The Lesson To Unlearn

by Ben Pace1 min read8th Dec 201911 comments

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EducationGoodhart's Law
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This is a linkpost for http://paulgraham.com/lesson.html

The most damaging thing you learned in school wasn't something you learned in any specific class. It was learning to get good grades.

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It's not that this essay is wrong. It's just that it's a rehash of what Hotel Concierge covered better and in more depth in The Stanford Marshmallow Prison Experiment, and it's dangerously misleading advertising for the VC fund / cult Graham started, Y-Combinator, which is the current apex predator of the real-life Stanford Marshmallow Prison Experiment.

I don't think the essays say the same thing. Paul Graham claims that school in particular encourages hacking tests, and that the spirit of hacking tests is bad for many real-world problems. Hotel Concierge equates the will to do well on tests with perfectionism, and thinks that this helps a lot with success in all parts of life, but causes misery for the perfectionists. The distinction between hackable tests and non-hackable tests is neither emphasized nor necessary for the latter, while it's central to the former.

Graham's implying that at least for the vast majority of person-test combinations, the spirit of passing tests is hacking them:

Even though I was a diligent student, almost all the work I did in school was aimed at getting a good grade on something.
To many people, it would seem strange that the preceding sentence has a "though" in it. Aren't I merely stating a tautology? Isn't that what a diligent student is, a straight-A student? That's how deeply the conflation of learning with grades has infused our culture.
[...]
If getting into college were merely a matter of having the quality of one's mind measured by admissions officers the way scientists measure the mass of an object, we could tell teenage kids "learn a lot" and leave it at that.

I don't see how, specifically, to distinguish this sort of thing from what Hotel Concierge is saying, unless you think Hotel Concierge is against trying at anything. As far as I can tell Hotel Concierge isn't saying you shouldn't try to be happy, or achieve outcomes you care about via delayed gratification, or be smart, or learn a lot, just that it's a problem when people are pushed to optimize for performing simulacra of those things.

I'm not sure what you mean with "the spirit of passing tests is hacking them". Do you mean that the tests were intentionally designed to be hackable? Because it seems like Graham is very much not saying that:

Merely talking explicitly about this phenomenon is likely to make things better, because much of its power comes from the fact that we take it for granted. After you've noticed it, it seems the elephant in the room, but it's a pretty well camouflaged elephant. The phenomenon is so old, and so pervasive. And it's simply the result of neglect. No one meant things to be this way. This is just what happens when you combine learning with grades, competition, and the naive assumption of unhackability.

I'm less confident of what Hotel Concierge's point is (partly because it's a damn long essay with many distinct points), but at least the end of it I'd summarize as: "Success correlates with misery, because too much perfectionism contributes to both, and it's a problem when people are pushed and selected towards being too perfectionist". Some relevant passages:

I think the psychopathology term for TDTPT [this means The Desire To Pass Tests] is “perfectionism.” [...]
Perfectionism—like literally everything else—is part of a spectrum, good in moderation and dangerous in overdose. [...]
And so if you select for high TDTPT, if you take only the highest scores and most feverishly dedicated hoop-jumping applicants, then there is no way around it: you are selecting for a high fraction of unhappy people. [...]
I’ve used Scantron-centric examples because Scantrons are easy to quantify, but tests are everywhere, and I promise you that the same trait that made me check my answers ten times over is present in the girl that spends two and a half hours doing her makeup, pausing every five minutes to ask a roommate if she looks ugly. TDTPT is the source of anorexia, body dysmorphia, workaholism, anxiety (“I just can’t find anything to say that doesn’t sound stupid”), obsession, and a hundred million cases of anhedonia, fatigue, and inadequacy [...]

So they're saying that a little TDTPT is good for you, but many people have too much, and that's bad for their mental health. Looking at that last paragraph, the examples aren't particularly connected to the hackability of tests, as far as I can tell. That there are important tests which are testing arbitrary things certainly contribute to the problem, since being perfectionist about meaningless work is less productive and more likely to lead to burnout, but it's not essential to the point, and it's not something that Hotel Concierge emphasizes.

I think I agree with the background assumptions implied in your comment (assuming that I am divining them correctly), but I’m not sure exactly what you’re referring to with the ‘misleading’ bit. Can you say more about what you find misleading about this essay?

Currently writing this up at more length, I invite anyone to remind me if I forget to post a link here within a week. The short version is that Graham is implying that his behavior is aligned with the values of his essay - people are likely to trust Y-Combinator to help them learn to do real things, since it's a Paul Graham creation and he wrote this essay - while in fact he is doing the opposite and set up the world's best, most prestigious school for Succeeding by Passing Tests.

I have just learned of Startup School, which would seem to be strong evidence for your view.

This essay hits close to home. It feels personal.

When I was in school my aim was to learn as much as I could while still getting decent grades. I sacrificed perfect grades in my pursuit of learning.

Now I recognize I have an unusually high curiosity, but back then I found it bizarrely Orwellian how much emphasis my classmates put on grades. I didn't mind that they weren't at school to learn. I hated how school got in the way of my actual learning because it was designed with the assumption that students aren't there to learn. I've always had a hard time communicating this frustration.

If you merely read good books on medieval history, most of the stuff you learned wouldn't be on the test. It's not good books you want to read, but the lecture notes and assigned reading in this class.

This explains why I did worst at the broadest subjects like foreign languages. I prefer to learn this way but going to school forced me to read the assigned reading over the most educational material. I enjoyed my degree in physics and mathematics because the good books finally converged with the assigned reading.

In some classes, your professor will have had some sort of political axe to grind, and if so you'll have to grind it too. The need for this varies. In classes in math or the hard sciences or engineering it's rarely necessary, but at the other end of the spectrum there are classes where you couldn't get a good grade without it.

This is why I took as few liberal arts classes as I could in college. I got marked down in a philosophy paper for endorsing the idea that ancient philosophers' ought to test their claims against experiment and real-world evidence.

I liked learning, and I really enjoyed some of the papers and programs I wrote in college. But did I ever, after turning in a paper in some class, sit down and write another just for fun?

It was years after graduating college before I could write for fun. I didn't even write essays in college. This was damage from high school.

If the final exam consisted of a long conversation with the professor, you could prepare for it by reading good books on medieval history. A lot of the hackability of tests in schools is due to the fact that the same test has to be given to large numbers of students.

I think this is insightful and generalizable.

I found it a surprisingly fresh take, given so many shared starting assumptions. I really enjoy reading someone thinking aloud for themselves, even on a topic that's been talked about so much. And a surprisingly optimistic conclusion.

I really liked this essay.

And as hacking bad tests shrinks in importance, education will evolve to stop training us to do it.

This, however, is entirely excessive optimism.