Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Academia isn't Broken. We Are.

I saw this piece on Hacker News this morning. It struck a chord, but something wasn't right about it.

If academia is contributing to the lack of innovation in this country, then maybe it's because we expect the wrong things from academia? I don't mean to say this as another pompous American, but when I used to chat with friends from abroad back in school, I was struck by how many of them had a uniform educational experience. This wasn't a blanket effect and there were more than enough exceptions to produce many of the most awesome researchers I've met. Back at home though, even the countries that had effective programs to retain their top talent suffered from a lack of innovation.

By contrast, there is no standard curriculum at the top 5 US universities for CS. But most of the kids coming out there are shills anyway. I went to one of the good schools, and many kids (and their parents) were concerned about whether what they were learning would "prepare them for the real world". That basically meant: did it teach you Java or consulting? You see what's happening? What our education system didn't do to them, their own expectations of college did, and sadly, they seem to have done it to themselves just as badly as the education system of those foreign countries did.

But education isn't about churning out stamped spoons, and that's why crap like that No Child Left Behind Act bothered me so much. Where we went wrong is that we began viewing education as something everyone is entitled to, for all the wrong reasons. Education is not factory farming. Steve Jobs took calligraphy because he thought it was interesting, and no one thought what the Google guys were doing was "practical". I'll wager that the Google guys did it because it seemed like nerdy awesomeness to transform web search into a giant linear algebra problem. Just as Academia is about exploring the boundaries of what we know, Education is about enriching one's thought process, and that's the leading source of innovation in our modern economy: good ideas from the fringe, implemented intelligently and autonomously.

The entitlement of success that seems to follow from attending college is what's broken. The expectation that you will get a cushy 9-5 job in return for that diploma is what's broken. It in essence is a laziness of the mind, an unwillingness to chart out one's own path, the very idea of which is quite unacademic.


SFO said...

Right on!

j_king said...

Spot on.

Nathan Nifong said...

It was the decline of manufacturing that was cited by Bruce Jacob as responsible for the decrease in the growth of American wealth. He said that Academia was only indirectly responsible because it seemed to oppose industry and keep America's young minds at a distance from the real problems we face.

I believe college is more or less just wasted money and time. My real passion for inventing was cultured by K-nex and the TI-83.

Richard said...

Some of the more interesting practical ideas lately are emerging from very unexpected sources. Chatroulette was thought up by a young russian hacker. DirtyPhoneBook was thought up by a Vegas Stripper of all people. Academics are suffering from a focus on politics that's created in the modern workplace in my judgement.

Radek said...

You are right, I would add a CS example:

In the industry, most of the shops churn out "products" and look out for solutions rather than advancing the field.
While industrial R&D of big companies and academia produce principles and methods that enable the industry to actually build the products easily.

Also, there is a difference between academic research and academic teaching. Again in CS example, it does not make sense much to teach "technologies", if you can learn them from a book, faster.

Good response.

Bob the Chef said...

Both are broken, but this is a larger web of ass I don't wish to untangle right here, right now. A lot has to do with stupid reductionist world views and this unity in diversity gone awry nonsense. But that's a whole other discussion.

Main point is, yes, education is as a right diluted it to form a factory. But you know, that's likely the whole idea. After all , the American school system is modeled after compulsory Prussian education as a means of generating a servile and predictable workforce. And don't tell me hackers are any different. The counterculture nonsense is nothing an expression of childish resentment, and in many ways worse!

So, what to do... drop most majors from universities. Yes, universities were not founded to be trade schools or guilds, which is what "getting a job" is all about. Nor do we need university education for most. A little knowledge is a bad thing, and school merely becomes a tool to shape a populace into obedience. Even the "dissent" in the universities is fully accounted for and part and parcel of the overall design of controlling it.

MKR said...

Inventing and innovation are different. But I agree Academia is a different beast. It IS broken (, but isn't responsible for all this stuff. If anything, it is still a source of innovation...albeit a poor value for our dollar in its current state.