Education or degree?

Some serious jobs require degrees or similar qualifications, whereas other equally skilled jobs don’t require anything. This dichotomy interests me.

The classic professions – the sort of thing your parents hoped you would become – by definition require degrees. For many people, getting such jobs is the entire purpose of their education.

I think these professions range on a spectrum, from one end where the degree is clearly necessary to the other where it’s of dubious value. I find it especially interesting where creative professions sit in relation to this spectrum.

For example, if you want to be a doctor, you need access to cadavers, and medical school is the only way to legally get that. Medical schools also provide all the extremely expensive equipment that features in hospital work, not to mention training in its use. Dentistry and veterinary studies are similar. If you want to do those professions, the only way to learn what you need is via the degree. In these cases, the major value of the degree is the education students get.

About mid-way along the spectrum is engineering and most sciences. It would be highly desirable for students to have access to lab facilities, computer tools, teaching staff, and all the rest, but it’s not essential. Although it’s getting more and more difficult, especially in science, in theory a dedicated and resourceful amateur could provide their own resources and learn at home.

A group of professions represent the other end of the spectrum. Teachers of these courses do very little teaching. Instead, they mostly direct students to particular books and coach students in the expected interpretation. Anyone could get those same books, learn the information for themselves, and become just as educated. These courses (the vast majority) are purely guided self-education. In these cases, the degree legitimises what the student taught themselves.

The main beneficiary of the degree/qualification system is employers. Assessing people’s actual skills is astonishingly difficult. Most employers and HR staff have no idea how to do it. Employers historically required applicants to have specific degrees or other qualifications because these were proxies for a set of dependable skills that degrees once represented. This simplifies assessment and saves having to think. But these days, with the breakdown of education, degrees do not guarantee skills. Degrees from different faculties, universities, and countries are totally incomparable. Employers still don’t know how to assess people, but instead of learning, they continue assuming that degrees still mean what they once meant. Therefore, the value of many degrees is a collectively shared fiction rather than anything real.

It interests me that creative fields are always either in the latter spectrum category, or outside the spectrum entirely.

Nobody needs a degree in writing, art, or photography. One can work in these professions without formal training. That’s because every part of these fields is subject to self-education. A second partial reason is that in these fields, the skills-assessment is mostly done by people who can judge this directly without needing proxy indicators.

That’s not to say such degrees are worthless. They might help get you a job, which is a non-trivial value. Then again, the way the employment market is today, this reward is far from guaranteed. Ending up degreed but unemployed is a serious possibility and in future will become ever more likely.

So the degree could have value, or maybe not. If you expected it to get you a job and it didn’t, then it had no value. If you did it for the education and you got that, then maybe it was worth something (although you could have educated yourself more directly and cheaply). So the value of a degree, if any, totally depends on subjective context and on whether employers believe it has value. This is a paralysing philosophical problem with our system.

Many creative types do not have degrees, or any qualifications, in their subjects. At least in the case of successful working writers, it’s fairly normal not to. Instead of qualifications, what all professional creators have in common is devotion to their own skill development. Serious amateur musicians, writers, photographers and artists practise until their hands go numb. The next day, they get up and do it again, and again the next. Most never stop doing this, which is why so many improve with age.

However, just as important as the practise is the personalised instruction. Yes, one could get there entirely alone, but this is far more difficult. Professional creators might not have had formal education in their subject, but they nearly always had a mentor of some kind. Students are unlikely to get far without one. Students learn a bit then practise, then learn a bit more and practise again. This is the highest value way to learn.

I can’t offer you a degree (anyway, certain ones are disqualifications), but I can certainly offer you the education and guidance about your writing that you need far more.

Incidentally, it also interests me that the creative aspect of creative work is never taught in schools. You have to get that on your own. This will be the subject of a future post.

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