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Saturday, 15 July 2017

On the Course

In several of my coursebooks from previous years I have doodled block letter words: power, freedom and knowledge being the typical three. Sometimes I think this is odd but now I can't see why... all the X is Y pairs are common tropes. In fact, "knowledge is freedom" is one that you see quite a lot. At least, that's a sentiment I often think underlies a lot of the "what is the point of university?" discourse. But is that true, in terms of university courses, I mean?

Before we get to that, let's back track a bit. Knowledge isn't freedom in a sense. In my experience, up until the back end of college it's possible to get away with saying stuff. The notion of research is... well, it's something that kind of happens rather than an integral part of the process. Integration of research is the reason the notion of history without footnotes is ridiculous: it's not history at all. But this is a terrible drag for me as a writer of blog posts. I'm not, say, the late Stephen Jay Gould writing essays informed by research or learning from behind the scenes. I'm some bloke down the pub spouting the same old bollocks I always have... except I've learnt for it to really matter, it's got to be done right. It doesn't even matter if it's fact-consistent... to be true, it has to be done right. Four walls and a roof doesn't make a house. If it did physics probably wouldn't exist. And, in principle, this means if I say something I should have something saying where it comes from. Even if it's as vague as APA.

I think this is a vital context to remember in terms of the university course. It's not just an education in content and it certainly isn't any "find your place in the world" nonsense (on account of lacking, well, the world)... education and learning happen in all sorts of ways, which is where one finds:
The fact of the matter is colleges trade on brand. Harvard is a brand. Stanford is a brand. MIT is a brand. The education part is being democratised and commoditised by the internet. [i.e. it is being made free ~ H. East]
That's from a post on Medium by a dude who's making the case that maybe a prospective entrepreneur isn't best suited by going to university. Yet, I think it is a sentiment that you'll find in standard critiques of going to university... which is probably one reason why the author is rightly at pains to stress that this was not the point of that piece. It's also something that is true. Sure, there are plenty of truths but it's still a truth. Think about it. Harvard doesn't just trade on brand, for example, it trades on reputation. That might not strike you as a big difference, and they're certainly related, but Harvard is a good university with good academics who do things the right way (which is really lots of different ways, of course). The brand is definitely important, though. Being able to say you went to a place like Harvard makes people sit up even if they have no real idea about what Harvard is like and who teaches there... or, for that matter, what is taught there. Which is what we're about today.

University Courses are like teeth. It's all very well to say that a tiger is a formidable predator or a university is a good place to attend, but without decent teeth a tiger's dead and without worthwhile courses, why would you go to a university? In fact, one might even say that you can get the content knowledge from books, videos and other things that don't require enrolling. And does a university course even teach you the good stuff, anyway? Take Steve Jobs. One of the videos we watched in, I think, Business 102 about Jobs was one where he talked about being a drop-in student. That is, someone who'd given up on what he was supposed to be doing in order to attend lectures in courses that he was actually fascinated by. It's a bit like how I'd love to take a Public Economics course but it didn't work out for me last year and my last chance was this year... when it wasn't offered. But, you see, it's not just the subject matter that's interesting.

Assessment is an integral part of the university course but it's rarely something you get from a book. Sure, you might get a list of questions and some answers elsewhere in a book or in a video but that's not assessment. You see, knowledge is collaborative and whilst it is a poor collaboration to be forced to sit an MCQ exam, it's still player versus examiner in a battle of wits. With research essays and the like the student actually gets to contribute some original thoughts. Well, not original in the PhD sense, but original in the "not plagiarism" sense. Knowledge is always subject to review, and it is assessment that one pays for... not knowledge.

Look, I'm not here to say that everyone should always go to university if they want true knowledge. What I am trying to say here is that having the syllabus and reading all the same things or even also attending all the same lectures isn't the same as having taken the course. Knowledge is also the experience of doing the assessment so if you answered the essay questions too, even if the lecturer never marks them, you get a bit closer... but if you knew the lecturer was marking your work, would it be the same? But this would still be a worthwhile thing... reading all the readings for a course... the content knowledge is still good. And it is something I want to do myself for some syllabi I have on my computer, but it's not the same. And if I have any ability to prevent falsely constructed denigrations of the education offered by universities, I should take that chance. Or something. This seems oddly written. Perhaps I am trying too hard to say this matters. That is is intriguing is enough for me. It was always enough. So what paragraphs aren't why this blog exists.

Some points for further consideration. Firstly, that a syllabus is something an expert has put together in order to overview or examine a subject matter. It is another kind of tailored treatment of a subject... perhaps just like a book, but with the addendum it is specifically designed for education. Secondly, assessment's relationship with knowledge is problematic, but it is still an experience. I'm just not sure I have enough motive to consider these further aspects properly.

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