In the midst of discussion about the trade-offs of higher education versus online courses or being self-taught, cost of schooling, etc., I wanted to share what I’ve learned.
I’m 35. I did Arabic for 63 weeks, 7 hours a day in the Army, along with military schooling in hand-t0-hand, rifle marksmanship, defensive driving, commo, hazmat, etc. I studied tech in art school. I did Greek/Latin in college. I did foreign policy studies in DC. I stopped short of a PhD because they’re perpetual and even worse of a guarantee of employment. School was pretty exhausting: never-ending work (if you’re doing it right), constant feeling of inferiority compared to the weight of the material and depth of the field/competition, that absence of a salary or stability. So I get it. I get why people are saying to skip school, avoid the costs, study on your own. But here’s how I see the current state of higher education:
Don’t Go to School Until You Know What You Want
This was not necessarily the worst thing, but college was the only option I knew about in my senior year of high school. I didn’t know why I wanted to go to this or that college/brand, and I had no clue what I wanted to study or do with my life. I didn’t really know my competition and I was flying blind. My mother was extremely helpful in this regard, covering up for my glaring blind spots. Luckily, UT Austin took the top 10% from every Texas school and UT is one of the best public schools in the country so things worked out for me. I spent more time making money designing sites and trading stocks than going to class, in some of the semesters, though.
When I later joined the Army after college and after 9/11, I realized that I should have joined the military after high school, but there was next to zero chance that I ever would have considered that an option at the time. The military was distant, far away, something that people like me didn’t have to suffer through. The military’s for those kooky white kids with the buzzcuts who never smile and who take themselves too seriously — oh, and they’re probably from military pedigrees already so that’s the only life they know. That’s the stereotype, anyway.
What it ended up being for me later in life, when I was older than most of the other kids in basic training, was my passage into adulthood. I got disciplined, I got chiseled down to my essence, I lost my comforts, I was forced to man up, I lost the illusion that I was safe in life with what I already had, I was confronted with my utter lack of common sense. It was isolating, humiliating, challenging, completely foreign to my former life. But I ended up becoming competent, I found a code of values to live the rest of my life with, and I found friends who will always remain so. I participated in an important block of American history in a fairly significant way that remains relevant even to this day (target identification, communications interception).
Some of my Army friends joined right out of high school and they were looking at a good future where they could keep military employment as skilled people who earned a good salary, or they could then go to school and know more about what fields of study would be good for them. Instead of using college to grow up, which I feel most kids do these days, they were using college for what it should be (especially given the current cost): focus into enriching the mind. Ex-military folks don’t often associate with other classmates, just because of the difference in life experience, but that does mean they probably are more sharply attuned to what they need to get out of their schooling. Plus they already had the discipline from our Arabic classes and from their sergeants riding their asses to go to the library and put in the book-time once they got to school.
By the time I left the Army in 2007, when I was 27, I finally knew exactly what I wanted to do and I studied harder than I ever had before, and my grades improved.
Another alternative is the “gap” year. I prefer this to going to college right after high school but I still think there’s a problem with it. You don’t have any experience after high school to know how to appreciate travel. You see the world but it’s just a long holiday. On some of my trips (the Outback, Galápagos), I’ve started meeting more people my age who actually worked after high school or college for a good number of years (close to a decade) and then decided to quit their careers or jobs for a year or more of full-on world travel. By that point, they had money, they had life experience, they had their wits about them, and they could really savor their trips, while at the same time benefiting from disconnecting from dead-end work or a stressful rat race. Euros. They have that shit figured out.
Your mileage will certainly vary on this, but the hype about companies looking to hire veterans is hollow. It’s like how companies are looking to hire more women, etc. It’s just a PR thing. But when push comes to shove, organizations usually go with what they know. And they will take skills over taking charity cases any day of the week.
Unless you stay near military bases, or you are fortunate enough to work in security or intelligence for the federal government or in DC, then your military status is probably not going to help you much for employment.
Military experience, training, and bearing is immeasurably useful for many veterans for the rest of their lives, but for finding a job, veterans hit the wall of the HR screenings and employers who can’t relate. Think about it. If you’ve never been in the military, how much does it mean to you when a veteran tells you she has leadership time or a strong work ethic or discipline or experience following orders? These are invaluable in team, individual, and hierarchical organizations, but they do not resonate for hiring because they do not indicate specific skills that are needed to perform jobs on a daily basis.
