June 13, 2013

What I Learned In College

"In times of change, learners inherit the earth, while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists." ― Eric Hoffer
Yesterday, the University of Washington finally mailed me my diploma. A Bachelor of Science in Applied Computational Math and Science: Discrete Math and Algorithms. I learned a lot of things in college. I learned how to take tests and how to pinpoint exactly what useless crap a particular final needed me to memorize. I learned that math is an incredibly beautiful thing that has been butchered so badly I hated it all the way until my second year of college. I learned that creativity is useless and all problems have one specific right answer you can find in the back of a textbook somewhere, because that's all I was ever graded on. I learned that getting into the CSE major is more about fighting an enormous, broken bureaucratic mess than actually being good at computer science. But most of all, I learned that our educational system is so obsessed with itself it can't even recognize it's own shortcomings.

The first accelerated program I was accepted into was the Gifted program in middle school. I went from getting As in everything to failing every single one of my core classes. Determined to prove myself, I managed to recover my grades to Bs and Cs by the end of 7th grade, and by the end of 8th grade I was back up to As and Bs. I didn't do this by getting smarter, I did it by getting better at following directions. I got better at taking tests. I became adept at figuring out precisely what the teacher wanted me to do, and then doing only that, so I could maximize both my free time and my grades. By the time I reached high school, I would always meticulously go over the project requirements, systematically satisfying each bullet point in order to maximize my score. During tests, I not only skipped over difficult questions, I would actively seek out hints in the later questions to help me narrow down possible answers. My ability to squeeze out high grades had more to do with my aptitude at filling in the right bubbles on a piece of paper then actually understanding the material.

I fantasized about attending college, where I would be judged on my intellectual prowess, and not on my test taking skills. I longed for the pursuit of knowledge in it's purest form, only for this dream to be completely and utterly crushed. Instead of a place free from the endless battery of tests I had been subjected to during high school, I quickly realized that college was nothing but tests. I once had a math course where 95% of my grade was split between a first midterm, a second midterm, and a final. By the end of my second year of college, I simply stopped attending lectures. I could teach myself the material out of the textbook, and went to class only to take a test or turn in homework. I earned my degree by becoming incredibly adept at memorizing precisely which useless, specific facts were needed to properly answer questions. I was never asked nor told how to apply these to real world scenarios.

Thankfully, in one of the last classes I actually attended lecture in, the TA teaching the class said something that sparked a epiphany in me: "Math is simply repeated abstraction and generalization." Suddenly, I was able to connect math and programming, and began to realize that I had loved math all my life. What I hated about math was the trivial nonsense they taught in middle school. I signed up for the most advanced math classes I could get away with, even when I could barely pass them. I began to realize that the most important thing these classes taught me was what I didn't know. Once I knew what I didn't know, I could teach it to myself, but only after I found the holes in my knowledge. You can't fill a hole if you don't know where it is. I didn't know what combinatorics was until it was mentioned to me by that TA; Chrome still doesn't think combinatorics is even a word.

Everyone finds the beauty of math in their own way, but we teach it like an automated assembly line of cars. Math is taught as some kind of rigid tool, when it is really a language for expressing logic, one with multiple dialects, each with their own personality. We invented music to express emotions that cannot be described; we invented math to express logical abstractions that defy explanation. Every tool in math is like another instrument in a grand orchestra, each note echoing off the others, reflecting a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. Some composers prefer the string section, others prefer the woodwinds. There is no single right answer, only different ones. Instead of giving our children a brush and telling them to use their imagination, we give them a coloring book and grade them on how well they stay inside the lines.

I mean, we all know creativity is overrated. It must be, since we systematically destroy it even when we try to encourage it. It doesn't matter how many programs we fund for encouraging things like art and music when the kids are still ultimately judged on how well they follow instructions and fill in little scantron bubbles. Kids are not stupid. I cannot believe how many adults still think they can get away with telling kids one thing and then doing another. They know what you're up to. They know the only thing the school system cares about is their grades, and that their grades are based entirely on how well they follow directions. They know that answering a question "almost right" doesn't matter. They know all problems have one answer in the back of the teacher's textbook, and their job is to figure out what it is. The vast majority of them have absolutely no idea how to approach a problem that has no correct answer. They don't know how to judge the correctness of a solution, because in school, everything is either right or wrong. All they know how to do is guess how likely it is that their solution is the solution the teacher wants, not how well the solution would actually work.

This is, of course, completely contradictory to everything in life. Life does not have answers in the back of the book. Life does not have a single correct answer to any problem. There is no right way to do anything, there are simply pros and cons. The fact that many people continue to delude themselves into thinking otherwise is a sad symptom of this issue. Our obsession with tests has trained a generation of robots, not engineers. They're more skilled at working their way through a bureaucracy than designing rockets. Then again, considering that colleges have now turned into enormous, obstructive bureaucracies, perhaps this isn't entirely a bad thing.

After all, with only 160 (now 200) spots open in its CSE major program each year when it has over 27000 undergraduate students enrolled[1], the University of Washington gets mighty picky about who they let in. After getting a 3.7 and 3.4 in my first two calculus classes, I slipped and got a 2.8 in my third math class, so despite the fact that I got a perfect 5 on the AP Computer Science AB exam and was qualified to skip both introductory programming courses, they rejected my application and demanded I take Matrix Algebra before letting me in. So I got a 3.9 in Matrix Algebra (a grade that was exceptionally good, according to one professor), and then... they still didn't let me in. They complained that my entrance essay sounded "too cocky" and had me take the second introductory programming course even though I already had credit for it. When I failed to get an exceptionally good grade in that class for all the wrong reasons (like being graded down for having both too few comments and too many comments in my code), I simply could not bring myself to compete in a hyper-competitive environment where the only thing I was judged on was how many irrelevant details I could regurgitate. So, I majored in Applied Mathematics and simply took all the condensed, non-major CSE courses instead.

This obsession with tests extends into the evaluation of the educational system itself. One of the reasons nothing is getting better is because we use the very thing that is wrong with the educational system to judge it. We fill out ridiculous polls made out of those same interminable bubbles that are destroying the curriculum. We introduce more standardized testing. The entire system is completely obsessed with tests, and yet the only place that tests actually exist is... inside the system itself. Education has become so enraptured with this imaginary world it has constructed, it's completely forgotten about the reality it's supposed to be teaching kids about.

Kids know this imaginary world has nothing to do with reality. We lament about how to teach kids math when they refuse to understand it, without realizing that they are simply applying the same method of learning they use in everything else - memorize useless facts, then regurgitate them on a test. The reason our math curriculum is failing so badly is because in math, you can't simply memorize things, you need to understand them. Consequently, Math acts as a canary in the coal mine for our entire educational system. Kids make no effort to understand anything, because they aren't graded on how well they understand concepts, they are graded on how well they memorize random, useless details and follow directions.

We live in a world being overrun by automation. Any task that can be reduced to simply following a set of instructions over and over is being done by robots and software. This constant attrition of jobs involving menial work and physical labor will continue at a steady pace for the foreseeable future. We are teaching our kids skills that are being made irrelevant in a modern economy. We are preparing our children for a world that no longer exists. At the same time, while I could write a series of blog posts outlining an effective educational system, it will never be implemented in public schools. The establishment is too deeply entrenched. Foolish startups repeatedly and continually attempt to "disrupt" the educational system without realizing just how laughably outmatched they are. This is not something you can fix with a cute website. People complain about global warming, space travel, all sorts of adorable little problems, but miss the elephant in the room.

The greatest challenge our species has ever faced is the educational system itself.