[Israel.pm] Is University Really Necessary?

Shlomi Fish shlomif at iglu.org.il
Sat Mar 24 06:08:53 PDT 2007


Hi Ido!

On Friday 23 March 2007, ik wrote:
> Well, I'm one of the people that never had any collage/university degree.
> Just to let you understand, I tried to learn at the open university
> (here in Israel), but my while my work didn't went bellow 90, my exams
> didn't raised above 30 ...
>

OK. Sorry to hear that. Do you know what were the reasons for you receiving 
such bad grades? You seem like a smart guy, regardless of your other faults.

> However, in my current work place (as one example), I was able in my
> first month to create a program for a customer in a subject I had no
> past knowledge or experience prior to that month.
> After the first month (although I still keep on learning the subject),
> I was able to start and explaining things to others at my work place,
> and understood better what they are talking about.
>
> I try to place my programs (that I do on my "free" time) on the
> Internet as open source projects, so many people can see what I can
> do, so you can see what I'm capable of doing without any proper
> education.

That's a good strategy.

>
> But the problem is that most places are narrow minded, and can't see
> anything, nor decide without a "proper" degree on your hands. I wish
> to remind you that such a degree cost a lot of money, but does not
> give you any real knowledge (yes, it is like anything else, arguable

Well, I felt that studying EE at the Technion gave me a lot of important 
background and knowledge. I understood for exmample, why it is a good to keep 
related information close to each other in memory or on the disk, and many 
other things. I also understood how computers work, down to the 
semiconductors' level, which is pretty useless for most higher-level 
engineers (where "higher"-level is Verilog/VHDL chip design and above) and 
learned a lot of math, computer science, electronics and to a lesser extent 
physics. It was also a very good brain exercise.

Like I said in my original essay:

http://www.shlomifish.org/philosophy/computers/education/opinion-on-the-technion/

The Technion gives one mostly foundations and basic stuff. Or if it does not, 
its material can be a bit out-of-date, at least in regards to things I was 
familiar with. So I believe saying it does not teach you anything is a 
hyperbole, if not a complete overstatement of the case. Maybe it's true to 
Computer Science studies, but it's certainly not the case for Electrical 
Engineering.

One course I was impressed from was "Structure and Interpreation of Computer 
Programs":

http://mitpress.mit.edu/sicp/

It was given by the EE department (not by CS) by a professor who studied in 
MIT. I believe it and its exercises taught good programming and modular 
design, and many elements of programming languages. It's not a good 
introductory course (too abstract and impractical), but it's a good one for 
second semester or afterwards.

>
> :))
>
> Few years ago, I made an experiment that it's result where very scary
> on my hands:
> I gave the same amount of people without any university degree and
> people with a university degree to do the same "task" for a real life
> problem I had, when I wrote a program (using Perl). The result as I
> said where really scary:
>
> The people without any degree had various  solutions for the problem,
> when all of them where written in a very simple way, and wrote
> maintainable code.
>
> All the people with a computer degree solved the problem in the same
> way ! where some of them even asked for directions such as "what am I
> allowed to do, and what am I not allowed to do ?" and few other such
> questions. Where the result ended up as unmaintainable code, that did
> the job, but was inefficient code if I compare it to real life product
> that needs to be maintainable by more then one developer.

Well, I think the problem is that many people arrive at universities without 
proper experience in programming on their own. So they try to digest what the 
university teach them (in a demanding way that requires investing a lot of 
time, and often using the wrong languages, tools and platforms). One of the 
reasons I did not study CS was because I knew that I couldn't become a better 
programmer by going to a university. So it would have just been an excuse to 
learn Mathematics and to get a Bachelor degree so workplaces will like me. If 
I really wanted to learn Math then the Math department would be the way to 
go. Of course, from my experience with it, I don't think I would have 
survived there, with the "work-only-in-singles" and "exams-with-no-material" 
dogmas, which are less common in EE, CS and other engineering degrees.

Perhaps the most enlighetening diploma would be in humane studies like 
philosophy. But this has a repuatation for being the easiest diploma. Law 
also involves a lot of philosophy, but I find it boring, and redundant.

>
> In my opinion the way schools and universities teaches us, is the way
> of "mass production", where you must remember things rather then
> knowing them. 

That's not true for EE in the technion, and I believe neither for CS there. 
People there are required to understand the material. Usually, they can bring 
books, notes and calculators to the exams, and still have to think a lot.