Companies don’t hire for talent, they hire for immediate return, except at the higher levels where they’ll pay any amount of money to get the best of the best. I had one job interview where the recruiter was telling me how they changed their entire hiring practice to look for talent and the potential to learn, not to just regurgitate answers in the interview. Next interview with someone from the department that was hiring? Questions for regurgitating answers. This is double-speak.
Everyone likes to think they operate like a startup, or are considerate towards work-life balance, or are attracting top talent, or are encouraging innovation, etc. Very few actually are.
I think I got a little lucky when applying myself to jobs post-military. In particular my first full-time job out of Georgetown was with a contractor whose executives were all ex-military officers. I fit right in with them and thought I was able to deliver exactly the style and results they expected, very quickly. I was also able to do another career change and get another big break but it was mainly because another boss not only was familiar with how the military integrates with technology and with society, but also had experience in politics. I guess the point is that without familiarity with military, employers will gloss over those years spent working for Uncle Sam.
Higher Education is a Proxy for Jobs, Not a Pipeline
While it’s mostly likely true that more education and better jobs are correlated, it might be more causative to say that more education opens up more opportunities to better jobs. What I mean by this is to say that most degrees do not lead directly to available jobs. Unless you are doing something like computer science, accounting, or medical school, or to some degree business and law (though even JDs and MBAs are losing some of their guarantee), employment is not a certainty.
A lot of my friends ended up being English or liberal arts types, and that sort of degree leads to a life of forging your own path through uncertainty, self-doubt, lack of understanding by 90% of employers, etc.
Now, I will say, pretty much every English major I can think of is capable of producing absolutely pure magic with their words. Their writing is sublime, they fascinate me with their insights, and they weave creativity out of thin air. It’s interesting to me to see really creative, successful people in their 40s and 50s who were actually English majors back in the day but who had to put in a lot of hard time gaining credibility throughout their careers until eventually they became thought leaders.
As a classics major, even in 1996, I was told that there was no future of employment in that field. I did that major because I had a lot of AP credits, which let me take a lot of random classes like astronomy, parageography, business classes, etc.
As an Arabic linguist in the Army, I was never good enough at Arabic to continue at it for a living. Intelligence collection/analysis was definitely something I felt really good at, and I’ve continued it to some degree since, but I didn’t end up doing it as a career. This was probably the #1 path to success that I could have followed in my life.
As a foreign policy grad student at Georgetown, even though it was the #1 ranked foreign policy school in the country, I still didn’t quite fit in. I wasn’t fit to work in finance in NYC or international financial/economic risk evaluation in DC. I didn’t have a good background or the personal financial backing for international development and fighting poverty. I certainly wasn’t polished enough to be one of those suits talking policy for South Sudan. I talked about Galapag.us for my orals presentation and my evaluators stared at me blankly (this despite my feeling that an interconnected system for tracking identity and reputation would revolutionize our ability to account for all the disconnected, anonymous, and voiceless people targeted by things such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the UN’s Millennium Development Goals).
As a grad student at NYU, I got to play in probably the best hackerspace in the world. Laser cutter, 3D printers, Processing/OpenFrameworks/Rhino/Unity/etc. classes, circuit design, Arduino, node.js/python flask, all applied however we wanted to whichever art projects we could come up with. The ITP community is unparalleled. For me it was more of a backdoor into software development, since I learned pretty quickly that I would have to shore up my computer science deficiency. I knew how to move about the DOM on a web page, from having made them since high school, but the world had changed and in job interviews I was getting pure coding questions on closures and sort algorithms, and I was taking tests on implementing apps from given JSON routes and doing testable Java apps and writing clever little algorithms to solve tricky problems to demonstrate coding efficiency/style.
My point in talking about all this was that school is not enough if you want to be highly employable. In many circumstances, schooling seems to be a strong negative against employment, in terms of having the skills you need to make the cut. School is wonderful for theory (you will probably be far more exposed to where trends are), but you will not know how to do the simple skill requirements that any employer wants a new employee to be able to do from day one. School is also wonderful for gaining breadth, but it is not particularly good at depth unless you do targeted research into, I dunno, computer science or interface design or get a successful research topic or something.
The conclusion is that if you want to get a degree because you think it will make you more employable, you might be better off if you just work in that career area for the 2-4 years instead. Work experience makes you far more employable than a degree, because you’ll be able to talk about how you used X and Y, even if you might not be able to explain the cultural backdrop for why X and Y came into being (which is what you would probably learn with a degree).
