Knowing the Knowns

John Kay makes some interesting points in his FT article on the benefits of a liberal (i.e. broad and multi-disciplinary) education. Given the ease with which knowledge can be found in the Internet era, he argues that increasingly “Today it is less important to know, and more important to know what is known.” In many ways, an undergraduate real estate degree embodies a liberal education with its blend of materials from construction and design, law, finance, geography, management, planning and economics. However, we can also be quite focussed on practical skills, techniques, application and procedures. Definitions of yields. Lease renewal procedures. Spreadsheet modelling. Etc. I don’t think that we discuss it often enough but there are quite a range of views among real estate academics about the appropriate balance between academic skills such as critical evaluation and analysis (Why) and knowledge of professional activities etc. (How). Student often prefer the “how” to the “why”. Teaching real estate cash flow modelling at UCL, I got a lot of comments from students along the lines of “That was the most practical/useful module that I’ve done”. It was usually meant as a compliment (maybe backhanded) but I’m not sure that it should have been. Going back to John Kay’s point, in an increasingly globalized (I hate globaloney but our students are increasingly from outside the UK) and dynamic business environment, a lot of practical, procedural knowledge is too local and can become obsolete very fast. Urban planning is maybe an extreme example but I suspect that the academics are really struggling to justify teaching students, especially international ones, about the intricate structures and operation of the English planning system. Especially when many of the planning academics themselves are struggling to keep up with the bewildering rate of government-driven change. Not sure that we’ll ever get this right but we’ll just have to keep trying to get it as least wrong as possible.

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