Recently I got into another dust up over academia, this time at What's Wrong With the World. It didn't go terribly well - I don't get along with the crowd there, and that's putting it diplomatically. No surprise there, I have a grating personality, and Malcolm recently gave a rundown of some of the blowup.
That's not my concern with this post. Instead, I want to explain my position on academia - by that I mean, the university system as well as the social and intellectual culture both within it and surrounding it.
Put short, my view is: burn it to the ground. And by that I mean: I would like almost the entirety of the modern university system destroyed, and replaced. Yes, there is still a place for formal education, and certainly for testing and verification - but both of those things should be provided by systems other than what we have right now. Beyond that, I encourage a health skepticism of academics in general. I think the primary value of an educated person lies in their ability to provide arguments and explanations through which they can educate and possibly convince others of the superiority of their models and their claims, and beyond that their value is in putting them to work to perform a given task. The decision of whether or not to have faith in an academic or formal authority figure with regards to science, history or much anything else is a willful one. No one should not be compelled to take Stephen Hawking's word about physics as truth based solely on his his academic credentials or accomplishments.
Now I say this as someone who has dealt with academia as a student. I picked up a 4 year degree, I've taken courses and passed them - like many people here. But over the years, I've just seen far too many reasons to regard the entire edifice upon which the modern university rests as rotten to the point where the best solution is not 'try to reform it' but 'fight against it'.
I have many reasons to believe this. Right now, I'm only going to list one.
Modern technology has made the university in large part obsolete when it comes to education. Not entirely obsolete - if you'd like to learn, say... how to safely remove a spleen from a living organism, a university is your best bet for a cadaver, since those are otherwise hard to come by unless you are more resourceful than I care to contemplate. But if you're hoping to study literature, psychology, education, economics, history, or most of the other most popular degrees on offer, you've got alternatives. Namely, you can acquire the books - typically on a nice, convenient, portable tablet PC or eBook reader - and study at your leisure. You don't even need to bother a librarian anymore - you can simply get all the books you need online, often for free (legitimately even), and if not, then typically for vastly cheaper than even a single college course usually costs.
'But Crude, what about having an instructor? Some people learn better by having someone give them examples or give a lecture!' you say? Fantastic: there are alternatives available. For free or, again, far cheaper than it would be to get a degree. If you wish merely to educate yourself, there are a tremendous number of opportunities available to you now, all without having to step foot on a campus - in fact, without having to step foot outside of your home. Video lectures, books, audio books... education is more readily available now than ever before.
This example doesn't suffice to blow academia out of the water as a necessary part of modern society. But on its own, it does suffice to weaken it tremendously. For anyone who simply wishes to learn something that requires little more than reading and studying quite a lot, the appeal of the modern university versus simply acquiring the books and studying on your own is practically nil. If you wish to learn about literature, history, even computer programming, you're far better off spending $1000 dollars on books and supplies than $25000 on a degree in addition to (overpriced) books and supplies for the mere ultimate privilege of having yourself tested by a professor's TA.