Thursday, June 03, 2004

Immortality! Take it, it's yours!

Achilles rallies his troops in the movie Troy as they single-handedly storm a beach of Trojans to establish a camp for the entire Greek army. You have to understand that there are not more than 50 men on this boat, according to Agamemnon (well, the movie made it look like a lot less, but 50 is perhaps a plausible number), and the beach has hundreds of ready Trojans. As their boat approaches the shore, he asks them, "Do you know what lies on that beach? Immortality! Take it, it's yours!" He was telling them to not be afraid because by storming that beach and taking part in that battle, their names would forever be engraved and remembered in the history of the world, just because of the battle's significance. Death held no superiority over valour.

So a lot of my friends are convocating this coming Friday, finally. Yay! Congratulations, guys! Erm, why did I quote Troy?

I have a problem with our post-secondary education system: many current students come in wanting a degree, not caring about whether they learn. Let me reiterate: they care about the end result (piece of paper), not the journey of learning. I find that this perspective is extremely limiting.

Students come in and try to get through everything as quickly as possible, without learning about how to evolve their minds, understand the world around them, and make an impact in the world (whether it be economically, politically, socially, or some other way). Where are the visionaries and difference-makers?
I have essentially four beefs:

1. Limitations on vision and creativity
Students are told to think outside of the box and be creative. However, many of my peers use what they learn as a new box. See, this education is supposed to "free their minds." Instead, it puts new limits on their creativity because students use what they learn as a black box. When faced with a problem, they input the problem specifics into this big machine, press a button, and hope for the right answer to come out. They might as well be robots. It's great that you're able to determine that Hypothesis A should be rejected because the experimental mean x-bar falls outside of the confidence interval, but are you able to understand how the Central Limit Theorem explains the validity of hypothesis testing? No, never mind, that's irrelevant. Can you explain the importance of rejecting Hypothesis A and the ramifications it would have on your decisions for two straight years into the future, as well as its ripple effects on society as a whole? Or do you just make a one-stop decision based on the rejection of Hypothesis A?

Students are so focused on trying to fit problems they face into this box (oh, let's be fancy and call it a framework) that they receive from education that they fail to see the big picture. I suppose that one can argue that this is natural for the academic world, and that we learn as we live: theory doesn't necessarily translate to practice. However, students shouldn't live in this new box so much that their desire to think of new ideas is actually restricted. I find that happening way too often today. Where's the innovation? CRM is a great marketing strategy, but what stops you from improving the idea? Improvement is always better than the status quo; otherwise, it wouldn't be called improvement.

This is why I love the open source movement so much. It's people sharing knowledge with each other and building on the shoulders of previous innovators, all for the sake of advancing the abilities of technology. There's no selfish hoarding of ideas (well, for the most part) and in the end, all of society can potentially benefit. But the key is sharing and advancing.

2. The ability to think critically is gone
So I alluded to this already. I find far too many students aren't willing to think through the logic of their arguments and statements. Furthermore, many students seem confused in thinking that a valid argument is the same as a sound argument. Let's get this straight: a valid argument's conclusion is true ONLY IF all of the premises are true, while a sound argument is the same as a valid argument, except that all of the premises are definitely true. Therefore, it's possible that a valid argument's conclusion is actually false because a single premise could be untrue. People don't understand this, and they don't understand that their argument can be easily nullified by proving a single premise to be false. Let's not even talk about those who fail to make even cogent arguments. Furthermore, many students don't care about the why, which would explain why they're not really hooked up on the whole premise thing.

3. Fine, I do think the black box thing is relevant
I really dislike that people use models, theories, whatever, without caring about the underlying mechanics and logic of said stuff. I find that it creates a vast unappreciation of the said stuff and that the truly smart academics don't get the credit that they deserve for developing this stuff. Furthermore, as students get more and more hung up the whole black box thing (caring more about the results, not the underlying mechanics), our ability to innovate and develop better models becomes severely limited. There won't be anybody around anymore (except for a select few) who can take us to the next step. See previous post for some interesting quotes (at the bottom of the post).

4. People just feed the machine
So when it all gets summed together, students are like cookie bakers. They have this great opportunity to make fantastic-tasting cookies. After attending cookie baking school, they can make their own recipes, their own decorative designs, and add their own individual touch to every other aspect of baking cookies; I'll admit that the analogy doesn't allow for many possibilities, but work with me here. But all these students get out of cookie baking school, and what do they do? They take the SAME practice recipes that were given in school, follow those SAME recipes to a T, use the SAME cookie cutters they got for school, and use the SAME icing, placed in the SAME way on the cookies as was done hundreds of times in school. Congratulations. You've just made some picture-perfect cookies that would have given you an A in Cookies 439. It gets awfully bland after a while. Do something special with your newfound skills, will ya?

But no. People are content to just feed this huge monster oven with cookies, and out come row upon row of identical cookies. Well, content is too charitable for many students. I would venture to even say that's all they are able to do, despite four years of quality post-secondary education. It is ironic that the cookie bakers have become the cookies, cut from the same cookie cutters, made from the same recipes, and put through the same big machine called university. Fine, this was just an elaboration of Point #1.

Am I generalizing here? Perhaps. Someone prove me wrong, please. Those I do know who are doing cool things seem to be the exception to the rule, rather than the rule itself. I'll let you know what kind of cookie I have become in a few years, yeah? Talking the talk is always easy. ;)

To my graduating friends: Immortality! Take it, it's yours! Many of you have already done so much in your lives, and I know that you'll do much more. Looking forward to seeing what the future has in store for you.
"What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun. Is there anything of which one can say, "Look! This is something new"? It was here already, long ago; it was here before our time. There is no rememberance of men of old, and even those who are yet to come will not be remembered by those who follow." - Ecclesiastes Chapter 1, verses 9 - 11

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