I remember when my friends in school started getting better at math and science than I did. My grades started slipping and my friends’ didn’t. I didn’t understand how they knew how to get certain answers all the sudden, even though we sat through the same classes and did the same work.
Through so many other different contexts, modules, and learning environments, I gradually gained confidence that it wasn’t so much always that I was slower, but that the teaching methods were incorrect for me. I think I had pretty good teachers in grade school who realized that different students had different learning styles, but teachers don’t always have time to cater to each of those kinds.
My pre-calculus homework consisted of problem sets. But since they were made up in textbooks in which sparse examples were given and the answers certainly were NOT given except in the teacher’s answer key (and sometimes even those answers were wrong because of poor editing), I had virtually no time or backup plan for learning how to solve the problems. If I couldn’t figure out a problem based on a simple pattern from the reading, then there was no recourse. Nowadays, I would probably be able to google a topic and read about it to deduce the answer, but this was in the early 90’s. I wonder how my studies would have been different if I were a kid now and I could use the internet for my homework (at the time, the internet was really only good as a social communication tool).
I would sit through class the next day as classmates breezed through the solutions. Usually the harder questions were at the end of the problem sets so we spent more time covering those, but the questions for me started to become difficult about one-quarter through, so I didn’t want to slow down the class and ask about them.
I also liked to play tennis as a kid. My mom I think talks about how I lost my ability to serve when I went through my growth spurt. I went from having a fast Sampras serve to barely being able to get any serve in. I did some classes and participated in a tennis camp regularly, but I never got any better.
I think I’ve learned that I’m not well-suited for precise tasks that require the same motion every time, hence serving is difficult. But how would I have ever known this? All that time wasted on something I could never find any talent in. Sure, maybe it’s fun, but I think a kid needs to at least have one thing that she can develop confidence in. I ended up hitting or throwing a lot of tennis balls against walls by myself instead.
Now, what methods did I find that worked for me? The best training I ever had was for using special equipment in the Army. Some contractor trainers came to our base to teach us. We had a block of instruction followed by some hands-on time, followed by more block instruction. Same as usual. We even got time to go take the equipment out and use it out in the forest.
The key difference was that, after all that, we then had a block of hands-on time for debugging. The trainers would break the equipment and have us figure out how to debug it and deduce how to fix it. This meant we had to understand how to check components in order of operational logic and then figure out where the connection would break down. From there, we could use what clues we discovered to figure out the solution.
I knew that equipment inside and out by the time we were done. Because I understood the big picture view and chain of events.
Counter-examples are so crucial. It’s not enough to show someone how things are done right. You have to show someone how things are done wrong, so that, through seeing all the differences and errors, one can see the limitations of the implementation and how it actually works. If you’ve only seen something when it’s working 100%, you’ll have no clue what to do when it breaks.
I think this was the time I learned that most schools teach things from a micro point of view. Tiny blocks of logic with no sense of how they tied into larger blocks. I learned that what I desperately need to know about any new thing I find is how its biggest sense works. Once I understand that big picture, I can dive in and deduce why each inner part is there. To extend this, what if I were taught why people need to learn computer science or biology or calculus first, instead of having faith that the teacher was telling me stuff I needed to know even if I never knew when to apply it?
In the same way, it would have been useful for motivation to learn if I had been told that I might need to know history as a field because if I wanted to, say, become a surfer, I would want to go see x film or research y first surfer’s biography, or study how z surfing equipment is made. That is, history would not just be remembering dates, it would branch into sociology, technology, business, etc. The common saying is that no one uses math once they get older. But had I known that I could apply math to, say, winning more often at no-limit Texas hold ‘em, or Fibonacci sequences in momentum stock trading, or even figuring out the statistics behind landing a valuable baseball card in those bubble gum packs, it really would have opened up my eyes more.
The other key learning moment I had was learning PHP. I know people hate PHP but the PHP documentation is outstanding, at least for me. I couldn’t find one great example but here’s the doc page for HTML special characters. The docs will usually have a few examples, but perhaps more importantly, they will often have counter-examples to show common errors or hang-ups. And the docs have comments where people share snippets of code to tackle certain problems. Some languages like Java are devoid of good examples, and they have fairly obtuse documentation pages; while at this point I can decipher documentation, when I was studying the Processing language at ITP, I could see that other students just saw the documentation pages as full of gibberish.
Eric Rosenthal is an ITP legend. Large, scaled, well-constructed circuits and installations. Devotes tons of his time to help students, even with our dumbest questions.
