The Dilbert Principle (It’s useless to expect rational behaviour from the people you work with, or anybody else for that matter… come to peace with the fact that that you’re surrounded by idiots) challenges us with an audacious statement. Unfortunately, the reality is quite clear: higher education has a plentiful supply of idiots. There are a myriad reasons behind this unfortunate situation, ranging from super intelligent people in their field but no transfer to another, lack of real-world experience outside of education culture, not interested in anything other than research, to considering whether the profession just attracts idiots. I am most likely the king of the idiots, especially since I dare to pen (well, type) this blog, which summaries a satirical (but serious) paper I wrote (see CV) from notes of a book I am compiling. Moreover, I work with, and have worked with probably some of the smartest people on earth – and some of the kindest and most considerate. This does not negate that many others are short sighted, bureaucratic, dogmatic, out of date, neurotic, working in systems that support the idiots and not the able, sexist, are replete with implicit bias, and offer little hope for students. Harsh? Read on.
I realised early in my school life that teachers were very poor at explaining why studying a certain theory or topic was practically useful for my future life. The rhetorical quip that flowed with abundance was that these theories and learned topics “enable you to think more cleverly if you have studied it.” I will concede that what is studied and its relationship to the future has some minimal explanatory power, but it is very weak on any predictive qualities, especially in Humanities or in societies where what is studied can have little bearing on future career. I have also come to realise that there is a dearth of – likely, no evidence that consistently shows a correlation between studying complex algebraic equations and making people more successful or prepared for the world into which they will graduate. But, I will leave that for another blog.
Unfortunately, my experiences at university were repeated. For example, Accounting and Economics professors were unable to fully and simply explain how the grand theories would be practically useful in my futures. Continually I heard that companies would have their own systems, but learn the theory, as the systems will be based around the theories.“It is simple and rational.” I find this particularly ironic now as Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky have demonstrated that humans do not make rational choices and therefore rational economic theory has severe flaws, and although double-entry accounting has merit, many of the accounting systems used in organisations are specific to the organisation and could as easily be learned by on-the-job training (or by off-the-shelf software) than by sitting bored-to-death in lecture halls enduring mono-tone diatribe from professors bent on proving the hypothesis that boring subjects are taught by boring people (a logical fallacy, of course – boring people teach boring subjects? Equally as bad!).
Little has changed in many parts of the world and in many institutions. Some argue that it is their culture (whatever that really means as I get the sense this is the security blanket that one falls back on to when an outsider challenges a norm). Such behaviour is not cultural in the sense of a country’s identity. These are personal choices, based on personal preferences, security and skill sets. It is cultural in the sense that the education systems we have built, especially in many universities around the world, including Asia, Africa and the Americas, are based on models from Europe. There is much good to be found in these models, but they need updating. The Model T Ford had four wheels, a gearbox, brakes, seats and even a rudimentary trunk, but it is not suitable for the contemporary household. In all areas of the world, including Japan, there are examples of excellence, but for many, the basics are simply wrong, out of date, useless in preparing youth for a future of possibilities, kill an inquisitive spirit and reinforce old patterns that are incongruent to stated objectives. Harsh? Read on.
A friend and I when having lunch recently and discussing Sir Ken Robinson’s TED talk on education, agreed that one of the most important take-home messages in the talk was the following (paraphrased): When will the young kiddies who start school in 2016 likely retire? For most, between 2076 and 2080, if most existing variables change little. The problem is, we know – well, we should damn-well know – that many of the existing variables will be change. Therefore, the real question is, as posed by Sir Ken Robinson, what will the world be like then? And what skills will be needed then? Is our current model preparing students for that world? How about 2050? 2035?
Just as Artificial Intelligence and robotics replaced or supplemented many blue collar jobs, so it will (is already) going to replace white collar workers. The future is not about masses who can do high-level Quantum maths or trigonometry. For a percentage of the population this will be crucial. For the majority, not a necessity, and if that is the goal of education, then it is wasted resources as computers and A.I. can do it faster and more error free than we humans – already! Are many content with replicating themselves through students rather than equipping them with skills to solve problems, seek solutions, create alternatives and consider possibilities.
At what point is it enough to keep accepting the Three Monkey Principle (hear no evil, see no evil and speak no evil)? Take an example of investing and saving money. How few people in the wider population know anything about it and yet we are continually berated people aren’t saving enough for their retirement”over the media waves by less-than-genuinely-concerned-for-my-personal-welfare politicians. Understanding basic finance should be mandatory study. (One colleague attempted to introduce a basic“life skills”course only to find he had to defend the choice he made from within his own discipline.) The same should be applied for basic health and medical understanding, which could improve lifestyle choices and may even enable citizens to quickly recognise the quackery of those in the medical profession who adopt a“choo choo choo” one-second stethoscope touch when listening to a patient’s chest as productive as trying to get milk from a bull.
Take home from this blog (to be continued) is (1) what futures?, (2) is the system adequate?, (3) are we equipping people with the life skills for the world we are creating?