[Note: This post originally appeared on the An Economy of Meaning blog on 1 Sept 2010 about 11amET as part of a series on education (and I got the lead post). I’m reposting it here because
- My education came up in a conversation with a friend during a recent lunch.
- It’s mentioned in my Clancy Tucker Interview.
- And again today during a weekly pub crawl with my fellow Harveys.
This month’s CAS theme is education. I get the lead post. Oh, if only what I had to offer was that a simple assignment of paper — the proverbial sheepskin — bestowed such a thing.
And we are all aware that an education has nothing to do with ability, intelligence, knowledge, wisdom, …, yes?
For those who don’t follow my various writings, herewith an overview of previous briefs on education (let me know if you want to see the full posts. If enough ask for them, I’ll dig them out and publish them):
- From TS Eliot, Ezekiel, Beehives and Mighty Mouse – TS Eliot does Information Mechanics
TS Eliot wrote “Where is the Wisdom we have lost in Knowledge? Where is the Knowledge we have lost in Information?”
- From I’m the Intersection of Four Statements
I knew a woman who had a PhD in planetary atmospherics. Her specialty was Saturn, I think. I was impressed until I talked with her. I explained how a few things in ET make use of toroidal equations and can be likened to the psychological equivalent of Bernoulli forces. Her face went blank. I excused myself, perhaps I wasn’t using the correct terms.
Oh no, I was using the correct terms. She just never bothered with that. She always made sure she worked with someone who knew how to use the computer so she wouldn’t have to learn that stuff.
“You have a PhD in planetary atmospherics and never learned meteorologic physics, atmospheric dynamics, things like that?”
Her excuse was “Well, I never intended to use my degree.”
I also knew a woman at Dartmouth who was granted her PhD in biochemistry because she was nine months pregnant and her husband got a job two states away. Her research wasn’t that great and couldn’t be completed but again, she never intended on using her degree (she told us that) so it was granted to her to make room for someone else.
- Paraphrased from a LinkedIn discussion
A friend’s daughter is a concert oboist. No one else in the family ever demonstrated any penchant for music. One day he asked her what caused her to pursue music with such determination.
She said that when she was a child — she thought maybe three or four years old — the family went on a trip and met a friend of her father’s in a restaurant. She remembers that she was fidgeting because her mother kept telling her to sit still while her father and his friend talked.
This friend asked the waitress for an extra straw. He took out a pocketknife and made a few cuts in it, then put it to his lips and started playing music with it like it was a flute.
Real music. Tunes you could recognize.
He then gave her the straw and said, “Here you go. Play me some music so I can go to sleep when I get back to my hotel.”
She said she didn’t remember who the friend was but did remember that his ability to take a common soda straw and turn it into a musical instrument was magic to her. True magic and she never forgot it.
It’s also what caused her to pursue music the way she did, because she wanted to give others that kind of magic.
That friend was me. I’d been making musical instruments out of straws since I was a bored kid in a restaurant and had to ask my dad to borrow his pocketknife.
But what her story taught me is that we can never know how much the slightest act of kindness — or cruelty — will affect another’s life.
- From Learning to Use New Tools
I once taught highschool math when I was in my early twenties. I was hired to teach the remedial math classes. The mandate given to me was “If you can get them to add and subtract two numbers together without screwing up, that’ll be fine.”
These kids were society’s rejects. They’d pretty much been told they were all stupid, not qualified for any kind of happy life, would probably drop out of school before they’d graduate, and to smile when in police lineups.
After a week of crawling through the textbook I decided they couldn’t be as hopeless as I and they were led to believe.
So I stopped using the preferred textbook and gave them radically different assignments, things like giving them the first part of a sentence and they had to come up with twenty different endings, language problems, logic problems, things like that.
At first there was no interest, then there was some, then there was a lot.
The real breakthrough came when one kid nervously handed in his twenty different endings homework and was walking slowly out of the room at the end of the day. I started reading what he’d written and darn near wet myself laughing. He came back hurriedly. “You think those’re funny?”
