Sunday, August 12, 2012

Education: whether to skip school or not ?

Couple of days back, one of my friend (Deepak) posted a post, which lead to somewhat heated debate. Before, I go any further, I must admit I have not read the blog writer's (Nikhil's) book and judging from the title "One Size Does Not Fit All: A Student’s Assessment of School", he seems to be radical thinker (as suggested by Deepak). Also, the above mentioned post might have assumed that the reader has already read his book and hence the post itself could be out of context for me.

Personally, I felt the post was just a collage of motivational/self-help pieces, without a direct and measurable theme/message. People don't need cheer-leaders that say "here are pictures/quotes of Einstein, Jobs, Ford ... yaay ... now, go and become like them it"; they need a coach ... a teacher, who gives them a clearly defined way or approach to achieve it ... stating how much effort one needs to put into it and what are pros and cons of following that approach. For example, 10,000 hour rule of Gladwell's Outliers or Allen's GTD. Sure there are gray-areas, situations where people only need motivational speeches and not solutions (for example: Notes to myself) ... and may be the above post could have been intended for exactly that.

Just a side-note (and not directing directly to the author of the post), I think writers of self-help books (or any non-fiction book for that matter), should try to aspire for journalistic integrity ... which means checking facts before you make a statement, validating your propositions and yes, being direct and clear. If you don't have time to research something (for example: if you are writing a time sensitive news article), or are making some assumptions (say, about the audience or the context of the article), add a disclaimer and make a reasonable statement based on Occam's razor. And most importantly, be very critical of the implications of what you write. Sure, you are allowed to be wrong (in few if not all scenarios, for example: if you track scientific research, every once in a while an idea proposed few years back is discarded). In fact there is a mathematical argument, that you cannot prove anything to absolute certainty. But it should at least pass a sniff test of critical thinking: If you make your case to a rational person without any prejudice on that particular subject, is he/she going to dismiss it outright ? An example of totally ridiculous argument that does not pass this sniff test is Zakir Naik on NDTV about Osama bin Laden, which might not be violation of first amendment (i.e. freedom of speech); but clearly can have damaging consequences, especially if audience is ill-informed and trusts the speaker.

Now coming back to the debate (given in the below image ... the first line that is cut off is "Sorry Deepak, I don't see any tangible idea in his blog ... may be i am missing something ... sure, ") with my friend, the sentence in the blog that ticked me off was "Drop the textbooks. Get out and do it":
After this debate/conversation, I felt like I was just a critic, bashing the post and nitpicking on a single possibly unintended sentence, rather than contributing to the subject. Hence, I decided to write this post to give my views on education.

I am doing PhD, so there is going to be bias in support of education. So I ask you to consider the points discussed below with respect to your situation, taking into account my personal bias.

I honestly believe formal education is easiest and fastest way to success (though many students don't feel like that's true due to amount of competition they see around). You can either work really hard during four years of graduation or struggle rest of forty years of your career to compensate for those four years. There are exceptions of course, for example, athletes who prefer/need to horn their skills than study (like Sachin Tendulkar, Usain Bolt), entrepreneurs for whom opportunity cost is higher than education (like Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Richard Branson) and people who are forced to discontinue their formal education due to certain circumstances (Nobel laureate Doris Lessing). Lot of books and post by these entrepreneurs advocate to try to be these exceptions, but I suggest caution. They are called "exceptions" for a reason; count number of people (either in your locality or in the world) who left their schools versus number of people who attended the schools, and then use your measure of success to classify them as successul or unsuccessful ... you will find your answer :)

So, why do some smart people (like authors of books mentioned in above paragraph) suggest on leaving the schools ? Well, you need to read between the lines. If you have fairly concrete idea of your product/service (along with somewhat reasonable plan) and believe waiting to finish your education will cost you the competitive edge, then it might be a good idea to take a sabbatical and be an entrepreneur. Also, read advices and books on startup, understand the novelty, amount of hard work and dedication required in building a successful startup before you make your decision of leaving the school.

Regarding Sean Parker's advice "skip school, google your education", it doesn't work. Government spends lot of money in educational system (such as deciding curriculum, giving grants, hiring/educating teachers, etc) and it will be a bad idea to not capitalize on it. I would modify his advice: "continue your school, but also google your education". There are lot of websites that give free courses/talks (like coursera, MIT, TedTalks etc), utilize them. Read wikipedia, books (textbooks and other non-course books), research papers, newspapers and blogs, then exercise critical thinking and combine them with advices given by your teacher, to formulate your own opinions/views ... world really needs more informed people. Also, there are lot of classes/camps, that you can attend/audit to supplement your education. For example: I completed PG Diploma course in Embedded Systems from ECIL (a course offered to only graduates) during my second year of engineering at VJTI. Two things I learnt during this experience is (1) even though there are pre-requisites, educators are willing to overlook them if you show enough enthusiasm and determinism; (2) if you chose to break the rules, be ready to put twice the amount of effort your peers are putting. During my four years of engineering, every semester, I always had a parallel course or non-course project that I was working on. This helped me immensely after my graduation. My point is you don't have to succumb to conformity (there are ways to supplement your formal education), and if you really plan to do leave formal education, make sure you are doing it for right reason (and not because you are lazy or because you feel leaving studies will somehow magically make your life easier and especially not because someone cites you a quote from a successful person).

Here is a high level intuition of why formal education seems tedious and boring: Society wants to filter out people who cannot survive the dip. (The dip is a period of long struggle that is necessary to achieve the goal and be differentiated from general public). For example, if PhDs or medicine were not as difficult as they are, there would be abundance of doctors and PhDs, and the elite status they enjoy now would be gone; so the society wants to ensure that these so-called elites really have to struggle before they can be labelled into this category. Sure, there is other reasons too: Some degrees (PhDs, MDs) requires knowing lot of stuff, and hence the long graduation period. You can't become a doctor by just knowing how to apply a bandage or by memorizing prescriptions for common diseases. For sake of this argument, say if a person can, would you want your family member treated by such person ?

That leads to the question of what are rational reasons to quit your studies (other than the case discussed above): If you think (or can forecast that) after surviving the dip, you don't like what's end of it, then it might be a good idea chose a different path. For example: during first year of medical school, if you don't like the life of doctor, it might be a good idea to drop out of medical school and do something that you are really passionate about. But, it is clearly a bad idea to drop out just because you feel medical school is hard or there is too much competition. Similarly, there are also rational reasons to quit PhD, but all of them should be accompanied by careful thinking and introspection. The book also covers other scenarios such as dead-end, where you have no hope of moving ahead and are stuck in routine ... but I don't think education fits into that scenario.

Note, if you believe you have dyslexia, bipolar or any such health issues (either physical or mental), then you need to completely ignore my advices and consult your family and/or therapist, as they will give you better suggestions than this blogpost.