The things they don’t teach you in (design/art) school
Along with the debate about the future of work, a lot of attention has recently been paid to the way traditional education should/will evolve in the near future. The question of whether one needs a degree in order to become a good professional or land a good job (both of which are rather subjective matters), has been bothering many people looking to either change career paths or having found their, what we tend to call passion, relatively late in life (like me). The short and obvious answer is: No, you don’t need a degree. However, it certainly doesn’t hurt (I’ll expand on this in a moment).
Asking whether a degree is indicative of one’s progress in life is a little absurd when there are many people who have managed to become successful* at what they do, without holding a university certificate. But asking what the value and importance of formal education is, might be quite relevant, especially in times of a global social and economic recession.
In all honesty, formal education should have more to do with acquiring knowledge and developing intellectual potential than with supplying a prominent career. That is if we want to attribute an intrinsic, instead of a monetary value to education. Of course, not everybody has the luxury to study something they genuinely love (or study at all) and we cannot afford not being pragmatic about life, however, there should be more to education than a handsome paycheck.
Education should have more to do with developing intellectual potential than supplying a prominent career.
My relationship with academic training has always been somewhat schizophrenic: I’ve always struggled to find the balance between the idealistic and the practical side of education (in other words, what it gives one in terms of intellectual capacity against the ability to translate that capacity into a career). I did my first degree (in linguistics) because, at the time, I didn’t have anything better to do and mostly because I was brought up to believe that if I wanted to go further in life, I needed to go to university.
This mindset is actually an interesting left-over from a bygone era which can turn out to be massively deceitful, especially today. Clearly, I don’t want to dismiss the value of university education. In hindsight, although I was disappointed with mine, I don’t regret doing it because I learned many things I otherwise wouldn’t have but I still feel like it was simply an abstraction.
Two years ago when I decided to go back to school and get a degree in design (mainly because I expected that this would give me self-confidence to practice the profession, not magically make me a good designer), I thought that it would also increase my chances of getting a job as a designer somewhere worth the hassle, more easily. Sadly, I was wrong on both of these accounts: on countless occasions I’ve considered dropping out of school and worse, now I’m doubtful that I am fit for this (be a designer) even more than when I didn’t have a degree. But there’s a good chance I was having unrealistic expectations of formal education and its purpose is in fact, not what I imagined it to be.
Universities and programmes can be incredibly different, even within the boundaries of a single country. Whether formal education still has its worth and more importantly, what this worth essentially is, depends greatly on whom one’s asking, what they want/wanted to achieve with it and sometimes where they are, both geographically and socially. If one wants to practice law, they certainly need a degree but if one wants to be a designer, their commitment and drive are much more definitive of their future realisation. Besides, there are some seemingly benign factors like policy-making and fluctuations in the labour market which deserve careful examination if we want to discover how much formal education really matters these days and why (I will revisit this claim further on).
Why getting a degree doesn’t hurt?
An obvious benefit of formal education is simply learning ⏤ mastering a body of knowledge in a certain area. School is awesome for providing one with time to figure out what exactly kind of a professional (designer) they would like to be and hopefully point them in the right direction regarding where to begin. Nevertheless, people are different and we all have very different paths: I would argue that formal education looks differently from the point of view of someone who had to juggle school and work, for example, as opposed to someone who hasn’t experienced financial strain while studying and was able to immerse themselves completely in the study atmosphere.
On a more general note, academic training teaches discipline and develops the habit to always back up opinions with a solid argumentation. This is particularly useful and necessary today, when the misinformation is so great that it’s almost impossible to make out what’s a credible source and what’s sheer manipulation. Ideally, formal education instructs critical thinking ⏤ using simple logic to understand, analyse and above all question things, however, that doesn’t mean that these qualities cannot be adopted outside of university.
Another benefit of being enrolled at university (especially for professions like design) is (theoretically) the opportunity to do internships and gain practical experience while studying. This might be a great way to start pursuing a career at a company/industry of one’s choice (with a bit of luck, among other things, of course).
Sometimes education can be a very valuable cultural experience, if one goes to study abroad, for instance. This could open up not only academic doors for them but also be a source of wisdom and personal growth. The benefits of formal education are indeed many and different people find them in different places but from where I stand, those are some of the things that resonated with me the most.
On the flip-side, why getting a degree can be irrelevant to potential success in one’s life or career?
Let’s face it. Holding a degree in, in my case — design, automatically makes you a good designer just as much as having a driver’s license makes you a good driver. If you just sit back and don’t invest effort and time to build up the qualifications you acquired at school, and be able to discern what knowledge actually deserves attention, no degree is going to do you justice.
