November 14th, 2008
One of the speakers at OSCon this year — I forget which one — made a point that ran something like this, heavily paraphrased:
Education used to be an end in itself, not a means. It wasn’t about having a high-paying career. It was about knowing the world, about having knowledge and wisdom for its own sake. It was, quite bluntly, the accumulation of useless knowledge by the elite — those that could afford to spend time on such things, knowing that useless knowledge has a way of becoming useful in the most unexpected of ways. How fortunate we are to live in an age where the accumulation of useless knowledge is available to so many, and how sad it is that so few take advantage of it.
What a powerful statement, and it rings true to me. I remember in high school, when people from the local liberal arts college would come and talk. They’d talk about the value throughout a lifetime of knowledge in a broad range of disciplines: English, history, political science, religion, science, and the arts. They’d talk about how their graduates went on to lead distinguished lives, how this broad core of knowledge serves a person well through life. I guess I didn’t believe them, because due to their lack of a computer science major, I went elsewhere.
That local school may not have been the best choice for me for other reasons, but as I look back on it, I think they had a much stronger message than I realized back then. Here I am, just two math classes, one computer science class, and one biology class away from a degree. Yet I have had not one class covering the history of east Asia, not one class on different world cultures or religions, and only a very basic understanding of one foreign language (German).
This hits me in the face almost every day. Yesterday I was wondering about the history of slavery and racism in Europe. Today I’m curious about China’s history as an economic powerhouse. Last week I was curious about Roman law and daily life.
The fact is, everything from philosophy to calculus is screamingly relevant to daily, modern life. We hear talk of “an American revolution” in Washington, of a shift of power in the Senate. It seems we forget that the notion of a Senate is considerably older than the United States is — and that we have such a thing because our founders were aware of this. Macroeconomic theory is thrust in our faces on an almost daily basis these days, yet I’ve never had a class on economics at all.
We might feel fear of terrorist attacks, or see our fellow citizens lash out at “the Arabs.” Our own short memories fail to remind us of the light in which we are seen, fail to put the really quite minor terrorist threat in context of what London or Dresden endured in World War II. We demand our government to make us safer, and our government responds by making us less safe but making us *feel* safer at airports.
In my own field, I see some universities buckling to pressure from Business to turn out large numbers of mediocre programmers that know the Java or .NET standard library well, but have no sense of the theory behind computer science, and would be utterly lost if asked to, say, write a recursive QuickSort. I find myself almost completely baffled that some companies that want to hire the world’s best programmers are only looking for people that are already fluent in $LANGUAGE — not ones that are good programmers, and so well-versed in computer science that they can easily pick up any language.
I think there is a lot to the argument that a good, broad, classical education can serve a person well in any career. I wish I had realized that a little earlier.