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I recently edited a column in which a guy basically said – and I paraphrase – universities should focus on producing cheap labour for employers. These comments are part of a larger discourse in Hong Kong – and possibly the world – in which universities are seen as failing if they do not prepare graduates for the workforce.

The thing is, preparing people for the workforce is not the job of the university, in its historical sense. The university’s task is to educate. Full stop. If that education proves useful to the workforce, so be it. But if it doesn’t, that is not really the problem of the university. Education involves equipping young people with knowledge and hopefully the skills to acquire more knowledge.

Our modern universities are built in the European tradition, which distinguishes between universities (which perform the above function) and polytechnics which impart professional knowledge. But now it’s like people want the universities to be polytechnics, because otherwise what is the point?

Indeed. There is no point in universities in the true sense in a world in which everything is quantified in monetary terms.

In the past universities had patrons, just as the arts had patrons, because enlightened people recognised the value of funding the pursuit of knowledge for knowledge’s sake. There was prestige in funding something beautiful or wondrous for its own sake. But also, there was the understanding that these pointless pursuits could sometimes yield results that would shatter human understanding and change history.

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I also edited a letter by a student who bemoaned the growing utilitarianism of Hong Kong society – the idea that anything that doesn’t have an easily identifiable use is immediately worthless. I’d wager Hong Kong has always been utilitarian because it’s modern origins lay in commerce and in hardy people surviving by pursuing material goals. It is a pragmatism that is admirable.

But as Hong Kong has grown more prosperous, there is a seed of the desire for more. For the chance to do something that is besides the point, of doing for doings sake. And if any place has the money to fund such ventures Hong Kong has.

But still, you have people like that illustrious columnist insisting that everything must have its use … or go.

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I am married to a man who asks ‘what is the point?’ Of a PhD for example. Spending years on something that doesn’t seem to have yielded any result to speak of.

The tedium of replying to these questions.

Before I was married, my husband’s sister asked what the point of literature is. At least architects build something, she said. She is an architect.

I recalled my iconic poet/teacher Eunice De Souza who firmly told us: “I’m not here to teach you how to sell toothpaste.” (Although many of her students did go on to do the many versions of selling toothpaste in the media).

I channelled Oscar Wilde and said: “There is no point. All art is quite useless.”

To her credit, she was silenced.

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“What is the point of reading?” the husband asks, with just a touch of defensiveness.

The questioner in me can countenance the questioning of everything, and yet, I find this question more heretical than heresy itself. Nevertheless, I felt the need to engage with it.

The discussion was not so much about the point of reading but about whether one could gain the same knowledge without reading. I accept that there is certain forms of knowledge that are best gained through hands-on learning. For example, I never quite got why people need to do a two-year course or god forbid, a Bachelor’s degree, in journalism, when one could pretty much pick these skills up more effectively on the job. The fact that media organisations in Hong Kong screen resumes for even internships based on this ‘journalism degree background’ is another story. Admittedly, there might be some technical things to learn – though bizarrely in India the journalism courses were teaching software that was not used in newsrooms because the more updated programmes were too expensive probably – such as operating cameras and editing film for broadcast journalism maybe. And there could be some communication theory that would of of course. Frankly, I think journalists would benefit most from a cultural studies programme, which is actually worth three years of study, but I wouldn’t say it’s essential to being a journalist. But I digress.

Apart from the practical knowledge, there is more abstract knowledge – the kind one studies in a BA programme under the Humanities disciplines or some of the pure sciences – that as of now is contained in books. Some of it can be extracted and packaged in other media, which is what happens in classroom. But after a point, if you want to go deeper, this is not going to work. You are going to have to read the original – which is contained in a book. (I do not differentiate between listening to an audio book and reading here). There may come a time when books stop being the major source of knowledge – when people put their original ideas down not in paper but in film maybe – but you’d still have to grapple with book-knowledge if you want to go backwards in history.

The thing is, I don’t know a single person who has that kind of abstract intelligence, who does not read a lot.

So, it appears that the husband and I represent these two different forms of intelligence. And we each hold the other form in slightly less esteem. Ironically, this difference of intelligence was probably the very thing that attracted us to each other. But such is marriage.

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Unfortunately, the job market prioritizes degrees, even when the degree has no real connection to the job. It’s possible that employers would prioritise work experience over degrees, but how to get work experience without a degree? It’s a vicious cycle.

This is the fault of employers, who instead of interviewing people and seeing if they seem bright enough for the job, judge them with a piece of paper. In the process, there is pressure on the piece of paper to conform to the job market, which is a pity.

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In related reading, this.

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