Wednesday, December 2, 2009

A few thoughts on education

Lately I've been thinking quite a lot about education, both my own and in general. I ended up writing quite a bit about it. You can find all my thoughts here (PDF warning). I stuck it in a PDF because I think it's a more canonical form. I'm interested in hearing any thoughts people have, both about what I wrote and about education.


  1. Very well written. All I can say is that you're one of the smartest people I know. No certificate or formal endorsement will make me feel differently about the contribution you can make.

    That said I would not desire to discourage anyone from pursuing the education they feel personally worthwhile and valuable. For myself I've found little value in formal education. I've never worried about the next job, nor have I wondered how I would convince my next employer of the value I bring. It's evident in the work I do.

    I believe the same is true for you.

  2. Interesting read Alex.

    I can definitely relate to these thoughts. I homeschooled myself through a correspondence high school in 3 years, but have since floundered in college. In 5 years I've studied at 3 schools and gained over 130 credits without completing a degree. However, I believe it's more for lack of discipline than intelligence.

    I find that my personal motivation to succeed in a given course depends in no small way on the effort and competency of the professor. For instance, I'm currently enrolled in a programming class where each of the assignments appears to have taken less than 5 minutes to write up, but result in every student spending 2 hours coming up with the same boilerplate code. It's an abomination of a course, and I hate every minute of it.

    I won't pretend to offer too much advice, but I will tell you this. As a rule, it will get easier and easier to find a job as you get older, and harder and harder to complete your degree.

  3. Also, I'll ditto what Michael said, you're incredibly smart. If you ever wanted to move to the midwest, I'd love to try to convince my boss to hire you ;-)

  4. Alex, I'm 45 and I got a degree in 1990. I entirely quote Don: "it will get easier and easier to find a job as you get older, and harder and harder to complete your degree".

  5. I briefly skimmed through the file, but from more practical perspective I would suggest to read Ken Robinson "The Element". It is not only about what is wrong with education in general, but also have inspirational stories about people who find success in their life despite education.
    On my personal opinion - it is important to complete what you started and degree can be nessesary further in the life path.

  6. Interesting. I left high school in after two years in favor of self-schooling as well, then later went to college. Didn't know some of the books you mentioned; my inspiration was _The Teenage Liberation Handbook: How to quit school and get a real life and education_, by Grace Llewellyn (a former high school teacher).

  7. Alex, I wish everyone shared your drive and self-motivation (at any age).

    I've had many students who as college freshman were unable to interpret the most basic of reading assignments. Notable exceptions aside, if one cannot read, write, or perform simple computation, one will most likely not get very far in any career. To my mind, the same is true of synthesis, analysis, and media literacy. While the "3-Rs" are generally mastered before high school, synthesis, analysis, and media literacy are not.

    The teaching of basic skills _and_ synthesis, analysis, and media literacy is of the utmost importance; primary and secondary education methods are _just doing it wrong_. Children need help understanding the importance of mastering these skills, as opposed to promethean efforts in repetition and osmosis. Perhaps people will then find their own motivation as they mature, as you have.

    Another aspect of education I think important not to dismiss, particularly at the high school and college level, is engagement with people whose lifestyle, experience, and culture differ from one's own. Again, this experience might be gained outside of the school, but I don't know that we have yet devised a better construct, and the reasons for moving in social and economic spheres outside of one's own are not always evident.

    Finally, I'm sad to say that many of the demerits you give the education system continue into the workplace, to varying degrees by employer (credit for volume, style and form over substance and content, amongst others). Alternatives to the traditional office are becoming more prevalent, but often one still finds a workplace environment not dissimilar from the high school classroom. I'm all for this changing, but until it does, we'll need a population conditioned to function under such less-than-ideal circumstances.

  8. I'm also a former high school dropout, and followed a pretty similar route as you as well. I left school for slightly different reasons, mainly dealing with adolescent mental health issues that are (mostly) behind me now. Sadly, I had a 3.9 GPA when I dropped out, which ironically is half the reason I felt safe in leaving high school. Most public schools have degraded to helping the lowest common denominator, so if you're the slightest bit above average, public high school is a complete waste of time.

    I spent most of high school sleeping, skipping school, and just about anything else that didn't involve paying attention. This was after I found that with the text book I could accomplish 90% of my homework, tests and quizzes without the aid of whatever the hell the teacher was pretending to teach. All of this made it crystal clear that high school for me was all but worthless at that point, so I dropped out.

    I eventually did end up in college, and got myself a shiny degree. College for me was different, as it occasionally threw the odd challenge my way. That made all the difference for me personally. I didn't much care if what I was doing was meaningless overall, I cared more about facing a challenge and coming out on top of my class.

