The highly educated Ingeborg van Teeseling pushes for a return to amateurism, explaining how a degree is just a piece of paper.
Everywhere in Australia, new students are packing their bags and getting ready to go to university. Before they do, I would like to ask one fundamental question: why?
Only a few months ago, Graduates Careers Australia published research warning us against viewing university as a sure-fire track to a good job. After graduating with a bachelor degree, only 68.1 percent of students were employed in full-time work (and often not the work they wanted either), against 87.8 percent 25 years ago. So if university is not the way to profitable employment, maybe you can use it for what it was meant for, right: learning to think, do research, write, contribute to the world’s combined wealth of knowledge? Wrong again. Not only are ATAR scores and entry requirements coming down all over Australia, one estimation says that two thirds of places at universities are offered to students who do not have an ATAR at all. This can mean that you will find yourself in a classroom full of people who are only there for the piece of paper, not for the experience of learning and broadening their minds.
So if university is not the way forward, what is? Let me begin with a comparison. I am a sucker for education. I’ve got a full-house of degrees, in four different disciplines, but nobody wants to employ me. My sister, on the other hand, has not been without work since 2000. She dropped out of high school but now runs her own company, building sets, lighting designs and installations for parties, events and television programs. The reason why Brecht is so much more successful than I am, is because she is a gifted amateur. “Wow,” I hear you think, “what a nasty way of describing her. Isn’t an amateur somebody who is not smart enough to be a professional, somebody who only tinkers at something?” On the contrary, I would say. The word “amateur” comes from the French word for “lover of” and points to exactly what amateurs are: people who do something for the love of it. People who follow the old adage that if you start with enthusiasm and dedication, the money will follow, not the other way around.
At the moment, we think you must have a degree before you can do anything. Even the people who stand on the side of the road with a “stop-go” sign need a Certificate IV before they can do that. The digging of a grave requires a Certificate III and to justify that, the job title is now called “burial ground custodian.” Don’t get me wrong, there is nothing menial about those jobs at all and I don’t mean to imply that they are not worthy of a degree; I just wonder if they need one. And what we are doing in demanding one before you can enter those professions? Who do we exclude? In the past, if you were not good at reading and writing, you could always get work like this. They were a normal and respected part of the jobs market. Now those with poor literacy skills sit at home doing nothing, because they can’t get past the entry exam. My point is that professionalism, and the qualifications needed to procure it, have gone slightly mad.
Historically speaking, professionalism is a relatively new phenomenon. Yes, universities have existed since 1200AD but they educated people in only three things: law, divinity and medicine. They were also not geared towards jobs but towards leadership. The graduates were expected to guide and help both their communities and their patrons, usually churches or royalty. At the other end of the spectrum, you had the guilds, made up by tradesmen, artisans and merchants. They used the apprentice system as a way of educating people. Both these groups came under heavy scrutiny in the nineteenth century because they had become very protective of their own interests and rigid in who they accepted and declined. It was capitalism that introduced professionalism as we know it today. A new class of wealthy entrepreneurs needed workers and started training them for jobs in their factories. They wanted control over how people worked, who to employ and who to exclude, so they came up with courses that gave them the power to choose. Suddenly amateurism, or just experience, was not good enough anymore. And with more education available to everybody, a degree became a prerequisite for just about everything.
So what have we lost because of that? And why am I advocating a renaissance of amateurism? Let’s look at some examples. Despite the fact that millions of people in the world do research into their genealogy and do it well, only certified historians are accepted into the profession. Yet, most serious books about, let’s say, the assassination of Kennedy, have been written by “hobbyists.” We admire professional astronomers like Brian Schmidt, but forget that his amateur colleagues discovered Uranus, a comet orbiting Jupiter, groups of rare galaxies and hold the record in identifying supernovas. Despite their achievements, we call their work a hobby and sneer that they are not the real thing because they lack a degree in their field of study. Type “conlangers” into Google and marvel at the thousands of people in the world who invent whole languages, just for the fun of it. Useless? Talk to David Peterson, a conlanger who created the languages for Games of Thrones and is now raking in the money.
And then there are the inventors, the guys and girls who tinker in their sheds and come up with the most amazing creations. Steve Jobs is, of course, a case in point but so is Margaret Knight who invented a safety device for textile looms while she was working the machines. Michael Faraday, who was an apprentice bookbinder, but who came up with the electric motor, the Bunsen burner, electromagnetic induction and many, many more things and ideas we still use today. And what about Charles Darwin, who taught us about the natural world and our place in it? He half-heartedly studied medicine and divinity, before getting bored and focusing on beetles and naturalism instead. And the rest is history, as we say.
One of my two favourite examples for Australia is John Vetter, the man who runs the Mudgee Observatory. If you’ve got few days, please pay him a visit. For a very small fee you can look through his amazing telescopes as long as you want. Before Vetter bought the block of land outside of Mudgee (chosen because it is pitch-black out there, no light pollution), he worked for the NRMA. A gifted amateur, his observatory is now used by professionals from all over the world, who have used it (as has he) to discover a multitude of bright things in the sky. The other is Christopher Malloy, who built himself what he calls the Hoverbike. Modelled on the Chinook helicopter, with a carbon fiber frame and a BMW engine, it can fly at a height of 10,000 feet, at 100 miles an hour. Malloy is now testing the prototype and wants to have the machine on the open market within a year or two. Amateurs both, but boy, what would we do without people like them?
So look around you before you go to university. Wikipedia? An amateur initiative. Most artists, writers, musicians and poets started alone in their bedrooms, motivated by love and a willingness to try things out. Facebook, YouTube, most alternative energy companies – all of them the brainchild of somebody with enthusiasm, belief, interest bordering on obsession, dedication and hard work.
I believe the world is in urgent need of people with a laptop, a phone, a bright idea and tenacity.