A thought on learning

Slightly out of context from the piece as a whole, which is full of caution about grad school, but this is brilliantly written:

Society only exists because brains can learn, but academia is the only part of society that acts like it. Politics, business, and warfare all just play with the toys learning gave them, because arguing, greed, and violence are the childish parts of the species. Learning is how humanity grows up.

via 6 Important Things Nobody Tells You About Grad School |

education, personal, philosophy

The value of a four-year college

Three weeks into my symbolic logic class, I realized I didn’t belong.

It certainly seemed like a good idea to take it. I was a philosophy major, and I had aced logic. Loved it. Breezed through it.

I slowly realized that my classmates were all math majors and engineers. Somehow, word had gotten out that this was essentially a math class masquerading as a philosophy class that they could take to fill that social sciences requirement.

The professor would stop, apologize and talk very slowly when he mentioned something philosophical. “OK, this is what Immanuel Kant said about logic — that’s Kant, K … A … N … T.” Then he surveyed the class to make sure we all were familiar with mathematical induction. A couple of us said we weren’t.


So here it is:

\forall P.\,[[P(0) \land \forall (k \in \mathbb{N}).\,[P(k) \Rightarrow P(k+1)]] \Rightarrow \forall (n \in \mathbb{N}).\,P(n)]

Yeah, I shouldn’t have been there. But it was too late to drop the class. I had to muddle through, knowing I had as much chance of getting correct answers as Chris Farley on a Japanese game show in that SNL sketch that was a ray of sunshine in an otherwise awful season.


I somehow made it out of there with a C+, which was either divine intervention or a “gentleman’s C.”

So when people question the worth of a four-year residential college experience, I sometimes look back upon this class and wonder what I gained from the experience. Did my advisers and the Duke course catalog fail me? Should I have known better? Or was it good for me in the long run?

Perhaps I would’ve been better prepared if I had taken another class. But after acing calculus in high school, I placed into Calculus II at Duke. My instructor struggled with English, and he didn’t take us through all the material that wound up on the exam. Got a C in that one, too.

The same semester I struggled with symbolic logic, I followed some advisers’ recommendations and took philosophy of law. I wasn’t officially pre-law — at Duke, you didn’t really declare such a thing — but I was taking classes that would, in the view of the pre-law advice folks, prepare me for law school. I was cruising to a B or B+ in that class until I spent all my time at the end of the semester trying to teach myself enough symbolic logic to pass that class. I wound up with a B-.

So these classes pretty much stopped my late surge to graduate cum laude. Yes, I was close, despite all those nasty classes and my ill-advised decision to take an art history class that met right after my PE class. I somehow finished just above the middle of my class. Perhaps it was because I was sober.

(Friday night, in fact, I thought of the supposedly mandatory “alcohol survival” session attended by me and tens of my freshman classmates, as if I needed tips on dealing with the effects of the wine at church. I was thinking of it because I was in a supposedly mandatory coaches’ meeting, along with at least 20% of the other coaches. I never learn.)

The bigger impact of that philosophy of law class, though, was that it convinced me not to go to law school. I was bored to tears.

In retrospect, law would’ve been a better career for me than journalism. But I was lucky that things worked out to some extent. I’ve been to four Olympics and a Women’s World Cup. I’ve met famous people and even befriended a couple of them. And I met terrific co-workers, one of whom I married. That might not have happened had I gone to law school or, as the music faculty would’ve loved, gone to grad school in music, where I was making good grades and getting pegged as the next PDQ Bach. (He’s kind of the Weird Al of classical.)

I should say Duke didn’t really help me, career-wise. The university launched a Career Center during my time there, and I duly stopped by to talk about my decision to go into journalism.

So I’m planning to send clips out to various newspapers.

Oh … great! Yeah … um … that sounds like a good idea.

Thanks, dude.

Late in my senior year, when I realized I had no employment lined up and had been passed up a couple of internships, I learned that some information on journalism careers was stored in the political science department. A small box of index cards had contact information that, in the pre-Web days, was not otherwise available. Great.

So I’d have to say Duke let me down on several levels. But I have to take some of the blame myself. I was perfectly content to take an intellectual buffet.

To some extent, that should be encouraged. Young adults need some freedom to explore.

But I wonder if universities have erred too far toward freedom. Maybe a few more classes should be required, not just the horrid writing course Duke requires in the first semester. (That was my lowest grade — C-. The next semester, I purposefully forgot everything that grad student tried to tell me, went back to my old writing style and made an A in an English seminar. I still think I should dedicate one of my books to that teacher.)

Duke science majors made fun of some of classes like “Chemistry and Society,” a chemistry class geared toward humanities and social science majors. But I took that class, and it was terrific. I got a broad overview, not the details you get in the general chemistry classes. Besides — we all did chemistry in high school. Once you get past that, there’s little reason to put future engineers and future political scientists in the same class.

Meanwhile, math and science majors fulfilled their “social science” obligation in the aforementioned symbolic logic, a math class with a philosophy label.

