Monday, December 20, 2010

Learning process

It’s wonderful to have a proper education. Unfortunately, school and college seem to get in the way. Most of us are so busy getting a degree, we never get around to getting an education. To quote the great sage Chuck Berry (better known for his views on women, drink and blues guitar), “When I think back on all the ***p I learnt in high school, it’s a wonder I can think at all.” When I first heard that, I thought it was the wisdom of the ages. Somebody famous had just validated my decision not to study maths or science and my jettisoning of a Master’s degree as soon as I got a paying job. It sounded good. It made me feel great. But that was before I met calculus. Oh, AND statistics. Together. The academic equivalent of being tag-teamed by Hulk Hogan and the Undertaker.

This academic mauling occurred many years ago, when I made a misguided attempt at getting what I thought would be an advanced education. What that really means, of course, is that I tried to get another degree. Not in this country; I winged it to the land which claims to be the true defender of democracy, the most reliable bulwark of freedom and free speech. To be fair, in the first few weeks the classroom atmosphere did seem refreshingly open and liberal. One faculty member, a long languid Californian who specialised in “kaampyutyshenul maahd’ling uv elactral trands”, gave me an A+ for an assignment wherein I savaged everything he had taught us in three classes. I was awed; I’d expected a poor grade, on the lines of a teacher in my earlier alma mater who gave me a 0 on a test because (she said) I had answered the question with reference to the wrong chapter! (This, mind you, was in the third year of college.) I became friends with the faculty member, a great guy except for his terrible taste in beer. (I quickly learnt that even boutique microbreweries can produce quite awful beer. In hindsight, that was one of the most educative aspects of my sojourn.) The groves of academe seemed rather pleasant, at least for a while.

Around the fourth week on campus, I asked myself whether I was learning anything. Statistics, a little bit. Calculus, maybe. But was I working towards a goal that held relevance for my job back home? A PhD doesn’t seem all that hot after you meet a girl who’s been working on one for seven years. With a thesis on – believe this! – “Sex Scandals and the American Presidency”. (She did have the grace to admit she’d left out JFK and WJC because either of them would have been enough for a thesis by themselves.) And how exactly would her thesis be of use? She shrugged. Not her business, she said. Her job was research; practical applications were not her look-out. This, I thought, was ethically one step away from Tom Lehrer’s satire – “Once the rockets are up, who cares where they come down? That’s not my department, says Wernher von Braun.” So what purpose did the research serve? With all this emphasis on statistical analysis, could we frame some rules? Make some predictions? Say, that a man who has been involved with more than three women and a washing-machine on one prom night is 67% more likely to get involved in a scandal if he is elected President? Nope. No way. Apparently every thesis had to mandatorily include (a) at least 120 pages of abstruse statistical analysis, followed by (b) a disclaimer that “No causal correlations are attempted”. Say what? We’re expected to get permanent migraines learning calculus and we can’t even use it to make a point?

In sum, I found the post-graduate scenario strange because (1) the topics of research tended to be phenomenally arcane (2) there was no attempt to find practical applications of research findings and (3) there seemed to be far too much emphasis on quantitative methods, without any results to show for it. But was I the only man on campus who thought this way? Autumn rolled around and with it, our discipline’s annual national conference. (Held, of course, in balmy San Francisco while we shivered on the East Coast.) We followed it on the Internet (although live video feeds were jerky) and lo and behold, I was vindicated! Because the Annual Convention was picketed by masked demonstrators who were protesting against … yes, arcane research topics, lack of practical relevance and over-dependence on quantitative methods! I was not alone! But why were they masked? This is the creepy bit – the protesters were mostly junior faculty who feared that they would never get tenure if they were recognized on camera. Obviously, the land of the free didn’t quite live up to its name on campus.

And obviously any system of education has its own rules, written and unwritten, that students are expected to follow. Systemic education may actually be an oxymoron. Perhaps the only real education comes from that rhyme that goes “I have six honest serving men / They taught me all I know / Their names are why and what and when / and who and where and how”. So is a formal education just a formality? I think we need to come back to this next week. Stay tuned.


km said...

An education is different from learning, isn't it?

BTW, you have a minor misquote: To quote the great sage Chuck Berry

That would be Paul Simon, actually. (Chuck Berry's views on education)

Falstaff said...

What's wrong with quantitative analysis?

It's a heck of a lot better than the half-witted and meaningless approach of drawing conclusions about something from a single example, like say basing a critique of all of academia on a single example.

And just so we're clear, when you say "abstruse statistical analysis" you really just mean "stuff I don't understand".

Anonymous said...

I'll reserve my comments to hear the rest of what you have to say.

But so far...

w-b with a frown

bongopondit said...

"It’s wonderful to have a proper education. Unfortunately, school and college seem to get in the way"

Wonderful. I need to frame it so that it pierces the brains of certain people.

Nice post. You make a very good argument about degrees. And a very relevant counterpoint too with respect to a poorly written one in The Economist.

J. Alfred Prufrock said...

KM, I shall shoot myself. Of course it is PS; Chuck was "Maybellene". A caffeine-starved half-brain (cf: Falstaff's comment) screwed it up. "Looks like we goofed again ..."

Falstaff, quite so.

Anon / W-B, what?

Pondit, thank you. But there seems to be a difference of opinion already, right here. I shall wait for a resolution.