The low of higher education

The low of higher education

2017-07-19
It was in my teens that I first read Robert Pirsig’s “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” and came face-to-face with his “law” which states that “The number of hypotheses that can fit a given set of facts is infinite”. The statement was anathema for a budding young math and science person. If it was correct, it meant that both those fields of inquiry were going nowhere fast.
Fast-forward to school at the University of Murdoch where my Vietnamese mathematical genius friend Duong Pham and I were taking a course in “Structure, Thought and Reality”. That was where we both first got to know about Thomas Kuhn, Immanuel Kant, Naom Chomsky and other such philosophers of science (We had both already gotten waist deep in the incompleteness theorems of the philosopher of mathematics Kurt Gödel before we got there).
Discussing, collating, correlating and analyzing was (and is) the great and honorable exercise of all academics and career achievers of worth and we were no different back then.   
So, Doung and I were in the habit of hitting the school pub to discuss outcomes after each class as well as the voracious back reading we did to understand how the world worked both in general as well as when viewed through the lenses of mathematics and science.
One cloudless, blameless day, as we sat there discussing Khun over a beer, he happened to casually say to me (paraphrased), “you know Jun, around 200,000 math discoveries are made each year by masters and doctoral students. Each is seen by about 6 members of the student’s friends and family list who don’t understand a word of it and read by about six people on the student’s thesis defense team who actually understand it and hopefully, give the student the sought-after degree.
No surprise that the rediscovery rate is greater than 70%”. That was a shocking revelation that brought home to me the sheer uselessness of our 400 year old education system and its utter waste of human effort, money and resources.

“How many of us actually use any of the learning we absorb after years of what is tantamount to forced labor in our various portals of education?”

How many of us actually use any of the learning we absorb after years of what is tantamount to forced labor in our various portals of education? In my years of life, I’ve seen very few whose life work can be directly linked to the education leading to their degrees. If what we slave over is useless, then the immediate next question we must ask ourselves is “why do this?”.
Well, since at the highest level, higher education is largely useless, I must reluctantly recognize that its importance is merely cosmetic. You see, it is fashionable to have a degree or three. It doesn’t really matter if its owner is actual a master or doctor of the skill area that he or she claims lordship over.
There is a general perception that they are people of some account. However, if we take a step back and look at the conduct of millions of these people proudly armed with their diplomas, we must understand an inconvenient truth – quite a lot of these folks have no clue about anything at all.
The best proof of this is that if they were of any worth, our world would not be in the place it is. A place where our doctors, engineers, scientists, lawyers, financiers, business people, policy makers and leaders have actually managed to retrograde development and bring us to our knees.
Pandemics, epidemics, development disasters, natural disasters, money market crises, food crises, climate crises – all point to that uncomfortable conclusion. If a review is done of the sum total of human effort in the last century or so, I have to affirm that most of the things that actually eased the burden of life on people were things created by people who never saw the insides of a university. Diplomas were never the reason why they did what they did and their effort was based on accomplishing something good for the world – not achieving something that was only of good to the industry that overarches all other industries – the social-fashion industry and its attended manufacturing of a vote for things that are mostly made of air.
It’s not their fault. They acquire these three letter dirty words because they feel that those will give them stability, position, recognition, money, power and acceptance in the world. Hitherto, to a large extent, that, indeed, has been the case. However, the world is now well past the time when it can be satisfied with gaseous diplomas or window-dressing degrees. Those bought us a world of fear and alarm. Now, knowledge has necessarily taken precedence over learning and insight has taken precedence over education. Hanging above it all, wisdom has become the great need of the day and folks, wisdom comes from getting one’s hands muddied in this kickass reality we call the world.
On that matter, I can share some great, positive news with you. Wisdom doesn’t require us to pass the O’Level or the A’Level or get degrees or masters or PhDs or post-docs. It can be acquired by all regardless of the social, economic or academic sub-stratum to which they belong. It’s the outcome of a kind of self-service where the effort is worthy because it; a) is part of a greater collective effort, b) is simple, responsible, replicable and useful and c) requires no validation or adoption by anyone.

“Diplomas were never the reason why they did what they did and their effort was based on accomplishing something good for the world – not achieving something that was only of good to the industry that overarches all other industries – the social-fashion industry and its attended manufacturing of a vote for things that are mostly made of air”

 A wise person is generally not a scientific person or career person. Nor is he or she a discussing, arguing, researching, collating, correlating, analyzing person. Those are things that are the vacuous mainstream indulgences of people who, hell-bent on getting an education for a living, have completely lost contact with life.
Wise people will take time off to grow a chillie plant in a pot instead of complaining that the price of chillies is Rs.1,600 a kilo. They will have a small composting bin on their balcony and not be the cause of the Meethotamulla disaster. They will have a solar panel on their rooftops instead of screaming at CEB tariffs. They will switch off their lights instead of railing at power cuts. They will use public transport at non-peak hours and weekends instead of howling about congestion.
In short, they are problem solving people not problem-complaining people or problem-contributing people and as they proceed down this road, they acquire greater and greater insight into the working of the world. Insight that is impossible for the PhD holding specialists and qualified career people who naively believe that they are worth something when they aren’t.
Twenty nine years ago, as I studied Duong over that pitcher of beer, I said (paraphrased) “The intellectuals are able, only. The intellectually intelligent are enabled, only. The intellectually intelligently creative are knowledgeable, only. The intellectually intelligently creatively emotionally stable are wise and Doung wisdom cannot be if we are thrilled by our intellect, intelligence, creativity, mental stability and what it can personally give us in this world ”.
He grinned, turned to me and said “Yup! so, whatcha gonna do doc?”. I looked him straight in the eye and said “You reminded me why I should get the hell out of education because it can give me absolutely nothing of worth”. And so it happened. Both Duong and “Jun” as he was wont to call me, walked out of the convenient, fashionable, useless, conventional route of becoming someone through the stifling, mind stilting, insight killing, resource guzzling, world destroying path of higher education – happily, positively and very productively, never to return.
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