Saturday, 25 June 2011

Wisdom, and learning to think

What is it that universities really do, or ought to be doing, especially in relation to their main business of teaching?

These days we hear lots about transferable skills, the various (practical) skills that students supposedly need when they enter the job market or, as we sometimes say, 'they join the real world'............ It certainly can't be a bad thing for young people to learn about teamwork, presentation skills, communication and the like, or even more technical things such as IT, quantitative skills and the ability to write good prose. If these attributes are developed as a by-product of a general university education, that seems all to the good. But one hardly needs to attend university to acquire them, so there must be something else going on in universities that we consider important. What could that be?

Part of the story presumably has to do with learning whatever subject the student is at university to pursue, whether mathematics, history, medicine or whatever. Each subject has its own typical modes of instruction and learning, diverse mixes of lectures, tutorials, seminars, practical classes, essay writing and so on, and guidance from academic staff usually plays a significant part in these endeavours. However, nowadays, much of this can be done through distance learning and on-line courses, often delivered in a highly professional manner and sometimes taking less time and incurring a lower cost than would be entailed by attending a traditional university.

Thinking along such lines naturally leads one to wonder what the real value added of a good university education might be, if it's not just about picking up transferable skills or learning a particular subject to degree level - not that I have anything against either of these two forms of 'output'.

My view, which I have referred to in previous posts, is that easily the most important attribute that we would like our students to pick up from their time at university is the ability to think - logically, creatively, imaginatively, and deeply. From my observation over many years, I would says that this is not an easy attribute to pick up, in fact it's both complex and difficult - but it's surely the key to leaving university as an educated person. And I don't think it can easily be picked up on-line, without the personal academic contact that students enjoy at university.

The trouble is, it's quite hard to pin down and measure exactly what we mean by this attribute, 'ability to think', so I realise that I'm open to attack for being idealistic and vague, whereas the fashion these days is to quantify everything as far as possible. But perhaps we know it when we see it?

Personally, I see the 'ability to think' as partly a generic characteristic applicable to all areas of life - this relates to an older conception of what being a graduate was all about, and explains why classics graduates in the 19th century frequently found employment across various outposts of the British Empire as colonial administrators.; there was a presumption that a graduate could turn his (in those days it was rarely 'her') hand to anything. And partly , the 'ability to think' is something that can be given a more concrete meaning for particular subjects.

For instance, we sometimes observe that someone is 'thinking like an economist', and that means a lot more than just trotting out the latest theory just because it happens to be (dimly) remembered, it means recognising which - if any - theory is relevant to the problem or question at hand, what data are needed and/or available to help understand it, what the key issues might be, and what numerical indicators would look reasonable. It also means acknowledging and understanding what we don't or can't know. Last, it means possessing some economic 'common sense' - so if someone says their economy is growing at 10% per annum while it is only investing 5% of its GDP, one should immediately be sceptical, without even needing to know anything else about the country. This sort of understanding, I find, is not readily gained from textbooks, but it can be learned from experience of a wide range of problem solving and empirical exercises. Writing a dissertation can help to impart such understanding, as can wide-ranging and diverse discussions with tutors. But it's never easy, but very satisfying when it works.

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