by Julius WiedemannFeb 09, 2022
The son of a friend of mine recently asked his father not to go to university because he said a lot of geniuses haven’t done so. In fact, the likes of Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, have never completed university, and the Silicon Valley has always nurtured this idea that entrepreneurial spirit leaves a lot outside universities, even though with MBAs being commonly required in companies. His answer was clear: “If you pass the exams and start mathematics in Harvard, you can quit university.” Parents always experience anxiety when kids go to university, because they want their loved ones to be independent in all aspects - emotionally, financially, and others. When we ask parents what they want for their kids, their usual answer is that they want them to be happy. I am a firm believer that the most noble ambition is the one of the intellect. But it takes time to build that. Self-made people who are also self-taught professionals have uncommon stamina and willingness to pursue their dreams, and that is not found everywhere. But these days, digital learning tools are everywhere, for whoever wants to embrace them. And with mobile phones most knowledge is at our fingertips.
Education has been transformed into a social construct to take people from childhood to university. It has also become a huge market. It seems undeniable that a certain academic inflation has been going on for a long time. MBAs became almost a must compared to what a bachelors degree was previously, required for most professions. Extended learning has also become an important arm of any educational institution, including an important part of the financial gains for them. Since the 13th century, the number of universities have surpassed the number of monasteries in the world. Since then, the number of people completing a third degree has exploded. In 2050, countries such as South Korea and Singapore will have around 50 per cent of their population with a university diploma. According to OECD, the Paris-based think-tank, the number of degree-holders worldwide will reach 300 million by 2030. OECD has also forecasted that the “global population of university graduates is expected to nearly double over this decade” and “it is also projected that by then China and India together will account for nearly half of all degree-holders worldwide.”
One of the most fascinating autodidact stories I have ever heard is about the invention of the microwave oven. The story goes that it was invented apparently by accident, when a Raytheon engineer named Percy Spencer was testing a military-grade magnetron, and suddenly realised his snack had melted during the event. Percy was a self-taught genius. He hadn’t finished grammar school and he started working very early to support his family. As a curious person, he got involved with electrical engineering without any formal course. He climbed up the corporate ladder and was one of the most respected men in his lab, at Raytheon. He was part of the marine corps before dedicating his life to applied sciences. At that time, what one could do, was to go to public libraries and read book after book, magazine after magazine, and get informed about the latest technologies and general discoveries.
Voltaire, the French philosopher and revolutionary, once allegedly said that “work keeps at bay three great evils: boredom, vice and need.” Needless to say, most of us strive to have more to do, work and leisure. But for that we need more knowledge. The professions of the future will need more skills than they will need degrees and diplomas. Coding is a good case. Courses such as mathematics and physics, and very often engineering, have formed great coders. But this ability is not exclusive of these academic courses. It has to do a lot more with the development of logical thinking and hard work, trying to understand some established programming languages. The arts will also start to change quickly. The availability of courses, or threads of courses, available at reasonable prices, is exploding. The future dynamics of both education and learning can potentially create new social constructs. Maybe, classic courses such as engineering, psychology, architecture, medicine, law, literature, and others will become fashionable again because they will be able to open doors into other expanded or niche worlds, which will in turn demand some sort of micro education.
For established professions such as medicine and law, self-teaching and discipline is more a question of survival, and maintaining the capacity to learn more every day, because these are areas where knowledge never stops to be produced. Specially these days. Others like engineering, depending on the type, may also require legal authorisation for someone to perform, and therefore require a diploma. But more and more, dropping out from the university will become a normal feature. Finding our talent will be certainly a challenge looking at the future, so great is the uncertainty and the opportunities in the market place of the future. We will have to care a lot more about the base, and less about the outcome. Learning by doing is a principle that will be reinforced. And being a dropout myself, I see some light at the end of the tunnel. The challenge will be also that nobody will be forcing no one to do or to finish anything. It will be up to every individual to pursue their dreams and train themselves with the skills they need so much to accomplish that.
Read more from the series Digital Legacies where our columnist Julius Wiedemann investigates the many aspects of digital life.