Genius is Not Educated

The WSJ published an interesting article entitled Educating the Next Steve Jobs:

Though few young people will become brilliant innovators like Steve Jobs, most can be taught the skills needed to become more innovative in whatever they do. A handful of high schools, colleges and graduate schools are teaching young people these skills.

In most high-school and college classes, failure is penalized. But without trial and error, there is no innovation. Amanda Alonzo, a 32-year-old teacher at Lynbrook High School in San Jose, Calif., who has mentored two Intel Science Prize finalists and 10 semifinalists in the last two years—more than any other public school science teacher in the U.S.—told me, “One of the most important things I have to teach my students is that when you fail, you are learning.” Students gain lasting self-confidence not by being protected from failure but by learning that they can survive it.

It’s nice to read about the value of failure, a topic that I have written a few words about.

But really, I don’t think that revolutionary thinking can be educated, and I think it’s foolish (and possibly even counter-productive) to try. School by definition inculcates systematic thinking, methodology and dogma. It inculcates competence. That’s generally a good thing; surgeons, medical researchers, lawyers, engineers, musicians and all manner of professionals need to be competent to function. Innovation is not necessarily inherent in any of those fields. But genius and revolutionary thinking is not really about competence and confidence.

Malcolm Gladwell is famous for formulating the idea that with 10,000 hours of practice, it is possible to master a skill.

The key to success in any field is, to a large extent, a matter of practicing a specific task for a total of around 10,000 hours.

So is 10,000 hours of practice all that stands between incompetence and world-changing greatness?

Gladwell grandly theorises that many famous history-changers (“outliers”) like Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and the Beatles got to where they did with 10,000 hours of practice. But that ignores a lot of silent evidence; for every Bill Gates programming over a mainframe for 10,000 hours, there is a housewife that we have never heard of who has done 10,000 hours of parenting, and (probably much more than) 10,000 hours of housework. There is a surgeon who has done 40,000 hours of operations. There is a truck driver who has driven for 100,000 hours.

Gladwell is keen to point out, of course, that people’s skills also flourish through the networks they cultivate, and the people they meet, and that (of course) it’s just a little more complicated than 10,000 hours of practice.

My view is that all 10,000 hours of practice (something which of course can be delivered within a traditional educational framework) does is lay down a bedrock of competency.

My theory is that revolutionary thinking is not simply a matter of persistence, but is instead attitudinal, and mostly comes out of people who are forced or who force themselves to take a radically different perspective to the rest of the world. They are — almost by definition — autodidacts, simply because their style of thinking has not yet been pioneered. They have to teach themselves, and iron out the kinks. Being an autodidact of course is not necessarily a matter of choice; very often it is a matter of necessity — people who don’t have access to traditional education, or who are forced to exist outside the system. This can be due to poverty, strong personalities, or a preference for self-teaching (very often expressed as a preference for doing over thinking).

The established system is often very useful for such people, because it gives them a framework from which to hang contrarianism. It gives them something to rebel against and kick out against.

On the other hand there are many examples of professional academics and those within the establishment who pioneer and innovate (although of course it should be noted that the overwhelming majority of academic papers today are masturbatory regurgitation). But such activity forces even the most staid into autodidactic learning; it forces them to make mistakes, and challenge themselves and learn their own lessons.

I suppose it is possible to try to inculcate a love of tinkering, of trial-and-error, and an understanding of the value of failure. It is certainly possible to encourage an interest in self-teaching. But it remains to be seen how many of us will really bite. It strikes me as if most of us do not really want to be innovators; I see far more who want job security, loving families, and plenty of leisure time.

I tend to believe that today’s education system is fit for its own purposes; it churns out competent thinkers, competent doers, people who can analyse to a framework and work to a deadline. True autodidacts and philosophers (in the most literal sense of the word — lovers of thinking, learning and wisdom) will find their own way.

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Education is a Bubble

A couple of days ago, Zero Hedge reported that a lot of student loans are delinquent:

As many as 27% of all student loan borrowers are more than 30 days past due. In other words at least $270 billion in student loans are no longer current (extrapolating the delinquency rate into the total loans outstanding). That this is happening with interest rates at record lows is quite stunning and a loud wake up call that it is not rates that determine affordability and sustainability: it is general economic conditions, deplorable as they may be, which have made the popping of the student loan bubble inevitable.

The reality of this — like the housing bubble before it — is that a lot of people who borrowed a lot of money can’t repay. That could be down to weak economic conditions. As I wrote yesterday, an unprecedented number of young people are unemployed and underemployed. These circumstances will lead to delinquencies.

But I think that there is a key difference. Unlike housing — which will probably never be made obsolete — it feels like education is undergoing a generational shift, much like agriculture did prior to the Great Depression, and much like manufacturing did prior to the Great Recession.

Venture capitalist Peter Thiel suggests:

Like the housing bubble, the education bubble is about security and insurance against the future. Both whisper a seductive promise into the ears of worried Americans: Do this and you will be safe. The excesses of both were always excused by a core national belief that no matter what happens in the world, these were the best investments you could make. Housing prices would always go up, and you will always make more money if you are college educated.

But earnings for graduates are stagnant, while costs continue to rise:

However, all this really shows is the (quite obvious) reality that colleges — subsidised by Federal student loans guarantees that act as a price floor — can keep raising tuition fees even while in the real world the economy is contracting.

But education is suffering from a much bigger problem: a lot of what it does is gradually (or quickly) being made obsolete by technology.

While college degrees for vocational subjects like medicine, law, architecture and so forth are still critically important (not least because access to such professions is restricted to those who have jumped through the proper hoops), non-vocational subjects have been cracked completely open by the internet.

Why would anyone realistically choose to pay huge amounts of money to go to university to learn mathematics, or English literature, or computer science or economics when course materials  — and much, much, much more including access to knowledgeable experts and professionals — is freely available online?

The answer is for a piece of paper to “qualify” the holder and “prove” their worth to prospective employers. But with earnings for degree holders at roughly 1997 levels, what’s the point? Plenty of people with good ideas, drive and perseverance are living fulfilling and successful lives without a college degree — including me. There are flashier examples like Zuckerberg, Jobs, and Gates, but that is just the tip of the iceberg.

A real estate agent trying to rent me a flat once said:

Why would people want to go to university? All it shows is that you are lazy, and can’t be bothered to find a proper job, and want to spend three or four years getting up late and getting drunk.

A useful (though not universally true) heuristic. “Education” has been turned inside out. To some employers, a degree (particularly one with a weak or mediocre grade) can in fact be a disadvantage. People without a degree can get ahead with three or four years of experience in industry.

So while we wait to see whether or not a student loan meltdown will lead to a wider financial meltdown (a la Lehman), I think we should consider that this industry may well be on the brink of a systemic meltdown itself. With severely decreased demand for education, a lot of schools and courses may be wiped off the map leaving behind a skeleton of only the most prestigious universities, and vocational and professional courses.