Let's find out why most educational institutions yield graduates that make dumb (or otherwise unknowledgeable) people

055 January 3, 2017 -- (cogitatio)

The (now-)traditional Romanian educational system can be traced back to communist roots, where course matters in humanities consisted mostly of useless Marxist shit dictated by the Well-Doer, while the rather difficult matter in sciences was dictated by Party politics in order to raise scientists and engineers to compete with the guys in the West -- the ones who made the latest and greatest stuff and went into space and all that. The result of this failed attempt at "progressive" philo-socio-politics1 was the dumb political class of the '90s, followed by the even dumber political class of the late 2000s and 2010s. But at least Romanians continue to have generations upon generations of math olympics winners, at least until the few remaining competent teachers die, like everything and everyone eventually does.

This phenomenon is not limited to Eastern Europe nor to a particular level of scholarship, as demonstrated by the vast amounts of bleeding-edge academic hogwash published throughout the Western world. Moreover the subject is amply discussed in The Last Psychiatrist's Grade Inflation. "The system" has failed because it forces little monkeys -- either through social pressure or directly through the state's own machinery -- to waste their time going through the we don't need no education system, getting those As and ending up being awarded with a piece of paper that doesn't matter anyway. And as Ballas points out, it's not the monkeys' fault:

Which brings me to the main point, the other cause of grade inflation that no one ever talks about: in order for a grade to be inflated, a professor has to inflate it. In other words, grade inflation isn't the student's fault, it is the professor's fault. A kid can complain and whine/wine all he wants, but unless that professor buckles, there's no grade inflation. So the starting point has to be: why does a professor inflate a grade?

Yikes. Now that shudder you're feeling is not only why you never thought it, but how it is possible no one else ever brought it up? The answer is: every discussion about grade inflation has been dominated by educators.

The "college is a scam" train is one on which I'm all aboard, but that doesn't mean each individual professor has to be scamming students; there's no reason why he can't do a good job and teach his students something that they aren't going to get simply by reading the text. If a student can skip class and still ace the class, the kid is either very bright or the professor is utterly useless. Right? Either way, the kid's wasting his money.

And I know every generation thinks the one coming up after it is weaker and stupider, that's normal. But why would a professor who thinks college kids are dumb turn around and reward the King Of Beers with an A?

The answer is right in the chart and in a book by Allan Bloom that most college professors have read about. When that professor who was 40 in 1986 was back in college in 1966, he was part of a culture that believed there are no "wrong answers, only wrong questions", like "you really think we should we stop shaving?" or "should we listen to something other than CCR?" And meanwhile the rate of As doubled. So now you have to put up your money: if you believe that grade inflation at that time masks/causes a real shallowness of intellect and education, then those students, now professors, simply aren't as smart as they think they are. Unless you also believe that bad 60s music and even worse pot somehow augmented their intellect.

So grade inflation is all "teachers' fault", and it's an important factor contributing to "the system"'s degradation. There is however another factor, that uncoincidentally is also "teachers' fault" at least up to some degree, that is at least as important, namely those damned curricula™.

Curricula have been the center of public debates on education in Romania for a few decades now. I remember being in gymnasium and hearing people whining that "kids nowadays aren't being taught practical stuff" and "why do they have to study integrals, they don't use them for nuthin' anyway"2. It seemed like a big deal for Romanian idiots at the time3, but what they didn't know was that the new "progressive" politics imported from the West was no different from the old "progressive" bullshit. Not only engineers had to be made, but they had to be made faster.

An example of this curricula quackery -- but merely an example, for worry not, the same quackery is nowadays abundant throughout the Western world -- is what Europeans have called the Bologna Process. In Romania this called for a shorter undergraduate academic cycle and faster integration of to-be graduates in the industry, which led to faster specialization, which is what everyone wanted anyway; "IT companies" want more engineers while kids out of high-school wanna become programmers-with-a-diploma4. Meanwhile, square roots are considered useless by the average high schooler, which is how Popescu came to write his La ce imi serveste mie radicalurile ?5:

Cam cel mai abundent loc comun in discutia publica romaneasca, imediat dupa prostia cu "vinde si muta-te la tara", e prostia din titlu.

Cite un nauc nedemn, in sensul cel mai propriu, de-a fi absolvit examenul de maturitate (cel putin daca-l dadea cu mine) simte nevoia sa exprime ideile lui reformist-luminate asupra educatiei : problema cu scoala (in Alejd, in Prahova, in Romania si la rigoare pe Planeta si in Cosmos) este ca nu se studiaza ce trebuie. Se studiaza ce nu trebuie. Nu se studiaza chestii practice, dom'le, chestii care saț fie de folos in viata. La ce imi serveste mie radicalurile ?!

[...]

Pina una alta, fiecare chestie pe care-o inveti iti serveste la aia c-ai invatat-o. Serviciu mai mare nu-ti poate face, daca ajungi sa recunosti c-ai aplicat-o in fapt intr-o circumstanta anumita sau nu foarte putin conteaza : ceea ce inveti te modeleaza, si atita timp cit nu inveti timpenii, chestii inexistente, ca de exemplu "cum sa crezi in Dumnezeu" sau "cum sa-ti faci prieteni" sau "cum sa scrii articole mai bune in cinci pasi simpli" sau "stiintele educatiei" sau "studii feministe" etc scl, atita timp cit nu te indobitocesti cu ideologii, ci inveti, stiinte, nu ai cum sa pagubesti. Si nici nu conteaza pe ce pista alergi, atita timp cit alergi, nu conteaza in care sectiune a bibliotecii sezi, atita timp cit citesti.

