Some things I've learned in college

by aaronb507 min read25th Mar 20211 comment

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EducationPhilosophyLogic & Mathematics EconomicsPractical
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In my corner of the internet, there is a healthy contrarian skepticism about education, and about college in particular. Here are some of the points or critiques of the learning that (perhaps) goes on in college, many of which I largely agree with:

Signalling

(i.e. any learning that occurs is minimal or useless, as it is merely a side effect of school’s primary function. I agree about 75%)

Bryan Caplan’s The Case Against Education indeed makes a convincing case against education: school is about signaling, not learning things. Doing well in college signals to employers or graduate admissions departments that you are intelligent, conscientious, and otherwise capable as functioning in as a knowledge worker in modern society.

To some extent, this can be an important function of college since employers and other institutions do need a way of figuring out who is competent. However, the cost is that a huge proportion young adult’s lives are spent “learning” things that they will rapidly forget and/or never use.

Learning the wrong things

(I agree about 30%)

Maybe people are learning things, but they’re useless things. This is largely the old “What’s the difference between a philosophy degree and a large pizza? The pizza can feed a family of four” or “We don’t need art history/gender studies/classics majors, we need engineers!” or “Go to trade school!” critiques.

Inefficiency: time

(I agree with this about 50%)

Instead of spending dozens of hours a week for four years going to class and completing assigned coursework, smart and driven students could learn the same amount that they actually learn in a fraction of the time.

Inefficiency: money

(I agree with this about 99%)

Instead of spending $200,000+, smart and driven students could learn the same amount that they actually learn with a tiny fraction of the money. I can’t find the source for this, but I distinctly remember reading that, for a fraction of college tuition, you could hire a team of PhDs to personally tutor you in their subject of expertise for the amount of time students generally spend in class (edit: this is at least one of the sources). And, of course, many could learn just as well with a few textbooks and cheap or free online courses.


Inspiration for the post

As my “I agree with this X%” statements indicate, I too am skeptical of the direct educational value of college. To Brian Caplan’s credit, his book does concede that around 20% of the value of education comes from “human capital accumulation” rather than signaling.

Recently, though, I’ve read part of the very wholesome “college is (or can be) good actually (even if elite schools suck right now)” book Excellent Sheep. I have my issues with the book, and might even write a review at some point, but it does provide an interesting contrast to some of the contrarian takes of the internet-intelligentsia.

So, I started thinking a little more about what, if anything, I’ve actually learned in my first 2.75ish years of college. Indeed, I think I’ve taken a bit too much of the “college coursework provides little or no intrinsic or direct educational value” red pill, rounding this 20% down to ~0% and assuming away the intrinsic value of any learning not captured by “human capital accumulation” Upon reflection, I think that I actually have learned few things that are one or more of the following:

  1. Likely to be useful in my career.
  2. Currently or likely to be useful in normal life.
  3. Intrinsically valuable to me by giving me interesting ideas, perspectives, or knowledge.

Importantly, I’m also claiming that I would not have learned these things if it were not for college, although of course this is impossible to know for certain.

Without further ado, here are a selection of classes and what I think they taught me, along with some other commentary on the courses. Indeed, I’m not listing every class—not even all those in which I learned something—both because that would be boring and long. The following are all recalled directly from memory, without checking notes or assignments of any sort. That would be cheating!

What I’ve Learned

Freshman Year

Ethnicity, Race and Nation

  • Don’t use the word “aforementioned.” It sounds antiquated and pretentious (professor used this as an example of poor word choice right before choice before handing back our midterm papers, and I knew damn well that I had used it about a dozen times.)

Seeing the World Through Different Lenses

  • One of my more interesting electives, this was a freshman seminar run by the university provost who ran the Census Bureau under Barack Obama. The class analyzed academic disciplines (physics, philosophy, psychology, etc.) themselves.
  • Takeaway 1: disciplines are things that exist and have a distinct social and epistemological function. I mean, I vaguely knew what a “department” was or what “psychology” meant before the course, but I had never considered why the disciplines are divided as they are, why they should exist at all, and what features and drawbacks they bring to a university.
  • Takeaway 2: there’s way more research and literature about random stuff than I’d expected. Like, who knew that there were dozens upon dozens of papers analyzing and arguing about the relationship between academic departments and their pedagogy, for example?

