Breadth is valuable

Reflecting on Cardinal Newman’s ideas on the role of the university, my predecessor as vice-chancellor, Professor Dame Alison Richard, observed: “The dichotomy between ‘useful’ and ‘not useful’ is itself increasingly ‘not useful’.” With an anthropologist’s view of the benefits of biodiversity, she made a powerful case for its academic equivalent: “The case for breadth centres on the proposition that the greatest challenges facing the world today are of huge complexity and global scope, best tackled by people whose education enables them to integrate different fields of knowledge and work across conventional academic boundaries.”

link: Universities need Pepys as much as Newton – Telegraph

Cheap Signalling

From The Black Swan:

“It is one thing to be cosmetically defiant of authority by wearing unconventional clothes – what social scientists and economists call ‘cheap signalling’ – and another to prove willingness to translate belief into action.”

Struck a chord for a couple of reasons.

  1. a lot of cheap signals (e.g. bookmarks in delicious) seem to create value when aggregated
  2. one of the things that frustrates me online is reading posts that are “more of the same” – cheap signals I suppose, which I’m as guilty as the next person of sending.

Ho hum.

Philosophy Bears and Fruit

From China Daily, Society must not shun philosophers

A friend of mine once told me a joke: A job hunter, a philosophy major, went here, there and everywhere in his search for employment, but in vain. Having run out of options, he swallowed his pride and took up the offer of playing a bear in a costume at a zoo. He was locked up in a cage, where he was supposed to imitate various bear-like movements to entertain visitors.

To his horror, another bear appeared in the cage and started approaching him. He panicked and was on the brink of collapse when the bear said: “Don’t be afraid. I’m also a philosophy major.”

Funny and somewhat ridiculous, the joke does reveal an essential truth. In a society geared towards immediate gains, philosophy seems unable to produce tangible benefits. For the majority, philosophy seems virtually useless.

The author goes on to lay claim to an interesting historical precedent.

“Germany, which lagged far behind Britain and France, rose quickly in the late 18th and 19th centuries because philosophy flourished during that period, among other things. Philosophy was so popular at the time that Kant’s “Critique of Pure Reason” could be found in young ladies’ boudoirs. It is from this fertile soil that a galaxy of great names emerged, which still have a profound influence on our world today – Kant, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Hegel and Marx.

The great ancient Chinese civilization was created because our ancestors attached great importance to rational thinking. Ancient philosophical ideas were at the core of the governance of ancient kingdoms and dynasties.”

Tend to agree.

Drucker and Specialists

Stumbled across a talk Peter Drucker gave to the Harvard John F Kennedy School of Government (the 1994 Edwin L. Godkin Lecture to be precise). He talks about the various shifts coming for society, but two caught my eye. First, he decides that knowledge now (or if not now soon) will only be useful in application.

“The knowledge of the German Allgemeine Bildung or of the Anglo-American liberal arts had little to do with one’s life work. It focused on the person and the person’s development, rather than on any application. Both nineteenth-century Allgemeine Bildung and liberal arts prided themselves on having no utility whatsoever. In the knowledge society, knowledge basically exists only in application.”

The second snippet was this:

“Knowledge workers, whether their knowledge be primitive or advanced, whether there be a little of it or a great deal, will, by definition, be specialized. Knowledge in application is effective only when it is specialized. Indeed, it is more effective the more highly specialized it is.”

This vision of Big Peter’s is all sounding a little bleak, isn’t it? Knowledge workers, it appears, are no different to factory workers in the mandates they need to follow. “Don’t do it unless it helps you in your role” and “specialise, specialise, specialise”.

I’m not sure there really was a point of pride at the lack of utility. As far as I understand it (certainly the Anglo-American liberal arts tradition), rather than becoming better at a specifically and immediately useful subject, you gained generally useful knowledge. The approach, as opposed to Drucker’s, assumes life outside the role, which is no bad thing. Any utility this generalist approach had may not be easily measurable, but that doesn’t mean it’s not there.

[UPDATE: I should probably add as a disclaimer that I did Greek & Philosophy as a first degree :)]

Knowledge Retention and the Importance of Forgetting

Three things happened in conjunction this morning that made me wonder whether memory and experience have some underestimated drawbacks. In order,

  1. I saw Jack’s post about Knowledge Retention
  2. My server stopped working because it was full, and
  3. I read a paper by Martin Dodge on the ethics of forgetting in an age of pervasive computing

All of which conspired to tinkle a little – well, tiny – bell in my head, because a long time ago I remember being struck by something in Kevin Kelly’s book Out of Control [online version], namely that death was an integral part of a healthy complex system.

Continue reading Knowledge Retention and the Importance of Forgetting


Sebastian Fiedler has written a couple of interesting posts on learning and self-organization, the first of which is calledSeblogging: Is self-organization in learning always the problem of somebody else?.

It reminded me that the value of university – certainly as I saw it – was (at least) 50% social, but there’s a yin/yang catch.

The yin for me is breadth: while I enjoyed my course, and learnt a lot from it, being in a group of like-minded, almost certainly pretentious(!), but definitely curious peers who could knock the edges off your ideas (and prejudices) – and being able to do so regularly, face to face – was fantastic.
Continue reading Education