    In the end college does serve a decent purpose though. It serves as work experience where you don't actually have any. In a lot of ways, you're pretty lucky. You've gotten involved in the right projects, at the right time, and have made quite a name for yourself as a result. You could have just have easily written the same amazing code for some project nobody cared about, and nobody'd know you and you wouldn't have the job opportunities you do now. In that case, being able to say you sucked it up, and stuck through four years of grueling classes would have made you look better than the other applicant who quit.

  9. Being self-motivated and willing to learn is probably going to lead you to success, regardless of your educational background.

    Having said that, when it comes to looking for a job with a (medium-large) company, the first hurdle to get through is HR. They generally just ignore people without a degree. So, like it or not, for many people, the degree will get your foot in the door.

    For what it's worth, I think the type of education that you're seeking-participating in rewarding discussions regarding concepts, being challenged to think about things in new ways - often does happen in Graduate school (though there are probably still cases of busy work). For me, "school" didn't really get interesting until I started working on a Master's Degree.

    To answer your questions:
    1) Have you
    ever learned more from being told something than for figuring it out for yourself?
    Sort of... it depends on your definition of "told". In many cases, I first had to become deeply involved in the problem, get totally stuck, and then seek out help (either from a book, a blog, or another person). It's usually then that being "told" something actually helps.

    2) ...does our
    society value a degree, or the learning it represents more? This one is difficult to answer, because our society is complex and multifaceted. There are many people who DO understand that the "learning process" is more important than the degree. Unfortunately, there are many people who also do not really value that learning process. With respect to potential employers, I think finishing the degree show that you can complete a long, time-consuming task. I think employers want people that can "follow through" with what they've started.

  10. Alex,

    You strike several resonant chords in me, even though our back story is different. As others have said, it is the qualities of motivation and problem solving that will help you out the most in the long run. However I think the value of a college degree is not in your major course, you are already a qualified python programmer. It is in the opportunity for exposure in other classes, people, and perspective. It may be the last time in your life where you will have enough time to take classes and read in such diverse areas. There is also the stigma of not having a degree, for better or worse, right or wrong, - that is a reality that can't be ignored.


  11. PDFs are annoying.

    Employers like college degrees because they prove that you can stick through doing work that isn't interesting or fun.

    Not all universities are equal. I know many people who attend schools that are merely the next version of high school. I also know those who attend so-called "better" schools, known for their research achievements much more so than the quality of their undergraduate education. I dislike it when people equate my experience with that of either of those groups, as it is quite different.

    Although I'm not going to say that we're perfect, I'm still damn proud of my uni. Our unofficial motto is "Learn by Doing", and it's an integral part of our education. I literally have to have an internship for two quarters to get my degree, and next year I'll be doing a two-quarter team project for a company in industry. This is not merely book smarts, and my major has had 100% job offers upon graduation so far.

    As for learning things on your own... my professors make sure everyone knows how to use man pages, and expect us to only come to them with questions after we've struggled for a while on our own. You know those grumpy old UNIXers who disparage newbies on FOSS mailing lists? Yeah, those are my instructors.

  12. Have a look at the book "Grown Up Digital: How the Net Generation is Changing Your World", Chapter 5: Rethinking Education—The Net Generation As Learners

    I think that you might somehow feel identified by that one.

    Let me know if you need a copy of that chapter.

  13. Good luck making your decision. I do think you're asking the right question at least. Even knowing that you can get a job and will be able to keep a job, the question is whether you'll regret lacking the (meaningless) piece of paper down the road. For me, I ended up opting to waste a couple extra years in school and get the paper, but I'm not convinced it was the right call.

    It seems to me like the more you like the entrepreneurial environment, the less your certificates matter and the more the equation tips towards not needing the paper. You've already discovered that at least in our field, you can still get a good position based on a good reputation for doing valuable work and I don't see that changing.

  14. Good luck with your decision . I highly recommend you stay in school, you can't go through life being a quitter. Also think about the wasted, time,effort, and money.

  15. I got my degree from the School of Hard Knocks. The only reason I made it through high school was because it was private. I lasted two semesters at college but it was way more challenging, fun and rewarding being a programmer/consultant. I never regretted dropping out I regretted the time I wasted just trying to make my parents happy. Now at 41 I have no degree but have a great challenging job and make good money in the six figures.

    To be successful at the SHK you need to be self motivated, passionate, committed and the desire to learn.

    Most people fit the traditional education mold of classes some of us don't. But that fine because the Internet age has given us the ability to self study anything, anytime, anywhere.

    I found your blog while I was self studying Python. And now I can say that I have been educated by high school drop out. I learned more this morning in 3 hours online then any College level Python course could tech in a semester.

