Saturday, September 10, 2005

Academic disillusionment

It may, in the end, be a good thing that I didn't have an internship until this past summer. I know, for all I kicked myself for not getting experience earlier, not seeing a broader part of industry... I think this may well be one of those things that just happened to work out for the best in the big picture.

Why would I say this? Because, after one summer at Google, I'm painfully aware of how much the process and setup of academia bothers me. I had always been a bit bothered, but now I have concrete experience and observation to contrast it against.

I'd been saying for a while that I don't want to be in research because I want to do something which has immediate, positive impact on the world. I want to do something real. School is the opposite of real. Everything in it is designed to be artificial. Not, note, without purpose - but deliberately removed from the messiness of the real world. Each assignment is crafted to be a neat little tidbit capturing and exercising the understanding of an idea. Each exercise from a section of a book is solved using ideas from that section. This is a good way to understand certain concepts, but really all you're doing is solving a heavily restricted problem. Even for the "tricky" word problems, you already know something about the solution, since it will involve some techniques from the section. Comprehensive exams do a bit better, since you have to draw from the material of all or most of a course, but it's still restricted to just that course, and you're still solving "neat", artificial problems. This is hardly "problem solving".

On top of this, there is the demeaning status of a student. You're the bottom of the food change. You can't argue with anything. It's one thing to be in this status when you're a child (and I have enough complaints about that; must post about those some time), but for someone 18, 21, 24... it's really frustrating. The instructor and his/her whims are entirely responsible for a mark that will be on your record for the rest of your life, and will affect what you can do for at least the next few years. Now, you have many instructors over time, but each one of them has this power. The system is rigid and beaurocratic. A few nice administrators or instructors might bend the rules, but on the whole, it's set for the masses, and there's very little you can do to escape jumping through many pointless hoops.

Now, it's not to say that I don't think many companies have many problems (including those of schools), but I think there could be much better ways of running the system. What we need is a holistic approach to taking individual from childhood to a happy, productive member of society. When I say holistic, I don't mean some weird hippy thing; I'm being entirely practical. Let's take it from the perspective of greatest total, long-term economic benefit, maybe something like lifetime per-capita GDP.

I have heard from multiple sources in multiple fields that the optimal degree for money is a master's. Let's assume this takes until age 24, and that you work until age 70 (probably more reasonable for my generation, and a lot of people take up second careers after their first retirement anyway). That's 46 years of productivity for 24 years of training. Let's also assume that under a certain age, say, 12, you're not going to do anything really productive (most of the tasks a 12 year old could do can be automated, or should be soon), so it's really only 12 years difference. Now, if the 12 years of training makes you at least 26% (12/41) more productive, it's good to spend those 12 years training.

That sounds fine, but why can't the training be productive, and in the process, make one even better prepared for the rest of one's life? From my observations of the early school system, most of the work is repetitive and the students don't care about it. Now, this alone is a problem that could be remedied without affecting the rest of the system, but I'm going for the holistic best solution. My suggestion for this is apprenticeship. Maybe this isn't practical at early ages (although I still think more individualized work should be done), but starting around late middle school/early high school, I think it would be more beneficial to set each student up with a mentor to apprentice with, for as long as each arrangement seems to work (no sense artificially dividing the time into semesters or years if it's already individualized). This will not only allow the apprentice to do something productive in the real world, but see the applicability of the things s/he is learning.

In terms of overall productivity, though, one must consider that the mentor is losing time too: time spent training the apprentice that could be used on their own pursuits. Maybe this is an hour per day, per student - I don't think it would take much more, since part of the point of this is also self-reliance and self-direction, and small-group instruction could be held with several apprentices at once. This is weighed against the professional teachers we have now, who may have 20 students each (or 1/6 of each of 120 students; each has 6 periods a day), and doesn't do anything but teach them. This means, say 1/8 of a mentor's time used vs only 1/20 for a traditional teacher. Does the increased productivity of the apprentice, including both the apprenticeship and over their lifetime, make up for the 3/40ths of an adult professional's time? I'd say yes, but then I'm a fan of this system for other reasons as well. If a 20-year-old working 40 hours can't make up for 3 hours out of someone else's week, even if they are spending time on things like book exercises, I'd be really surprised.

Finally, I'd like to argue for the long-term benefit of this over traditional school, in a slightly less economic sense (although it still has economic implications). When a student goes from a purely school environment to the professional world (as I did this past summer), they're unused to anything other than the idea of getting closed-form assignments and doing them individually (maybe in a group, but this is less common, and usually considered cheating if not assigned). This is a great contrast to open-form assignments ("make this better"), and having social networking being a big component of getting things done. If your assigment is "make this better", and you figure you might need a particular algorithm implemented to do this, it's all well and nice to look through text documentation and explanation, but it's much better in many respects to just go ask somebody who has knowledge of that. For one, they might have your needed functionality already implemented in a library. For another, they can point you to other related things that might be useful, and even better, to other people who have ideas about the subject.

My ideas of an apprenticeship system obviously has potential drawbacks which need to be addressed. For one, it requires a lot of mentors who are reasonably good teachers. Otherwise, we get another problem that the public school system has right now, measuring by standards which are not necessarily reflective of quality - class size, in this case. Sure, this system has a class size of probably a handful, but most of us would agree that it's better to have a class with 40 students with a really good instructor than a class of 20 with a poor instructor (hence another idea I've heard, to fire the bottom half of teachers and pay the remaining ones twice as much - which I think would result in an improvement, since it would draw even better teachers).

Maybe the best approach would be some kind of hybrid. There are some pursuites where one does just need to cover a whole lot of specialized material, basically in bulk. Under a strictly apprenticeship program, it would be hard to get people like math researchers. I imagive you'd have some studentents who'd apprentice with, say, an engineer, who'd wind up really liking the math part, and devoting big chunks of time to learning it mostly on their own, and after a while, switch to being the apprentice of a math researcher. Well, maybe it wouldn't be so hard then. I appreciate any comments for problems of this type and suggestions of how they be investigated or treated.

As a side note, think about what it means that I complained about the particular things that I did... these are things I had as contrast against working at Google.

Oh, and if you're bothered by my occasional use of 'they' as a gender-neutral singular... it's intentional. It was accepted in the time of Shakespeare (who did use it), and there is linguistic backing for its use as such. So get off your prescriptive grammar and look at the purpose and functionality of the construct.

1 Comments:

Blogger Wolfram said...

Ah yes, the great one-size-fits-all assembly line approach to schooling. It's probably a by-product of the industrial age, division of labor (into professional teachers and professional workers), macroeconomic efficiency.

I can relate to this dilemma, having seen the system from either side. Today's perception of schooled education--note that the very term, school, implies homogeneity and uniformity--is one of fairness, equal standards, equality, leveling, broadness, etc. The irony for fresh graduates comes with the first job interview questions: Why should I hire you? What makes you special and what are your unique abilities?

Mentoring and apprenticeship has definitely been a scholarly transfer of information and skill of old, and continues to be in many places, except, and here I strongly agree with the author, in institutions of learning. I would carve out an exception for Ph.D.-bound graduate students.

Whether this approach is socio-economically feasible or even desirable at a large scale for the masses for basic schooling, however, remains the subject of debate.

9/23/2005 2:20 AM  

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