Education Rant

I am largely self-taught. I read about 75 books per year, and have since I was 14. I have used the university to augment my own intellectual pursuits, dropping out sporadically as the stifling1 nature of the university interfered with my ability to learn. I never hesitated to take a course if I found the subject matter interesting, even graduate courses. After seven years and four schools, I earned a liberal arts degree, and launched into a career for which my degree was totally irrelevant.
Years later, my interest in science was piqued to such an extent that I went to a local state college to take classes in science, mathematics and computers. Why? Ever try to learn physics on your own? Where do you begin? How do you know where to begin? If you grew up on science-fiction novels, you'll start with an elementary quantum mechanics text, or a book on relativity. Guess what? None of it will make any sense. You don't have the background. So where do you get the background? The books in the public library are all either too easy or too hard. How do you know what to study first?
  1. Ask someone more knowledgeable than yourself for advice. This involves a face-to-face discussion, and many hours of discussion. Where do you find this person?

  2. Go to school and take some intro classes. Go to office hours and talk to your TAs and professors. Sooner or later, you find someone halfway sympathetic, and you pick their brain for a good book list (bring pencil and paper). You keep coming back with questions whenever you get stuck. If the person is cool enough, you can keep picking their brain long after you don't go to that school anymore.

Trust me: a book on non-abelian gauge theory, commutative algebra, or algorithmic structures, isn't going to read like the latest Tom Clancy book. It's going to be really fucking hard to read, and you will get freaked out a lot, and will need a warm human body to set you straight. You can't learn these things with a book alone.
I did two years of a Doctoral program in the sciences, and left with an M.S. I refused to take my qualifying exams because they were ugly and hard enough that I had to spend months in a ugly head space in order to pass them, and I wasn't interested in abusing myself that way. I know I was as knowledgeable as any of my peers who passed the exam, but because I never took them, there's no proof that this is true. The qualifying exams were a mean-spirited hazing ritual2, and by then, I had learned enough in school that I could read any book I was interested in, and had enough phone numbers and email addresses of people who would help me get unstuck when I got stuck.
I was a TA for five years in grad school, and I have some comments to make about the quality of an undergraduate education.
The main thing that college teaches is how to serve many different masters. Someone with a B.A. and a 4.00 GPA knows how to soothe the damaged egos and mollify many, many different types of people. It takes a certain level of intelligence to do this, but it also takes a shrewd judge of character. This puts them in good stead in a corporate environment. That's why companies are looking for college-educated employees. They don't give a damn about your field of expertise, for the most part. They want to know you are good at being a good employee.
Is this necessary to career success? In a corporate environment, it very well might be. In business? Possibly. In science, yes. In education, yes. In a position of authority? Less so. In a trade? Not at all.
Only a quarter of people in college would be in college if college were merely about a love of learning. Even fewer would attend if they understood:
  1. That a B.A. alone won't really get you a top-salaried job. That a brass pipe fitter in a union who lives near an airport will make two or three times the starting salary of an entry-level job that requires a B.A. (Google these stats, someone).

  2. How expensive college is, and how long it takes to pay back student loans.

  3. That joining the upper middle class requires much more than a piece of paper.

So what about skipping college? It depends on what your goals are. Attrition rates at universities are high (somebody Google me a quote here) because the method of a university education does not address every condition. The university alienates as many people as it embraces, if not more.
You can be smart without college if you have a lot of other smart people in your life whom you talk to on a regular basis. If you try to be a lone genius in an attic somewhere, you will end up one of those crackpots who line their hats with tinfoil so the CIA can't read your thoughts. You have to talk to other smart people. You have to talk to people who have attained some intellectual mastery in their lives. How do you know if your peers are genuinely smart? How do you know a master from a fraud? Ultimately, you have to make up your own mind.


1The whole course-credit-grade system is not an ally of free and boundless inquiry. Wander too far from the recommended reading list of a given course, and you will fail the course. Want to leave in April to visit an archaeological dig on the island of Rhodes? Too bad. Catch the professor making blatant errors? Too bad. Get assigned an inferior textbook, a TA who doesn't speak English, a section dominated by brainless agonized windbags who abduct the discussion group like it's the Lindbergh baby? Too bad.
2Where I went to school, the initial year was devoted to a core of required basic classes, all of which I passed. These classes all had final exams, which I passed. Independent of this, there were three qualifying exams, of three hours each. The subject matter of these exams was only cursorily covered, if at all, in the first year coursework. Most of the exam questions were very elaborate trick questions. In studying for the exams, the students would look at all of the old exams going back ten or twenty years, and catalog the tricks involved.
In mathematics, often counterexamples are used to show who definitions have their particular quirks, and are therefore important to study. But trick examples are actually a distraction; studying them not only distorts one's understanding of core mathematics, it is a fucking awful head space to spend three months in. One month into studying for my qualifying exams, I wasn't learning any new math, and my intuition was ravaged without being expanded. I had headaches all the time, not from stress, but from doing something seriously wrong that my will rebelled against.
There are lots of really good questions that would be great in a qualifying exam in mathematics. They are not tricky or clever, but force the student to demonstrate a strong understanding of core mathematics. Nothing like this appeared on any of the previous qualifying exams. Some of the qualifying exam questions depended upon math we had not yet been exposed to, and would never have stumbled upon by accident in a three-hour exam. And yet, we were strongly discouraged from using mathematics not covered in the core courses; a clear Catch-22. It was common for people to pass an exam with only two completely correct answers (or even 1 1/2). The department used the qualifying exams to decide about funding for each year, and used them to weed out students. This is what I would consider to be hazing. It was bullying, pure and simple, and totally undignified. I wasn't worried about passing at least one exam (which was required to get third year funding). I was worried about what three months of studying for them each time I sat for them was doing to my spirit.
Finally, my Muse stepped in and told me to stop. She told me that she would leave me if I worked on these awful questions any longer. So I stopped studying for them, and told the department that I refused to take the exams, and what my objections were. I offered to demonstrate my proficiency some other way, and showed my grades in the core classes, which were quite high, as evidence. I felt I could demonstrate my knowledge of the core material in an hour or two with a blackboard and a piece of chalk.
I felt, and I had three or four professors who would back me up, that I was a valuable part of the math department. I had taken qualifying exams for my Master's degree at another school, and passed them. They took a lot out of me, even though they were not as nasty, and I didn't want to go through the ordeal again. The previous Graduate Director had mentioned the possibility of waiving one or more exams.
The new Graduate Director's response was to threaten to expel me on the spot, and back-charge me for tuition and department aid. It turned out that he wrote the exams himself, and took them very personally. So I lied to him and told him that I would sit for the exams, and then never showed up. I withdrew from the department shortly after the exam period.

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On 10 Apr 2005, 17:03.