Bring on enlightenment

Education should create more rounded individuals and a better society, not just a better-trained workforce, says Rudi Bogni

September 25, 2008

Among the many privileges for which I am thankful, there are two that stand out. At high school I had a year in the United States, on an AFS scholarship, sandwiched in between four years of formal old-style Italian scientific lyceum.

At university level, having obtained my degree at the age of 23 at Bocconi University in Milan, I returned to higher education at the age of 48 for a 15-month sabbatical at Imperial College London.

I had no careers adviser and I never worried about how my learning would correlate with career prospects or financial rewards. My greatest personal satisfaction was not related to what I achieved in corporate life - it was instead for me, a struggling economist, to be accepted as a member of the London Mathematical Society.

I do feel a debt of gratitude to those who have helped me up the corporate slippery slope, but I feel even more for those dedicated schoolteachers and professors who shaped my mind and personality, and who helped me become a man and a citizen, notwithstanding all my imperfections, deficiencies and flaws.

Education is a privilege, built on centuries of hard work and thinking as well as the tears and blood of generations fighting for enlightenment in a world of powerful obscurantist autocrats.

It is also a privilege worth fighting for. If we do not understand and communicate that, how can we expect young minds to relate to it and to want it as badly as they want their other privileges?

The current political thinking is instead centred on training with an economic output. That is important, but it is not education. I have been lucky enough to work for corporations that firmly believed in continuous training, so I can tell the difference.

During my professional life I have interviewed thousands of applicants. Forced to choose between a narrow-minded MBA and a broad-minded, intellectually curious graduate in music, I always chose the latter. I could train the musician to be a smart banker, but the MBA who thought he had learnt everything could no longer be stimulated or moulded into someone who never stops having doubts.

I recognise that governments need to show voters something for the money they invest in education. Unfortunately the metrics of education are not easy. How do you measure self-confidence and self-doubt, and which is more productive for society? How do you measure tolerance and good citizenship?

It is much easier to measure a correlation between training and earning capacity. Indeed, most investment banks have found a correlation between maths-test scores for new employees and their total compensation three years after employment. That is a metric, but is it the relevant one?

Only recently have economists started worrying about the fact that there is little correlation between economic success and growth and collective happiness.

I am not suggesting for a moment that education is a recipe for happiness. Indeed, knowledge may itself be a source of never-ending self-searching and unhappiness. But education does provide one with the framework to deal even-handedly with whatever life throws one's way. It can, by itself, also be a source of accomplishment and a platform for ever higher attainments, both for the individual and for society as a whole.

Good education is expensive, and to make it universal, at least in the West, taxpayers have to subsidise it and corporations are called in to help. I know that to a corporate chieftain or to a young, over-enthusiastic and ambitious minister, the world of academia may seem remote, too laid-back, perhaps totally chaotic and at the same time hostile to change.

I remember during my sabbatical expressing an idea over tea in the senior common room about a direction of inquiry for a specific problem and wondering the next day why no one had just grabbed it and run with it. In my corporate world, one of my colleagues certainly would have done so, and my PA would have added it to the project list and slapped a deadline on it.

Unfortunately that is not how academia works. It does not mean that it works less well than other structures, only differently. If you want to speed up a clock, you do not kick it, measure endlessly its untimeliness or just issue reports criticising it. Instead, you first try to understand its mechanisms.

If the goal is not only a fully trained workforce, which is only a snapshot in a film, but a better educated society, which is the film itself, then more mature engagement and less ad hoc regulation, subject to the law of unintended consequences, is required.

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