Intro to Ethics

  • This is one of Georgetown College’s required courses.
  • Takeaway 1: I cannot believe anyone takes Kantian ethics seriously. Yes, I am aware that my six-course minor in philosophy doesn’t qualify me to have this opinion, but I will die on this hill. More explanation at the footnote^1
  • Takeaway 2: (Some version of ) utilitarianism is probably correct. This was my belief going in to the class, but the arguments for other normative systems and objections to utilitarianism that I read did not seem convincing.

Linear Algebra

  • Takeaway: after enough time robotically performing some task I fundamentally do not understand (in this case, row reduction), some intuitive understanding gradually slips in even without intentional effort.

Sophomore Year

Intro to Proofs

  • Probably my most interesting math class, this was my first occasion “proving” things after 14 years of math education.
  • Takeaway: this is how you prove something: create an abstract object by fiat which you define to satisfy some set of properties. Then maybe do this a few more times. Then explain in english what these properties imply, and repeat until you’ve shown that something is true (I cannot tell you how many times I wrote “let delta-naught be an arbitrary______. Then, because ____, _____…). I’m not sure if this will be applicable in the future, directly or otherwise, but it’s a style of thinking I intrinsically appreciate being exposed to.
  • I learned (i.e. was forced to use, and thereby learned) Latex, which has been a Godsend for a person with doctor prescription pad handwriting. It turns out that every math and econ professor and TA in the universe will love you for eternity if you hand in something that looks like the picture on the left instead of the one on the right. Also, this came in handy in real life2 once!

Religion and Secularism

  • Since Georgetown is an officially-Jesuit school, we have to take two theology courses. The first one I took was as dull and archaic as you can imagine, but this one was not.
  • Takeaway 1: Everyone assumes the West is getting more secular, but this somewhere between an oversimplification and a complete myth.
  • Corollary: the real story behind any popular narrative about society is probably likewise pretty complicated. This was a sort of partial antidote to Gell-Mann Amnesia. Yes, this kind of statement is quite a cliché, but clichés are sometimes not fully appreciated.
  • Takeaway 2: The United States is off-the-charts religious for a developed, wealthy nation, and there is no immediately-obvious reason why this is so (related: see my review of Fantasyland).
  • Takeaway 3: A tentative belief in moral realism, even from a secular perspective (not a topic of the class itself, but the consequence of writing a paper comparing religious and secular debates over moral realism).3

Intro to Econometrics

  • This is where I got a small taste of what actual economists actually do. They don’t sit around with a pen and paper to derive the Cobb-Douglas production function or whatever.
  • Takeaway 1: Instead, they take big data sets and know which commands to type in to one program or another to get the computer to spit out a list of numbers, and then know what those numbers mean.
  • The class clarified a bunch of concepts that I had a very vague understanding of, like “data analysis,” “linear regression,” and what it means to “control” for a variable.
  • Finally, I learned what is probably my most useful hard skill, Stata, which helped me land a position as a research assistant.
  • Despite endless instruction on the matter, I still have absolutely no idea what “robust standard errors” are or when to use them. Something about “heterscedasticity”?

Mind and World (with some influence from a later philosophy course called “What Am I?”)

