There have been quite a number of obits for the death of Ray Bradbury, the science fiction writer. I’m not a big science fiction fan, and don’t read the genre, but I do remember some of Bradbury’s stories from high school reading assignments. I admire the prescience that writers such as Bradbury, Asimov, Clarke, and Dick showed in their work, especially related to the effects of technology on our society.
Among the recent blog posts I note one from the excellent TYWKIWDBI containing a quote from Bradbury that he didn’t believe in colleges and universities, but he did believe in libraries. From this I infer that he didn’t believe in the institutions of higher learning, but was a believer in continued education throughout one’s lifetime.
I’ve always been a fan of higher learning. I admire those who have advanced degrees, and the opportunities they’ve had for learning. I’ve regretted for the past 30 years that I didn’t get a degree beyond my initial BS in Economics; I once had an opportunity to get an MBA but had an unsupportive spouse; even though another degree would have advanced my career in the long run she was thinking only in the short term and of the delays until I started bringing home a paycheck. I’ve thought many times over the years about getting another degree, but the older I get the more sacrifices this would entail. The costs get higher and higher, and the length of time that this would actually benefit my career decreases. At this point if I were to make the sacrifices in time, effort, and cost it would be for a subject that I personally enjoy (perhaps history or classics or something) rather than for a work-related topic which, frankly, I don’t much care much about any more beyond the confines of the office walls.
But, if it’s not work related and thus for the purpose of advancing my career, what would I gain from pursuing an advanced degree in an “interest” field beyond the simple satisfaction of completing this goal? What would a diploma get me?
I do a lot of reading on certain topics, and sometimes take it further and turn my pursuits into specific research topics. I’ve written and had published papers in a peer-reviewed journal on Mormon history, and then did some research in Arthurian studies that came to the same conclusions as a master’s thesis that I saw at a later date. Certainly I’m capable of doing work at that level. But I don’t have the degree hanging on my wall. Does that matter?
Not all of my learning is on academic topics. As I’ve discussed in this blog my interests are varied and hobbies many. Every new hobby involves learning, whether how to build or fix something, or how things work.
In my professional life I occasionally pursue a certificate of some sort, and usually earning this certificate requires attending a certain number of classes – quite obviously for the profit motive of the organization offering the classes and/or certificate. This proven by their rarely allowing a student to “test out” to prove competence. As I already know the subject, instead of paying for the learning that a class could provide I (or my employer) am simply paying for the certificate. This situation is even worse when the courses are offered online; while more convenient for the student to attend the level of learning is even lower: just read the chapter and answer a couple of questions. In a few recent courses there wasn’t even a chapter to read. And there’s not even an instructor, just a “facilitator”. Oh yeah, that’s really educational. At least with a face-to-face class there is some interaction between the instructor and students, and between students, and if you already know the topic you can share what you know with others.
There’s been a lot of discussion lately about the value versus cost of a university education. I pay close attention to these discussions not only because of my own situation but because of the situations of my children. I have two children and one step child who have graduated – with large amount of student loan debt, with two more children still in school racking up more debt. The cost of a university education is skyrocketing due to a combination of government budget cuts and, well, because of the easy availability of student loans; schools charge more because they can. These increasing costs, combined with the poor job market, will keep my kids and others of their generation in debt for many years, putting them in tight financial situations just when they are starting their lives and careers. Plus their having less money to spend from their paychecks will result in a continued drag on the economy.
The situation is even worse for kids whose interests are in the “non employable” fields of the arts and humanities – which is unfortunately what my younger two are leaning towards. Learning for its own sake is no longer an affordable luxury.
Which brings me back to the Bradbury quote. Bradbury famously wrote one of his greatest works, Fahrenheit 451, on a pay-per-hour typewriter in the basement of the UCLA library. He was not a student there, but he loved the library. He was a fan of learning and exploring new ideas, but he was not a fan of structured education. The Asimov quote from the TYWKIWDBI blog post, however, showed this other great writer as supporting formal education at least as a foundation, but to be supplemented by continued learning throughout one’s lifetime.
This brings us then to the longtime debate about whether an education is to prepare the student for a trade or for life. Ideally it should be the latter, I feel. But given the current economic situation I’m afraid that, practically, it needs to the former. Perhaps it can be both: One needs first to make a living, but one should also have the foundation for a lifetime of learning.
My train of thought now leads to another, related topic: access to knowledge. How does one pursue this lifetime of learning without access to books? You could take the route that I’ve taken and fill your home with these wonderful paper-based containers of knowledge, or you could do it all electronically. I’m not going to restart the discussion of paper vs ebooks but I’m quite interested in being able to access books that you don’t normally find on the shelves of your favourite bookshop. I’m as guilty as anyone for driving the physical bookstores out of business as I do almost all of my shopping on Amazon, but I do this because the books that I read aren’t usually available in a physical store. I rarely read the latest bestsellers; I read the back catalogues. Amazon usually has these, but even here there’s a limit.
Simply, a lot of books are out of print. There’s not too many people clamouring for a copy of a bestseller from the 17th century, but there’s a few. There have been a number of efforts, most notably Project Gutenberg that make electronic texts of out-of-print books available. Amazon and the Apple bookstore also have large numbers of free texts. Google started a project a few years ago to digitize *everything*, but they ran afoul of copyright laws when they started digitizing in-print books as well. A recent effort called the Library of Utopia, led by Harvard University, hopes to avoid those problems. As is the case with most large efforts the problems are more political and legal than they are technical. One way or another, there is movement towards making all the world’s knowledge (at least that which hasn’t been destroyed) available to us all.
At this point we have no excuse. So put down the TV remote and pick up a book.