Friday, 7 May 2010

Time for a survey! [updated]

Listen up, readers: I have a question for you.

Buried in yesterday’s post on the long-term decline of educational standards was this observation by Professor George Reisman that I’ve been struck by for some time:

    _quoteProperly, by the time a student has completed a college education, his brain should hold the essential content of well over a hundred major books on mathematics, science, history, literature, and philosophy, and do so in a form that is well organized and integrated, so that he can apply this internalized body of knowledge to his perception of everything in the world around him. He should be in a position to enlarge his knowledge of any subject and to express his thoughts on any subject clearly and logically, both verbally and in writing. Yet, as the result of the mis-education provided today, it is now much more often the case that college graduates fulfill the Romantic ideal of being ‘simple, uneducated men.’” [Emphasis mine.]

So here’s the question: I know many of you regular readers have been to college—or as we call it here, university.  How does that gibe with your own experience?

In other words:

How much of the essential content of how many major books did your
brain hold after you graduated?

We all know that many students emerge from universities knowing less than they did when they entered; graduating with heads full of random, unintegrated bites of information, and arguments they’re aware (deep down) they’ve never really mastered.

We know you can leave today's universities without every having heard of the giants of your own field; that you can be given an economics degree having never read (or read of) Adam Smith; or an architecture degree without ever getting to grips with Frank Lloyd Wright; or a philosophy degree without ever even encountering, or wrestling with Aristotle.

We know all that—or do we?

How does your own experience gibe with any or all of these observation?  I’d love to know.

UPDATE: Just to make it easier, why not answer these three questions for me:

a)How many major books were you required to read in your uni course?
b) How much of those did your brain hold after you graduated?
c) How many of the leading figures of your discipline were you introduced to, and in what depth?

For my own part…

a)  I studied at two architecture schools, the first of which (Victoria Uni of Wellington) was lucky to even own one-hundred architecture books. Fortunately, that particular situation was improved at Auckland, though one was more encouraged to read magazines on post-modernism than actual books.  So I’d have to say that I was required to read very few—but between them the Auckland architecture and main libraries allowed me to read several hundred (which somewhat made up for the paucity of the education on offer).

b) I’d like to think I managed to digest them all, but a more integrated (it could hardly have been less) course would have helped.

c)  Aside from historian Russell Walden, the lecturers I encountered at the Wellington school in my day seemed completely unaware that any architects existed apart from Ian Athfield, Roger Walker and the luminaries at the Ministry of Works (yes, possums, that does show my vintage).   And in Auckland, if you didn’t subscribe to a mongrel combination of Le Corbusier and the Deconstructivist-de-jour you might as well have been dead—which pretty much describes the response if any enthusiasm for learning more about Frank Lloyd Wright was shown.

So those are my answers.  How about yours?


  1. Complete waste of time except for the certificate I got at the end of it.

  2. It's only years later that I've realised I only have a thin veneer of knowledge in the areas I claim to have studied.

    I may have absorbed the content of over a hundred major chapter headings.

  3. Depends on what's defined as 'essential content. I did a civil engineering degree over 5 years. Most of the detail of this I could not recall - certainly not 100 books worth.

    For instance, I learnt how to design a pre-stressed concrete slab. Could I sit down right now and design a slab? No.

    Could I do it if I dragged out my old notes and reaquainted myself with it all again? Probably, thought it would take me a while. Can I recall enough about the basic process, such that if I engaged someone else to design it it, I'd be able to ask the right questions and provide the right brief? Yes.

    Maybe the social sciences and the physical sciences are a little different - and this may appear slightly contra Reisman's argument, but the main thing I got from my degree *was* the skill of solving problems, rather than any specific content. However I wholeheartedly agree you can't learn that ability without immersing yourself in the facts of your discipline, even if you forget a lot of the detail later.

  4. @TWR: Thanks for that, but maybe I should have been more specific.

    a)Hhow many major books were you required to read in your uni course?

    b) How much of those did your
    brain hold after you graduated?

    c) How many of the leading figures of your discipline were you introduced to, and in what depth?

  5. a: Zero
    b: N/A
    c: Two or three maybe, in passing.

    Still, it was a commerce degree after all.