  16. Like many others here, I found this post to be very interesting and thought-provoking. Unlike the other commenters who are looking back on their decision, I am looking towards my future. Currently, I'm a sophomore in high school. I love computers and I have been programming since the age of 10. Everything I know about programming I taught myself, but this coming semester I will be taking my first class on it. Although it is the highest-level class offered, I've talked to my friends taking it and they still have trouble understanding what a float or function is. I'm sometimes shocked at how my peers are unable to learn material without being told by a teacher. I guess these are the type of people who fit in with the traditional school system. I know I'm not one of those people.

    Like Alex, I sometimes wonder if all the work I do to maintain my grades is worth it. I go to a very competitive private school and manage to maintain a 4.0 GPA. Extra curricular activities are required at my school, so I spend two hours every day rowing on the river for the crew team. I get home well after 6pm, and after completing the tedious homework and studying for assessments, I have an hour of free time if I'm lucky.

    Looking a few years back, I remember all the interesting projects I had time to work on. A hydrogen rocket, a physics simulation program, and many electronics projects are just a few examples. I've done a few custom programming jobs professionally in the past. The people who employed me thought it was okay to pay me yard work wages just because I was 14, but it was better than nothing. Recently, I managed to scrape up enough time to launch my first public web application, I created it mainly to make studying easier. If I had no school, I would be able to learn on my own and have some sort of professional career.

    Decisions concerning education will always be dubious ones. One can never know whether or not they made the right choices in the past, or whether they are headed in the right direction for their future plans. I sometimes wish I could design my own school - a school in which students are graded based on effort and ability to learn on their own. Although students would be the teachers and professors of their own classes, people knowledgeable in the fields would always be available for personal assistance.

    Anyways, I don't really know where I was going with this, but it always feels good to translate thoughts into bytes.

  17. I'm a fellow Djangonaut, high-school drop out, American and human being. I own a consulting business, have been a part of several internet start-ups, a failed revolution, have traveled quite a bit and by most measures am quite well off. Additionally, I'm a member of the TV academy and I'm accredited to fly and sail. I've also been coding now for 20 years. This would be my hobby if I were paid to fly instead. Although, everyone's path is unique, we have a few things in common and I think I would have appreciated some input when I was in your circumstances.

    I also found nothing useful about traditional schooling. To me the question was, what was the point? Why was I there? John Henry Newman will tell you that the idea of an education is to be well educated in any situation. Obviously, this is not the case. If your car breaks down, will a college education help you fix it? You may know the theory behind why that vehicle works, but not much else. What if you need to survive outside the confines of civilization? Make a turkey? Hunt a turkey? What if a loved is terminally ill? Or a friend is mourning? In all these cases, a university degree is lacking.

    However, a university degree is required if you want to be a perfect fit into a corporate system. The world is very corporatized. Government grows in lock step with corporatists. Corporatism is all the rage. In corporatist scenarios, they want people to fit into the system. Universities are part of the system. While "turn on, tune in, drop out" is too simplistic a message, there is quite a bit of truth to this.

    A university degree means you have bought into a system of dependency. When you leave, you already owe money, so you can make more money so you can spend the money on all the things you think you need and can't do for yourself. I see where that choice is the right one for some people. It was not the choice for me.

    I preferred to be as independent as possible. I will interact with the system, on my terms.

    What exactly do you want from this degree? Money? Knowledge?

    If it's knowledge, there are other more fruitful ways of getting it. Ways you'll need to learn anyway because your academic life is only so long.

    Money? If that's your primary motivation, then you should probably stop reading now.

    The one thing a university degree will do is give you the misplaced confidence that you are prepared to tackle whatever it is you need to tackle. Having confidence is extremely important. With a degree, you believe you will be able to accomplish a task or get a job because you have been measured and degreed. In some instances, it might even fool the person on the other side of the table that you might be the right person for a task because he too believes in those measures.

    In reality, some of the best, smartest and most capable people in the world, do not have those degrees.

    Something else a university degree will do is help you network with people looking to work their way through the system. Again, if you value the system, this particular type of networking might be important.

    From my experience, the most important things in life are family, close-friends, learning, health and now. Your priorities may be different, but before you answer the immediate question of needing a college degree, or the less immediate question of what you want to accomplish, you should answer what are the most important things in life. Learn about happiness. Ultimately it's what you need most of.

    If anything, a college education gives you time to figure that out if you don't think you know the answer now. Backpacking through South America can also teach you this.

  18. What I choose:

    - Surround myself with interesting people and things at all times. Never live somewhere boring or settle for a boring project. Move on to the next chapter if the current one is done.

    - Pick projects where I am not the smartest person in the room. Learn, every time.

    - Perform tasks outside my comfort zone. Reach a little farther.

