Is academia a (professional) guild?

The world’s leading universities offer exceptions for certain applicants.

By AVI SAGI
February 7, 2012 22:18
3 minute read.
University students [illustrative].

graduation students school university 311. (photo credit: thinkstock)

 
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In light of the recent controversy surrounding Yair Lapid’s pursuit of an M.A, the Supervisory Committee of the Council for Higher Education has revoked Bar-Ilan University’s authority to accept applications for advanced degrees from applicants who do not have a BA. The rationale for this decision is to protect the primary interest of academia – the imparting of knowledge.

This dilemma revolves around the definition of the BA degree: is it a means or an end? If the latter, there is no circumventing it.

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However, a BA degree is only a formal recognition of the fact, or rather a way of ensuring in some measure, that the recipient has indeed acquired the basics of a given field of knowledge.

One can’t ignore the fact that many students in non-academic institutions and programs, and even self-taught scholars, arrive at impressive achievements, equal to, or even greater than, those of formal degree holders. This well-acknowledged conundrum is gaining more exposure now that information on all levels is readily available to the general public: books, professional publications and databases are accessible to anyone who wishes to expand his knowledge and acquire a more comprehensive understanding of any academic discipline. Universities are still the academic path chosen by most, but there is always the option of choosing other paths to acquire knowledge and education.

During the Middle Ages, the common belief was that there were “gods of knowledge,” who kept the knowledge hidden and conveyed it only to members of the “order of the sages.” According to this view, which has recently regained some popularity, universities are a sort of modern- day guild, vested with sole authority to decide who can be a student and who can’t. But universities are not guilds, and their faculty members are not gods of knowledge.

The print revolution created a bitter debate: the opponents of print claimed it took away the control and supervision of knowledge from the “sages.” The supporters kept using the slogan: “written knowledge over spoken knowledge.” The Israel Council for Higher Education’s recent decision aligns with the opponents.


This is not to say that proper academic education is by any means redundant, only that there are other options; non-institutionalized or informal education channels which must be accessible to all. That way, practical as well as academic values are endorsed, by the recognition that academia is not the sole owner of knowledge, but only its agent. Indeed, many of humanity’s most impressive accomplishments in terms of education and knowledge were achieved outside the framework of academia.

Much like any other institution, academia leans toward the conservative. Alongside the ever necessary skepticism and scrutiny, however, it should also be open to new and original thought, which will most probably come from outside academia.

Those who wish to attain advanced degrees and become researchers within the framework of academia must undergo scrupulous tests and pass various exams, confirming their skills and capabilities. Nevertheless, success in these exams does not depend on previous degrees or previous places of study.

The world’s leading universities offer exceptions for certain applicants.

Senior academicians, those whom the Council for Higher Education (and society) trust to provide knowledge and train young scientists, can keep guard in this matter, and only the deserving few will be accepted under such exceptions. Bar-Ilan University’s meticulous book of rules and regulations strictly prevents favoritism and partiality.

So why close the gates and adhere to the strictest letter of the law when what is needed is exactly the opposite? Aside from exerting authority and power, what good can come of that? The writer is the head of the Program for Hermeneutics and Cultural Studies at Bar-Ilan University.

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