20
Apr
12

“Learning” is useless

Here’s David Brooks being his usual adorable self, missing the point by the narrowest of margins.

Colleges are supposed to produce learning. But, in their landmark study, “Academically Adrift,” Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa found that, on average, students experienced a pathetic seven percentile point gain in skills during their first two years in college and a marginal gain in the two years after that.

[…]

It’s not enough to just measure inputs, the way the U.S. News-style rankings mostly do. Colleges and universities have to be able to provide prospective parents with data that will give them some sense of how much their students learn.

There has to be some way to reward schools that actually do provide learning and punish schools that don’t.

[…]

This is the beginning of college reform. If you’ve got a student at or applying to college, ask the administrators these questions: “How much do students here learn? How do you know?”

I propose that “learning” is to education as “weight loss” is to body recomposition.  Just as you can starve yourself half to death, lose a bunch of lean body mass along with a bunch of fat, and end up thirty pounds lighter with the exact same body-fat percentage, you can go to college, learn a bunch of stuff, and end up no more educated than you were when you came in.

By way of a for instance, one of the things I learned in undergrad was how to play a mean game of Quake III Arena (CPMA, of course).  I got reasonably good at reflex skills like flick rails, bunny hops, and rocket juggling, as well as the more intellectual pursuits of item timing and control, level control, and so on.  After sinking hundreds of hours into diligent practice I got good enough to get my ass kicked repeatedly by a bunch of eastern Europeans who were way better than I was — but I could learn from them.

Then Counter-Strike happened and the competitive FPS scene got boring.  Every once in a while I’ll fire up Q3A and murder some bots, but for the most part the time I sunk into CPMA was largely wasted if you think of “learning” as “acquiring useful skills and knowledge”.

“Not fair!” you cry.  “Q3A wasn’t part of your formal curriculum!”  Fair enough, but at least it was worthwhile (fun, satisfying) as an experience while I was doing it.  That compares rather favourably to the first-year programming classes that taught me Turbo Pascal (particularly the one that taught pointers absolutely bass-ackwards and insisted that I regurgitate the wrong definition for the midterm), or the “advanced software engineering” course that was all about building simple-minded user interfaces in Java, none of which was useful as anything more than a shared experience to bitch about at the pub.

Learning, in the sense that Brooks — and most everyone else — uses it, is a means to an end, not an end in itself.  I learned some pretty decent tournament-FPS skills, but it no longer matters how well I learned them, or how well I retain them.  Similarly, I learned how to cope with Pascal’s idiosyncrasies, but it no longer matters that I did so (and I’ve put some effort into ensuring that it will not matter in the future, either!).  On the other hand, I did a damn fine job of learning how to design and build solid, useful programs, and that skillset (to which I’m still adding) matters a great deal — it’s how I earn a living and the foundation of my PhD.  And if I’d done a better job of learning and retaining multivariate calculus way back in second year, I’d have had a much easier time in grad school.  I want to learn CGAL because it’ll make my professional life easier and some personal projects less of a hassle.  I want to learn to drive a shifter kart fast because it’ll be fucking fun.  These are two different kinds of learning.

On the other hand, from a policy perspective, I think Brooks’s focus on retention rather than utility is the better way to go.  As LabRat recently pointed out, once you get to college you’re on your own — your decisions, and the consequences thereof, are your own.  (Perhaps you’d better take a course in existentialism!)  If I think you ought to get a Mechanical Engineering degree, you’re perfectly within your rights to tell me to fuck off and enter the Antediluvian Poststructuralist Sculpture programme instead.  In either case, you’re probably more concerned with how well the curriculum is taught than with how useful people find their coursework after graduation, even if we could come close to measuring the latter.

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