Friday, March 14, 2008

Eternal students

Just in time to miss the question of economics as vocation versus learning for its own sake comes this article from BBC News. "French students shy of the real world", it says, and the message is that France is a mess because French students are intellectually curious. Perhaps I paraphrase slightly.

France may be a global leader in high technology, but employers complain that today there are far too few students studying science and technology and there are far too many studying "soft subjects" which leaves them ill-prepared to join the real world of work.

I asked a passing student what he wanted to do when he left university. "I want to be an eternal student, " he said. "Just learning for learning's sake."

Fair enough, that might not get a great deal done in the scheme of things, but what a great sentiment. We are, after all, talking about a rich country here. Some young people will surely become scientists and engineers, if that's what they want. Some other young people will find that a "soft subject" (?) will be the one that stimulates them to want to know and to learn. The luxury afforded to the people who do not struggle to find food to eat or a place to live is to indulge in pursuits like these. We can afford to foster excellence in knowledge and learning, whatever form it may take.

Or we could start a state-run forced labor program.

"But with such poor economic growth and such huge public debt, this country now needs its clever young students to leave the university campus and start ploughing their skills and enthusiasms into the profitable world of work."

Chills. Why not just set up labor camps and get it over with? Who said anything about "growth" or "profitable"? Didn't the student just tell you he wants to simply learn? Was it not once the case that universities and learning were valued on their own merits? Can the technical and vocational not coexist with the abstract? I know there exist some non-technical careers out there for which the key requirement is "intelligent". As an employer, maybe I need scientists, but maybe I need people who are bright and creative and literate.

As I argued yesterday, there are particular implications for a field like economics which is torn between feeling itself purely vocational and purely not. This French debate then mirrors the tension at the heart of the teaching of economics; can it not be OK to pursue this field because it's interesting?

Then it's bizarre that it feels like many students take economics courses not because they enjoy them or because they are vocational. Perhaps economics just looks good, perhaps even because it's confused with finance or business. Perhaps we, the educators, are complicit in the charade because it brings high enrollments and money. There is no incentive to change the program, even if the core is rotten. It's like an asset bubble - the value of economics as a major, the value of economics to a university, to economics departments, goes up and up and up, but at the bottom there is nothing.

Maybe, maybe not. Maybe there is something down there. But if it's not intellectual curiosity, a desire to know, then what is it?

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