So I was in his office asking questions about our flying robot project. He got to a point where he was saying how people don’t care to learn anymore. They don’t just open things up and experiment. If they have questions about it, they don’t go look them up and read more about it. After a point, I realized that he was somewhat referring to me. I said that my buddy Slavek always took things apart, but I never did, and I never grasped it as well as he did. But Rosenthal parried that it wasn’t that hard if people would actually research things and be curious about them, and I took it personally and wondered: maybe I really am not that good at these things, and my willpower to learn just pushes me to try even though I’ll always be sub-par. It’s sobering when you wonder if you’ve reached your natural limits in a certain area.
Some questions: should we end up doing what we’re good at? Should we do what we enjoy? Will we ever get both? What if we don’t really get to do either?
I am not for or against in-person education or online self-paced courses. Personally I plan to continue studying computer science and coding languages through free online courses, but that only happens after I’ve gotten enough background to be able to pace myself through the courses and understand what’s going on, which means I probably had to have had some training beforehand.
I do feel as though sitting in actual classes and talking to people face-to-face is a necessity for education, but I feel as though that system doesn’t scale well in today’s universities. Of course sitting in a 400-person class offers none of the benefits of physical interaction. But even a class with 10 people makes it hard for a professor and TA to engage every student. No one has time for it. The student doesn’t have time for a lot of added engagement and the professor certainly doesn’t (with all the other things professors do these days).
Online courses, I think they require a high level of competency before they’re useful. Learn coding through an online course? I don’t think so. But if you’re learning a new language once you’ve already learned others and coded projects in others? Certainly.
It’s even worse if you’re not disciplined. Will you really be conversant in, say, business, if you’ve only read through an online curriculum?
What I think would be really useful for online courses is more sharing and more competition. This lends itself particularly well to coding. Project Euler is great for this: it’s a set of coding problems that emphasize not so much just solving the problem but finding an efficient way to solve the problem. You could brute force a solution (do 10k iterations) or come up with another solution that maybe only does half that many iterations. Maybe to pass, you have to have the code complete in less than x seconds.
For papers or other projects, I never understood why we couldn’t look at each other’s work. I mean, I kind of get it. Students are incredibly protective of their privacy when it comes to their work and especially for grades. But why? If a professor can’t give tailored reviews or advice all the time, why can’t the other students?
Really where I think education breaks down is in mentorship. My entire aware life I’ve been in search of mentors. The best people I know all seek mentors. A mentor is someone who can give you individualized, targeted guidance. Someone who can hold you accountable, can adjust your learning as you need it, and who can give you support or advice on how you should continue.
A professor is not going to have time to push me. One of the biggest freedoms I ever experienced was realizing once I hit grad school that I should really just write about whatever the fuck I found interesting — my grades improved and I felt like I was writing about things that were unique and important. Up until then, I was writing about what I thought others wanted to read. But no professor really pushed this on me. Maybe I gained some sympathy into how, as a professor, you’d probably get really bored of reading the same crap over and over.
But my best mentors have always pushed me. Quizzed me daily to see if I retained material. Forced me to work on projects in new techs so I’d get hands-on. Pushed me on certain principles to get me closer to being a seasoned professional. And they’ve offered their reference, far better than a random reference from a professor or employer you barely knew.
Mentors need to know how to get from point A to point B, and how to identify what point someone else is at along that spectrum. A mentor whom his student doesn’t respect will fail, and a mentor who gives scattershot advice to a student is not helping either.
Physical, one-to-one mentorship is crucial to education. And you won’t necessarily find it through formal education.
Expectations and Greatness
I feel as though students have to push themselves in order to be great, or at least to strive for greatness. Peers and teachers aren’t pushing students hard enough to go further than they would go on their own. The difference is between a haphazardly written proposal or project and a fully-formed all-out attempt to make something important.
Related to that, I think that team-based project mindsets have led to substandard results. Particularly in business school, the theory goes that you have to work in groups so that somehow you know how it is in “the real world” (whatever that is). So, you’ll have to work for a few weeks on a half-formed project assignment for one class out of many others with 3-4 other classmates who have multiple other completely separate priorities. Just like “the real world”?
I was in a horrible class in grad school where we formed 4-person groups to build a project using a technology none of us even got our hands on till the end of the course. What’s worse, my team lost a person who dropped the course. No one ended up having a working project at the end.