  • This was basically philosophy of consciousness, and falls squarely into the “intrinsically valuable” category.
  • Takeaway 1: the hard problem of consciousness is probably scientifically intractable.
  • Takeaway 2: we shouldn’t be so surprised that consciousness seems completely mysterious. Lots of other things that seem normal and appropriate are in fact just as weird. Like, why do two electrons repel one other? They just do. Maybe there is a bit of a lower level explanation, but it bottoms out at some fundamental level. Why should is this any less weird than certain entities having subjective experience? It’s all completely insane and counterintuitive.
  • Corollary: the concept of some thing or process being “physical” is basically meaningless. When people talk about the “physical world” as distinct from, say, supernatural beings or qualia, they are appealing to an intuitive notion that doesn’t really hold up under scrutiny.
  • Takeaway 3: there is a non-negligible chance that we’re all p-zombies. For the case, see this paper.
  • Takeaway 4: a bunch of questions that I will probably never answer. Those I think about most are about the “ego,” or recipient of qualia/subjective experience. Assuming we’re not p-zombies, do egos even exist? Not as a supernatural entity, but rather, does it make sense to understand qualia as happening to something at all? If not, how can there be experience with nobody to experience it? If they do exist, why am “I,” the ego experiencing things, assigned to my brain instead of some other one? Is this all just hopelessly confused?

Junior Year

Data Visualization and Graphics

  • This one is still in progress, but I’m learning how to make graphs and charts in R. Seems plausibly useful in the future.

Conclusion

None of this is much evidence against Brian Caplan’s hypothesis or any of the other three critiques I described before. I have no doubt that much of this (with the probable exception of Stata and R) doesn’t really contribute to my “human capital” in the labor market; even the few things I find intrinsically interesting aren’t of much practical use, and the whole shebang is definitely massive waste of money (from a social perspective; it seems individually rational to dish out massive sums to get the college stamp of approval).

Even still, I thought this was worth writing up because, for all the higher level commentary about the utility of college and other forms of education, there seems surprisingly little discussion about the actual, object-level things that people learn in school. After all, this is the purpose of education—ostensibly, anyway.

Footnotes

1 Short version of my exasperation: everyone seems to assume that a given ethical decision comes with an unambiguous “maxim” on a silver platter, but any action can be formulated as following any of numerous maxims. Also, I am sure that many brilliant people have addressed this concern in the literature, but so far have been too lazy to dig in.

2 If you count making a presentation as a research assistant as “real life”

3 I tried earnestly to convince my professor of this, but he remained unconvinced that a realism could be true if God does not exist. My argument and intuition centers around a thought experiment:

Push a button, and you make a person suddenly and permanently experience excruciating pain. Nothing else about the world changes. I have a strong intuition that suffering is intrinsically—even tautologically—bad. Therefore, how could the world with this suffering person not be objectively worse than the alternative? If so, it would strongly seem that pushing the button is an objectively “bad” thing to do.

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Another topic is that many students take the wrong degrees to be useful at all.
I majored in computer engineering.

My school covered various theories about how a computer in general is usually architected.  How a specific example computer's bytecode operates.  Various labs and assignments where you had to write small programs in assembler and a half dozen languages.  How to analyze where the slow step probably is.  How to translate a truth table to boolean expressions to logic gates.  

Ironically, pure math procedures like "truth table to boolean" is the most useless because a software tool will always exist I can just get to do that, for as long as I am employed.  

I would say that all that linear algebra stuff they had you do will turn out to be similarly useless, they should have spent the time having you write programs in python to solve the problems. (or JUST teaching the one structuring of the problem step that scipy/numpy doesn't do for you, etc)

Some useless courses in topics like theater were required as part of the 'core', hey I got to see a live play but yes, there went a tuition payment and some hours of my life. 

But in general I would say about 2/3 of the topics are used somewhere in my actual field, and maybe 1/3 of the knowledge I have definitely used as an engineer.  Even if it ended up being just a starting point.

Could a set of compressed 'boot camp' like courses have gotten me almost as good for a fraction of the time and money?  Maybe.  I would want to see data on this, not just average joe opinions on whether or not these various tech skill boot camps work or not.  

Certainly a more efficient structure exists.  If as a society we actually cared we could shorten college and make it optimize towards quantifiable outcomes.  Though one issue is that we don't know what those are.  It may be that in my career everything I learned stops mattering because we develop an AI agent that can architect computers better than any human alive.  

Similarly, 30 years ago electrical engineering was obviously superior to being a programmer but today it seems that most of the jobs are in software, and most of the $.