Ivory Tower

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An ivory tower is a place — or an atmosphere — where people are happily cut off from the rest of the world in favor of their own pursuits, disconnected from the practical concerns of everyday life. Colleges and Universities once stood for education and learning, a place you went to learn things, be assessed on what you know, and share information with other people who were knowledgeable in your area of interest or expertise. But more and more the concepts of "ivory tower" and out of touch educators, is combining with a mire of bureaucratic hoops and over-powering any goals of "higher learning" or balanced assessment of knowledge.


How others value a degree

Think of this. In the employed world, one of the most bureaucratic departments (in the name of objective compensation) is supposed to be Human Resources Department. They also have the goal of negotiating salaries and keeping them as low as possible, while still keeping the employees from leaving, and thus getting the most value for their organizations.

In general, HR departments used to recognize and trade one year of work experience for one year of college experience. So four years of real-world work-experience is roughly considered equivalent to a bachelor's degree. Now if you've ever been a hiring manager or worked with lots of people fresh from school and from the work-force, then you know that one-for-one is an assessment that is completely in the business's favor. I find that in a very few areas, the graduates will have a tad more theoretical knowledge and maybe a slightly broader knowledge-base; but can come with an inability to do a job, or work with others. I'd hire someone with 4 years of work experience over someone with a degree and no experience (for the same level of compensation) any day of the week. Outside of tech and a few specialty industries, a degree had fallen to the point where a degree might be an entry requirement to a job but didn't actually impact the value of the candidate.

How academics see themselves?

<class div=well>This might come of as a masturbatory humble-brag, but I know there are people out there smarter and more accomplished than me, that are in the same boat. So while I need to lay out my accomplishments to make a point, the point is that there were many "Universities" that discredit themselves by their unwillingness to recognize any of it. </well>

I've talked with and dealt with Universities and Academia for decades. Many of their professors have cited my articles, asked me questions, have used books that I was a technical editor for as part of their curriculum, I've helped seniors, grad students and instructors with their graduate papers, homework and so on. I have over 20 years of practical work experience in many industries. And we're not talking "40 hour weeks" and an "average" employee; we're talking a 60 hour a week hard-core worker and one of the top producers.

So I tried to talk to some Universities about getting some of that practical experience applied as College credit, in order to get past most of the boring and mundane undergrad classes and get focused on Senior or Graduate level classes where I could learn something. I figured if I could trade experience at a 10:1 ratio (in their favor), and I've had a couple of years of College classes that I could transfer in, then I could get most of the way to an undergraduate degree and go past most of the bullshit, and on to higher learning.

Not only would they not accept the self-important ratio of 10:1 in their favor, but most Universities have just flat out said, "No". What they are saying is that in their minds there is no amount of practical experience that can equal a single college credit. They don't believe their job is to assess abilities or let people get on to learning, and thus they are putting bureaucratic processes above learning.

To give you an idea of how extreme this is, imagine this;

  1. I've written over 300 articles, published in Newspapers, Magazines, Books, and Websites. I've written books on martial arts, dozens of technical and user manuals. One of my ancillary hobbies of writing in my spare time has actually been a more successful "career" than most University writing professors will have. Yet, I can't get a single credit for any of that? Think about the message that sends.

  2. Another "hobby" I had was martial arts; I earned a fourth-degree black belt (about 15-20 years of experience), a few third degrees and assorted other lower ranks in many arts. I ran a successful Dojo, won tournaments and trophies (before I lost interest in competition). I did public demonstrations including one on Pay-Per-View TV. I was a Martial Arts Stuntman in Hollywood for a movie (a second rate movie, but still). I've met dozens of famous martial artists, and worked with hundreds of others. On top of that, I taught business classes on how to run a studio, teach, and be successful. But that is not worthy in the eyes of many Academics for a single credit around teaching, public speaking, business, or even a P.E. (Physical Education) credit?