“Oh, god, Kevin. I can’t catch my breath I’m laughing so hard.”
And word spread (as we now say) virally. Kevin got Mr. C to laugh, the race was on. Kids not in my classes starting coming up to me to ask if they could solve some problems.
#1) I was giving them some self-worth and
#2) I was teaching them to recognize how to solve problems, not just addition and subtraction but when to use either and how to know which would serve them better when.
At this point, in these remedial classes, I started introducing logical calculus problems.
And the students did wonderfully on them. Students who would be lucky if they could add and subtract.
One of my student’s father was a plumber and he shared that he often helped his dad during the summers. He wanted to be a plumber, too, and wasn’t sure if he could make it into trade school because he was such a poor student.
So I drew a house on the blackboard, told him where the sinks were, where the bathrooms were and asked him to plumb the house for me, explaining each joint along the way.
And he did. More to the point, he demonstrated a working knowledge of hydrodynamics that most grad engineering students didn’t have.
Then I asked him to fill in the pressure values and necessary pipe dimensions along the paths he was laying out.
Then I showed him the equations that created the values he was coming up with intuitively. Then I drew another house with other plumbing requirements and asked him to use the equations to figure out how to plumb the house.
He was hesitant at first and I asked the class to help him.
And they did, and he did, and they plumbed the house.
Using college sophomore engineering calculus. Highschool sophomores and freshman who were told they’d never amount to anything because they were…remedial.
By the way, I was fired from that teaching position because I was neither using the preferred text nor following the designated curriculum.
- From Nothing New Under the Sun (Buying Computer Time, part 3)…
I doubt if anybody in highschool or later in college knew I was playing on DARPAnet (that’s what the internet was called in the early days), emailing researchers at Carnegie-Mellon, RPI, Brown, MIT, Berkeley, Los Alamos, Stanford, UCLA, … . And let’s not get into the overseas people I was corresponding with (NextStage will never get another government contract if I do, I’ll betcha).
This later led to John and I going on a roadtrip for one glorious summer in which we stopped in at Penn State College Park (I think it’s University Park now) so I could learn viola da gamba (that one I didn’t keep up with. Sorry, Erin), played at Carnegie-Mellon’s now famous robotics labs, climbed what the U of Pitt students called “The Tower of Learning” and CM students called “The Heights of Ignorance”… it remains as one of my most cherished memories.
- From The Unfulfilled Promise of Online Analytics, Part 3 – Determining the Human Cost
What’s so fascinating about this is that it’s also how we pass on our core, personality and identity beliefs whether we mean to or not (I cover this in detail in Reading Virtual Minds Volume I: Science and History). We can be teaching physics, soccer, piano, bread-baking, … It doesn’t matter because all these activities will be vectors for our core, identity and personal beliefs and behaviors. If we are joyful people then we will teach others to be joyful and the vector for that lesson will be physics, soccer, piano, bread-baking, … And if we are miserable people? Then we will teach others to be miserable and to be so especially when they do physics, play soccer, the piano, bake bread, …
- And lastly for our purposes here, from a deleted section of Reading Virtual Minds Volume 1: Science and History (available at Amazon)
I was always a mediocre student at best. Except if something interested me. Then I would read the class book or assignments in a night and do my own research, correcting the instructor and usually alienating them in the process. It was said by educators throughout my life that I would end up either a professor or a bum. I’m happy to report I’ve been both; a university professor at several institutions and at one point in my life homeless and a wanderer.
My gift, and one of the reasons this topic so fascinated me, is that I learned about myself and others from and in both situations.
This topic was of paramount importance to me because it could provide me with an answer to something I’d wondered about since I was in grade school; Why were there certain subjects which I blasted through and others which so baffled me that I was designated (politely) as an autistic savant and (impolitely) as a low-grade moron?
