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Postgrad or not? – the value of education to answer real problems. January 4, 2011

Posted by @Karen_Fu in Architecture, change, education, environment.
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I have just received an email invite to attend a talk for postgraduate studies by an American professor. Honestly I had thought the college would not call me up anymore because I get the sneaky feeling they may not really like the way I think. On the other hand, I don’t have the time to attend as I happen to work at that time slot and the time is really pretty much fixed. I don’t know if I want to study any more. I have been catching up with some of the best professionals and many ironically do not hold a postgraduate degree. It seems to me that my motivation for postgrad appears to wane over the years after talking to too many people. I seem to have an impression that education does not breed the ideal graduate who could genuinely contribute to society in a sustainable and healthy way. Maybe its due to the people whom I talked to but I didn’t really think they were exactly nice people.

I was particularly ‘pissed’ by a few academics who seem to think that postgraduate education provides the ultimate skill. Not that I disregard the fact that advanced skills contribute to a far higher quality of solutions; but more of the fact that it was delivered in arrogance. I don’t like pompous, matter of fact answers. I often find humility in the most intelligent people and that group of smart people aren’t exactly all from postgraduates.

Some time back, I was talking to an academic who claim to say that better buildings are made through more years in the university. I know Tadao Ando, a famous Japanese architect, didn’t attend any professional architectural school at a university. He was entirely self-taught. By self-taught through travelling and working, he formulated his own ideas which invariably meant that he was creating fresh ideas/methods away from the convention. Le Corbusier was another famous architect who did a similar way. Perhaps some people may argue that these great innovators were such because knowledge then wasn’t as diversfied and in depth, which makes self teaching possible. But somewhat I feel that postgraduate training is unlike undergraduate. The latter offers a base. If you have a good base, you could extend and multiply off your knowledge later. If you had a lousy base, you can’t do postgraduate anyway ‘cos it wouldn’t be effective.  A good foundation is one that allows one to form ideas and method to learn, apart from skills.

I also question about the true value of a college education for we have problems that are not exactly being solved. Its more morphed than being answered permanently. Looking around at the changes in science and tecbnology; language and humanities; can anyone truly claim that the worlds problems or rather on a microscopic level, a society’s problem be sorted sustainably? We may be living longer but we may not be necessarily be living healthier. We seem to sort problems partially, and leaving another part of the problem to mutate into another new set of problems.

I wonder if we have really learnt our lessons inside out. Over the course of history of seveal thousands of years, human deceit has never been really eradicated. It appears that people of lesser formal education appear to learn more at times when disasters come. The only downpoint of these people are that they lack impeccable verbal skills. Language skills appear to dominate in the area of intelligence. It really shouldn’t be this way. I have learnt a great deal everywhere from everyone. I wouldn’t have the guts to claim I know it all. Neither would I have the might to say I am perfectly educated. I often feel that many around me have taught me a lot. Hence I am now questioning the true value of education. We should humbly take cues everywhere from everyone. The direction we are heading may well be wrong.

Simply because we have an impending global disaster — both physical and metaphysical climate. — Karen Fu


1. Tom Cox - January 7, 2011

Karen, I love your questioning attitude. I think it’s very healthy. However I wonder if you’re guilty of some of the same arrogance as the university instructors who left you “pissed” — I tried to articulate this in more detail here (http://tomonleadership.com/?p=833). Is it the fault of the professor for being top-down and didactic, or is it that the professor gets a room full of drones who’ve never been taught to think independently? Maybe he hasn’t either — perhaps he’s behaving the way his instructors behaved 30 years earlier.

Ultimately I think you’re asking one of the best question: what approach will best prepare the student to contribute most meaningfully?

Part of the answer must be an ability to listen humbly to the ideas of others.

2. Karen - January 7, 2011

Hi Tom, many thanks for the comment! Well actually I have just done a sort of ‘test’ on a so-called scholar just today. And I wasn’t too pleased with the result. Basically she thinks she is the ‘coolest’ elite in the college and one of the top elites in the country and even the world. I don’t buy that. But because she was a foreigner, I couldn’t say anything. (Its impolite to tell off a foreigner).

Thinking back, maybe I was arrogant myself to some extent. I may think I was modest, but at times when I talk or behave some form of arrogance may exude. On my part I try to mix as much as I can and I must say I am not such a good socializer though I do keep friends on long term basis.

I have also posed the topic to LinkedIn, but I guess there aren’t many takers. Possibly due to the fact it was a touchy question. Maybe its also because I have added another context to the question by asking if innovators/designers/engineers can be taught.

Regardless, I feel that education somewhat has become a business more than the holy aim of achieving knowledge to share and to value add healthy and happy lives. I feel this has become a world wide phenomenon.

