While I'm always pushing a higher education on our kids, if you made it a prerequisite for audio design greatness, you'd filter out the likes of Nelson Pass, Dave Wilson, Bruce Brisson, and scores of others. I'd venture to say that there is a very large chunk of the audio designer/engineer crowd that have no formal training but could run intellectual circles around folks like me. Just my opinion.
Just as Gavin mentioned... I feel some of the brigthest and most respected people in audio today are self taught but I'm sure have learned a great deal off EE stuff that is pertanent to audio... but with a grounding of real world applications
“I think the big mistake in schools is trying to teach children anything, and by using fear as the basic motivation. Fear of getting failing grades, fear of not staying with your class, etc. Interest can produce learning on a scale compared to fear as a nuclear explosion to a firecracker.” Stanley Kubrick.
I'm reminded of that quote often and I believe that it applies to audio designers equally as say, but not limited to, a painter or a musician. Interest followed by inspiration followed by execution are the basic frameworks for innovation. In short. It doesn't take a genius to have a genius idea.
Formal education can show you how others have done it. Self taught shows you are a pioneer and see learning as a passion rather than an occupation. Nothing wrong with the former but formal teaching tends to teach the rules rather than how to break them. It comes as no surprise that all major pioneers are self-taught in their particular speciality and end up breaking the rules. By definition if it's pioneering it just aint in the formall syllabus. In audio design it does make sense to have a broad scientific training but It's the application of the thinking to new areas that takes things forward. Formal education is left brain while pioneering design is somewhat right brained. You need both but the education bit can be self-taught if the right brain is in charge - it instructs the left brain to find the information it needs.
That Kubrick quote grinds on me. In general, the question of formal vs. informal education is not an either-or, it's a both-and. I've thought about this a lot in the context of my boys' public school education. It's dedicated teachers like Dave Clark's job to deliver the curriculum and help the students make sense of it. It's my job as a parent, mentor, boss, whatever, to provide the context to apply and integrate informally what's been learned formally. They work together.
That said, an audio engineer without a formal engineering background can be successful provided they understand and account for the collective knowledge base and wisdom of the discipline. Without that, they risk making mistakes and miscalcuations that their formally trained peers have worked through or know to avoid.
I'm all for genius, creativity, innovation, etc. But when it involves high voltages and high price tags, there had better be sound engineering behind the product, or the consumer is going pay the price in marginal performance, reliability, value, etc.
Didn't mean to grind ya Russ. Kubrick (by his choice) was a terrific failure academically and that explains his views. On a personal note I do relate to his failures scholastically however. I have dyslexia and with very few exceptions I was considered dumb by the very people I relied on for an education and never given a second thought. I had to find confidence and teach myself. That's my baggage and my cross to bare. Despite my experiences, I still have a profound respect for teachers and the often thankless service they provide. I wish I had a teacher like Dave Clark growing up but that didn't happen. I am privileged to know him in my adulthood.
I thought about paraphrasing (and perhaps I should have) and just including the part about interest and a nuclear explosion as I completely agree with it. It's funny though. When posed this question my thoughts went straight to speaker manufacturing as that seems to be the place where intuitive and extemporaneous miracles occur. Not to electronics where there is a real danger of electrocution and some form of an engineering background is almost a necessity.