> For example babies learn how to walk by falling all the 
> time, until they learn how to place balance to their feet, but for
> that they need their feet to get longer.
> The same is for eyes. The light arrives to our eyes come upside down,
> that is what existed up, is appearing down, and what is down appears
> above. It's our brain that rotate the image to be straight forward,
> but it does it from trial and error when we are babies.
> And I can continue to give examples for trial and errors such
> learning, but our society is using the "Prussian education system",
> where you must be a robot and remember things, rather then knowing
> them. The education system made the error as something bad, that
> claims that  people that does not understand or remember and make
> mistakes as "stupid" people, that at the end does not deserve to be
> part of the successful society.
>

This reminds me of Feynman's ciritique of the Brazilian Physics education 
system in his book "Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman":

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Surely_You're_Joking,_Mr._Feynman!

Basically he said the books tought a lot of statements, which the students 
learned by heart (very well) but were completely unable to do anything with. 
He compared it with an educated Greek man, who grew up in Greek, where 
everyone study Ancient Greek and literature and nobody takes it seriously, to 
a place where Greek is holy. He asks a student to tell him what Socrates said 
about democracy, and the student is unable to tell him. Then he asks him to 
say the part where he said it and the student recites it in beautiful Greek.
[1]

I disagree with what you say that pure trial and error is the best way to 
learn when being more mature. I'd had to learn about self-balancing binary 
trees, hashes and other data structures, and an algorithm I came by myself 
for topological sort (or package depenedncy resolution) was shown in class a 
week later, but turned out to have a more efficient alternative. Or at high 
school I thought of a sorting algorithm and thought of insertion sort, 
instead of Quick Sort, Merge Sort or Heap Sort. As one of Nadav's signatures 
read: "Always learn from other people's mistakes. You won't have time to do 
them all yourself.". You can learn a lot from existing CS, Math and Physics 
literature.

If you invent your own wheel, you'll understand much better how a wheel works, 
and may have a slim chance of inventing a better wheel. But you may also 
invent a square wheel. So I suggest you try to think of a programming problem 
yourself, and then try to ask around or research it.

> Well I'm one of these people that the education system thinks that
> they can't read or write (not to talk about the fact that I know 4
> human languages that most of them I learned on my own).

Maybe it was just the open university. Perhaps you'd like the Technion better.

>
> So how employers can know if someone is good for work for them ? If
> you ask this question, then you don't believe in the power of open
> source.
> People that work on their own time in the subject that they suppose to
> work at, are much better candidate then the one's that only expect
> that a diploma/degree will open them a door.
> If you will look at people that do wish to learn and expand their
> minds into additional knowledge as better candidates as people that
> are close minded. So please update the way you look at things, and you
> will find a new world.
>

I agree and said so in the original article:

http://www.shlomifish.org/philosophy/computers/education/opinion-on-the-technion/

Some people who did not go to university eventually earn enough expertise and 
prestige, to become successful enterpreneurs, consultants/contractors, etc. A 
good example is Randal L. Schwartz, who is the author of several Perl books, 
a Perl contributor, and who I think know Perl (and Perl technologies much 
more so) better than Larry Wall, and knows UNIX inside and out:

http://www.stonehenge.com/merlyn/

However, many people also regret not going to university to get a degree. And 
if you want to work in a large Research Department, you normally need a 
Ph.D., and from what I know, from very good reasons.

A Technion graduate in Electrical Engineering with an average of 70% (very 
low) is well and above the average intelligence. You cannot survive there 
without being exceptionally bright. 

One of my roommates, was very fond of logic and math riddles and was quite 
good at it ("That's what kept me through the army."), but he still found the 
studies from the third semester onward too hard. And I told him it doesn't 
get much easier. So he was bright and intelligent, but again had an issue, 
that made him unsuitable there. He may actually make a very good programmer 
or Electrical Engineer, but he won't be a Technion graduate, at least not 
probably without making himself more prepared somehow. I don't believe in 
Fatalism.

Regards,

	Shlomi Fish

> Ido
>

[1] - I often feel the same about Bible studies in Israel vs. in many 
Christian countries or by non-Israeli Jews who don't understand Hebrew. 
Israelis Jews study the Bible in its original language and writing, for 10 or 
so years, and are heavily exposed to it in the culture and literature. And we 
still speak a very similar language on a day to day basis.

Recently, a Christian British correspondant I talked with about King David 
asked if it was he who killed Goliath or it was Samson. And the "David vs. 
Goliath" paradigm is present in English as well. I have yet to see a 
translation of the Bible to English that does not mutilate it completely. 
Don't take me wrong - even a translation of the Bible to contemporary Hebrew 
will lose most of the beauty. And I've seen some good Hebrew->English or vice 
versa translations.

One of the themes on my blog is discussing the Bible, Hebrew, and Arabic and 
debunking some myths.

---------------------------------------------------------------------
Shlomi Fish      shlomif at iglu.org.il
Homepage:        http://www.shlomifish.org/

If it's not in my E-mail it doesn't happen. And if my E-mail is saying
one thing, and everything else says something else - E-mail will conquer.
    -- An Israeli Linuxer



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