I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him
Main takeaway: Moloch has killed your curiosity (and hence the cat still lives)
People that are much more intelligent and successful than me have written about the perils of standardized education. Some of them are Paul Graham, Scott Alexander and Bryan Caplan. I would highly recommend that anyone reading this post read these linked articles. There are some of the most eye-opening arguments that I’ve heard on the subject of education.
Some highlights from Paul Graham’s article are given below:
Like most other children, I would want constantly want to ask adults questions about the world. However, after trying to humor me for some time, my family would ask me to stop, and my teachers would ask me to “first understand what’s written in the book, and then ask all of these unrelated questions”. I soon learned to shut up and read the textbook.
This approach mostly worked OK for me throughout school. Now I’m a PhD student, and I realize that I have no questions to ask. I train all day to try and become better at answering questions that others ask me. “Can you solve this problem?” I learn theorems and techniques so that I may be able to attack most problems that I see.
I recently came across this blogpost by Zvi Moshwowitz. Zvi is a member of the rationalist community who writes very, very long posts performing detailed statistical analysis of the government’s COVID response. And he posts these extremely detailed statistical analyses every 2-3 days.
My first response on seeing this post was disgust. I was disgusted by the fact that this person, somewhere in the world, spends hours and hours everyday performing statistical analyses, running numbers through some number-crunching software, and then compiling them to post on a blog that he cannot possibly earn much financial or social credit from. Why does he do it? No one asked him to!
When I saw this article a couple of days back, I wanted to write a blogpost right away. And I wanted to call it “The difference between successful people and….me”. This is become it is unfathomable for me that I would put in this much work into anything that wouldn’t go towards my career or oiling my social network. I had absolutely no curiosity about the world around me. There was no question that I’d come up with for a long time, that I wanted to answer. I only aspired to answer questions that other had, so that I could signal some combination of intelligence and hard work, in order to perhaps gain employment, etc.
Over the last couple of days, this made me angry. I have now spent most of my life trying to jump through hoops. I let the people around me kill my curiosity. And as I near the age of 30, my only aspiration is to get better at jumping through these hoops in order to gain employment, or perhaps earn social credit. But what about the education system killed my curiosity? I can only speak about it from an Indian perspective, although these problems seem true for the US (at least as per Paul Graham’s article) as well.
An education is mostly supposed to broaden your horizons, and teach you facts about the world that an adult is expected to know. However, in practice, it becomes a system that can be gamed. Although I have learned a lot by going to class in school and college, I ultimately knew that doing well in that course only partially correlated with “loving the subject”. Some combination of intelligence + solving the questions at the back of the chapter + access to notes from class + access to past years’ exams would be required. I don’t really think that any of these factors in themselves are bad. Of course trying to solve problems from the back of the book or from past years’ exams would only strengthen my understanding of the concept. The abuse arose from the fact that it was only through solving the problems at the back of the book or from past years’ exams that one could prepare for the exam or signal an understanding of the subject. Let’s explore this a little bit.
Suppose I’m taking a class in college. I know that if I am able to solve all the questions at the back of the textbook and from past exams, I can realistically be assured of an A/B+. Because humans mostly do the least amount of work required (perhaps because there is an evolutionary advantage to conserving energy that has been hard-coded into our brains), my study strategy would soon evolve into solving just those questions, and not caring as much about being curious about the subject and asking my own questions/reading other unrelated material. Although sometimes there are questions on exams that aim to test whether students have a “deeper” understanding of the material, trial and error soon teaches us what’s the least we have to do to “get by”.
Because curiosity is not really a skill that is required or moulded in school or college, it soon dies out. But what can our education systems really do? Is there really a way to encourage and mould students’ curiosities? Having taught a number of classes myself over the years, I find that this is a difficult problem to solve. I’ve often toyed with the idea of asking students to just “write a detailed summary of the whole course, and any particular problems you like, why you like them, etc”, and then just grade it like a subjective essay rather than an objective assessment. This perhaps sounds silly because science and mathematics are expected to be about “objectivity” and “accuracy”, and do not really lend themselves to long essays filled with “feelings” and such. Although I mostly agree with this, I think that this stance is partly overstated. I would have a much higher opinion of a student’s mathematical understanding if they could write a detailed essay on the development of calculus, why it was shocking for scientists of that time, and what some of their favorite calculus problems are, than one who can differentiate and integrate the problems given on the exam.
Moreover, a lot of hard mathematical problems are just about trying enough things until something clicks. Even if I have to give students numerical problems to solve on an exam, I would perhaps give them most, if not all points if they could write down ten ways that they tried solving the problem but couldn’t. At least in this way, students will be encouraged to try.
Education has been a contentious issue for a very long time. Surely a lot of people must have thought of the same points as me. Why haven’t they been implemented yet? Perhaps part of the answer is that it is much easier to test and grade students on numerical problems than on opinion-driven essays. For instance, grading an exam paper consisting only of numerical problems would not take more than 5-7 minutes. However, grading an essay would take perhaps twice as long, because you would often have to address the points made by the student and critically evaluate them. I definitely find this to be true for myself when I grade my students’ exams. There are lots of other ways in which the education of students is harmed by lazy administration, but that perhaps calls for a different post.
I’ve actively tried to be more curious over the last couple of days. This has led me to address fundamental doubts about subjects that I’ve already studied, and has even made research more pleasurable for me. I hope to pass this on to my students who I meet 4 times a week.
Don’t optimize for the world.