Today education is much more accessible and there are some great educators out there who are using innovative and efficient methods to teach (often at little to no cost), that traditional education might at times seem like a complete waste of energy and resources. As far as design goes, the profession is evolving so quickly, that even in practice-oriented programs, the gap between academia and industry still persists.
Change is much more rapid and prone to happen in business than in the academic field. Responsibilities and deadlines at universities can be stretched much more than on the job (depends on the university and program, but still, this is generally true). Furthermore, the overly complex style of academic writing and reading can sometimes be largely discouraging. There is red tape and some courses simply beg the question: “What on earth was that for”?
Formal education automatically makes someone a good designer just as much as a driver’s license makes someone a good driver.
Having said that, education being a substantial investment of time, emotion and in some countries huge financial capital, one should seriously do proper research before diving into it (I certainly wish I had done better research at the time).
I recently read Seth Godin’s Linchpin (2010) where he lays out a very compelling perspective on the topic of traditional education. He argues that being good at school can only get you this far because you are not going to do school forever (at least most people aren’t). I believe he has a point. Taking notes and checking off boxes, like getting straight As on tests, for example, only means that you are a good student. If nothing registers with you, and you’re not able to make smart choices, your degree isn’t going to mean much after you graduate. As Godin points out, something that traditional education is very good at, is teaching students that there is a formula for how to get the best out of one’s education/career/life. Interestingly, there isn’t. What works for one person, may be completely catastrophic for someone else and it does take a lot of ingenuity to draw your own roadmap and find your way to success.
If nothing registers with you, and you’re not able to make smart choices, your degree isn’t going to mean much after you graduate.
While education is not the central topic in Godin’s book and his ideas about what makes a person indispensable, do seem a little too optimistic⏤ it’s neither possible, nor sustainable for all people to stand out and be successful, if we think about it, the ones who do, didn’t achieve it because they followed rules for the sake of being obedient. Nor did they fit into a template. What they did was challenge already established convictions by introducing better ways to interpret them and didn’t ask for anybody’s permission or approval to do so.
Another thing that struck me in the book was Godin’s view on failure and how traditional education instructs fear of failure. As he argues, this was the model which was necessary for supplying efficient factory workers in the industrial age but this model is disastrous if we want to promote non-traditional thinking which pushes the envelope forward.
Luckily, things are changing and there are exceptions; in my design education we were strongly encouraged not to be afraid to fail because failing and figuring out other ways to do things is actually the best way to learn. But overall I think we as a society are still reluctant to see failure as something positive, let alone encourage it, and even though we claim to welcome diversity (in terms of opinions, worldview, cultures) the standard (both personally and professionally) is still rather fit in than stand out. I agree with Seth Godin though that standing out or fitting in is a choice and there’s no middle ground ⏤ ‘you can either stand out or fit in, not both’ (Godin, 2010, p.293).
Why question the value of formal education?
Oddly enough, many traditional programmes continue to assume that the value of one’s education is obvious to the people outside of the academic world. Nobody at (design) school tells you that you’d need to learn the art of negotiation in order to navigate life and your degree isn’t going to do the talking for you. Soft skills are just as critical as artistic ones, maybe sometimes even more. Unfortunately, traditional education still fails to teach students really practical skills which they will surely benefit from once they leave the safe academic circle.
Running the risk to make this article too political, although education is a political topic, I think it is important to consider how some factors, like industry and policy-making influence the education system and consequently its merit.
Just weeks ago, (June 2020), the Australian government introduced a notable reform in Australian tertiary education, the so-called Job-ready Graduates Package. In order to proactively address the COVID-19 effects on the economy and make higher education more efficient, the Federal Government decided that subsidising high-demand occupations and decreasing state support for less lucrative programmes, is the way to ensure “highly skilled and knowledgeable workers able to drive innovation within business, develop and adapt to new technologies, and undertake basic and applied research” (Job-Ready Graduates: Higher Education Reform Package 2020).
It is indeed admirable that the reform is expected to open an additional 39,000 university places by 2023 and provide a one-off payment of $5,000 for university candidates from rural, regional and remote areas in Australia. Even so, increasing student fees for humanities degrees so that students orient themselves to industry-relevant education instead, might be a sign that the value of higher education is, in fact, subservient to prospective employment in the private sector. As of 2021, students in Australia who are enrolled in agriculture, teaching, medicine and STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) will pay less, while those in social studies, law & economics, and political science will pay more.
Currently, government contribution to social studies and political science is estimated at $11,015. According to the new scheme, however, state funding for these disciplines will go down to $1,100. In comparison, student contribution for the same areas of study is currently $6,804 but in alignment with the reform, it will increase to $14,500!