And responsibility for such things really does fall back onto the school. I had no way of knowing I’d be beating my head against the wall in symbolic logic. I should’ve been told statistics would be much more practical than a second semester of calculus.

I can’t say any class is a total waste of time. I like to think of my education as “batting weights for the brain.” Wrestling with difficult concepts and abstractions can make the typical day-to-day work problems seem simple by comparison.

But a few more practicalities wouldn’t hurt. Maybe offer more broad survey courses to fill field of study requirements — a general history of philosophy rather than something specific, economics for personal and political literacy rather than future policy wonks.

Short of a curriculum overhaul, let’s get back to the question I’ve danced around long enough: Was it worth it?


Even with today’s technology, what else would I do? Stay at home for another couple of years and take classes online?

College is supposed to broaden the mind. You meet people who are a little different. You explore. You try new things, and they don’t have to be alcohol-related.

Before I went to Duke, I had never met a gay person (that I knew of — in retrospect, yes I had) or a Muslim. I had stereotypes that needed deflating.

I met great people — and learned how to deal with some obnoxious ones. I tested my intellectual limits. I had the best journalistic experience of my life, running a good daily newspaper with smart people I both loved and couldn’t stand (sometimes the same people).

In this day and age, where people hide behind anonymous online personas and fail to relate to each other, shouldn’t more people have this sort of experience.

So let’s fix the advising and maybe the curriculum. Let’s make it affordable. Maybe encourage exchanges for one year so people can diversify their experiences.

And move “symbolic logic” to the math department. Doesn’t matter if Kant and company had interesting thoughts on it. Greek philosophers invented a lot of mathematical concepts, too. Must have had a good college experience. They had togas, after all.


Liberal arts are not optional

Math and science are absolutely important. I’m appalled when I see journalists who don’t grasp basic math concepts and when I see people post scientific nonsense.

The irony here is that liberal arts grads may often have a better respect for “science” than some “scientists” have for other fields of science. That explains why I’ve got a Facebook conversation going on in which a math/computer guy is arguing against evolution. It also explains why you see people with Ph.Ds (in other fields) arguing against climate change.

Engineers in particular often think they have the answers to everything, based on the assumption that what they do is more intellectually rigorous than what other people do. I’d say in response that I found computer programming much easier to grasp than art history. (Maybe I should’ve stuck with my high school dreams of becoming an engineer.)

So that’s why I’m always going to be a fan of a well-rounded education rather than one that sticks students in labs all day, focused on one topic. And that includes the liberal arts, which is why I loved this comment at the Post:

“In other countries academics are the fundamentals, things such as art and sports are recreational and are done after school.”

I think those countries you’re referring to largely do not value creativity or original thought of any kind, but rather rote memorization and regurgitation. This is not what drives an innovative society (which is why I agree with the author’s concern about driving too many kids into STEM), but rather produces mindless drones – that somehow still really want to come to the US/UK/Canada and attend our ‘liberal’ arts schools to become more well-rounded.

via We’re way too obsessed with pushing science and math on our kids. – The Washington Post.

education, politics

We R not smrt

Canadian magazine Maclean’s looks southward and shudders.

A few painful excerpts from a thorough beatdown that starts with a bunch of frightening statistics on America’s willful scientific ignorance:

If the rise in uninformed opinion was limited to impenetrable subjects that would be one thing, but the scourge seems to be spreading. Everywhere you look these days, America is in a rush to embrace the stupid. Hell-bent on a path that’s not just irrational, but often self-destructive. Common-sense solutions to pressing problems are eschewed in favour of bumper-sticker simplicities and blind faith. …

Then gun laws, where the column assumes the point rather than proving it. Then Patriot Act stuff and book-banning.

If ignorance is contagious, it’s high time to put the United States in quarantine.

Before we can complain, the column follows up with our math test scores.

They don’t appear to be getting much smarter as they age. A 2013 survey of 166,000 adults across 20 countries that tested math, reading and technological problem-solving found Americans to be below the international average in every category.

Then it gets debateable. Is it such a bad thing that we’re not watching TV news? Do we have to be so serious that we read The Washington Post?

But it returns to solid ground with a look at “elitism.”

Both ends of the political spectrum have come to reject the conspicuously clever, she says, if for very different reasons; the left because of worries about inclusiveness, the right because they equate objections with obstruction. As a result, the very mission of universities has changed, argues Liu. “We don’t educate people anymore. We train them to get jobs.”

So does all this ignorance lead us to this conclusion?

There’s a long and not-so-proud history of American electors lashing out irrationally, or voting against their own interests. Political scientists have been tracking, since the early 1950s, just how poorly those who cast ballots seem to comprehend the policies of the parties and people they are endorsing. A wealth of research now suggests that at the most optimistic, only 70 per cent actually select the party that accurately represents their views—and there are only two choices.

Or is that a function of the two-party system and our “us vs. them” approach to politics, which we treat as a spectator sport?

Either way, it’s depressing. So we’ll finish with a comment from Groundskeeper Willie.