tisdag 9 februari 2010

Universal Knowledge

Oxford - The High, originally uploaded by seadipper.
Britain's universities are braced for a round of cuts. This could be turned to advantage. Further education and training in Britain needs a complete re-think.

Universities were first established in Europe in the middle ages, as places for the teaching of universal knowledge. The range of subjects that was taught varied, but usually included theology, philosophy, mathematics, law, astronomy and medicine. As time went on, other subjects were added: chemistry, physics, mathematics, botany, zoology, classics and history. Geography, modern languages, anthropology, psychology, politics and economics were relative latecomers.

Subjects with a practical or vocational content such as art, architecture, and music tended to be taught in dedicated establishments, as, later on, were surveying, engineering and agriculture. Such courses usually involved periods of work in practical situations - learning on the job was balanced with learning the theory, so that the two informed each other.

From the 1960s, there was a huge expansion in university education, with the development of degree courses in subjects like town planning, landscape design, photography, computing science, and of course the notorious media studies. Many of these courses are a ragbag of short modules in which many subjects are taught at a superficial level. This is dangerous because students never get to learn anything in depth. That makes it impossible for them to appreciate when they are only skimming the surface of a subject - they never know how much they do not know. Having studied chemistry in the old way in the 1960s, I am well aware when there are gaps in my knowledge and will quickly own up to the deficiencies (I hope).

What needs to be done? Universities need to contract to teaching the core subjects in depth to a high level, more or less as they did when originally established. A degree from such establishments should be a guarantee that its possessor is not only familiar with a body of subject knowledge, but is also able to think at a high level in the abstract. Such universities should operate independently of the requirements of government and commerce, since to do so would degrade their function. it should be recognised that they exist to serve mankind as a whole.

The vocational subjects should be removed to establishments closely involved with commerce and the professions. The courses should redesigned to include substantial practical in-work content. The qualifications they issue should not be termed degrees, but should either be tied to the qualifications issued by professional bodies or awarded as subject-specific diplomas.

Of course, it is impossible to draw a sharp boundary between what is core and what is vocational, and there are subjects such as engineering that would probably have a place in both sets of institutions. Obviously, too, one of the functions of the cut-down universities would be to serve the vocational institutions.

Subjects everyone should study
There are a few subjects that everyone needs to have a grasp of. One is philosophy - the ability to think and reason for oneself and understand one's own situation in the world. This is something that should inform all teaching, from the earliest possible age. The other is economics. One of the reasons for the present economic problems is that the subject has become the preserve of experts, with the result that everyone else thinks it is too difficult. It is not. Everyone is obliged to act in the world of economics and needs to understand it. On the whole, their grasp is hazy, though often so is that of the so-called experts. Every street busker, for instance, instinctively understands aspects of economics that they would be unlikely to learn if they studied the subject in an academic context for decades!

Universities have become bloated and degrees devalued. Matters were set to get worse, with a proposal that 50% of school-leavers should go to university. It would do no harm to go back to first principles on the entire question of how young adults should be educated.

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