The hacker approach to education

Education gets talked up a lot. People are freaked out because we have too many college graduates, with too many loans, and a college education doesn’t magically open doors as much as it once did. Even more, it seems like graduates lack actual job skills.

One of the things we’ve seen from all our data crunching is that G.P.A.’s are worthless as a criteria for hiring, and test scores are worthless — no correlation at all except for brand-new college grads, where there’s a slight correlation. Google famously used to ask everyone for a transcript and G.P.A.’s and test scores, but we don’t anymore, unless you’re just a few years out of school. We found that they don’t predict anything. – NYT

In other words, people are good at school itself, and not the actual underlying skillset they need.

This isn’t surprising.

As a hacker who knew other hackers, I knew the most common outcome at schools both public and private was for the smartest kids to be at the back of the room, getting Cs and paying no attention.

The teacher would drone on with material designed for “the average student,” which meant everyone was bored except a few who were really having problems, and nothing seemed to save them.

Even more than boring, education was about the wrong approach entirely. It set up cute little thought-experiments, taught you some simple versions, and then hit you with more challenging ones on the final. Since this is easy to defeat, teachers relied heavily on trickery and detail-based grading, which rewards those who essentially bury themselves in the classwork and memorize.

Zero relation to (a) actual problem solving and (b) having the skill of thinking itself. In fact, worse than zero relation; negative relation. Thinkers find this kind of environmental stultifying and try to escape it.

When I got out of education, my impression was that we were driving our best people away so that we could select the most compliant: kids who would sit there night and after night and memorize the procedure, but who would be lost when encountering something unexpected.

This isn’t to say that all A-students are idiots. Many of them are good people who can think, who have adapted themselves to performing well in an academic environment. A lot of those lacked judgment skills, or the skill of thinking itself by another name, and many also lacked the ability to process context.

Now we have a movement to defend education on the basis that it is rigorous. This strikes me as the same old con: work harder, don’t work smarter. Be obedient. This is what gets you an industry full of people who are oblivious to the obvious, even if it means they get pwnt every other time they make a new service public.

It may in fact make people brain-dead by training them to do a small range of tasks well. I’m not the only one to notice this; our culture of overwork exists to show we tried, and that we “worked hard,” but not that we achieved results or used good judgment.

We’re sort of in danger because “results” can often mean product success, which in a world where Katy Perry and Justin Bieber are millionaires, doesn’t mean that much.

Education has become a gold rush toward perceive job skills that tends to create huge armies of people competing for the same few opportunities. This doesn’t make sense, since people’s abilities vary and so do their inclinations. What inspires them, in other words.

If we are having a crisis of innovation, the origins of it may be in this robotic tendency. We need more cogs, not more thinkers. And: keep the leaders down. If they think differently, they’ll make us all look stupid. Like those meddling kids hacking our computers.

In your science, mathematics and engineering classes, you’re given facts, answers, knowledge, truth. Your professors say, ‘This is how things are.’ They give you certainty. The humanities, at least the way I teach them, give you uncertainty, doubt and skepticism. The humanities are subversive. They undermine the claims of all authorities, whether political, religious or scientific. This skepticism is especially important when it comes to claims about humanity, about what we are, where we came from, and even what we can be and should be. – /.

Even worse is that in both education and work, we’re pushing people toward burnout. This makes them more robotic, less likely to notice anomalies, less likely to discover new things, and more likely to not care when they notice suspicious activity. They just slump over and keep going, working toward their retirement plan and their weekend, and nothing more.

This approach turns education from a journey of discovery into an obedience obstacle course, and alienates people and makes them embittered and more likely to retaliate later in life. Even more, it makes them objects of profit and enslaves them with the high cost of this miserable experience. If you want a formula for mass conversion to sociopathic levels of selfishness and me-firsting, that’ll do it.

The lack of inspiration in a workplace removes the sense of meaning in life and makes people embittered sleepwalking zombies at their jobs.

There’s no way to divorce education from the workforce, but I’d like to propose an alternate view of education. This is a hacker’s theory of education.

First, education is a place to learn skills, not things. You are going to learn a specialization, whether it’s language arts, history, science, athletics, martial arts, whatever. Learn the basics and absorb the theory not through dry papers about details, or vague New Agey statements about purpose, but through knowing a hierarchy of ideas that together make up the discipline. Much like in martial arts, there is no single big point; there are many points, tied together by a hierarchy of both vertical and horizontal relations.

Next, learn by doing. Sitting in a class for a lecture makes no sense. If you want to learn about literature, write literature; 99.999% of it will go into the dumpster, but you’ll learn how it all works. Same with philosophy: argue! About real things! In science class, we should make things. We should test and explore and play. At least some of this time — can we get Google’s 20%? — should be entirely unguided. Just fun.

Also, we should learn to become human beings first. Working ten and twelve hour days (or more) is not healthy, not in education or in the jobs after it. Teaching kids by having them memorize details and then ranking them on how many they got right is a lazy teacher’s way of “teaching.” It encourages tunnel vision and selects the obedient and the brain-dead. Focus on implementation and the ability to assess relevance, instead of just throwing every detail at the screen.

Finally, make jobs part of education if that’s our goal. Teach skills, but then at some point, get kids into internships, apprenticeships, friendships, ride-alongs, etc. so that they learn by doing and learn in context. Show them the good sides and the bad sides. Let them escape if it doesn’t work. A person who’s screwing up at a job is someone in the wrong job.

Hackers are accused of being anarchistic and anti-authority but really what we oppose is the kind of blockhead rules that a society makes for its own convenience. We can push machines beyond their rated limits, and we can do more by not thinking about rules and detail-memorization, but by thinking about application and context.

That’s the future. The education we have now is the past. A hacker approach to education would prepare us for the challenges to come, instead of keeping us enmired in fighting out the needs of the past.

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