Monday, August 16, 2010



Roseann O’Reilly Runte, this is very thin gruel indeed.

“Imagine a world without innovation. The best ideas emanate from thoughtful research, discipline and team work.”

This statement is demonstrably false.

Einstein did not work in a team, neither did Darwin, nor Freud, nor almost any of the groundbreaking mathematicians of the century, people like Goedel.

Creators from Mozart to Schoenberg or our own Glenn Gould were not team members.

Yes, universities use teams of people in their research, but the fact is that truly new ideas rarely come from them. In the cases where they do, there is usually an individual who has sparked the work with an idea that requires testing and demonstrating.

Education is very important, but professional educators do often tend to overemphasize the importance the role of the institution, versus the inspired teacher or theorist.

Real education should start with the very young, as one of Queen Elizabeth I’s great teachers, Roger Ascham, stated centuries ago. Identifying the talents of the young and nurturing them fully gives a society the best chance of high success.

But it is with the young that Canada perhaps most fails. Many of our primary teachers cannot even use a computer, and many of them know little or nothing about the subject they teach, from math to history.

“Tolerance and respect are based on knowledge. Fear and distrust stem from ignorance.”

Well, that sounds nice as a broad aphorism, but I am afraid that it is largely false. Many highly educated people have been destroyers of society and enemies of tolerance: just a few examples from our last century include Joseph Goebbels, Henry Kissinger, James Angleton, or Vladimir Lenin.

You might include people like Edward Teller or even, to come down to the ridiculous, George Bush (two degrees from prestigious universities, although one doubts they were anything more than “legacy” degrees granted in search of his rich family’s contributions).

And in our primary schools, there is almost no room for what I call critical education. Try teaching children something meaningful about superstition, and you will have Christian Fundamentalist parents looking to be rid of you. Try teaching children to think critically about politics, and you will have party-faithful types after your hide. Try teaching children to think critically about the distortions of advertising, and you will have corporate people making your life miserable.

“Without access to education, wealth disappears”

Again, a highly exaggerated claim, as current events in places like China and India demonstrate. But more importantly, it is the quality and nature of the education that count as what economists call “human capital,” investments which generate wealth.

Higher education has two components: one part is investment, and the other is consumption. When someone studies demanding subjects which are needed in the economy, it is investment. When someone goes to university and muddles through in a “bird” subject, it is mainly consumption, not investment leading to anything of importance to the future economy.

"First of all, Einstein did work in a team - graduate students and other professors around the world were often consulted and contributed to the many brilliant innovations."

Einstein consulted select people, but he did not work as a team. He actually rather disliked the atmosphere of academic institutions generally.

His important papers have his name, not that of an institution.

And, I must say for someone who is ready to accuse others of ignorance, you seem unaware that he worked at the Patent Office when developing relativity by himself.

You say I cannot negate the column by a few examples, but isn't that ridiculous? Am I supposed to submit a list of hundreds? Which, by the way is completely doable. How many would you like?

This column reflects second-rate institutional academia, the very kind that contributes little to new knowledge and certainly no brilliant ideas.

“As for your dumb-headed assertion that those who take "bird" subjects; which I take you mean anything not directly beneficial to an industrial economy, are simply consuming precious resources which could be better spent pumping out scientists, engineers, doctors etc. is idiotic at best”

But that’s simply not what I said. For someone ready to hurl names, I do think you could read what you comment on before commenting.

I mentioned Mozart and Schoenberg. I could also have mentioned – again, if I were submitting lists – people like Picasso, Hemingway, T.S. Eliot, Edward Steichen, and hundreds of others.

I am well aware of the changes that have taken place in the world, and, while new areas of knowledge have developed, it remains true always that there is education as investment and education as consumption.

A lot of what we see today is education for consumption, of little difference to the real economy than eating jelly beans, and I believe this has been a trend for decades.

I am reminded of Sarah Palin who took 6 years at 5 different institutions to get a bachelor’s degree in “communications.” She remains abysmally ignorant, vastly uniformed, uninterested in serious things, filled with superstition and prejudice, and could have achieved what she has achieved without ever taking a course after high school.

In general, today’s average undergraduate is no better educated than the graduates of a good high school seventy years ago. Indeed, in some respects, they are less so.

We’ve simply inflated undergraduate degrees, much the way a third-world county’s central bank inflates its currency. That contributes nothing to the real economy other than keeping specific people, like the author of the column and the author of the comment, employed churning them out like sausages.

"The reason why I enjoy and am grateful for my university education is because students are allowed to disagree and question the supposed 'facts' they are given. This model for learning should, if anything, be introduced at a younger age. I would have done a lot better in high school if I knew I didn't have to agree with the teachers point of view."

Please, points of view are not the same as facts. You may disagree with points of view in university, but unless you are a genius with a new discovery, you cannot argue with facts.

But even granting disagreement with points of view, any classroom where a great deal of that goes on is one where education is being consumed, not where valued investment in education is underway.

Can you imagine classrooms filled with students full of attitude arguing with Shakespeare’s use of the passive voice or with the Third Law of Thermodynamics? That is a formula for a living chat room where nothing of substance is achieved.

"John Chuckman, you have it wrong on China and India. Both are investing heavily in university-based research for precisely the reasons indicated by the author"

Actually, no, I don’t think so.

We served as "homestay" for a gifted student from China for the better part of three years.

Through him and his friends, I am familiar with the circumstances in China facing students. Apart from that, I published a book on China’s growth in 2007.

Yes, China is investing, but up until now, going to university in China was limited to only the very elite of society, and I mean intellectually elite, not just moneyed.

The number of places was, and truly still is, relatively small, and there is a very tough national exam to be admitted, one which would probably exclude three-quarters of the undergraduates in Canada.

Because of these facts, pretty much only very superior talents attend Chinese Universities today.

Many are coming to Canada's institutions precisely because of the difficulty of admission in China.

Also, a bright friend of our young man confided that they regard Canadian universities as far easier. They work you like a dog in China.