“Everybody is a Genius. But If You Judge a Fish by Its Ability to Climb a Tree, It Will Live Its Whole Life Believing that It is Stupid.”
- Albert Einstein
This quote is often cited as a mantra for the problems with formal education. A fish can’t climb a tree. Albert seems to be saying we should not be judged by standardised testing when everyone’s skillset is unique. The system must be broken, right?
The quote is wrong. In fact, it’s not only wrong but even so much as deceitful. Albert Einstein never said this. Instead Matthew Kelly attributed it to the great thinker in his self help book, ‘The Rhythm of Life’, published in 2004. Unfortunately for Matt, Google came into existence a year later, revolutionising the general public’s access to information and exposing his false citation. Untruthfulness aside does the quote still have merit? Is formal education inherently wrong? Aren’t we all individuals with different skillsets? Should I still be at university?
To answer these questions is difficult as I, along with my peers, have found myself on both sides of the debate. It is all too easy to attribute our success to the wonders of formal education and our failures to the systematic injustice of standardised testing. Fish can’t climb trees. Hung-over students can’t climb grades. But in order to evaluate if we should be at university let’s not focus on grades but instead the value in obtaining them.
Universities often lag behind what the job market actually wants. Take a law degree as an example. There are 15 000 law graduates each year in Australia despite there only being 66 000 practising solicitors. Yet universities continue to promote the study of law. And for the lucky ones who get jobs, the old school teaching style must somehow arm them to to deal with future revolution of AI.
Just yesterday, I sat in science tutorial with a tutor who had less facial hair than me and appeared as if he could have been in high school. His lack of confidence and experience showed as the class sat there for 40 minutes in relative silence whilst he spoke in a monotone voice. This tutorial was meant to be a discussion where students bounced ideas off of each other. Not one student spoke. Now I am sure this tutor was some advanced PHD student but universities define the quality of a teacher by their academic research not their actual teaching ability. What our tutorial needed was an actual teacher; not another 20-year-old PHD student who can’t communicate.
It’s safe to say universities are out of touch. Too often are they retrospective and model what has worked in the past. The future workplace is shrouded in uncertainty with the only certainty being that students must be dynamic. It is therefore hard to see how the process of university is valuable when course structure is so rigid. Unlike the American system, our universities do not encourage broad educations before degree specialisation. This is a problem.
Students need a broad range of skills to draw from in the future economy dubbed the ‘freelance economy’. Doctors need to know what liquidity means. And Engineers need to know what a Picasso looks like. The only way students of today can compete with the artificial intelligence of tomorrow is by having a broad set of skills . The engineer who disregarded literature and art as ‘inefficient’ will be replaced by AI that shares a similar way of thinking.
Why have I not dropped out of university then? It’s a good question seeing as I have been fairly critical of university thus far. The answer is simple. It’s arguably the only free time in your life. Being in your earlier twenties and studying a degree is like having a magnetic field around you that repels any serious responsibility. Mortgage. Full-time work. Kids. And this time in life is essential to do the most learning you will since you were a baby. But this learning often comes outside of the formal education. It comes from pursing personal interests, moving out of home and caring for yourself. Being a student at university facilitates these things in our lives. Although not much credit should actually be given to the universities themselves. It is the informal parts of a formal education that are to be given credit. The values from an influential sport coach. The teamwork from doing community theatre. The craft of making a short film. The skill of writing for university newspaper.
Going to university allows us to invest time into ourselves. This is time that disappears off the face of the earth with full time employment. There are multiple criticisms of formal education. They are often backward looking and do not appropriately provide the skills needed for the future. But going to university allows you to get those skills yourself because it gives you the time to do so.
So yes, we could just drop out. But all that would do is take away the time that we have to invest in ourselves. Thank you to universities not for the formal education you provide but for the informal one you facilitate.
A fish can’t climb a tree. But give it enough time and it just might.
Image: Lexi Bundy