“You’ll learn more atop an open stage(coach) ’tween Oxford and Cambridge than from the universities of those fair cities.” –William Hazlitt
People have aked me why I sign my emails with the above quote. For those of you who know little of Hazlitt he was an essayist of Irish extraction with some pretty radical ideas, for his time.
Yet the reason I append the above to my epistles is twofold, admiration for the man more than his beliefs, and a strong belief in the statement itself. You see Hazlitt was that rare thing in the modern age, he was self taught, and whilst I disagree with many of his political opinions, his clear reasoning and assessment of human nature are unparalleled.
Considering I am a university graduate, who really enjoyed his time at university many people are very surprised at my attitude to much of the vast swathe that constitutes academia. On the whole I regard it as a waste of time. A waste of time, not waste I will fully acknowledge that nothing you ever learn is wasted. Simply that many courses offered, taught, and researched at universities today are not worth the time spent on them They are a waste of time.
Now I’m not talking about here the hard discipline’s such as science and engineering. Or even Law, Accounting, and Economics. The former are essential to the material and intellectual progress of society today.Whilst the latter are necessary to provide us with lawyers, accountants, and economists. Necessary evils, but necessary never the less.
No my condemnation is for the myriad and ephemeral courses often offered by, although not exclusively, arts faculties. What do such courses achieve. I’d like to illustrate my point with reference to my own experience. I did a commerce degree so my experience wasn’t with the vagaries of arts subjects but with an equally vague and pointless area of management theory. I found the whole subject a complete waste of time.
What I learnt always fell in to three categories.
1. Things that were of such a pointless, vague, or theoretical nature that they were next to useless in real life.
2. The second was were thing that were quite obviously common sense, quite true, but so obvious that anyone with half a brain wouldnot only understand them but probably know them already.
3. Things that hardly needed to be taught in university things that books, newspapers, and life experience teach you without needing to be told by some hare brained academic.
Simply put most arts subjects at the level taught at universities fall into one of the above, some all three. People enroll in pursuit of the truth but instead get endless academic theories. While others believe they are getting some kind of unique educational experience. The reality is far different Not only do they get ideological humbug from the last bastion of the left but they get useless theories from academics who shield themselves from the empirical testing those in the sciences must face with claims that there are no right answers.
Again I will draw from personal experience to illustrate my point. In 1996 I completed a rather poor Commerce degree from the University of Melbourne. Some of my peers were also completing arts degrees, most of them hardly specialised much in their degree and if they did certainly did not complete any original research. At the same time through my degree I had acquired the basic skills needed to run any business environment. Admitted there was a fair level of humbug even in my degree, but what did they learn?
They would say they acquired a series of analytical skills as well as a broad education in the humanities. But this is where their claims and reality diverge. When talking to them I am appalled at there lack of these skills, neither are they particularly well informed. I must admit I am a prolific reader and reading two newspapers a day, watching the news, reading history books and playing lots of sport is probably why my degree was not so good. But the fact I know myself to be better informed than an arts graduate is an inditement on their degrees, but is hardly surprising.
Arts graduates either acquire a little knowledge in a broad range of area’s or specialise in subjects which have little relevance to anyone. Rarely do they add to human understanding by doing original research. Most graduate acquire have learnt little that is either practical or unique. Certain they are more rounded for doing their degree, but if they spent the same time reading and learning on their own they would achieve the same. After three years they acquired something that is neither practical or unique, an arts degree.
Now I am not claiming that we should shut down arts faculties because they do not fulfill a utilitarian ideal. I value and respect history and literature, life would be poor indeed without them. Although I am sure we could all do without political and gender studies which are little more than frivolous theorising.
No what I dispute is the claim that universities have today in the humanities and other ephemeral areas of having a monopoly on knowledge. In the 19th century Thomas Carlyle characterised a university as a “collection of books”. He had a point in his day, books were comparatively rare, libraries small, and illiteracy common. Learning needed to congregate. That’s not the case today with huge public libraries and the biggest library of all the internet at our fingertips. But what does that have to do with someone considering starting an arts degree?
Think hard, unless you want to do original research or have a particular interest your wasting your time. Get yourself a library card, an internet connection, read the newspaper, books, watch the news. It called self improvement and you don’t need an arts degree to do it. Save yourself $10,000 HECS because as William Hazlitt said;
“You’ll learn more atop an open stage(coach) ’tween Oxford and Cambridgethan from the universities of those fair cities.”