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Tuesday, 9 December 2014

Well, A Lot of This is About Uni...

University, to my mind, is the primary embodiment of tertiary education (although it is obviously not the only form of it). Metaphorically, if primary education represents the foundation, and secondary the structural frame, tertiary education must therefore be the dressings of the house: what makes it how it will be. That is, the nature of the house is decided not by where the walls are but by what goes into them, their colours and the stuff that is held within them. We could also see education as something that narrows. Primary develops a broad view that grounds a pupil sufficiently that they can start to go in some broad and vague direction on entering secondary. Secondary provides both the place to stand and evaluate specialisation and a protective framework to start that process of specialisation. In tertiary, one goes all out in some sort of specialisation with only limited room for a broader basis... such as the conjoint (and, to an extent, the double major -- obviously going back for another degree does this too but it doesn't count).

So, that's the personal point of university. What does that mean more broadly for society? Well, we've seen that it's the tale of specialisation and in a functioning society we need people who are able to do different, specific roles. There is definitely room for jacks of all trades and polymaths but, as a whole, the societies that work best have some sort of adaptable specialisation in them. The adaptable bit is actually really important because we see, in the natural world, species that die off because they're too specialised in a changing world. If we think about this societal context, such "species" end up having to be carried by society or function in roles that don't necessarily make sense (such as a gardener who's really a rather unhappy nuclear physicist), both of which can be bad things. So, what university has to be able to do for society is provide people who can perform specialised roles but, at the same time, have the skills and attributes that mean they are versatile and can adapt to do something else as well. It's essentially the same problem faced by soccer teams. A striker who's offensively average relative to their peers may well be the superior player holistically because they can perform defensively or work in different roles (such as, for instance, playing out wide) whereas said peers can only function as offensive strikers. Adaptation may require some degree of retraining but as long as that retraining isn't complicated by the existing specialisation everything's fine.

If you take me as an example, I think you can see this idea of the roles of primary, secondary and tertiary education quite well. In primary we did pretty much everything that needs grounding in. Basic facts in maths, some strategies for approaching problems, basic grammar, spelling, writing, reading etc. Topic Study also provided an option to explore less directly relevant topics so you would end up doing things that involved some sort of scientific or social engagement. In general, primary school would or could build a broad programme of learning around some sort of theme like space or ponds. 

In secondary, the story of specialisation began with the general primary one. The difference was, artistically, one ended up with some sort of specialisation. No longer did everyone do music, drama, art and dance but, instead, pupils would focus in some sort of area. I ended up with art and drama (the latter of which I actually carried right through, although it peaked in terms of enjoyment in Y11). For the first few years, pupils improved in the core areas of English, science and maths and developed things like technology, PE and languages in new areas... as well as finally meeting social studies properly. By Y11 the pupil was considered ready to engage in some sort of specialisation... with maths, science and English being compulsory (I ended up adding history, economics and drama to that). In the final two years, the level of specialisation increased (in fact, I ended up with classics, history, maths, drama and economics for both with English being replaced by study for Y13) but there was still some more general level necessitated by the number of choices available. In this sense, first year university is essentially only different to the end of college in that there are more subjects available and less room in the timetable (sort of).

That being said, the university timetable will look very different to a school one. For instance, Auckland's runs from 8am to 6pm five days a week and, as such, is far more open. In fact, it was so open in my four course first semester ever at the start of this year I felt if I had to check to confirm I hadn't done something horribly wrong. I hadn't: the huge gaps (especially on Thursday and Friday) were meant to be there. Well, I say that but most people prefer to avoid having gaps longer than two hours if they can, even though later on in the semester the gaps are good for doing work. In general, I would agree that a more compact timetable is better as it is less tiring in a physical sense (except when you have to criss-cross campus with minimal time for food-breaks). 

As I have a fifty-five minute commute to get to uni, I try to avoid 9am uni starts and if it's 8am I will boot it out the window and remove it from consideration. However, I don't always have a choice. Provided that I continue to pass everything the second half of next year will see me have to 9am starts a week due to a course that also means I cannot take a course in one of my majors that semester. Hopefully I can avoid situations like that again but the reality is once you're past stage I papers one is liable to be dealing with courses that have only one stream for lectures and possibly completely immobile aspects like clinics or something (whatever it was that was causing the clash between stats and economics). However, in stage one (particularly for business courses that aren't ECON 101, and, presumably, 111) there are likely to be multiple streams for lectures as well as tutorials. As should be clear from this paragraph, where in college the pupil chooses the subject and the school creates the timetable, the university student must choose their subjects from courses that the university has already allotted certain times for. It speaks of the greater onus on the student that uni has as a whole, and can be kind of complex as an exercise.

This post is a mess. It covers something of the place of university in society, the way society functions, what the purposes of the three stages of education are and even some advice on the nature of the university timetable. There's no real theme. Is it general? Personal? Who knows? But, there is some value to be found in reading it. Comments welcome (indeed, desired).

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