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  • carlgombrich

Would you do your own degree?

This is a question I am increasingly asked. It’s a well fair question to someone leading a big course which includes a lot of innovation.

The shortish answer is: I can’t know for sure because I am a different person now and the world has changed a bit, but probably yes.

People who are brighter and more interesting than me would have done it

On the superb Arts and Sciences team at UCL, both Dr Chiara Ambrosio and Prof Vin Walsh have said they would have done the Arts and Sciences degree if it had been around at the time. You can also watch videos of Prof Steve Price and Dr Richard Mole explaining how their backgrounds and interests play into what they believe is important in undergraduate education and how Arts and Sciences reflects this.

Mini bit of relevant biog

I’ve always been interested in pretty much everything, and so narrowing my interests for the sake of assessed study has always been hard. At school I took A-levels in Biology, Physics and English. At the risk of sounding like an old codger with a croaky voice (‘Back in my day, you know…’) it was pretty much impossible to do four A-levels then unless they were Maths, Further Maths, Physics and Chemistry. If I could have done five, six or seven A-levels they would have been Maths, Physics, Chemistry, Biology, English and Music – and maybe Geography. (I didn’t get foreign languages till I started going to other countries – and I especially started to appreciate languages when I started using them in music – then I enjoyed learning a language as much as I could fit it in.)

My A-level choices reflected that I wanted to try to span all the disciplines as much as possible. It made things difficult. Physics without Maths was tough. And Chemistry would have helped both Physics and Biology. Thankfully English kind of stood alone and I got the best mark in my A-level group in this subject.

In the end I went to uni to study physics and philosophy. This is something of a ‘classic’ combination, I guess, for someone broadly interested in science and the humanities – and, of course, many great scientists of the past have laid claim to being philosophers of a sort. Not to mention that ‘science’ grew out of ‘natural philosophy’.

What happened next is significant in this little story. After a term or so of philosophy at university, I felt that I needed to understand maths better in order to understand the physics, which I felt, would in turn help me understand the philosophy better! Now this really is very personal. It is classic, but it is personal. It is classic because this dance between physics to ‘metaphysics’ is common for many, I think, when you are the sort of person I was, exploring the world. And the move – parallel, sideways? – into maths and the philosophy of maths, also happens to many (though by no means all) who are seeking in this way. And at that stage I was the type of person who needed to go ‘down’ to the fundamentals, as deep as I could go, before I felt satisfied that I had understood in the way I wanted to understand. And the way that I perceived was best for me to achieve these ‘fundamentals’ was to understand more about maths, and the foundations of maths which, some would say, rest in philosophy…

What do you see as your ‘study trajectory’?

But this study trajectory, this intellectual history is, of course, highly personal. In particular, the idea of what is ‘fundamental’ is highly personal and different for everyone. For many, indeed, the attempt to understand fundamentals isn’t particularly interesting. They get their fundamentals somewhere else – from religion, from their family – or they simply take life as it comes and don’t see the need to embark upon what may seem a bit of a fool’s errand or a prolonged bout of academic navel-gazing. I think this is an absolutely respectable stance. It is not even anti-intellectual. It is just for different sorts of intellectuals.

For many, the interest and the thrill lies in looking ‘outwards’ from academic study to how the subject matter applies in the messy world of people’s lives, politics, health, economics, industry, business, media and the like. If you are not especially troubled by metaphysical questions or issues to do with the ‘ground of your being’ then it is far more interesting to learn the theories, ideas and methods of the day and to take these outside of universities to see how they may apply. These ideas can also, of course, be applied inside universities, but in areas of research which may be more applied and interdisciplinary.

This is the ‘probably’

And so this is why I say ‘probably’ in the answer to the question: Would you have done your own degree? Because I probably would have started on the degree with a combination of maths, physics and philosophy (Major: Sciences and Engineering, Minor: Cultures :-)) But then it is really very hard for me to retrodict where I would have gone next. If I was ‘the same person’ I might have continued in this way, balancing this combination or I might have tried to go more deeply into maths – though I would have been fascinated by the ‘Qualitative Thinking’ module in year 2 of Arts and Sciences – about ‘what cannot be measured’.

But it is also conceivable that I could have fallen in love with a geographer who convinced me that the pull of real world problems in irrigation, food distribution, migration etc in the developing world were far more interesting and fulfilling than logic, physics and philosophy; or I could have been gripped by politics and political philosophy and felt the pull towards activism in this area; then there is the whole fascinating discussion of money, the philosophy of money, monetary reform, virtual money – which wasn’t really on the map when I was a student. And so on.

One thing I think I know for sure…

…is that I would have been all over the MOOCs, online courses, social networks, forums that are pinging out, daily, all over the web. I’m pretty sure that I would have used these to accelerate my learning while I was at university, filling in the gaps. I wouldn’t have had to wait those frustrating 6 days (every week, week after week) in which I walked around with my list of hand-written questions, waiting to see a lecturer or finding time to meet with a postgrad friend who could help me move on to the next stage of my understanding.

And this is what I tell my students now: Cast your net wide; follow your interests. Work as hard as you can and keep intellectually alive. Find the networks that help you learn and if one network isn’t happening, plug into another one.

Don’t be constrained by what university departments tell you is necessary knowledge or thinking. Sure, you have to do that stuff to pass the exams and, sure, there is a reason that disciplines have the history and structure they do. But these structures and histories are contingent. The web is calling into question these boundaries as never before. Rejoice in this fact! There are more ways now to learn than at any time in history. And this means there are more ways to frame your knowledge and create your own intellectual universe, speak with your own intellectual voice. Any university degree that helps you do this is the right degree for you. It would have been the right degree for me, too.

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