That last piece once intrigued me and I use to wonder over it greatly. I was the mediocre student. I think I graduated just under the midpoint of students in my highschool even though I was
- working at Lincoln Labs
- the only student in highschool that could solve a physics problem that baffled Mr. Grew (who was a true teacher, not just somebody who stood in front of students and recited from last year’s lesson plans). I solved it on a dare, actually, and Mr. Grew made it a point to let everybody know that I figured it out and he couldn’t
- singled out by Ms. Foley (a brilliant woman) and Mrs. Hudon (truly a true teacher) for writing “The Possibility of Other Matter” when the latter asked for “a biography of a mathematician” during my sophomore year. I asked Mrs. Hudon if I could write a paper based on an idea I had in eighth grade. She agreed, nervously. They kept the paper until after I graduated highschool and had passed it around to several university math profs to get help understanding it. Mrs. Hudon wrote “I must say this was one of the most fascinating papers I’ve ever read. The concepts you present open vistas of thought I hadn’t imagined existed. As you know, both Miss Foley and I got quite absorbed in the ideas you presented and we appreciate your allowing us to copy your material for our own edification. I’m sorry to have held this so long, but time didn’t allow me to finish before school ended. Thank you for your courtesy and patience.” and I’ve dedicated much of my work to her since.
By the way, I had written a rough draft of the paper in eighth grade and submitted it as a science fair project. That teacher flunked me because, not able to understand the paper, she decided I had just copied terms and symbols from library books. “You couldn’t possibly understand what you’re talking about,” she told me.
- the only student invited by a Northeastern CompSci prof visiting for a day to “come play in our lab” because I corrected an advanced algorithm he drew on the board (even though the science teacher was growing apoplectic signalling me to shut up and not embarrass him)
But… I was a mediocre student in highschool and a worse one in college. My highschool senior class voted me most likely to end up stacking cans at a north country IGA. A college physics professor berated me in front of a class saying, “You’ll never get this. You didn’t get it last year and you won’t get it this year. Do us all a favor and quit , why don’t you,” because I asked him to clarify a derivation he’d written on the board.
I petitioned the department for a private instructor, one was granted. During conversations with that private instructor I was told the “fact” that there was no link between quantum mechanics and Einsteinian Relativity and this fact had puzzled physicists greatly. This baffled me and I thought about it most of the night (Reading Virtual Minds readers already know what’s coming up). The next day I wrote an equation for him that showed a link did exist, had to exist, and at a fundamental level.
He glanced at it, shook his head, shrugged and asked if I’d done the problem he’d assigned the day before. Again, Reading Virtual Minds readers know about the five notebooks locked in a Nova Scotia bank vault. The link mentioned above and its derivation is included in them.
I think the “stacking cans at a north country IGA” joke was on my highschool senior class. My response was “If it’s honorable work, why should I mind?” Some of my fondest work experiences have been in mills, truckdriving and as a day laborer because there’s no pretensions, no posturing and very little ego involved in such jobs.
And as for not understanding a derivation? A by-product of Evolution Technology is two new fields of mathematics not to mention several fields of knowledge.
By now you should be realizing that my educational successes didn’t come in classrooms…at least not traditional ones. To that end, we’ll discover further down that the public education system that fostered me done me right.
Yet despite — or perhaps in spite of — public educaton’s dealings with me, I’m the one who created a new field of technology, with patents (NextStage’s IP attorney told me that our Gender&Age Recognition system alone is worth about 100 patents and that’s not counting the ones directly related to our technology. Maybe he wants me to fund his children’s education?), the international business, the more than twenty books in over a dozen fields, the international recognition in half a dozen more fields, the nominations and awards for fiction and poetry, articles in both business and research journals, … At one point I googled everybody in my highschool graduating class. Where were all those people voted most likely to lead the world to a better place, to be world leaders, to become captains of industry, to dominate the stage and screen, the ones the educational system pinned their hopes, efforts, time and money on?
