Beware of useless university degrees

"It is unfortunate that many universities continue teaching very useless courses at degree level rendering their graduates jobless after graduation. You find many of these people putting on big academic gowns but have no solutions to many of the country's challenges. These people have nothing to help us because they offered useless courses."

“It is unfortunate that many universities continue teaching very useless courses at degree level rendering their graduates jobless after graduation. You find many of these people putting on big academic gowns but have no solutions to many of the country’s challenges. These people have nothing to help us because they offered useless courses.”

Those are words that were said by a Head of State in a country next door. Oh boy, did they set off a storm. Judging by the strongly worded opinion pieces and readers’ comments that followed, a lot of people were very offended by those words.

It was the kind of anger that suggested that the President had stepped on some sensitive toes, so to speak.

I suspect that the most offended among these are the same people who were the target of the sharp-hitting words: the humanists.

Contrary to what the President was saying, many argued, the arts are superior to the natural sciences and those who had studied courses like history, political science, sociology, etc were more creative than their counterparts who had studied biology, chemistry, and mathematics, for instance.

My observation is that such an argument points to the trees and misses the forest. First, by reinforcing the dichotomy between disciplines, social scientists fall in the same trap in which they find themselves in the first place.

This is the idea that there is an intellectual wall between natural and social sciences and that one of these is the only source of legitimate knowledge.

It is an idea that has had social scientists on the defensive for the past half a century or so. It has also imbibed in them an inferiority complex that manifests itself in a sort of defence mechanism as noted above.

This psychological disposition is much more entrenched, however. Over that period of time the preoccupation with what is real knowledge has gained more meaning and value. Progressively, disciplines that did not rely on numbers to explain phenomena were considered illegitimate and began to lose focus within and outside academia.

The result has been a sort of arms race in the disciplines. In order to retain status as legitimate areas of intellectual inquiry, social sciences began to mimic the natural sciences through a preoccupation with numbers. Some found it easier to make this transformation; others couldn’t and were relegated to second-class status among academic disciplines.

The success with which Economics was able to mathematicise itself meant that it could colonise the rest of the social sciences. Indeed, that is how economists stopped referring to themselves as social scientists.

The walls between disciplines became rigid. Mutual alienation and contempt ensued between the superior and inferior disciplines. In everyday life, the same walls were reproduced and erected among students in secondary schools and universities.

Those who studied at the National University of Rwanda, for instance, will attest to this. The social sciences were courses reserved for the “dumb” students. They even developed a name for these: “Ibisosi.”

A generation earlier, it was difficult to convince people that one had been educated if they hadn’t studied law or medicine. In other words, this preoccupation with disciplines has been shifting over time.

It has had a major consequence on how we conceived the idea of knowledge and the systems we have established to deliver it. One is that education is increasingly compartmentalised. Second, our graduates in the natural sciences feel justified not to be able to read and write. Similarly, those in the social sciences are not disturbed by their lack of basic numeracy skills.

Our numerous challenges suggest that we ought to pursue a multi-disciplinary approach to education that considers all academic disciplines as part of a relay in which we pass the baton across disciplines.

Let me end where I started. If the discussion among our neighbours had been about the forest instead of the trees, it would have sought to bring closer the disciplines. On the specific problem of employment, it would be apparent that a well-thought-out curriculum would produce skilled graduates across disciplines such that any graduate – be it in history, accounting, biology, chemistry, or music – would possess the basic skills to be employable as a teller in any commercial bank, for instance.

It is our education systems that need fixing. As presently constituted, they reproduce the dialogue of the deaf where each discipline is encouraged to comprehend as little as possible about another; moreover, such systems can only produce educated but ignorant graduates.

To fix this quandary in which we find ourselves would require breaking down those academic walls. Over to you, MINEDUC.

 

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