World-renowned scholar ponders value of university education

In the world of Google, what role does the content of a university education have?

James March posed that question Friday in a speech at York’s Winter Convocation after he received an honorary doctorate. A pioneer in organizational behaviour, decision theory and management science, he was honoured for his achievements and contributions as an international scholar and educator.

Right: James March

Now a professor emeritus at Stanford University, March has devoted more than 50 years to teaching and researching in academe. At least twice, he’s been provoked to question the value of a university education.

Once was in 1973, when Canadian-American economist Michael Spence published research showing that a university degree has economic value in the labour market even if the education itself results in no learning whatsoever because it reflects the innate talent and perseverence of a potential employee.

Spence’s work was "a brilliant and enormously useful piece of research," said March. "However, many of us, including Spence, have additional hopes for education. They are hopes that what is learned at university and where it is learned may be of some use and importance. These are archaic hopes."

More recently, March was shocked to discover his students’ approach to tackling a problem posed in class was not to try to solve it themselves but to go on the Internet and look for the answer. "I thought for a while that this was a disaster. But I’ve come to believe that this is a useful and important device. Students have discovered the power, beauties and complications of using distributive knowledge, " he said.

"In the world of Google, what role does the content of a university education have?" he asked. "Replicating in human heads the knowledge that exists in books or in electronic databases may perhaps be justified by a sense of the esthetics of human memory, but it’s hard to justify in terms of the relative inefficiency of the human mind as a storehouse of knowledge.

"A good university education spends relatively little time teaching information that is already part of the Google database," he said. "Rather, it teaches how to formulate questions that can be asked of those data to yield new insights, and it teaches questions and capabilities that will add to the Google inventory. It teaches how to separate the truth from fiction," he said. "Education is mostly a matter of learning what questions to ask and when to ask them."

He exhorted members of his graduating audience to "take a moment to ask yourself what you have learned here. What questions can you ask that you might not have known to ask without a university education." And "what have you learned that will make you truly more capable than you would have been without your education."

He said he hoped graduating students would be pleased that their York education "not only added to your price on the labour market but also added to your capability to use your own head and your own knowledge as an instrument to expand the power of knowledge in libraries and search engines. That is what a university is all about."

March is a celebrated international pioneer in organizational behaviour, decision theory and management science. His first two books Organizations and Behavioral Theory of the Firm, co-authored and published in 1958 and 1960, are still widely consulted and have been translated into nine languages. Currently the Jack Steele Parker Professor of International Management (Emeritus) at Stanford, March’s wide-ranging intellect has led to expertise in six different disciplines – industrial administration, political science, sociology, psychology, education and international management.

After earning a PhD in political science from Yale University in 1953, he taught and did research at Carnegie Institute of Technology and the University of California, Irvine. He joined Stanford’s faculty in 1970 and retired in 1995. The author of two dozen books and hundreds of articles, March has won major fellowships and academic honours, including 10 honorary doctorates. He now does pro bono research, writing, and teaching on decision-making, risk-taking, information processing, and learning in organizations.

To hear his entire Feb. 2 speech, visit York’s Convocation Webcast page.