    - While not ignoring long term planning, remember that the only reality is now. If you become accustomed to a life of drudgery for a later reward, what if the reward doesn't come? Was it still worth it?

    - Read Joseph Campbell

    As with most things in western society, the focus is on quantity and not quality. Thus, you get herds of people pushed through higher education because obviously "more" is better. A better solution might have been to not push that student into a university system, but maybe have an apprenticeship.

    In closing, be sure you're asking the right questions. Find out what your true priorities in life are. Follow your bliss. Just like in programming, in life the most simple answer is usually the best one. If your answer is convuluted then maybe you haven't broken it down properly. Or maybe you're ignoring the simple solution.

  19. Well, to be analytical: school means nothing for you professionally. Networking is always ten times as important as education; it's only because new graduates have no networking connections that education seems important. Once you've done a bit of networking (and/or accomplished demonstrably useful things) education becomes a vanishingly small part of your professional worth. Also, if you spend a couple years in school you will learn some professionally useful things, but that same time spent doing professional work will teach you more, and if you are a generally curious person you will pick up the things that require non-professional work (e.g., compiler construction). And hell, work 30 hours a week, it'll give you the time you need; there's no reason you shouldn't be able to support yourself on that.

    So... just be realistic: you are in school to become a better person, or more the person you want to be, or to let you be in a profession that is different from your current trajectory, or something like that. Is school doing that for you?

    You will do fine professionally. But you still have to learn how to be an adult. Everyone has to learn this, and it's really hard, takes at least a decade, maybe three. And you can get it right or maybe not get it right, it's no easy task. If you drop out and get a job you run the serious danger of getting on a track before you know what that track is. If you graduate and get a job you also have a serious danger of getting on a track before you know what it means. To use a programming metaphor: plan to throw the first version away.

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  22. I would have many things to say, but let me just answer the final question in your PDF: "Have you ever learned more from being told something than for figuring it out for yourself?"

    Yes. For instance I had an extremely good course in Geometry (I mean real Geometry, not just linear algebra) at the first year of the University and later on I studied Differential Geometry on my own. Countless times during my self-study I wished I was following a course and I wished I had the same teacher I had at the first course. I would have spent much less effort. The same can be said for many difficult topics in Theoretical Physics I had to study on my own during my Ph. D.

    For ordinary things however, I would not consider following a course. For instance, everything I know about programming was self-thought and I never once felt the need for somebody teaching me anything; I also never follow online courses or video presentation about programming because I feel they are slowing me down and wasting my time: I just prefer reading the documentation. Perhaps you have not yet encountered in your life things which are really difficult for you. For such things having a course and a teacher (including assignments and tests) make sense, at least IMO.

    Of course average courses are meant for average people and they make a disservice to anybody who is a bit over the average. My own pre-university education was a waste in many ways. Final recommendation: if you want to go to college choose a difficult subject and you will find smart people. Do not study something you already know (i.e. programming) it would be a total waste.

  23. Well, to add on Michele's statement: I frequently learn things from outside sources. Why else read blogs and books etc etc...? But I seldom get much out of that material unless I already have some internal intellectual tension, something I want to do but have not figured out how, or something that actively confuses me that I have struggled to understand. This readies me learn. And depending on the topic and my own state, that education can then be extremely rote and still productive.

    Traditional education typically does almost nothing to find a student's internal tensions and respond to them, nor does it encourage the building up of intellectual tension in students. Having a functional goal (e.g., trying to build something) is a great way to accomplish this, and in some fields is common. I don't know that there's any analog for history or philosophy.

    Truly thoughtful debate and discussion might work in other fields, but having gone to a college where discussion was very common in classes, "discussion" alone does not lead to this creating and resolving of tensions. Most students, even good students, smart and thoughtful students, are not ready to participate in thoughtful intellectual discussion. And maybe the practice is good, but schools are usually too scared of intimidating students to provide a venue for truly useful practice. There's also this "the youth are the future" fantasy keeps teachers from participating as active peers and mentors in discussions, because for the teacher to be an active an honest participant they will probably confront and expose the ignorance in students, and the education system stigmatizes that kind of behavior so much that teachers are afraid to provide and students are unready to receive genuine criticism. Teachers are allowed to critique the *form* of a students participation, but not the content.

    I think generally we've lost a sense of humility in our pursuits. We're all ignorant, we're all grasping at straws, none of us will really figure it out. That's not a paralyzing realization; once you give up on the notion of complete success it becomes clear you must move forward even in your ignorance. Success is in having a passion for this pursuit, not in anything intrinsic -- it's not being smart, or educated. But notions like "smart" and "dumb", "good student" and "bad", "living up to your potential", grades and degrees... these make it hard to accept and assimilate a truly humble attitude.


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