A Typical Student

In which more of my prejudices about education are revealed.

In graduate school there were people who sat next to me in high level computer science classes that didn’t understand the filesystem, not in a theoretical sense of knowing what a file access table or an inode was; they couldn’t find things or move them around. I was stunned. How could they get this far? It’s computer science. They are spending years of their lives studying computation. Shouldn’t computers be fascinating to them? At least shouldn’t they have tried to use one once? Fast-forward ten years and now I’m interviewing junior engineers and I find myself dismissing bad candidates with the epithet, “typical student”. These people have good credentials. They can answer your factual questions well, but when you ask them to apply their knowledge they freeze. They have no ability to deal with novel problems. I don’t ask brainteasers either, and I try my best to craft problems that can easily be answered within the time allotted and with no foreknowledge of the problem domain. I hate I’m-smarter-than-you interviews. I use simple tests of specific skills that the candidates purport to know. A lot of them fail. Judging by their credentials they should pass easily but they don’t.

  • What is the purpose of education if it doesn’t prepare you to meet new and difficult challenges?
  • Worse, what you can say about a system that produces a person with so little self-knowledge that they will spend precious years of their life studying something for which they have no passion?

This passage from Alan Jacobs The Two Cultures, Then and Now and the quotation from That Hideous Strength within it, sum up my feelings well.

In C. S. Lewis’ That Hideous Strength (1945), a young sociologist named Mark Studdock finds himself drawn deeper and deeper into a web of evil, and seems to possess no resources of intellect or will that would help him to resist that evil. Lewis’ portrayal of Mark is anything but flattering, but it is not without compassion, as we see in this curious authorial aside:
It must be remembered that in Mark’s mind hardly one rag of noble thought, either Christian or Pagan, had a secure lodging. His education had been neither scientific nor classical — merely “Modern.” The severities both of abstraction and of high human tradition had passed him by: and he had neither peasant shrewdness nor aristocratic honor to help him. He was a man of straw, a glib examinee in subjects that require no exact knowledge (he had always done well on Essays and General Papers) and the first hint of a real threat to his bodily life knocked him sprawling.
Rather, the sciences and the humanities share a common enemy: an educational system that, despite its ceaseless rote invocations of the value of “critical thinking” — overwhelmingly evades the “severities” that might equip people to deal seriously with the world and its manifold challenges. A rigorous education in any field challenges its students: it doesn’t let them get away with easy answers; it doesn’t reward “glib examinees”; it forces second and third thoughts; it demands revision and correction, and presses people even to start over from scratch when that’s necessary. People trained in this fashion will be ready for surprises, will expect the unexpected, will adapt to circumstances.

The Two Cultures, Then and Now

I never thought of self-knowledge or building a moral foundation much when I was in school, but now when I think about what an education could be, they are vital. It’s going to happen regardless. It’s merely a question of whether the values imparted are explicitly stated or conveyed through the biases of the medium. You can say, as most schools today, that values are exclusively the domain of the family and not the school, but when you say that they way to learn is to sit quietly and listen and do your homework you impose a set of values. Respect authority. Compliance is the only way to succeed. Competence is assessed by formal credentials. Think within the system. The only thing worse than implicit enculturation is explicit enculturation, the norm until recently.

David Hume in a jaunty turban.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if there were a way that we could encourage children to discover their values and beliefs through self knowledge and understanding? Unschooling promises this. Children will learn and discover themselves by pursuing their own interests. They will be more capable and fulfilled because they will be driven by intrinsic rather extrinsic motivations. I’m pretty well primed to believe this. I love the notion that my son will like David Hume, lock himself in a library for a few years and emerge not as a lawyer as his parents intended, but as one of the greatest thinkers the world has ever known. Then again, maybe that’s why I should be skeptical.

Some other questions I have about Unschooling.

  1. How do you make sure that they explore enough to discover subjects that are useful or interesting? What if you never learn that you love geometry or history?
  2. How do you let the students explore but still find great teachers for them? Even if learning is self-directed I don’t think it needs to be entirely auto-didactic. There are great teachers in the world, and those that learn from them are better off than those that don’t.
  3. How do you teach persistence in the face of unpleasantness or tedium? There is virtue in persisting in the face of adversity. There are times where tedium is required to achieve your goals. There is also virtue in quitting and not putting yourself through pointless toil.