Frankly, these numbers don’t quite make sense if we consider the end goals the Australian Department of Education, Skills and Employment set before itself. According to their discussion paper, studies like creative arts are over-funded whereas law and commerce are under-funded. Ironically though, the government will change its funding from $13,547 and $2,237 to $13,500 and $1,100 respectively, meaning that they will keep the state subsidies for what they describe as over-funded degrees almost the same, while decreasing their funding in half for what they categorise as under-funded disciplines.
But why is it so alarming that the Australian government is looking out for the interest of the country’s future economy by nudging students to choose degrees that are appreciated by employers? Isn’t it a good thing that the government proactively wants to ensure successful career outcomes for the younger generations? I believe this strategy is worth closer scrutiny at least for two reasons: 1) public institutions seem to be endorsing the power of the private sector to determine an individual’s career choice; 2) as Dr Simon Longstaff argues here, we seem to be attributing more value to disciplines whose impact (usually understood in financial sense) is more immediate and obvious in the short-term than we do to forms of education whose utility is harder to measure and becomes apparent in the long run. Moreover, I believe it is arguable which type of education instructs analytical and critical thinking more: mathematics and engineering or philosophy and literature (if we even have to draw a comparison, I don’t believe we should). After all, all forms of education should have a place in the economy.
In a very interesting episode of The Future of Work podcast, Dr. Denise Trauth, the President of Texas State University in the US, expressed what I perceived as a similar outlook on education to the Australian Government’s, namely, that formal education should make sure to produce expertise which is valuable for private employers. She identified being a lifelong learner as a way for future employees to stay relevant in the marketplace. While I think it is only beneficial for practically everyone to never stop educating themselves, I do also believe that educational institutions and policymakers are being too submissive to the needs of private businesses. It is paramount that we bridge the gap between the world of education and the world of employment, and I commend institutions like Texas State for catching up with the social changes and striking up relationships with industry employers.
However, by doing that, aren’t we also promoting the worldview that formal education is only valuable insofar as it delivers good career outcomes and what’s arguably worse ⏤ that the private sector is the sole guardian of the economy? Certain forms of academic training, like pharmaceutics, for example, depend greatly on private funding which unfortunately often undermines the credibility of scientific research in this field.
Also, there are countries, like Bulgaria, where corruption doesn’t discriminate against any level of the public life, education included, and that naturally nullifies the value of academic accreditation in such places. I may be dramatic but education shouldn’t be a stock asset which public authorities and private players use to further their personal interests. As argued earlier, what education should do is challenge the status quo, not reinforce it.
Education should challenge the status quo, not reinforce it.
Another interesting idea which Trauth expressed, was that the reason why employers nowadays are so demanding towards their prospective employees is because, unlike decades ago when people would spend 20–30 years in one company, today the average tenure for a single employment is just 2–3 years. This normally makes employers hesitant to invest resources in training someone who is not going to stay with them for more than 2 years and so they need people “to hit the ground running” as Trauth put it.
This line of reasoning does sound logical but isn’t that a reciprocal relationship? Aren’t people going to want to stay longer with an employer who is willing to invest in them and help them grow professionally? People must have good reasons for leaving their workplace because changing employment is actually a rather stressful experience and I would assume nobody does it just for fun.
Where do we go from here, what is the value of education after all?
Honestly, this question doesn’t have a clear-cut, universally valid answer. On the one hand, obtaining a degree, especially from renowned universities, might give a sense of exclusivity and prestige but that doesn’t automatically make someone a great person or a qualified expert. On the other hand, formal education could play into building character and provide considerable expertise in a certain area but it’s not a magic bullet by any means.
I make no claims that my reflections on the importance of formal education are either exhaustive or conclusive. Additionally, what I’ve laid out so far, only represents my personal perspective, which is negatively biased for the most part. Be that as it may, I hope I managed to bring up some nuances to the role of formal education that are worth paying closer attention to, particularly in a reality where every premise of the public life is in a constant flux.
I wrote earlier that the value of formal education is subjective. While composing my list of the purely practical (as opposed to the obviously idealistic) benefits of my (design) education, I sat down with 13 incredible design practitioners, spanning across design profiles, geographical locations and educational backgrounds to discuss how they perceive education, hear what it meant for their practice and personal development, and understand where they ultimately found its worth.
Stay tuned for the timely and useful insights they shared; I’m going to be publishing those in a follow-up series of articles, starting next week!
To be continued…
> move on to PART II
Australian Government. Job-Ready Graduates. Higher Education Reform Package 2020. (2020). Australia: Department of Education, Skills and Employment.
Godin, S. (2010). Linchpin. New York: Penguin Group (USA) Inc.
Longstaff, S. (2020). Education is more than an employment outcome.
The Future of Work podcast. (2020). The future of education, skills and jobs.