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Will the Internet kill universities, too?

Universities are extraordinary institutions. They are in fact, the last bastions of mediaevalism left in modern society outside, perhaps, the church. Like churches they attracted a certain type of person who did not share the values of the commercial world. The oldest universities date from the eleventh and twelfth centuries - hundreds of years before the invention of the printing press. In an age where books were scarce, communication was difficult and people who could read and write were almost as rare as the books, it made sense to centralise the acquisition and dissemination of knowledge. If you wanted to learn you headed towards where the books were and the people who could read them and that meant the great universities like Paris and Oxford. Poor communication, expensive reading materials and illiteracy were the foundation blocks for the universities. If today we have excellent communications, free online information and general literacy, we also have an environment in which the universities are struggling to maintain their position. That, of course, is not an accident.


This is where this student begins by recognising that university, like school, is also fairly phony in many ways. What saves university is generally the beauty of the subject as built by great minds. But if you just look at the professors and don't see past their narrow obsession with their pointless and largely unread (and unreadable) publications to the great invisible university of the mind, you will probably conclude its as phony as anything else. Which it is.

    -- Mark Tarver, Why I am not a professor

Actually I think that universities are far more useful as a social accreditation filter than for academic enrichment. In other words, they prove you can do work you're told to, on time, and give you an opportunity to develop and prove your skills at getting along with peers and superiors. If you're going to study tech, or literature, or languages because you love the subjects, you're going to do that anyway. But the hoop-jumping is the real point of the test.

I knew a number of bright folks who, for whatever reason, couldn't quite get it together in school and left. Some just a credit or two shy of graduation. It all comes down to: "Do well."

Comments (2)

The new Einstein biography points out that he believed that his failure to get an academic appointment, which forced him to take a menial job as a patent examiner, was a blessing. Without the infighting and the requirement for grad students to champion their mentor's theories he was liberated to write his four groundbreaking papers on relativity, quantum theory, etc.

He also found himself an 'authority' at age forty and regretted that he had become that which he rebelled against while a student. He did little important work after...

Neither Jobs or Gates graduated.


In recent years much attention has been paid in economics to the role of Universities as a signalling mechanism rather than offering some specialized knowledge.

The idea is that a super talented individual signals their skill by forgoing years of earning becuase they have confidence that they can recover those costs. A less productive individual can't recoup those large costs and chooses not to signal. However, if you have/create a rare opportunity such that you're not needing the signal to increase your earnings (i.e. an entrepreneur), finishing a degree is meaningless.

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