality of graduates being produced by modern universities in his native Australia:
Prof Plimer, who sits on the board of Gina Rinehart’s $10 billion iron ore play, also says Australia should not be scared to embrace “elitism” in education and move to restrict university places
“We don’t need squillions of graduates coming out each year but what we do need are the best people,” he said, speaking in Melbourne yesterday. 
“There is nothing wrong with being an elite Olympic athlete; there is nothing wrong with being an elite intellectual. We don’t need clones.”

In a blistering attack on the modern tertiary system, the University of Adelaide mining geologist said government spending should focus on the “hard sciences” that underpinned economic growth rather than “useless degrees that don’t increase the nation’s wealth”
“Although degrees in fine arts and politics and sociology may well be important, they are probably brakes on the economy rather than stimuli to grow the economy,” Prof Plimer said. 
The prominent climate change sceptic also said irrelevant occupational health and safety regulations were hindering the ability of teaching staff to send students to mines to gain practical experience.

Learning had become too narrowly focused on specialist areas and universities were churning out students who lacked a broad education and had little chance of finding work in their study area, he said.

“That is the plague we have, the plague of dunces,” he said.
Thing is, his criticisms are not merely valid for Australian universities- they are valid for university systems in both the US and the UK. I've seen something of both systems, and I've seen more of the results of these systems since I graduated and actually had to start earning a living.

Over the last twenty years or so, successive governments on both sides of the Pond have argued that higher education is unambiguously always and everywhere a Good Thing. To support their arguments, they have used various studies that purport to show that university graduates earn over half a million dollars or more over the course of their careers than people who graduate with only a high school diploma. And they have used that research and data in conjunction with vast expansions over government involvement in the education sector to try to turn higher education into a "right", rather than what it actually is- a commodity.

Let's take a step back here and try to understand just why it is that higher education is touted as such a Good Thing. Any young Asian who has ever listened to his parents rabbit on about the benefits of a solid education can relate to what I'm saying here.

Previous generations were brought up in a world where education was indeed a great way to get ahead. If you had a college education, you were automatically significantly ahead of the pack. You had a qualification that had cost time and money and which gave you skills and a degree of polish that other people in the workforce simply did not have.

In the case of poor Asian countries like India and China, where state involvement in the education sector was and is far more pervasive than it is in the West, education was a major separating factor between the middle class and the poor. The (then) small middle class needed to use higher education as a way to compensate for the severe lack of economic opportunities beyond unskilled labour; if you had a university degree, you could aim for a managerial role in a corporation, or you could emigrate and seek your fortune elsewhere. But if you didn't have a university degree, you were pretty much consigned to a life of unskilled labour, since government power and positions were still controlled by relatively tight cliques of upper-class and upper-caste folk who didn't necessarily need to go to university to maintain their positions.

Previous generations have taken the economic realities of their times- when higher education was rare and selective and important- and projected them onto our times, by letting the government expand its influence in education to the point where everyone has the opportunity and, thanks to Big Daddy Guv'mint, the ability to attend an institute of higher learning.

And if universities these days were churning out anything of value, then that would be the end of the problem. We'd merely have to deal with the fact that the cost of university is being distorted by government interference.

Unfortunately, that is not the end of the story. As the government lowers the (natural) barriers to entry to higher learning by making university entry less about ability and desire and talent and more about nebulous concepts of "social justice" and "equality", the inevitable end result is that the product of the university system deteriorates severely.

We see the results today as university students go from four years' worth of study in worthless subjects like "Communications" and "Media Studies" and "Gender Studies" into the workforce. There they are confronted with the realities of working life, where what you know is far less important than who you know.

In the modern white-collar workforce- which is precisely where all of these college graduates hope to end up- the ability to articulate and communicate ideas effectively can make your career. And the lack of that ability can break it. The ability to get results is great- but can you get results while simultaneously making your boss look good? If not, you don't have much of a future.

The fact is that most college graduates are simply not prepared for the realities of the workforce by what they learn in college. Some handle the transition better than others, though. If you were trained in a hard science, you are trained to solve problems in rigourous fashion; trust me when I say that this makes things significantly easier. If, however, you studied a useless subject like, say, "Feminism" or "Education" or "Business", the only thing you'll know how to do is bloviate. You won't have the first clue about how to present ideas in concise, simple fashion under the pressure of a real-world deadline.

Then, too, we must not forget the increasingly depressing reality that today's college graduates are significantly less eloquent than sixth graders from a century ago. If you look at the maths and verbal reasoning problems that were de rigeur for students back in the early part of the 20th Century- before mass schooling under John Dewey's now-failed progressive education system began- you'll find them to be far more difficult than what you remember from high school.

Not only were our ancestors slightly more intelligent than we are today- they were harder-working, more rigourous in thought and action, and pushed far harder than schoolchildren and university graduates of the present day and age.

Ultimately, the point of a university education should be to teach you a very specialised set of highly valuable skills, that you can then use in the real world, or further develop through additional work and research. This is why hard skull subjects like Physics or Mathematics or Biology or Medicine remain the province of universities, as they should be- you're going to find it mighty difficult to learn all there is about advanced theoretical mathematics in any setting other than a university, and if you want to learn how to heal people for a living, well, medical school is still the best way to do so.

Specialised schools that teach subjects like law or business administration or public administration are not at all a bad thing for those who want such specialisation and have proven the aptitude and desire for the same.

But why must we continue to pretend that subjects like Art History or Social Media are of any real worth, when anyone who has ever had to interview recent college graduates for entry-level jobs can see that they plainly are not?

Let me end this with a personal anecdote. When I stumbled out of my grad school program clutching not one but two pieces of paper that said "Mathematics" on them, I thought I had some useful and desirable skills that would get me ahead in the workplace. Fortunately for me, I was right. What I didn't know at the time was, quite simply, just how ignorant I really was about... well, everything. Despite the fact that I had worked toward a degree designed specifically to place bright people in the financial services industry, I had no idea how the industry itself actually worked. All I had was a set of skills specifically required and desired by that industry for certain positions.

I was able to get ahead because my skills (which at the time were pretty poor, I'll admit) matched what employers were looking for. The rest was up to me to figure out.

Can the same be said of a Media Studies or Communications or Psychology graduate looking to get an entry-level job carrying the piss-bucket at Widgets R Us?

Quite simply, no.

And that is precisely why a university education that is entered into without a specific purpose in mind at the end of it is a colossal waste of time, money, and resources. You would be far better off going to a trade school or starting up your own internet business.

Universities are great places to go to learn how to solve all of the world's problems in your own head- but the reality is that you can learn how to do this on your own time quite easily. And you will gain a far better and deeper education by reading the great works of great minds of the past than you ever will by sitting through the tedious sermonising of some left-wing hack in a lecture hall.

It is high time that we recognised university education for what it really is- a commoditised route to gaining specific skills and experiences that can then be applied to meet specific needs in the labour force or research lab. Treating it as a way to "discover yourself", as far too many universities and students do, is an expensive, utterly ridiculous exercise in futility and self-aggrandisement.

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