Sig. Na. Ling.

So over at Unqualified Offerings Thoreau has a great blog post up.  You should go read it.

He considers philosophy majors (in the broader context of Whether Brick And Mortar Colleges Can Survive In The Face Of The Internet), and notes that philosophy majors make (relatively speaking) a shit-ton of money… because they’re smart.  I have no reason to doubt that he’s correct; the only philosophy majors I met in undergrad who were dumber than I was — I’ll note, perhaps unpleasantly, that I went on to get a doctorate — were in a bunch of required courses whose names started with “one-” and, maybe, “two-“.  So yeah, the PHIL majors in my sample tended to be pretty clever.

Thoreau, however, wonders whether “[t]here is value in training capable people to attain the level of intellectual sophistication that a good philosophy program instills.”

I submit that this conundrum is a catastrophic conflation of correlation with causation.  (I don’t even have an English Lit degree and I pulled off some pretty awesome polysyllabic alliteration there.  Govern yourselves accordingly.)

I’ve been reading a lot of The Last Psychiatrist lately, partly because he drinks more than I do but also because he’s put a fair bit of effort into unravelling why people send their kids to college at ruinous expense (mostly, but not always, to the kids) for absolutely no good goddamn reason at all.  In the first part of his epic Hipsters on Food Stamps rant — go ahead and click through, I’ll still be here in an hour when you’re done — he wonders:

I am not anti-liberal arts, I am all in on a classical education, I just don’t think there’s any possibility at all, zero, none, that you will get it at college, and anyway every single college course from MIT and Yale are on Youtube.  Is that any worse than paying $15k to cut the equivalent class at State?

Now, let me tell you a story a friend of mine loves to tell, from his perspective.  Text in brackets is mine.

The three of us — William [not his real name], me, and Matt, took Advanced Software Engineering last semester [or whenever].  It was basically User Interfaces In Java, although we saw the Design Patterns book for a few minutes in the second lecture.  William loved that shit, so he went to all the lectures, and he got a seven [out of nine].  I didn’t really care, so I skipped most of the lectures, and somehow I got an eight.  But Matt only attended the first lecture, the midterm, and the final, and he got a nine in that class.

(Yes, I’m the Matt in that story.)

I tell you that not to convince you that I’m amazing — the Ph.D. will have either done that already or convinced you irretrievably otherwise by now — but to convince you that that course was a waste of my fucking money.  Not my time, I spent all of maybe twenty hours on it that semester, and I can’t say it wasn’t a little bit educational.  I learned that I hate Java with the burning fire of a thousand suns, and also that 2000-vintage Swing was, while eminently hateable, better than anything else on the GUI-widget-set market at the time.  Also, in the first lecture one of the other guys in the class found out the hard way that he was colour-blind, so that was a thing.  I dunno what the fuck else I was supposed to have been educated upon in that course.  And they gave me the highest mark they could!

So if you’re an undergraduate programme committee member — and if you really are, I’m sorry — why would you put a course like that on the required list in the syllabus?  There are a lot of excellent cynical reasons, but the only pedagogical reason I can come up with is “so that every student we graduate must demonstrate, at the end of a semester of either skipping or attending class, that s/h/it knows how to make a calculator in Java.”  Actually I did that in high school, but thanks for taking four months to make me prove it to you.

This is not to say that I got no knowledge or skills of value from my undergrad.  If nothing else, the compilers course was worth the price of admission (and if you’re a CS student reading this blog, for fuck’s sake take a compilers course, it will change your life).  But I kind of doubt that I had to go to university to learn any of this stuff… maybe I had to go to university to be persuaded to study LL languages before attempting to write a compiler, but if you’re reading this sentence you don’t.  In any case compilers wasn’t a required course; I selected into it (as did both of my friends from the anecdote above).  And, of course, I got a B.Sc. and a GPA that convinced a grad school to admit me, whence I got a Ph.D. and a bunch of publications, whence I got a useful job.

And that last sentence is my point.


10 Responses to “Sig. Na. Ling.”

  1. 2 John
    May 13, 2013 at 12:56

    Our software engineering class had us learn the basics of Agile development. I’m not sure if that’s important to know. Thanks for the tip for the compiler class, I had a programming languages class this past semester, which covered some stuff about compiler design (lexical analysis, semantics, etc). I’ll have to see if they’re offering the full blown compiler design class this fall.

    • May 13, 2013 at 20:09

      Our software engineering class had us learn the basics of Agile development. I’m not sure if that’s important to know.

      It can’t hurt. Agile is a good thing to put somewhere on your resume, and there’s a lot of bullshit floating around about it. What flavour of “agile” did you study? Test-driven development, eXtreme Programming, …?

      I had a programming languages class this past semester, which covered some stuff about compiler design (lexical analysis, semantics, etc). I’ll have to see if they’re offering the full blown compiler design class this fall.

      The formal languages / compiler design stuff was kind of neat, and certainly helped me avoid a lot of “oh, I can solve this problem using regular expressions!” death traps back when I was using perl. True enlightenment came from actually writing a compiler, though — and even though we were targeting a brain-damaged dialect of Pascal, I learned a hell of a lot about why C does the things it does. (It’s probably not a coincidence that I switched from XEmacs/C++ to vim/C while writing my compiler course project.)

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  3. June 10, 2013 at 15:05

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