Monday, April 27, 2009

Are academic institutions out-dated and in need of complete overhall?

A question was raised by this op-ed in the NY-Times. Basically, they question the validity of the current (and well-established) method of educating graduate students and undergraduate students in the US and probably western societies. Right now (generally), graduate students focus so narrowly that they cannot actually find a job after graduation other than with their graduate advisor or someone with whom they've already worked very closely. I've seen many of my graduate student colleagues move into industry, where they can actually find a job, can be paid something reasonable, but do something completely different from their graduate work.

In many ways, that's all fine and dandy.

I was working on a proposal the other day and my supervisor's supervisor told me, "while you're writing this, think about what the community will lose if you aren't funded." Hmm.... Honestly, the scientific community will lose little, and the general community will lose less. The work I do is rather narrowly focused (although it is less narrow than some of my colleagues' work) and not generally applicable to the problems of society as a whole.

While I strongly feel that the pursuit of knowledge for knowledge's sake is a necessary aspect of human nature, I don't feel that what I do will fundamentally alter anyone's life (except my own, my wife's, and my son's---simply because I do contribute some little bit of money for food to this familial experiment).

That's not to say I couldn't contribute more directly to society. For instance, my research requires a pretty strong understanding of energy transfer. If I could find a position that would allow me to apply that understanding to, say, alternative energy applications, I'd jump on it in a heartbeat because my knowledge could be applicable to peoples' daily lives.

And therein's the rub. In the US---and I suspect many other societies---we as a whole, expect knowledge to be instantly applicable to daily life. If that knowledge is not, we denigrate those scientists or engineers who pursue it for its own sake. Even some of the seekers are uncomfortable when there is no obvious short-term benefit from the knowledge. Of course, the long-term benefits of pure research are much greater than is generally imagined, but it's hard to see so far into the future when there are so many short-term problems to solve.

Back to the original question: are our education institutions out-dated and useless?

I don't think they're useless, but I do think there are things that need to be corrected, and I agree with a lot that is said in the article. The changes suggested are drastic but this is definitely something to think about.


Kerry said...

wait...we're an experiment?

deborah said... a mother-in -law I would beg to ask the same question...experiment ?