3. Fil Salustri - January 7, 2011

I loved doing my PhD because it gave me the chance to focus on a single, large, and (to me) important task without having to worry about all the crap I now deal with as a prof. Indeed, I’d say that time in my life was the best of my life.
As to University making one a better designer. That’s a complex matter. All else being equal, one can probably reliably learn stuff faster in university than in the School of Hard Knocks. But all else is rarely equal.
Still, if you find the right academic advisor, and the right topic, doing extra degrees can be a wonderfully fulfilling experience. The degrees themselves might not matter, but the act of getting them will. Probably. 🙂

4. Karen - January 9, 2011

Hi Fil!

Great to see you commenting and sharing your thoughts here! I don’t know how best to describe my experience. It was well started since high school. It went something from ‘love-hate-love-numb’ kind of cycle about education. Learning, teaching and layman research. (layman ‘cos I don’t appear to fall into the typical research culture. Maybe Prof Friedman would have something to throw at me, but then thats another story…)

I would agree that all things may not be equal. Its hardly equal anyway in reality. Thats another topic to dwelll on but I suspose maybe the research community would want to look at an ‘optimal’ learning space — could be a design topic/higher ed topic/or even an international topic; as I get the snoopy feeling something has gone wrong globally — problems don’t seem to get solved.

Over here in Singapore, I’ve realised one trend and that scary trend is that we are beginning to grow a bunch of arrogant graduates who claim to know it all even before they graduate from college and the school of hard knocks. No body in the world and in the right mind will take a leader who is arrogant, assuming that leaders in vital industries and ministries come from intellectually superior graduates.

As for doing a PhD… Fil, to tell you a rotten truth, I’ve given up already. Firstly, I have to take care of domestic chores; next thing I worry about debt; third thing, to be dreadfully honest, I’m somewhat sadden by the crazy fact that school is no longer school.

Then again, on a positive note, I was and am still grateful to the University in Canada who gave me so much encouragement to study. I should really have picked Canada as my first choice though England was really a nice place too.
I don’t think any college in Singapore would be as nice as the one in Canada; because they can’t beat one thing: I was and am no Canadian, but the level of sensitivity and encouragement is like no other. They really paid attention as though you are one of them. They offer you whatever they can as educators to the point that when I didn’t make it to Canada due to financial problems; the University in Canada actually returned me my application fee. They took nothing from me but gave me a good lesson that when there is a will to learn, there is always somebody somewhere in the world who will appreciate your effort.

Unfortunately I didn’t have the chance to study. But then again, my mind is always keen about education and its impact. We are all designers in our own right. Problem is how to get make the right path that allows different people to grow in a sustainable and healthy way. I think thats the challenge. And I also think that that’s the root problem to all our woes.

As usual I type at one go… hope all is taken in good candour.

5. Ann Danylkiw - January 9, 2011

Yup yup. It’s about practicalities and plain language. I offer a response: http://annlytical.com/phd/2011/1/9/the-academic-trap.html

6. Karen - January 9, 2011

Hi Ann!

Great to find you here! Read your response over at your blog!! How wicked ! ; )

Well your perspective involves another dimension. Coolly, it spells the type of skills required for the real world. On that front, I suppose colleges can be dream lands where ideals could be realised. Then again, I think a lot of schools do not fall into dream land idealism. People say idealisms are impractical. I beg to differ. Idealims can motivate you to move mountains in a creative way, which I think could be actually practical in the long term.

Skills can be taught. Colleges have the obligation to offer skills. But colleges also have another far more important obligation to offer the freedom of thought and execution of ideas in the most open way possible that doesn’t kill hope, faith and love for life.

Hope I’ve made sense!

7. Gary - January 9, 2011

For too many people extra initials are the goal or avoiding the real world. Experiential learning is ideal with help as you face problems. Sometimes it may even lead to to get a former course or some more initials.

This is why I think online education has so much potential: instruction you need when you are using it…

8. Karen - January 10, 2011


thanks for the note! Perhaps an online education will gradually rid off the class distinction for learning. There are many people who are probably far more brilliant in the working world. I’ve seen too many who shun away from further education and they are not academic inferior graduates but those belonging to the cream of the crop. Some do not bother to take another degree because they feel the opportunity cost of foregoing time to full time education. There are many types of people around. For one ultimate factor, people who thrive are those who keep learning towards their goals.And that doesn’t really always mean getting initials. Initials mean little in itself.

Of course if you know what you want, and you don’t have other important committments; and have the money, surely the additional initials are great. Its an asset.


9. Karen - November 22, 2011

To add to the list here, the reason why people in higher ed appears to dislike to think that advanced education is not as important; would probably because they themselves have paid through the price of postgraduate studies and wouldn’t want it to be degraded. They really could think whatever they want, but real educators are open to different ideas. And if they were truly that clever, they should not stay in a dogmatic mode. I know tip of the top scholars, many of whom are Nobel Prize winners, don’t. Only dumb ones would.

PS: the world needs far more practice than theory.

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