Saturday, March 26, 2005

Is academic knowledge really any use?

I frequently notice reports in the media about people who have achieved a lot despite lacking a university education. Successful millionaires, authors, media people, chefs, inventors, criminals, artists - who’ve managed to get where they are without the benefits of a formal grounding in academia.

Obviously, this should not be allowed, and in some fields it isn’t. The universities largely run the show in science and sociology, medicine and mathematics, so in fields like this you do need your degree.

To my way of thinking there are three possibilities. There are (or there may be?) fields – like perhaps rocket science – where you really do need a university education to do anything serious. The knowledge is cumulative in the sense that to design your rocket you need to be able to do A and B, and in order to do A you need to do C and D, and in order to do B you need to do E and F, and in order to do C you need to be able to do J and H … No short cuts: you really do need to understand Z. You can’t do it by browsing the web and finding instructions for A and B, because you won’t understand C and D and so on. You need the discipline of a structured course and the support of experts to succeed.

Or do you? Einstein didn’t.

At other extreme are fields which the universities have not colonised. You wouldn’t normally enrol at your local university if you want to be a pop star or a TV presenter.

Which leaves an enormous grey area in the middle. Running a business, writing a novel, teaching – the universities would like you to think that courses on business studies, creative writing or education are essential here, but experience and common sense often suggests the opposite. Does an academic background here really help, or does it just help you translate the obvious into jargon?

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