  6. Richard McGrath7 May 2010, 10:04:00

    Doing a medical degree, all up I probably looked at about 15-20 text books in varying depth. Often there was much more in the text book than I needed to know. Sometimes lecture notes were all we had. Sometimes the texts were almost unreadable. I would love to be doing undergraduate medical studies now, with the tecghnology and computerisation that we didn't have in the 80s it would be so much easier in a lot of ways - visualising anatomy in 3 dimensions for instance.

    I have probably lost the information obtained from text books if I haven't used the knowledge on a regular basis. For instance I don't think much about biochemitry these days, even though it was one paper out of three in second year medicine.

    We were occasionally lectured by some of the leading national authorities in the various specialties, and certainly by surgeons, physicians, pathologists, etc., for whom I still have enormous respect. But the old style of lecturing to 180 students, many of whom were hung over and sleep-deprived, did not work well, and I understand a lot more time at medical school nowadays is spent in small group sessions, which I always found superior in terms of learning.

  7. Tough question, because how you evaluate it depends in part on your course of study.

    As a philosophy major, I read a great deal of Plato and a fair amount of Aristotle at UCLA, along with large chunks of Hume, Berkeley, Mill, Locke, Descartes, and other major figures.

    That was leavened with with hundreds of essays and journal papers of a dozen figures so minor that half of them are completely unknown only 25 years later.

    As a PhD student in Physics I was assigned to read NO major books, because that's not really how physics is taught or learned. One uses a great many textbooks in that program, of course, but they're not designed to be read as, say, an economics or history book would be.

    It really didn't matter, though. I've read serious books (and many frivolous ones, which also have their value) since I was a young child, and continue to. If I had to depend on what I learned in school I would be the same kind of idiot most people outside the sciences (and many inside) are.

    The really bad experiences (apart from being tortured in college by communists and post-moderns) was in high school.

    There, you not only don't learn anything, they actively bore you to death and you are required to go every day, all day. At least in college you can skip the lectures, if you choose. American high schools are all about baby sitting for teenagers. At least they were. Now, they are more about indoctrination.

  8. PC,

    1: In my major (informatics) we had a single text book for all three years. This was supplemented by case studies.All other subjects had one textbook per year (so approx. 18 textbooks)

    2: I must say I know that major book fairly well, could probably pass and exam on it now (10 years later). As for integrated knowledge, no attempt was made to even show the relevance of other subjects.

    3: Nil.

    I read more books per year out of own interest than I was ever required to read in Uni.

  9. After completion of my bachelor degree my knowledge of the law was academically wide but I say with hindsight, quite thin. I practised for a few years then completed a masters degree. My knowledge of my masters subjects was deeper but narrow. After 33 years of the rough and tumble of practising I find that the discipline itself is self-lecturing. I believe further that much of the law has been overly academisised. (I think the last is a made up word?)

    Chris R.

  10. I didn't go to university; however, my secondary education was at an english Public School and it was very very thorough indeed.

    This was a long time ago now, but I remember that we were required to learn by rote and our minds were crammed with facts about every subject which we studied. History was filled with dates, maths was filled with tables and formulae, geography was stuffed full of capitals, populations and industries, music required students to either play an instrument or study and write about the baroque period, physics was full of facts like the laws of thermodynamics and so on.

    I can absolutely empathise with prof George Reisman when he writes that in order to be properly educated a student has to have a mind full of facts about whatever subject you are studying. It is only if you have a solid background of facts that you can progress and build on your knowledge. Its just not good enough to say that the facts are available elsewhere, because without an innate knowledge of the facts a student has no cultural frame of reference on which to build an understanding of the interrelationships, developments, directions and forces at play on any given discipline.

    I have subsequently been in the position of employing and managing graduates and, in my experience, a huge proportion of those I dealt with were functionally illiterate, empty of ideas and creativity, expressed themselves exclusively in jargon and didn't really know anything much. Certainly, my own childrens' New Zealand educations were only a fraction of the quality of my own and this may be due to NZ or the general dumbing down of education standards worldwide.... I don't know.

    One terrifying experience I had was recently talking to a teacher who said that she 'wouldn't be allowed' to state that Darwin's Theory Of Evolution was correct because each person has the right to make up his/her own mind on something like evolution and that this holds good for other areas of education too. These things are taught as "some people think such-and-such" etc. This absolutely blew me away. Today's 'educators' seem to be on a completely different planet, frankly.


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