Knowledge is power – but what about horsepower?

Novice car-buyer Kevin Fong on the value of preparing students for real-world challenges

February 13, 2014

I hate cars. You can’t do anything while you’re driving them. You can’t read, answer email or even risk admiring the countryside as it flies by. To paraphrase the late, great Spike Milligan, driving is like being in prison with an outside chance of being involved in a motorway pile-up.

But after 20 years of braving it on public transport, I find myself seconded to a job in the middle of nowhere, with start times so early it would make your eyes water. I had no choice. I finally had to buy a car of my own.

At first I thought I’d buy an anti-car, one of those bread-bins on wheels with a hairdryer for an engine. But friends persuaded me that would only make me more miserable about the commute. Then I started doing what higher education types do when faced with the unknown: my own research. And that was the beginning of the end.

Within higher education we peddle the idea that knowledge is an unlimited good and that you can’t have enough of it; that it empowers us. And within the academy this is all true. Knowledge is a virtue, evidence of it a tradeable currency. But that’s not so in the world of second-hand car sales.

We peddle the idea that knowledge is an unlimited good; that it empowers us. Within the academy this is all true. But it’s not the case in the world of second-hand car sales

By the end of the first evening of research I’d been seduced into the idea that going expensive and German was the correct line of attack. After a little more reading and perusing of prices, I lowered my aspirations to Well Looked-After and German. This, I told myself, wouldn’t be a problem. My carefully honed, fully generalisable ability to read into a problem would surely help me distinguish limousine from lemon. That after all is one of the fringe benefits of hanging around in the corridors of learning: superlative skills of analysis.

A couple of weeks into the process, having invested more time researching second-hand cars than the average engineer would take to invent a solar-powered, time-travelling DeLorean, I set off to have a look at an actual vehicle.

I barrelled up to the garage, trying to feign confidence, but it was hard to maintain the impression that I knew what I was talking about. Things started badly when I couldn’t work out how to open the bonnet. It got worse as I stood there staring at what lay under the hood nodding sagely. I think by this time, still early in my visit, my used-car salesman friend knew that he could have shown me a box filled with the innards of a washing machine and I would still have been nodding in the same way.

I turned the ignition on and listened as it fired up, continuing to jerk my head up and down like one of those dogs glued to the rear windshield. It would have had to explode and leave a small crater before the hours of reading that I had invested in understanding the internal combustion engine would have helped me spot something was up.

I took it for a test drive, making an 18-point turn and stalling twice before I left the forecourt. When I got back about 20 minutes later I was none the wiser about the mechanical state of the vehicle. Still, I kept my game face on. I got out of the car and in a sequence of events I now only dimly recall I put a deposit down on the thing – possibly before finalising a price.

This is what happens when you leave a world where knowledge really is power and enter one where brake horsepower is power. It goes without saying that the wisdom we accumulate within the walls of our institutions rarely maps immediately or directly on to our experience of the real world.

On many undergraduate courses we test to destruction the skill of learning, and then reciting, articles of fact for the first two years of a typical course. There must be a better way of adding value in the final year of study. Perhaps the best way would be to de-emphasise the importance of that type of knowledge acquisition and expression.

Perhaps we should give students the option, at the end of their time with us, of taking courses that might better help them make the leap into off-campus hyperspace.

I’m not talking about sacrificing the academic training we deliver for something purely vocational; just a few tweaks to give our students the best of all chances out there. Structuring that material would take some careful thought. A used-car-buying competition probably isn’t going to feature. However, some softer but more transferable skills such as communication, public engagement and technical presentation probably should.

It all sounds a bit wishy-washy for our great houses of learning, doesn’t it? But over time I’ve come to appreciate that students don’t come with an innate ability to do these things any more than they arrive with an inbuilt understanding of the time-dependent Schrödinger equation.

We could still trot out the usual diet of rigorous academic examination for the guys who know that they’re going back into the rabbit warren to take on postgraduate study. But for the vast majority of our students who will shoot off to do something else, I’m beginning to think there should be something else; a kind of decompression module, one that helps smooth the transition into a world where softer skills count for more and knowledge isn’t the only kind of power.

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