  3. Those two previous examples were in ancillary hobbies; in my primary career, I have far more accomplishments and accolades. I've won awards for User Interfaces I designed, but I can't get a single credit for Human Interface experience. I designed and built my own networks (both hardware and software). I'm not talking just the cables (though I did that too), I've actually built the low-level hardware, burned the ROMs, built the protocols, and so on. I've built computers, and I'm not just talking put together cards, I'm talking about back in the days where I soldered components onto a prototype board and wired the chips together myself. I even created my own chips. I used to help a girlfriend with her 4th-year homework while she was getting her EE degree. I created and used my own computer languages or extended some (like BASIC), yet I can't get waved past the most mundane of those computer classes. Some Universities will not give me a single credit for any of that?

What does that say about our academics?

I honestly value continued learning more than measuring some "has-been" accomplishments from decades past. However, the raw arrogance and blindness of these bureaucrats are stunning as well as insulting.

It was the snail's pace of University work that drove me out in the first place. I was always given a choice; take a 12 week class where we slowly go through one book with impractical examples and homework; or I could read 3 books on the subject in a month, create an application or solution on the subject in another month that was far more complex and practical, and find a real world use for it that would make money and add value to society - often while often getting paid to do it. And I kept choosing to learn, doing and being compensated over having to pay extortion and jumping through endless hoops to prove to educators that I know what we both know that I know.

Now as if that wasn't insulting enough there are a few Universities that are actually are trying to fairly assess work and life experience and credit that to students. Instead of those Universities being held up as progressive and ground breaking (for returning to a focus on higher learning and fair assessment); they are instead often mocked in academic circles as being "not academic" enough because they are too willing to give people credit for the work they've done. The idea is that they should be like "them" and hold people back, instead of helping them get on with learning and growing.

The irony is that Academic Bureaucrats have succeeded in making the process so complex and wasteful that a degree has been getting devalued.

This is getting to the point where I don't think a degree means as much as an Honorary Degree does. After all, to be successful, wealthy and recognized enough that even the bureaucrats in Academia have to admit you know what you know (by giving you a piece of paper attesting to that) without having jumped through their hoops; well that means something. It means that you're so successful without them, that by denying your credentials and achievements that they are just embarrassing and discrediting themselves. Someday I hope to achieve the piece of paper still worth something; an Honorary Degree. I believe that even buying the degree for money as many Universities will sell you, is a more honest and "fair" way to assess someone's abilities than the other processes that they currently have in place.

Conclusion

Bernard Shaw said that the reasonable man would adapt to society, and the unreasonable man expects society to adapt to him; therefore, all progress is made because of unreasonable men. I'm not a black and white thinker and believe the world exists mostly in the grays. But one area that I do believe in more black and white and the deeper message of Bernard Shaw, is how we expend our energies and thus what our lives stand for. Are we contributing to the solution by trying to change and improve things and make a positive difference), or are we passively or actively accepting and thus promoting that which we know is wrong, because it is "too hard" to resist and do what is right?

The question that I keep asking is "have Universities become a mockery of themselves?" Can a degree mean anything when the Ivory Tower syndrome is so prevalent that the purpose of college has become less about teaching, learning and exposing people to new ideas; and instead is more about indoctrination, forced conformity, and bureaucratic pettiness? And when almost all involved have even given up fighting the good fight towards progress, and are instead accepting and promoting what is wrong as some ideal we should strive for, then what have we become?

<class div=well>I wrote this rant while I was applying to Universities to get an MBA (without having a bachelors degree as a pre-requisite)... and getting rejected by public ones because I didn't have a bachelors. On the other hand, I start applying to top private Universities (including Ivy League ones), and once they saw my experience and bonafides (as well as my GMAT scores) they welcomed me with open arms. So there was some credibility in academia... but mostly in the private schools. Two years later, I not only completed a Masters Degree, despite not having a Bachelors degree, but I was probably towards the top echelon in my class.

A few years ago, I decided to challenge myself, and took an 8-hour test on Computer Security (called a CISSP) and passed the test without any problems. So I considered going and getting a Masters Degree in Computer Security. Again, I ran into a few places that said things like, "well we know you have a Masters Degree and all, and that's enough to get you into a Ph.D. program, but we can't let you into a Masters Program without a Bachelors degree -- despite you already have a Masters Degree". Meh, I didn't need it for my job -- just as I've aged, I've more learned to enjoy structured learning than I needed in my youth. So it was no loss to me, they just lost money and my patronage because beuracracy was more important than common sense. </well>

Written 2002.03.11 Edited: 2019.06.19