And because Romanian Computer Science students generally find control theory to be a difficult subject, and because they mistake difficulty for uselessness, I wrote a slightly controversed piece on the old blog which has the same ring to it. I'll note that I am probably one of the very few young people who even bother considering the more conservative point of view of with respect to this issue, while we've established a few paragraphs above that the older conservatives are soon going to suffer literal rot anyway. So what does this leave me with?

Basically what Popescu is saying is that knowing stuff, preferably stuff written by people smarter than you on a topic that may or may not be of direct interest to you enables you to think and do things that you might otherwise be unable to, for example by giving you access to the more secure, that is, the less permeable aspects of life.

By contrapositive, what I am stating is that one cannot in general discuss a particular subject matter without first gnawing at its fundaments, which is why Latin, control theory and lambda calculi are not just important, but absolutely necessary for linguists, electrical engineers and computer science graduates respectively, but more generally for humans.

In case you're the CEO of an IT company and you're wondering why your job candidates are more and more lacking in basic skills, consider the possibility that it is at least partly your fault. While fungible employees constitute a tempting proposition, hiring people while they're still students will eat up their attention and distract them from understanding the fundamental problems in the very same field as you. Practical skills are necessary, but they're nothing next to the power of force, which is the theoretical bullshit that you don't give a fuck about. If all you want are meșters who cannot think for themselves, then you're doing a pretty job at that. But also venture to guess the long-term costs of hiring idiots instead of letting them finish their studies in order to become less-overspecialized less-idiots.

You might think for example that studying the philosophical meaning of computing is useless, since your employees know what a computer is since we're all using them in our smartwatches and "they don't use them theoretical thingamajiggs for nuthin' anyway". What you, as TLP's profs and the profs that taught them, fail to see is that the notion of computer is in fact rather vague. On one hand we have physical computers which flip bits that are stored as electrical signals, while on the other we have mathematical models which are disconnected from the former, and heavens forbid you try to build a system that tries to break the laws of physics.

I've been looking a lot at operating systems during my master's and PhD studies, so I take some time to look at the OS courses in my department and talk with the people giving the lectures. "Systems" people are generally very pragmatic, but this pragmatism is uncoincidentally also why Systems Software Research Is Irrelevant6. We define operating system processes as abstractions involving "threads of execution" and "memory", while the notion of process predates operating systems by a few centuries; computer programs are running on physical computers, so why not view them as the set of states that the computer-as-a-physical-system goes through? I guess computer scientists are too keen on reinventing the universe.

Since we're discussing semantics, let us consider as an example the meaning of the word "engineer". The word has the same roots as the French "ingénieur"7, i.e. the Latin "ingenium", which describes the notion of intelligence and, quite obviously, ingenuity. Thus engineers are expected to be a sort of elites, highly intelligent who build upon nature to innovate.

This etymological definition is however quite different from today's circular definition of an engineer. People who aspired to the profession of engineer needed to be trained in this sense, so engineering schools were created, so somehow the initial meaning of engineer was perverted to "person who graduates an engineering school".

In other words, the goals and purposes of today's engineering schools are to form individuals who are graduates of engineering schools. I am sure that other professions are nowadays being taught only for their own sake, which is how academia became "a place where papers are published" and the goal of software was reduced to writing more software.

Can we thus state that education has become that proverbial snake swallowing its own tail?

The ouroboros is also a metaphor for fields becoming some sort of bubbles, more akin to (post)-religion than to the earthly trades that we sane humans are used to. While the classical education used a holistic approach where the human was required to grasp philosophy as well as mathematics, theology as well as chemistry, physics as well as music, nowadays' "inter-disciplinary" approaches are seen as some kind of hocus-pocus. If anything else isn't, it is clear that overspecialized curricula are ruining "the system" as we know it.

Consider that many breakthroughs in physics, which in turned spawned breakthroughs in engineering and brought you the computer in front of which sits the average Facebookian on his fat ass, these breakthroughs came about by changes in the underlying mathematics-as-philosophy. You may laugh at Newton for theorizing that photons are spawned by God or some other weird theory, but you most probably have troubles conceptualizing simple particles such as electrons, which are a fundamental part of the fabric of the universe.

Consider also that the DNA that is used by agricultors to serve you food, and not to the next plague of insects, and to keep you from making malformed babies, was discovered after many decades of studying biology and chemistry, and that they essentially represent the computer code which programs you to eat, fuck and learn.

Consider all of this and much, much more before uttering the mind-boggingly stupid "they don't use them for nuthin' anyway". You ain't got much time left to become human before you die, like everything and everyone eventually does.


  1. Because the old partisans educated either by the meanwhile failed Romanian monarchy or by the Soviets eventually died, like everything and everyone eventually does.

  2. "They don't use them for nuthin' anyway", a slightly fancier version of "ain't nobody got time fo' that" and a slightly accurate paraphrase of "la ce-mi servește mie radicalurili", is going to be the leitmotif of this essay. I bet you don't know what a leitmotif is; go bingle it, you fuckin' idiot.

  3. Including yours truly -- but hey, at least I was a young idiot back then, which is sort of an excuse, as people are known to be dumb by nature and in some cases become humans by means of nurture beating hard work. Not everyone survives this particular tar pit.

  4. As opposed to programmers without a diploma, which means more or less the same thing, only without the diploma. A shitty (un)professional remains a shitty (un)professional regardless of the titles given to him by insert random institution here. In other words, your CS degree is useless, news at eleven.

  5. Translation from broken Latin to retarded Newspeak is left as an exercise for the reader.

  6. This is the title of a famous talk (pdf) given by Rob Pike quite a while before Android was a thing.

  7. From which the Romanian "inginer" was also born.