Thursday, August 30, 2012

a rant on math ed: choose your words carefully.

from "the siege of academe" @ washingtonmonthly:

Minerva sprang from Nelson’s observation that higher education was increasingly a realm of mismatched supply and demand. Recent decades have been generally peaceful and prosperous on planet Earth. There are a lot more people with the desire and ability to pay for higher education than there used to be. Elite American schools are the unchallenged market leaders, which is why applications to Harvard have increased by double digits annually for years, with growing demand from China and other fast-developing economies.

what bothers me about this phenomenon is something more subtle.
what language is used here?
supply, demand, market leader ..

this is undoubtedly economics, the language of tit-for-tat.
i agree with the general opinion that education has value. what i don't agree with is that the value of an education is its sole defining characteristic.

i used to tell non-mathematical techies that my work is useless, in the sense that it has no direct applications or benefits to society .. that i can see, anyway. at the time i was trying to be (disarmingly) honest, compare my work with laboratory sciences.

on the other hand, like g.h.hardy i prefer it that way. i like the fact that somebody out there with the power to dole out resources realises that life and human understanding is more than just a matter of money and efficiency.

perhaps just to make my point, i'll start saying that my work is priceless [1], in the sense that you just can't measure how valuable or valueless it is!

the fact is that western capitalistic society has usurped the university for its own needs.

at some point, the prestige of a college degree somehow put those job candidates into the short list [2]. this only led to the unintended consequence that now, society equates the intellectual role of higher education with financial success.

maybe it really is obvious, but i'm having trouble seeing it now.
in the case of high-tech startups, then sure: brainpower is probably an easily measurable quantity. on the other hand, it doesn't seem particularly appropriate to use the example of a startup, because a relatively small part of the population works in one.

for example, what if everyone worked in a startup? how efficient could society be? i have heard of very few startups that actually do their own manufacturing, a sector of business that can and often requires a lot of human labor.
i have the deep suspicion that we are underestimating the nature of manufacture and the inherent lack of innovation that comes from systematic monotony. yes, if you're an innovator in a society, then life is good: it's just not clear to me exactly how many innovators a society needs .. at least, not without a substantial change in society [3].
at any rate, this "siege of academe" could prove useful in the long run: history having compounded together the two processes of job preparation and intellectualism, maybe the rise of online education and alternative job entry opportunities will disassociate the two again.

in other words, those who just want jobs can choose not to attend university and "waste their time." this leaves the campus to for those bookish persons who really want to learn for learning's sake and not be interrupted by those who don't.

i could be wrong about this. a possible counterexample would consist of data showing that most people have jobs in which they solve complex problems, where the relevant know-how is not taught in basic schooling or on-the-job training. (so far, nobody's shown me that kind of data; then again, i never requested it either.)

[2] it wouldn't surprise me if it was the place of one's education became a tie-breaker for high-prestige jobs, rather than the actual education itself. if you were some rich man's son who was going to work for another rich man at a good starting position, then issues of loyalty and rivalry come into play. so if there was something that would make a boss more inclined to hire one person over another, then it's familiarity: "aha! we both went to yale!" so at some point, the methods of selection became coarser: it stopped being a matter of "which college" and generalised to "any college?" (on a related note, i was wondering if anyone was going to find this footnote; since you did, what was the clue?)

[1] .. which is almost certainly more trouble than it's worth. on a related note, i've gotten tired of telling my life story to new people i've met.

so when someone asks me: "where are you from?"
i often answer: "nowhere in particular."

it doesn't answer anything, but it does signal that i think the question is irrelevant.

[3] ours is not yet a "star trek" type of society, you know, replete with plentiful, universal robots that can do all the dirty work for us. it's not that i believe that society must necessarily stratified into lower and upper classes: far from it! i just don't think we're advanced enough yet, both socially and logistically, for true democracy and we must take steps to do so.

after all, it takes a lot to sustain the modern, comfortable western lifestyle to run .. say, two earth's worth of resources and who knows how much manual labor, human or otherwise?

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