In a couple of weeks most of you will be free to begin to live your life as it should be lived: free from the worries of attending lectures, submitting assignments, and writing examinations. I wonder how many of you will pause to think if you gained anything in the four years you have been with us. If you did, all of you without exception will say that academically it was useless but socially it was the most rewarding time of your life. A good understanding of this feeling has enabled shrewd financiers in the US universities to accumulate alumni supported huge foundation funds and the Australian universities are slowly getting into the act. I would have no difficulty with this if this fact about alumni support was not often trumpeted as an endorsement of university education from past students.
I often wonder why society educates its citizens in universities at a very heavy cost to the tax-payer. My guess is that by labelling citizens as educated the society can expect little resistance from them when the society wants to advance on scientific principles. Great ideas are a dime a dozen but the ability to get them accepted is rare. So in the long run the method of breaking the resistance by educating is less expensive than bringing revolutions by bloodbaths. Do we achieve this objective? Many times I feel we don't. We have all too often come across the adage: a little education is a dangerous thing. And as a professional educator I know that all we do is impart little education! Why is it so? I think it's owing to two basic flaws in our education system.
Most of you will say that you didn't benefit academically (with the exception of the project) because the education was not practical and there was too much theory. In this lies the biggest failing of university education. In four years we couldn't even communicate to you what is university education. In principle we educate you to seek and discover knowledge for yourself. Knowledge is an intellectual struggle to reduce the number of principles which explain natural and human behaviour. We educate by demonstrating how principles explain a diverse range of phenomenon and how even these principles can be further reduced by discovering the common elements amongst them. We hope you will make a few discoveries of your own.
Abstraction is very important in the discovery and understanding of principles or laws. It is easy to go from the habit of abstraction to specifics but very difficult the other way round. In other words, once a principle is learned and understood in abstract it can be easily applied in practice but going from application to principles is not easy. In not being able to indoctrinate students in the system of our education, which goes from abstract to specifics, is our first failing and not as is commonly misunderstood in not teaching things practical.
Our second monumental failing is in the lecturing system. I sit through several seminars in my own area of research and I literally don't learn a single new thing from the entire seminar. This is not because I am uncommonly dull. I share this experience with many others. Lecturing is useless in communicating new ideas. If it is so then how do we learn?
All academics take sabbatical when they get away from teaching and devote all their time doing research. Everyone without exception says that it was due to the uninterrupted study that they achieved so much during their sabbatical. Students who have good outcomes for their projects say the same thing. Now what do we do with this common experience when we teach. We invert it. We say students will learn by breaking their study into chunks of fifty minutes and three to four assessable tasks everyday. We will not give them any peace to reflect on what they study, we will drive them from one task to another and expect them to learn whilst all our learning experience is completely opposite to that way of learning. This has to change if we want students to learn.
When historical introduction to modern science is given the example of 32 teeth and Aristotle is used to illustrate the importance of actual experimentation in learning. The mention of the fact that Aristotle postulated that humans have 32 teeth and no one bothered to open a mouth and actually count the number of teeth till a thousand years later draws loud scoffs from educated audiences. I would join them in their mirth if I was not so certain that future generations will not similarly laugh at us for a million stupid things we do now and one amongst them is the way we teach in universities.
I have two requests for you in my farewell message.
1 November 2005
This has been a very special day which most Australians will not forget. On this day Makybe Diva won the third consecutive Melbourne cup with the same jockey, Glen Boss, riding it. No other horse has done it before in the 140 odd years of Melbourne cup history. Today was also Deepavali day, a festival widely celebrated in India.