Is University Education Missing the Point?

Posted: May 31, 2011 by Zeddington in General
Tags: ,

Up until high school, we’re trained in a variety of different disciplines: mathematics, natural sciences, language, art, and others. But once we pass the 12th grade, we’re forced to choose a specialization – although in some systems, such as in the US, you can put off declaring your major for a year or two while you decide what you want to do, which in my opinion is a very good thing. In other systems, such as the British system, you are afforded no such luxury. Why the rush? In order to make us ’employable’, as soon as possible.

I’ve found that this approach – in particular with the British system – is harmful in the sense that it does not provide a rounded education which is important in being a citizen of the world. Worse, students are trained to think in a particular way. I am a trained economist, and so I can speak with more familiarity about this discipline than others such as law or medicine. In economics, everything in monetized. The whole perspective of the economist is about efficiency in all that is done: maximizing output while minimizing posts, reaching equilibrium. Maximizing “utility” – a useful theoretical concept that has absolutely no bearing in reality. Utility is a measure of “happiness” – if you do something that makes you happy, it increases your utility. In economics, the language of utility is consumption. So consumption of more apples, more oranges, more iPhones means more utility.

Any non-economist can see the benefits of such an approach, but also the limitations. Well, you say, life doesn’t really work like that, does it? And you’d be right in saying that, but after three, four, five… maybe even ten years being trained as an economist, you lose perspective. Having been tried for much of your academic (and professional) life to think like an economist, it becomes hard to think like a normal person.

But it’s not just economics. If you’ve been trained as a lawyer, chances are that you’ll see problems in life in the framework of existing laws and precedents – what is legal and what isn’t. A student of management (and, by optimistic extension, a big-shot CEO) is trained to thing of nothing but the bottom line. Sure, there’s a lot involved in management in order to maximize that bottom line, and that involves a lot of areas and a lot of creativity – but in the end of the day its about the bottom line. And so on.

Sometimes I wonder if those without a university education are in fact in the best position to understand our world. They have not been trained to see the world from a certain angle (at least not academically). For all the fuss about higher education and the virtues of it, perhaps it is those who have not been forced into adopting a certain method of thought that are best placed to understand the world around us.

  1. “it does not provide a rounded education” If you don’t want to specialize in something just get a liberal arts degree or multiple degrees.

    “students are trained to think in a particular way” Parents train their children to think and have the same values as themselves so either people are trained to think by their parents or a university or an employer. I’d think that higher levels of education have a positive correlation with free though.

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