[ExI] University degrees (in response to Emlyn)

Tom Nowell nebathenemi at yahoo.co.uk
Sat Jan 16 12:36:38 UTC 2010

Sorry for not replying earlier in the week, I've had a tough time in a dead-end job (which will become relevant later).

On tuesday, Emlyn wrote a long post about Jaron Lanier's new book, and Emlyn talked about modern technological upheavals. I was particularly interested by the following paragraph:

"(Next on the chopping block: Universities, whose cash cow, the
undergrad degree, will be replaced with cheap/free alternative, and
scientific journals, which are much better suited by free online
resources if the users can just escape the reputation network effect
of the existing closed journals)"

If only. Back in the time of Socrates, the finest Sophists could command 100 minas of gold for a course of education designed to broaden the mind of the city's finest young men. 60 minas = 1 talent, or 100 librum (pounds) of gold to those thinking in roman units, so 100 minas is 166 pounds of gold - maybe a million dollars in the current gold bubble, certainly a few hundred thousand for most of the past decade - makes an Ivy League education look cheap.

 Socrates taught his philosophy while drinking, and the price of admission was being able to keep up with the master's legendary wine consumption. Socrates was disdainful of charging to teach philosophy, but others charged what the market would bear.

In our modern age, where colossal numbers of books are available and huge amounts of information online, can we educate ourselves easily? Or do we once again find that we only value what is paid for?

The undergraduate degree itself may serve several purposes, including improving one's mental abilities, improving your career prospects, and preparing you for specific tasks such as research in a particular field. The first is hard to put a price on, but the second is a real stumbling block. Many jobs in well-paid or interesting fields now ask for degrees, preferably in a specific field. If we can provide a low-cost online alternative to the university-based degrees, will employers still value it the same or will prejudice place your new education at a lower level than the old-fashioned one?

We already have distance-learning degrees, and some employers take them just fine and others are prejudiced. I'm wondering how well any new attempts to reshape higher education will work.

Emlyn's post also talked about job losses due to technology, saying "The only real threatened jobs are where people are doing low value
crap. Padding. High value stuff will remain."

Well, my well-paid job doing reasonably high-value stuff in insurance disappeared with the start of our current economic problems back in 2007. I blew my savings while unemployed, and have done dead-end jobs (office temping, call-centre work) since because it beats welfare. I have a deep need to retrain and find a new career, but my old degree doesn't count for much. To get into many jobs paying more than the dead-end ones, I would need qualifications in a specific area. These qualifications cost money, but I can't afford to pay for more qualifications without getting into debt - unfortunately in a dead-end job it's hard to get a loan at a less-than-punishing rate right now.

So, it seems our current system for keeping people fed and housed (or paid in some manner) and trying to harness their talents into work that keeps the country going (or "meaningful employment") is flawed. Also, the system for educating minds to do theoretical work isn't great - for theory work, you needs minds that understand the field, access to the information of what has already been done, and plenty of time. We could employ plenty of intelligent but otherwise underemployed people this way, but no-one's found a cheap enough way of imparting educations and offering access to journals.

I could go on longer about this, but I need to get back to finding a less stressful source of above-welfare-level income.



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