The value of a university education

I have recently started teaching structures and construction to first year architecture and engineering students at the University of Melbourne. As an architect who graduated from the same university 5 years ago, and to whom first year structures is just a distant memory, it probably comes as no surprise that in order to teach the class I have to re-learn the formulae with which to calculate moments in beams, buckling in columns and directional forces in trusses.

The opposite is true too: as a graduate, I had only minimal appreciation of how a building is put together, how to drain a roof or build a stud wall. I knew nothing of town planning or building regulations and, despite being handy with AutoCAD, could barely put together a set of building documents. All this I learnt through practice, the trial by fire of running a project by myself and dealing with the inevitable consequences of my mistakes.

This got me to thinking: if the things we learn at university (and cram into our brains for end-of-semester exams) are so easily forgotten, and hardly necessary to practice as a responsible architect anyway, and the things we don’t learn are in fact important to practice as an architect, what is the value of a university education?

I think the value of university lies not in formulae, nor in historical names and dates, not even in techniques of construction. Part of it comes from understanding first principles – the basic way a beam supports load for instance, what Modernism was, or how a roof stays up – but there is something even more fundamental: the value of a university education is in learning a way of thought.

My architecture education taught me a way of looking at the world, of appreciating the natural and built environments, of being sensitive to how we engage with objects and other people. It didn’t matter in the end that I graduated without knowing precisely how to detail a building, this I learnt on the job. What is important is that my eyes were opened to the many different paradigms that exist in the world, to the preciousness of the natural environment, to the nuanced arts and sciences of making.

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