Friday, January 20, 2017

What is the Value of Those Who Create and Disseminate Knowledge?

There is an old adage, “Those who can’t do, teach.” (And Woody Allen’s further, “Those who can’t teach, teach gym.”) My usual retort is a quote from Aristotle, "Those that know, do. Those that understand, teach.”

But we seem to be entering an era where an individual’s worth is related mostly to his or her wealth. In addition, there are plenty of people, many of same mind-set, who are highly critical of academia, in particular of people whose livelihood involves creating and/or disseminating knowledge.

I am not uncritical of some aspects of the academic world in which I work, but I am even more aghast toward those who believe it to be misguided or unnecessary.

In essence, my job involves the creation and dissemination of knowledge. This takes a certain skill set and collection of talents, just like any other knowledge-oriented job. I believe that this work is important to society and worthy of its investment, even though the lion’s share of the funding of my teaching work comes from learners who pay tuition.

My job is hardly stress-free. Academia is like most pursuits in life, where a certain amount of stress and competition is good, leading to productivity and innovation. And there are times when the stress and pursuit become counterproductive.

I owe a lot to subsidized public academia that has enabled my professional success in life. I attended public schools for my entire education, from kindergarten through medical school. When I started college at the University of Illinois in 1976, tuition was $293 per semester. Not per course or per credit, but for all of the courses I took that term. Even medical school, also at University of Illinois, was relatively inexpensive for me, with tuition around $3000 per year when I started in 1980. I am not against students have some “skin in the game” in higher education, but it must be within the means of anyone who wants to pursue it. By the same token, I believe that we in academia need to be accountable in providing a skill set that enables individuals to succeed in their chosen careers.

I am extremely gratified to have an academic job that I mostly enjoy going to each day. While most higher education faculty positions have a combination of research, teaching, and service, I have found my most passion in teaching. I particularly enjoy, and have received feedback from others, that I have a knack for taking bodies of knowledge and distilling out the big themes and most salient facts. I do also enjoy research and building on the synergy of the two that characterizes optimal higher education. I make a good salary as a department chair at a public medical school. I could certainly make more money in other pursuits, but I have had plenty to live comfortably, save for retirement, send my children to college, and handle unexpected expenses.

I don’t begrudge rich people their wealth, especially those who earned it from modest beginnings and/or by producing things that truly benefit society. But wealth is hardly the only measure of a person’s contributions and value to society, and there must always be a role for those who create and disseminate knowledge.

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