Learning by degrees

Last year I visited the National Gallery in London’s Trafalgar Square. I like to go and look at the work of Joseph Mallord William Turner. As I entered the first gallery I noticed a group of seven or eight young men and one young woman. All were smartly dressed, the men in open collar shirts with clean cut hair and polished shoes. One of the young men was standing in front of the group explaining the painting behind him. I continued my cultured meander to the Turners via Rubens in Room 29 and bumped into the same group again. This time a different young man was talking about a different painting. I finally reached Room 34 and plumped myself down in front of Turner’s ‘Ulysses Deriding Polyphemus’ on the comfortable leather viewing couches the National Gallery provides, glad to take the weight of my feet for a time. No sooner had I done do when the homogenous group dressed in smart casual reappeared for the third time. Somewhat annoyingly they stood right in front of my picture while a now completely different member of the group took the lead in analysing the painting. At the end of his worthy, yet somewhat unconvincing effort, an older woman who was clearly in charge gave the group some feedback and then sent them off with instructions to meet later at the Noel Coward Theatre for the evening performance of ‘Shakespeare in Love’ (well worth watching by the way).

Trafalgar Square: Home to the National Gallery

As the Smart/Casuals disappeared she sat down next to me and I took the opportunity to ask her who the group of young people were and what they were doing. ‘They’re soldiers’, she replied and went on to explain that they had been identified by their senior officers as having leadership potential. They were up for their board interviews to undergo officer training at Sandhurst but the army had recognised, that because this particular group of people had not been to university, they were at a serious disadvantage to the other candidates. The army then provided, at its own expense, a six week ‘crash’ education course, including current affairs, global politics, history, public speaking and a three day trip to London to look at art, plays, museums and the like.

In short the British Army recognise the value of a broad education for their leaders, over and above training.

The idea that university is about education rather than training is not always understood. Jonathan Jansen was speaking to Russell Loubser the then head of the Jo’burg Stock Exchange, about how universities must train students for the workplace. “No professor,” Loubser replied, “you educate them. I train them.”

University should be about education not training

The point being that training happens when you get into the work place, education is what should be happening at University. Dr Max Price, the Vice Chancellor at UCT says, You are going to live to around 100 years and will have three to four career changes over the course of your life. However you will only be full time at university once. You need to do a degree that offers you a broad education and a good foundation.” Dr Price actually advises that you should not do a BCom or the LLB (Law) degree in the belief that such degrees are too narrow, suggesting instead either the BSc or a BA as your foundational degree, as that will give you skills that will last across a long period of time and that are transferable across a wide range of careers. In fact Wits University scrapped the LLB in 2015. According to Attorney Michael de Broglio, Wits explained this decision by saying, “…they wanted people who entered the legal profession to have a greater philosophical understanding of law, to understand its place in society, to be more mature and to have a better grasp of ethics.” While the LLB gave people good technical skills around law, it seems its graduates did not have a broader understanding of the context in which they were operating.

This advice from Dr Price goes against what many people believe about degrees, most notable the Bachelor of Arts. The BA comes in for a lot of stick, you may have heard a number of jokes around it. Here’s a common one for example, “…what’s the difference between a BA degree and a large pizza?” A large pizza can feed a family.” Such comments are built on the misunderstanding that you do a degree to get trained as opposed to educated. As Jonathan Jansen says, “A good BA would have given you the foundations of learning across disciplines like sociology, psychology, politics, anthropology and languages. A good BA would have given you access to critical thinking skills, appreciation of literature, understanding of cultures, the uses of power, the mysteries of the mind, the organisation of societies, the complexities of leadership, the art of communication and the problem of change. A good BA would have taught you something about the human condition, and so something about yourself. In short, a good BA degree would have given you a solid education that forms the basis for workplace training.”

Even if you do decide to do a Commerce degree, make it as broad as possible says Professor David Sewry, Dean of Commerce at Rhodes University. Prof Sewry actively encourages his B. Com students to take courses from outside of the Commerce faculty. He believes, for example, that an Accounting student who has also studied, say Philosophy or History, is going to be a better Accountant. When I visited the Engineering faculty at UCT a few years ago I learned t
hat only around half of its graduates actually went into Engineering, the rest ended up in banking, project management and a range of other careers. This is simply because some of the transferable skills learned while being educated can be applied in a number of different fields. Some universities offer a ‘programme’ based approach to degrees where courses are prescribed and more prescriptive. Others such as Rhodes University favour a ‘formative’ degree, one that allows a broader base of study with more flexibility.

Rhodes University offer formative degrees

The American Liberal Arts degree is built on this premise. It is not possible to study toward your professional degree until you have first completed your four year undergraduate Liberal Arts degree. There are no faculties to speak of, rather students take courses across a wide range of fields only selecting their majors after two years of exploration and experimentation. Again the thinking goes that an Engineer who has also studied Eastern religions or Creative Writing is going to be a better Engineer than one who has not.

So is this really practical? I have just read an article by George Monbiot entitled ‘Drums of War’ http://www.monbiot.com/ where he cites the study published by the Oxford Martin School in 2013 on the impacts of computerisation. What ‘jumps out’ is that technological advance is wiping out a whole array of careers through automation. Jobs at lower risk involve, “work that requires negotiation, persuasion, originality and creativity.” Monbiot goes onto say, “The management and business jobs that demand these skills are comparatively safe from automation; so are lawyers, teachers, researchers, doctors, journalists, actors and artists.”

In other words, “… jobs that demand the highest educational attainment are the least susceptible to computerisation.” So please parents and teachers, encourage your children to be educated not just trained.


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