Friday, May 06, 2011

How to Get a Real Education in College

That's the title of a recent article in the Wall Street Journal by Scott Adams (0f Dilbert fame) in which he does indeed offer advice on how to get a real education in college. His basic idea is that much academic-oriented education is wasted on many people; these people would instead, Mr. Adams's says, profit from a much more skills-oriented education, "something useful, like entrepreneurship''.

The only problem with Mr. Adams's proposal is that it rests on what appears to be a false, or at the very least misguided, premise: namely, that so-called academic subjects like "physics, chemistry, calculus and classic literature" are necessarily useless, whilst so-called vocational subjects like entrepreneurship (whatever that is; the subject I mean, not the activity) are necessarily useful. Education (or knowledge) should have its uses certainly, but it should have it's non-uses, too. And knowledge can (and does) move unpredictably from useless to useful, or vice versa, and not bat an eye. Consider the following two cases of apparently useless knowledge.

G. H. Hardy revelled in the uselessness of his mathematical research:
"I have never done anything 'useful'. No discovery of mine has made, or is likely to make, directly or indirectly, for good or ill, the least difference to the amenity of the world."
He was wrong. A number of his discoveries have turned out to be very useful indeed.

The second example is from the life and career of Steve Jobs. He recounts his decision to drop out of college:
After six months, I couldn't see the value in it. I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life and no idea how college was going to help me figure it out. [...]. So I decided to drop out and trust that it would all work out OK. It was pretty scary at the time, but looking back it was one of the best decisions I ever made. The minute I dropped out I could stop taking the required classes that didn't interest me, and begin dropping in on the ones that looked interesting.

[...] I loved it. And much of what I stumbled into by following my curiosity and intuition turned out to be priceless later on. Let me give you one example:

Reed College at that time offered perhaps the best calligraphy instruction in the country. Throughout the campus every poster, every label on every drawer, was beautifully hand calligraphed. Because I had dropped out and didn't have to take the normal classes, I decided to take a calligraphy class to learn how to do this. I learned about serif and san serif typefaces, about varying the amount of space between different letter combinations, about what makes great typography great. It was beautiful, historical, artistically subtle in a way that science can't capture, and I found it fascinating.

None of this had even a hope of any practical application in my life. But ten years later, when we were designing the first Macintosh computer, it all came back to me. And we designed it all into the Mac. It was the first computer with beautiful typography. If I had never dropped in on that single course in college, the Mac would have never had multiple typefaces or proportionally spaced fonts.
[Emphasis added]
There is the initial, apparently immutable uselessness again. And there, too, is the later, apparently inevitable usefulness

The trick to finding something useful, it seems, is to follow your intuition, indulge your curiosity and cultivate your interests.

I wonder how much of what appears to be really useful now turns out to be utterly useless later?

Quite a lot, no doubt. So isn't it better to follow your deepest whims (not passions, mind)? If they turn out to be useless, well, at least you enjoyed yourself. If they turn out to be useful, that's a bonus. Either way, you win.

Of course, there are some "useful skills" that are virtually a dead certainty and Mr. Adams highlights a few of these. My favourite is the one on writing: Write Simply, he admonishes. It is an excellent example of itself. A self-evidential example, so to speak. (How's that for a Russellian paradox?) Observe:
Write Simply. I took a two-day class in business writing that taught me how to write direct sentences and to avoid extra words. Simplicity makes ideas powerful. Want examples? Read anything by Steve Jobs or Warren Buffett.
Hear, hear.

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