After Class Is Over
I recently spoke with some kids from a high school with an impressive engineering curriculum. Classes in mechanical, electrical, biological, and software engineering—the mind boggles! I told them my (enormously contrasting) story: how my high school had no engineering curriculum at all, a math and science curriculum by name only; how I couldn’t find any adult engineering mentors in my area; how I had to learn it all myself from books and the internet.
At this point, I think they expected me to launch into some kind of school spirit speech: “and you all are so lucky; cherish what you have here, and when it seems boring, just remember that some people would kill to have these resources; etc.” Please don’t misunderstand me—these kids are lucky!—but I had a different message in mind.
I pointed out their wonderful bio-engineering class and earned raised eyebrows when I noted that they were learning ideas in that class which had only been known for a few years. I asked the kids how they thought their teachers learned those ideas if not from their own schools.
I told them about how much my own field has changed since I started learning it, how even if I had engineering classes in my high school, many of the skills I’d have acquired would now be irrelevant. Worse—how I’d watched exactly that irrelevance befall peers who’d learned their trade then felt they were finished learning once they’d graduated or added “senior” or “chief” to their job titles.
But, I told them, there’s a way out: the long-term defense against obsolescence in the face of progress is to never stop learning.
A software engineer friend of mine is about to finish his undergraduate education, but he told me he planned to get a master’s degree. I was surprised to learn that: he seemed to enjoy his internships far more than his time in school. Why would he choose to stay in school?
He explained that he didn’t really want to stay in school, but he felt like he needed to: my friend suspected that all good software engineers would need to know machine learning in a few years. He wanted to be competitive with them, so he planned to get a master’s degree specializing in machine learning.
I was sure the program he liked would teach him effectively, but I asked him why he didn’t think he could teach himself that subject instead and save the money. His confession: he feared he wouldn’t have the will-power to make himself study in the “real world.”
That’s a reasonable fear! But I followed up: what would happen when, in fifteen years, a new subfield emerges which all good software engineers must understand? Would he quit his job and get another master’s degree?
My conversation with those kids about bio-engineering continued from that last point.
They’d concluded that their teachers must have learned the subject from books. Fine, so: “Where did the books’ authors learn the subject?” Some consternation now! (I swear I maintained my composure when one girl exclaimed “from God!”) The kids finally landed on “they learned it from themselves!”
Yes! But why stop with a defense against obsolescence in the face of progress? After all, the best defense is a good offense.
That obsolescence-causing progress has many faces, really. It’s not just the researchers and academics who automate away your job or change society’s expectations: what about the progress in our consumption of natural resources? The progress of time obsoletes your knowledge by physically destroying it! For now, anyway.
The obsolescence-causing progress created by humans feeds our defense against the obsolescence-causing progress created by nature, but right now, we’re outnumbered. The overwhelming majority of our population essentially stops learning at age twenty. In my mind, that’s the first thing we must learn to change.