Here’s what I think should have happened. Seen School of Rock? I love this movie for many reasons, but I also think that the school project is brilliant. Form a band, assign classmates to different roles. There’s the manager, the band, lights, costumes, roadies. This at least in theory would teach the whole class to execute on a common project but in more manageable parts that tied into an easy-to-identify goal, led by a teacher who (again, in theory) is older and has more experience to be able to bring all the parts together.
To me it would make more sense to run a class as one big project. It’d operate more like a platoon, or like a startup. Several smaller projects can be doomed to fail with all those moving parts. The final product is less likely to be realized, to be made great. It’s that 10% of extra work at the end that makes the project shine.
Another thing I don’t get. Dislocation between education and jobs. At least in the military, you’re more likely to go to schools that improve your ability to do your job. In the real world, training has gone nearly to zero, because no one can afford to lose their employees. And kids coming out of school are not going to know the software or tools needed for the jobs they’re applying for.
Why are there not more programs where students get education in exchange for a contract of employment guaranteed for x years? Why wouldn’t companies have more of an interest to train future employees from an earlier age so they can produce more efficient workers?
Well I’m guessing the answer is because companies are mostly flying by the seats of their pants, have no long-term vision, and can’t afford anything beyond the short-term value of employees.
Cost and Brand
The cost of education doesn’t make much sense. The problem is that there isn’t much of a choice. Those $1k scholarships you can win are ineffectual. Unpaid internships in exchange for credit are usually useless versus your just taking another course. The cost of not going to school could be huge, unless you find a pipeline career that lets you avoid school. So is school worth the cost? The only reason it’s not worth the cost is you absolutely can’t pay for it (unfortunately education is becoming, as tradition has mostly held, only for the elite) or you have a career already.
Now, brand. Brand matters for strange reasons. Top finance firms care about brand, not because those schools (Harvard, Princeton, Stanford, Wharton, etc.) produce smarter students necessarily, but because the employer knows it is getting a certain personality from that school, and, believe it or not, certain values. Different schools do manage to inculcate their values (if they have any) into the students, particularly at stronger brands. In that way, pedigree is important to employers.
Some random anecdotes that I came across: the only person I heard getting into Yale out of my interview group went to an arts magnet school, the only person I heard from my interview group for Booz Allen Hamilton to get in was from Carnegie Mellon (solid engineering/CS).
So here’s where we are. A bunch of mercenaries for hire, fighting over each other for the next short-term contract (i.e. a job). Get rich or die tryin’. School is a fun place where some of that competitiveness goes out the window and you get to experiment and play a bit. But there are only a few places in the employed world where you get to do that. And fewer places where that sort of job is living-wage.
Education won’t necessarily bring you comfort and stability, whereas sticking with a job, gaining seniority, that seems to lead to, in most cases, winning the war of attrition, when everyone else has left.
It’s true that the best can succeed. Good grades, good school, good athleticism, good looks, these things do translate into success. For the rest of us, though, we have to find other things. For me, I derailed my own success more times than I can count, and since I never could keep up with grades or talent, I did my best by trying to work harder than the rest, and I’ve tried multiple careers in order to find happiness, stability, and success.
And if it’s been hard for me, it’s got to be really hard for others. Or am I making it far harder on myself than it needs to be? Why do I know so many extremely gifted people with fabulous work ethic, force multipliers in pretty much every aspect of society they contribute to, who are struggling to get even the most basic entry-level jobs?
Is this the future we want? Or can we strive to build something more sustainable?
What I think I’ve learned is that school is not a viable option for most people, and not because it’s expensive (I still believe it’s worth the lifetime of intellectual freedom), but mostly because there is no tangible connection to an eventual payoff except in parenthetical ways. That is, yes, you will meet people who you end up being close with and end up marrying/working with. You might even gain some pedigree or credibility. If you’re lucky, the time you spent studying will help you crack into your first job and into further promotions. But it’s not a sure thing.
I think the best payoff right now is to take a job with reasonable mobility and just stay in it. Climb the chain, outlast your peers, get marginal promotions. You’ll do better if you balance this with changing jobs so that you can negotiate higher salaries. But changing industries, or leaving industry to go to school, these are massive momentum killers. Think about it: would a company want to hire a new unproven person or hire someone internally who uses all the dumb, arbitrary software stacks only that company uses?
I’ve generalized in a lot of ways here and in other ways it’s very personalized to my own experience. I know a few of you are professors, other students, people who chose lucrative and not-so-lucrative fields of study. I’d be interested to hear your opinions on education.