Take No Prisoners

Abolish Universities?

Here is an interesting editorial calling for radical restructuring of universities. The basic point is that “universities produce a product for which there is no market (candidates for teaching positions that do not exist) and develop skills for which there is diminishing demand (research in subfields within subfields and publication in journals read by no one other than a few like-minded colleagues), all at a rapidly rising cost.” While I agree with this, in principle. However, the author’s suggestions only makes sense from the university’s perspective, not society’s perspective. Allow me to explain.

Universities have four basic purposes: 1) educate the public; 2) undertake scientific research; 3) train new researchers; 4) create innovative artifacts. The problem at the heart of the North American education system is that educating the public has nothing to do with purposes 2, 3 and 4. Furthermore, the qualities that make a good educator of the public and the qualities that make one a good researcher have little overlap. Education is about empathy. Research is about brilliance.

For any of the suggestions in the aforementioned article to make sense, we have to split up universities into centers of public education and centers of research and development (which would also train researchers).

Public Education

John Q. Public does not need a well-rounded education including Shakespeare, calculus and at least one foreign language. John Q. Public needs a ‘trade’ certification. And by trade, I do not mean just carpentry and plumbing. All the so-called professions are just trades – medical doctor, lawyer, electrician, peacekeeper, forklift operator, scientist – what’s the difference? Yeah, you need more education to be a good scientist than a good forklift operator, but so what? Practically all jobs beyond migrant fruit picker require at least some specialized knowledge.

We can divide this knowledge into that which can be codified and that which must be learned through experience. The trade schools understand this. That’s why, in countries all over the world, an electrician must first pass an exam, then work as an apprentice, then pass another exam, then work as a journeyman, etc.

Yet universities are largely not set up this way. If you want to be a professional technical writer, for instance, what do you do? B.A. in English? What the hell do Keats, Shakespeare and Beowulf have to do with technical writing? And where would you learn to express complex topics in a simple manner? English degrees teach you to use bigger words and more convoluted expressions. Technical writers need basic vocabulary and simple sentences.

What is clearly needed, then, is a proliferation of trade certification programs and exams designed to educate the capable and weed out the incapable. These certification programs should be as short and to the point as possible. At least 90% of the people who currently inhabit undergraduate programs belong in this kind of job training.

Research, Grad Students and Innovative Artifacts

The remaining 10%, the 10% who go to grad school, need to immediately begin research training in what are now called universities. Since only the brightest will get in, they should be able to cover something similar to existing undergraduate degrees (minus all the fluff) in two years, followed by an internship in a research lab. Then it would be on two another two-year masters program, followed by a research assistantship. Then a two year PhD. Only two years for a PhD? Hell yes, once you cut out all the bullshit. Most of a PhD is dicking around, administrative crap, classes you shouldn’t be in, exams that don’t prove anything, and endless hours perfecting documents nobody reads. If they just dumped all that bullshit and stuck to designing and executing good studies, a PhD would only take two years.

As I mentioned above, Universities are in the business of scientific research and creating innovative artifacts. There’s this thing they do in arts that they call research – writing analyses of historical documents, pondering existentialist dilemmas, weaving baskets. I don’t know. It all seems crazy to me. I have no problem with a university employing English profs who write experimental novels and music profs who compose wonderful pieces. Those are innovative artifacts, just the same as new building methods created by engineers. But classics? That’s beyond me.

Coming back to the point, this research must be directed toward the horrifying problems plaguing our society: overpopulation, climate change, lack of energy, poverty, disease, religious fundamentalism, anti-rationalism, etc. It’s not tenure that has to go, it’s government funding of research that doesn’t address these critical problems. Of course, some percentage of funding must be held for research of unknown value by mathematicians, theoretical physicists, etc., but most research funding must be directed toward projects that matter to society. It’s taxpayer money after all.

Conclusion

In conclusion, teaching and research have nothing to do with each other. 90% of universities need to be converted into trade certification schools, where any job requiring specialized knowledge is a trade. Those who would be scientists need to go directly to the remaining 10% (the actual universities). The majority of scientists at these Universities must be directed toward solving the problems that pose an imminent threat to humanity as we know it.

Unfortunately, we’ll run out of scientists before we run out of problems.

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