Sunday, February 7, 2010

Rumination on Higher Education

A truism of modern contemporary politics is that some strands of the polity think there's a connection between their comparatively elevated degree of education and the inherent correctness of their political positions. (The NIF dust-up we're having these days reeks of this). The corollary, mildly distasteful as it is, is that folks who have spent fewer years accumulating academic qualifications may be less likely to understand what's right, or good, or correct.

I'm all for education. Some of my best friends are university professors. I even spent some years of my life in university environments, and put significant efforts into acquiring various degrees. Yet sad to tell, the case for the intellectual superiority of the academically-trained has never seemed compelling to me. I know too may people without the training who are highly intelligent, and too many folks with fancy degrees whose ability to understand the world is, how to put it, unconvincing.

Recently I've been engaged in an unusual exercise: I'm reading lots of doctoral theses. There are business reasons for this: in a nutshell, I'd like to offer the academic world a tool that will make life a wee bit more efficient; for this purpose, however, I've got to understand what different types of academic research looks like. What do doctoral students do when they get up in the morning?

Unfortunately, the more I read, the more I'm wondering if perhaps the acquisition of an advanced degree in today's academic world might not actively hamper one's ability to relate to humans. I'm not seeing that it strengthens one's ability to express coherent thoughts, for one; nor that there' an overriding curiosity about people. Paradigms, yes. Constructs, certainly. Models, there are those. People, and how they relate to their lives: less.

Maybe I'm simply finding the wrong doctoral theses.


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Anonymous said...

Mr. Lozowick,
the question I keep asking myself whenever I get cranky about life as it today is:
what has changed (during my lifetime) and what is the same old ...

as it happened I just stopped reading a book on a (history) subject - link below - that should have been interesting and that probably came out of some research job. Also I assume that it comes pretty close to what is worrying you about your doctor theses.

(off topic the author claims that in early 16th century Strasbourg the populace was plagued by usury by the clergy and outraged at the CLERGY for it! - never read that before but he sounds very plausible on that one to me)

After having endured annoyance and boredom by the author who is (when he lets himself write and not just quote and report) pretty good with language I concluded that it is because he does not dare to say I with a big capital I.
Instead of using all that reading and studying he has done to come up with a colorful engrossing description of how it must have been like he stays glued to his sources, dips into neuro-science jumps to Malaysia or Kenia or centuries back and forth. And when he speculates he does it with a really annoying "we may be sure" "we must conclude" etc. In short it is more important to him to come up with a theory (to impress other academics?) then to spin a good and truthful yarn.

That said I would amend your "relate to humans" to that they seem to get trained to never relate to themselves, their guts, their own experiences, their own unique knowledge of life, their own perceptions i.e. they are not supposed to check whether what they find out in research synchs with their reality.

The academics I have worked for during the last 15 years of my working life were not from the humanities. As to them I asked myself again and again how they dealt with their decline in status by which I mean in my youth they would have done only work for which their extensive training was a pre-requisite, they were considered to be much too expensive to spend their working hours performing menial tasks like copying data out of files etc. And it got worse during the last years when they kept themselves busy with tasks an experienced paralegal would have felt degraded by (not as a person but with an eye on how to lobby for the next raise)

Since I got hooked up with podcasts I tried a number of iTunes U offers and didn't finish most of them, some because they were not good enough but the majority because the professors kept ridiculing their students sometimes to the point of sneering at them.

I guess once you have been intimidated and put down in this way you strive to deliver only theses which show obedience to rules established by your professor who has made it clear that he doesn't consider you to be a person whose ideas about a pile of facts maybe interesting.

On the other hand quite often when I listen to the BBC's Thinking Allowed program where seemingly very young academics get to talk about their (sociology) studies I feel really good about all those curious articulate and independently thinking people out there (and wonder why sociologists are so very often the most annoying I can hear on our radio)


sergio said...

Dear Yaacov,
You might be interested in the paper
"Science, dullness and truth: a rejoinder"
which discusses some issues related to this subject. Comments welcome :)



Yaacov said...

Sergio -

It seems I need a password to read the full version. Can you send me a copy?
yaacov dot lozowick at yahoo dot com

Sergio said...


I've sent you the pdf file of it.

All the best,


Jason said...

Hey Sergio,

I also want one copy

Plz, send me a copy also


Jason - Student on Toronto college