University Education undelivered: a critique

Sir V S Naipaul at the Tehelka Goa Think Fest a few months back while in conversation with Tarun Tejpal commented in response to his question regarding the best advice he can provide writers: and the venerable Mr. Naipaul said that it would the best thing for a potential writer to skip university. Thats a radical suggestion from all dimensions. The rationale which VS Naipaul gave that university shapes a person to think in a particular manner. The distinctive style of writing is thus lost which a person is born with, an artistic flair that is not manufactured and is thus a breath of fresh air. Education presents us cognitive frameworks to think, analyse content, data and situations. But the talent cannot be given birth in a creative writing class. It is the raw marble slab which is polished fine in an English literature program.   Education gives us certification, and the time to grow up to be what we are; but these things can be done after high school taking up an apprenticeship  and working up the ranks.  The Citadels of Higher Education are creating non functional beings, unable to think for themselves and hence becoming slaves of the market.

Innovative talent gets lost in the quagmire of structured learning as teachers want us to think in a particular manner. Its the teachers perspective which prevails. As a person shifting from Engineering to Sociology, I have faced the brunt of this treatment. I have miserably done in assignments as i ‘did not meet’ the teachers expectation. Is this grad school all about? Is it about social control and conditioning or about value creation and learning at the end of the day. So much for the oxymoron called ‘inter-disciplinary-learning’.  It takes time, effort and energy to make a domain transition and for cross-pollination of intellectual ideas. Structured learning does not have any room for that, and then these folks expect ‘out of the box thinking and learning’.

I am equally amused, bewildered and frustrated in equal measure. The Iron Towers of High Table Academia are impossible to breach as people need PhD’s and Post Docs to make it even to a reasonable university to teach. The paradigm of publish and perish makes it hard to hire good teachers which ultimately becomes difficult to create a generation of informed citizens as profs are more inclined towards writing papers and not towards teaching. Its a battle for tenure than teaching well at the end of the day. Do not blame them, we all have bills to pay and families to feed.

I have come across high profile managers who are doing good with an undergrad degree in their careers, who teach adjunct in universities and teach better than career academics. Salman Rushdie’s books are taught in post colonial literature PhD level modules in English Literature programs globally, and he himself is a history major from Cambridge and teaches at Emory in the USA. I support the Stanford Prof in Computer Science who quit his tenured post and started a open digital university offering courses. The Un College movement started by Dale Stephens, a Thiel Fellowship recipient offers training which is free and open source, which an average college student in US is raking up debt which they cannot pay back for years after graduating.

I feel as education has under-delivered when it comes to skills really needed in the market, an undergrad degree is equal to a diploma 30 years back. A double masters holder gets offered an entry level job. What the hell is going on? I feel saddened at the state of affairs, truly….


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