Archive for the ‘Academic’ Category

Class of 2007, USAF Academy Graduation Hat Hur...

Image by Beverly & Pack via Flickr

A rather controversial article on TechCrunch this past weekend has apparently caused quite a stir, begetting a follow-up article on the same website. The originator of all the fuss was PayPal co-creator and early Facebook investor Peter Thiel, who proposed that people who drop out of college, or otherwise opt to pursue other avenues to success, are more successful than those who complete college. His basic thesis seems to be: education is overrated and mostly unneeded to be successful. If that is true, then I am profoundly disappointed. After all the all-night study sessions, papers, projects, deadlines and do-nothing group project leeches, I prefer to think of all of my education as a good use of my time. Perhaps only slightly less cynically, I can think of it as something no one can ever take away from me. I may not be a multimillionaire tech entrepreneur, but at least I can put some letters after my name on my business card.

Rather than just bash the guy for putting forth his theory on what makes a success, I will agree with him that the status placed on education, indeed on anything of value, depends upon its scarcity among the general population. In the article, he asks “If Harvard were really the best education, if it makes that much of a difference, why not franchise it so more people can attend? Why not create 100 Harvard affiliates?” In other words, if the goal of education is to be accessible to the greatest number of people, thereby increasing the creative potential of the entire nation, why not take away the pompousness now associated with it? In essence, why not make everyone successful by creating a more success-oriented system? After all, “all boats rise with the tide,” do they not?

The article goes on to describe how Thiel has engaged in an ‘experiment’ in which he is auditioning students from the most elite universities from around the United States. Twenty finalists will be selected and given $100,000 over two years to leave school and start a company instead. In the follow-up article referenced above, Vivek Wadhwa put it to a group of Deans from Engineering departments at schools from around the country (all of them “elite”) to see what they thought of Thiel’s postulate. The consensus is that to drop out after you have started is just plain dumb. They seem to ask in unison, ‘Why not finish what you start?’ After all, part of what makes going to school worthwhile is the satisfaction of completing it, isn’t it?

 

The Huffington Post website posted an interesting article yesterday that caught my eye and brought back memories of my experiences in school. In the article, Tina Barseghian, Editor of MindShift, a website about the future of learning, describes how video games are better teachers than the humans academic institutions employ to instruct our children. While I agree with many of the concepts proposed, I cannot say I agree these values are fully learned from just video games (please note, the author does not propose video games are the sole source of this learning). Take, for instance, the idea that video games enforce the desire to conquer an opponent. The author does mention the social aspect of video game playing, however, I would argue that kids are confronted with this opposing forces and viewpoints more often in the real world than they are onscreen.

Take for example little Billy who is confronted his friend suggesting he copy Billy’s paper to get it done quickly, so they can go play video games. This dilemma presents Billy with a choice: do I let my friend cheat just to make him happy, or do I defend my own work and risk losing the friendship? I believe this choice and others that children encounter in their day to day dealings with their peers does more to build their character and decision making skills than video games. Alternatively, video games help kids satisfy their desire for immediate gratification. As the article points out, whether kids are successful in a particular game or not will be determined within the game.

Which brings me to the article author’s second point: this system of immediate action and reaction makes formal testing unnecessary. For instance, if you could know all of the possible outcomes of any action you took, you would not need a test to tell you whether you would succeed in any particular endeavor. The article even quotes a leading authority on learning: “If you design learning so you can’t get out of one level until you complete the last one, there’s no need for a test.” (also see: Descartes’ Meditations). Of course, this is not to say that people can absolutely know every possible outcome of their actions from only their individual point of view. The idea that our own sensory experiences give us perspective from only one viewpoint (our own) was espoused by Baruch Spinoza. This means children playing a game can only view that virtual world through only one lens- that of the character they control onscreen. Social experience tells us that we derive greater satisfaction and knowledge from our interactions with others than we ever would from a book or school. Accordingly, on this point, I agree with the article’s author.

Despite the research on learning cited in the article and what we intuitively know to be the most conducive our own learning, no one singular technique can possibly be considered “correct.” This is the problem with modern education in most schools in the United States. Teaching to a single, all-important test to determine knowledge? This is no way to ensure learning is actually taking place. I agree with the author’s sentiment: change the system of education. Either that, or video games will replace books as kids’ preferred mode of learning.

Greetings mediocrity-lovers,

I don’t usually like to get political, but a particular article posted to a blog on the NPR.org website piqued my intellectual curiosity. As a disclaimer, I have only taken introductory college courses in Economics, but I did well in them and have a good enough understanding of the principle of supply and demand. This article poses some points that are as interesting as they are perplexing. For instance, the authors of the post interviewed economist Jim Grant, who argues for the gold standard: the idea that all the paper money in the U.S. economy should be backed by something physical that has value. This, he says, is and always has been that shiniest of commodities: gold. He goes on to assert that the alternative system that the U.S. has adopted is based largely on the opinions of the chairman of the Federal Reserve, who seems to make decisions on whether to inject a boatload of cash into the market just to see what would happen.

I’ll tell you what would happen: inflation the likes of which have not been seen since before the start of the Great Depression. If the paper money that the Fed so freely decides to inundate the economy with has no backing in something real (gold), the economy would essentially be running on meaningless pieces of green paper. This is not to say, of course, that paper money does not itself have value we the people have ascribed to it. This value, however, is due in large part to money’s relative scarcity compared to any alternate commodity we could use for currency. Basically, the less of something there is, generally the more value it has to those who might find uses for it. Therefore, when the powers that be want to “help” stimulate the economy by putting more things of value out there (supply), those things become less desirable due to the relative ease of getting a hold of them (demand). For evidence of why this is a bad idea, we need look no further than the problems faced by the African nation of Zimbabwe.

Creating more money is not the answer to inflationary concerns. Nor should the decision about what gives U.S. money its value be arbitrary or flippantly made. If gold is no longer viable as a foundation for the value of this nation’s currency, then an alternative should be sought immediately. The consequences of leaving it to the financial system to determine money’s value relative to things like retail prices, interest rates, etc. are far too ominous. I sure don’t want to live in a country where 10 zeros on a bank note is barely enough to catch a bus and I’m pretty sure you don’t either. Please comment and let me know your thoughts.

-The Dead Peasant