Monday, November 9, 2009

In defence of degrees

There is a lot to be said for tertiary degrees. In my last two posts, I touched on a key criticism of the modern University system, that it churns out people with degrees, largely so they can compete with each other on the job market, and that those degrees are largely only indicators of preexisting aptitude, determination and resource rather than being transformational in themselves. If you want to hire an exceptionally clever determined person, shortlist everyone from MIT or CalTech, as only clever and determined people can get in there.
To what extent do University degrees really transform the minds of people who earn them. Do universities really change minds? Intuitively, of course they must. It would be impossible to occupy the mind of a person for four years of a degree without somehow changing their cognitive structures. To design a programme that wouldn't change a students way of thinking at all would be difficult in the extreme.

Looking at the data point in the mirror, what did my degrees do for me? I certainly wouldn't give either of them back.

My undergraduate degree (Geology) certainly changed the way I thought. Geology is the last refuge of the generalist in science. You have to be able to get by in physics, chemistry, biology, engineering, ecology, oceanography, climatology, cosmology, astronomy, palaeontology and others and assemble fragmentary evidence from all these disciplines to solve the riddle of what a particular hunk of rock is up to. It is the ultimate integrative science, and four years of it changed the way I thought.

My PhD, less so. It was certainly an education in how not to do a large project, but it didn't change my way of thinking like my primary degree did. Mainly, it looked good on my resume, and got me shortlisted for jobs: "He has a PhD, ergo, he is a serious guy." My primary degree wasn't enough for that - everyone has a BSc these days.

What does that tell us about Universities future as producers of Graduates? It sounds rosy. They win both ways, as their graduates both have their minds transformed, and get meaty sounding qualifications. Their future is surely bright, their niche secure.

But what about the counterfactuals?
Did my undergraduate degree really change the way I thought, or did it simply repair the damage done by an old factory style secondary education system? Could better secondary education, or a richer set of respected alternative options undermine the value of a degree. Did I discover, or rediscover, how to think? And when everyone has PhDs, what use will mine be?

So long as a University education is seen as the only way to round out the intellect and earn secure employment, the University faces no existential threat. But if anything breaks that monopoly, something interesting will happen.

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