Friday, 11 February 2011

Philosophy of Education

I just came across this on Rosemary Bailey's website. While I think the ideals are nice, I think in practice I disagree with just about all of it:
My vision of a university was succintly described by David L. King, writing in The Times Higher on 9 April 2004. It is:
  • “the belief in a community of scholars and not a confederacy of self-seekers;
  • the idea of openness and not ownership;
  • the professor as a pursuer of truth and not an entrepreneur;
  • the student as an acolyte whose preferences are to be formed, not a consumer whose preferences are to be satisfied.”
I believe that university students should be able to be confident that they are being taught by people who are immersed in the subject in other ways than teaching. I collaborate with a range of scientists on the design of their experiments and the analysis of their data, so I teach Statistics. I still prove theorems in Combinatorics and Algebra, so I also teach those subjects.
I've no idea what a "confederacy of self-seekers" is, so I'm not going to address that point. I don't think anyone believes in a professor as an entrepreneur, one thing that I think people can sensibly expect professors to be, at least in the current system, is teachers. Incidentally, I happen to think that Rosemary is a very good teacher, and one who thinks a lot about doing the best for her students, so I hope she won't be offended by any of this.

The problem I have mostly is with the last point in the bulleted list: "the student as an acolyte whose preferences are to be formed, not a consumer whose preferences are to be satisfied.". Now, that might be a nice model for a university if the point of going to university was to learn about the subject you were studying. The problem is that for the vast majority of people who go to university currently this just isn't the case. They go because in order to get the better paid jobs you have to have a little piece of paper which said that you went to university. They go to university to get this piece of paper and, and I think this is the important part. This system is not the students' fault.

The students in our department are not there because they are particularly interested in mathematics and (and I think this is something that academics sometime struggle with, and I will almost certainly get round to making a separate post about this one day) the vast majority of them are not interested in pursuing a career in academia. The overwhelming majority of students are at university to get a degree because it will help them get a better job. And they are right. In the world we happen to live in people do need degrees to get good jobs, and universities are there to supply these degrees, and to make sure that the degrees are a useful signal of ability for employers.

It might be that the vision of the university described by David King is a good way to train people who want to obtain the sort of detailed knowledge of an academic subject one needs to do research, but it absolutely is not the case that 50% of the population want, or need to obtain that sort of detailed knowledge of any subject. So, while we have a system where something pushing 50% of young people go to university (and, remember, pay the fees that pay the salaries of the people who work at the university).

Most people are there to get a degree because getting a degree is necessary prerequisite to doing whatever it is they actually want to do. Like it or not, the job of the teaching staff in a university is to help them get that degree. If you don't like it, by all means do your best to change it, but while you're accepting money from the university as it exists now, I'm afraid I think you are morally obligated to teach in the way that is appropriate for the majority of students who are there now. More to the point, if you don't like the current system, you're going to have to figure out another way to pay for researchers - at the moment research is cross-subsidised by an awful lot of socially innefficient teaching.

I personally would love to live in a world where universities could all be like Cambridge and Oxford, and where the vast signalling game that is university education as it exists now didn't exist. I admit that this world would probably be a world in which less "blue skies" research got done, and I find it hard to believe that would be a particularly bad thing.

This post is getting long, and I'm not sure my thoughts on the last paragraph of Rosemary's statement are fully-formed, so I won't write much about that for now. I will however finish with one thought that I have on the issue: it would be a remarkable coincidence if the best teachers in the world also happened to be the people who were best at doing original research. I happen to think that I personally am quite a lot better at the former than the latter. I'm not going to give an example of someone whose abilities are skewed in the other direction, but I'm almost certain everyone who has studied or worked at a university already has one in mind.

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