The Self-taught’s Dilemma
When new technologies cause great universities to fail
Today I’d like to address the Dilemma that characterized my first semester at university. This is a complementary essay for this other one, If you are interested in knowing my experience as a whole, you may check this out.
Since this essay is going to be quite biased, let’s spend some time finding out the defining features of my persona: in the following pages, you’ll get a sense of how incompatible my values & work ethics were with the ones of the universities.
I get bored easily:
I’m a hardworking, workaholic person but I get easily bored if the task given to me is either stupid, highly automatable, or not useful in the long term.
Seems what a lazy person would say, but actually a better fitting one-word description would be: Hypercritical.
When I’m told to do/learn something, I want to know why I should spend time on it, why it is important, and mostly what applications it has.
An exciting vision is what I need to fuel my motivation, and since I’m pretty good at finding it by myself, here comes my second point.
I hate being told whats & hows:
There’s something special about willingly choosing something to learn. Yes, choosing something on your own. Seems pretty utopic in a society that settles down everything for you, huh?
Every path you could ever take is already beaten, you just need to follow that and you’ll get where you want right? Well, not really. That’s not how it works.
If there’s anything that spikes my interest, stay sure: I’ll probably have my hard-drive fully packed with whatever you can find online, waiting to be read or studied.
There is nothing better than learning something on your own! you’ll follow your schedule, you’ll win over procrastination, you’ll need no external motivation because it just comes naturally and you’ll be the only person responsible when something goes wrong. That’s what I want: having responsibility over my choices & actions. What I consider a missing key in our society.
There may be a better (and often faster) way to reach the same destination.
Caesar already showed us 2000 years ago with its cipher that the easier way to get from A to Z is not running across the whole alphabet but rather shifting the whole alphabet backwards 1 position. I’m not necessarily an advocate of the “play smarter not harder” thingy, but I strongly believe that one should focus on the right things.
Knowing WHAT to study is not the same as knowing HOW:
We have the immense opportunity of living in a world where every single piece of information is digitalized.
There’s an almost infinite number of resources on any field you want to know more about: countless courses, books, videos, PDFs (no, I’m not referring to Piero Della Francesca) exist online for free, or in the worst-case scenario at razor-thin & accessible prices.
Knowledge is open-source in our society.
Do we really need to be told what to learn in the first place? Or more importantly HOW to learn it? Well, here’s my share of this.
I love being self-taught because I get to choose how to spend my time and what to focus on:
When I’m learning something on my own, I lose less time on the boring parts, rushing through topics, learning new things at a higher rate, and finally winning over procrastination because I am actually interested in what I learn. Often I even deepen my understanding of the topic if it grabs my attention, which is something unthinkable if you are attending an academic course, the only thing that matters is passing the exam so the majority of the students try to optimize for better marks rather than knowledge.
The human brain does a wonderful job of getting rid of useless information, or at least those that do not have direct applications. You shouldn’t try to crumb as much information as possible into your brain, obviously there will be leakages long term.
Try to emulate how all great programmers behave, they know loads of math & logic, solving problems abstractedly, but when they need to convert their ideas into code they just look up the implementation online: rather than having any prior knowledge, I think it’s much easier to just search the solutions on-the-go. You won’t waste your time speculating on possible solutions for problems that you may never encounter.
There is a satisfying answer for every question asked
So for a meaningful learning experience, reading a book is not sufficient, you should try to convert those ideas into meaningful applications easy to recall when needed.
I don’t believe everything should be learned in the first place:
To explain better what I mean, let me tell you a story:
During the World War, a Chicago newspaper ran an article questioning Henry Ford’s intelligence because he was not formally educated. When the Chicago paper printed that Ford was an “Ignorant Pacifist”, Ford brought a Lawsuit against the paper.
During the proceedings, the paper was so confident in their statement that they brought Ford to the witness stand. They started to ask Ford many questions on history and philosophy. After the questions became a bit too much, Ford finally replies to an offensive question by saying:
“If I should really WANT to answer the foolish question you have just asked or any of the other questions you have been asking me, let me remind you that I have a row of electric push-buttons on my desk, and by pushing the right button, I can summon to my aid men who can answer ANY question I desire concerning the business to which I am devoting most of my efforts. Now, will you kindly tell me, WHY I should clutter up my mind with general knowledge, for the purpose of being able to answer questions, when I have men around me who can supply any knowledge I require?”
Well needless to say that silenced the lawyer pretty quickly and everyone knew that this was not the answer of an ignorant man but rather a man of education. There is no reason indeed to know the answer to everything, all you need to know is where to get the answer.
A man who is educated knows where to get knowledge when he needs it, and how to organize that knowledge into definite plans of action.
Knowledge is nothing of value unless you take the correct action to produce results.
Something that still fascinates me is that nowadays any answer to any question is just a click away.
No matter what the issue you are dealing with, big or small, there is as close to a 100% chance that someone else has already experienced that situation. All of the answers you would ever need are right in front of you… Do you know where to find them?
Holistic approaches are always better:
If you want to get the most out of something you need to experience it firsthand, only in this way you’ll be able to appreciate, understand & leverage the inner forces behind in your favor.
The most meaningful way to learn new things is by tinkering around.
That’s the exact way I learned music, photography, videography, and even programming: by creating something that didn’t exist before, and yet I felt the need to fill that void.
As entrepreneur Elon Musk used to say “Teach to the problem, not the tools”.
Most of the time schools teach us things too specifically, not referring to the whole picture. Now, think about it: what is the point of learning how all sorts of tools work, say a screwdriver, without seeing them in action? None!
That’s what we students need: not just dull memorization, but problem-solving.
Learning & Studying are (very) different
Learning and studying are not the same things, you can study without learning but you could never learn without studying.
For the math nerds out there we would say that studying is necessary but not sufficient for learning, hence it is a one-way implication.
So by necessity, there must be other ingredients aside from studying for a meaningful learning experience and it’s pretty safe to assume that choosing what and how to learn can only help with that.
That’s the main takeaway here:
If you choose something on your own, not only you will have no excuses for not working on it but you will be faster, more productive, but also win over procrastination and avoid wasting time on unproductive things.
Do we really need universities in the first place where everything you could ever learn can be found freely on the internet?
I am not diminishing their importance in our society obviously, there are benefits in attending one, say for example building a network of like-minded people, but only in regards to the quality of your learning, are universities in 2021 still the best place to learn?
How will new technologies disrupt the education sector?
Let me know what you think in the comment section.
Filippo Sergenti, 14th February 2021
Additional resources for discussion:
These are refreshing & provocative ideas on the topic, loads of entrepreneurs speaking: that’s why these ideas are refreshing.