And I still don’t have a degree. Consider this from my LinkedIn profile:
There’s a character, Captain Casey from the “Dear Dad, Again” MASH TV episode. He comes to the 4077 as a surgeon and is a great one. It turns out he’s never studied medicine. It further turns out he’s an accomplished engineer, musician, … half a dozen fields. When HawkEye asks why he doesn’t get a medical degree Captain Casey — who’s actually a seargent — answers, “I can do it all. I just never had the patience to get a degree.” I seem to fall into that category. I’ve taught at the university level and many of my books are used as text books. I, myself, just don’t have the patience to sit in a class (and have them lecture from a paper or article I published, something that’s happened twice and gave me a chuckle when the professor paused and asked if I was related).
I’ve met PhDs who couldn’t float a toyboat in a bathtub (even one plumbed by a remedial student) and common laborers who could quote the Mahabharata at length.
And I come away from all this wondering…
What went wrong?
Study history, especially the history of public education in any civilization, and you learn rapidly that the education system didn’t fail me at all. In fact, it can’t fail anybody. The reason public education systems can’t fail anybody is because they’re not actually designed to educate, they’re designed to societalize — to create stable, productive citizens. More correctly, to create a reliable work force because no political entity (city, state, country, …) can long survive without a reliable work force supplying that political entity with warm bodies and tax revenue in one form or other.
Again from Learning to Use New Tools:
…modern educational systems societalize rather than educate; their job is to create good citizens and good citizens follow their leaders. Educational systems don’t get kudos for teaching students independent thought, they get kudos for keeping kids off the streets and out of jails.
So understand that the goal is to produce a work force rather than an educated, self-aware, independently thinking citizenry and you immediately recognize that I and those like me had to be ignored, cast aside, negated, disenfranchised and left-on-our-own by any public education system.
Forget what you’ve seen in movies or read in books about the dedicated teacher risking all for the lone exceptional student. This isn’t Jesus risking everything to save the single sheep and leaving the flock as in Luke 15:4-6:
What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the open country, and go after the one that is lost, until he finds it? And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and his neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’
The education system is based on a factory system and the product of the public education factory is workers. And where education for the exceptional exists, it’s because economic and political necessity dictate it exist, nothing more and nothing less. Some form of “supply and demand” will win every time.
Now add a business paradigm to all this
What successful business person is going to forsake their entire market for one client? For one client that isn’t really showing any promise of reasonable ROI? What successful business person is going to shut down or ignore the manufacturing and production lines to figure out what to do with one aberrant part? If it’s out of spec, it’s simply pulled from production before packaging and shipping. The most it can hope for is to be sold to a no-name brand or as a knockoff and perhaps end up being sold by a street vendor on a blanket on the sidewalk.
Thus we learn the education system did exactly what it was suppose to do
And as I was a homeless wanderer at one point, living on the streets, I have to recognize that the education system didn’t fail me, it did exactly as it was suppose to with me. It cast me in its fiery press to be a menial laborer and those are the jobs I found my greatest pleasure in.
Don’t get me wrong. I love what I do and I know I could not do what I do or have achieved what I’ve achieved if I wasn’t that mediocre student who was intended for menial labor. Being liberated from the public system I was free to create my own and the places it has taken me, the things I have seen, are more than I could tell…
I also know where I came from and what I had to go through to get here.
I would not wish it on anyone.
It is my great hope that today’s education systems function better than in my day and in my days of public teaching. If nothing else, my experiences in education caused me to become the kind of student-teacher I am.
But I’ll leave it to the other CAS members to explain education in their own words and via the lenses of their own experience.
(and with my thanks to AJ Budrys, Mr. Grew, Mrs. Hudon, Roger Millen, my GrandFather John, Grandmothers Apara, Parvati and Paula, Don Alejandro, Running Water, Little Bear, Ailo Gaup and others I will not mention here. I did not mention you so you could continue your lives in peace, not because I’ve forgotten. You all taught me the meaning of “Teacher” and what we truly teach)