Thursday, February 21, 2013

Importance of a broad education

In The Third Chimpanzee, Jared Diamond writes:
Geography sets ground rules for the evolution, both biological and cultural, of all species, including our own. Geography's role in determining our modern political history is even more obvious than the role I have discussed in determining the rate at which we domesticate plants and animals.  From this perspective, it is almost funny to read that half of all American school children do not know where Panama is, but not at all funny when politicians display comparable ignorance.  Among the many notorious examples of disasters brought on by politicians ignorant of geography, two must suffice: the unnatural boundaries drawn on the map of Africa by nineteenth-century European colonial powers, thereby undermining the stability of some modern African states that inherited those borders; and the borders of Eastern Europe drawn at the Treaty of Versailles in 1919 by politicians who knew little of that region, thereby helping to fuel the Second World War.  
It is a fashion for many people to rubbish subjects that were not of direct use to them later in life. A person working in the IT industry once told me that it would have been nice if he only had to study IT from Std. I. The obvious question that arises is: Who is going to decide that he will be interested in IT later on? He wouldn't have heard of something called IT at his age. Moreover, you cannot do without some subjects no matter what profession you are in. For instance, in IT you will at the very least require basic English and Math.

Often education is taken as a synonym for vocational training. Here is an extreme example from the US. The purpose of education is not just to train people to become cogs in the wheels of commerce (as depicted by  Chaplin in modern Times). It is for people to become thinking citizens who are aware of the ups and downs of civilization. That is why we learn about Shakespeare or the history of Ancient India. I would have cribbed with everyone else when learning History but I am glad I know a little bit about various events so that I am not completely cut out of conversations involving them.

A consequence of ignoring subjects that initially seem boring is explained by  Jennifer Ouellette:
...most of us have no idea what we want to do as a profession as teenagers. We have no idea what knowledge we’ll need. I didn’t even know science writing was an option. By the time we figure that out, more often than not, it’s too late to remedy our lack of background knowledge.
Often we forget the nitty gritties of the various subjects we learnt but  we retain the modes of thinking we imbibed while learning those subjects. When Neil deGraase Tyson was showing the American diplomat, Richard Holbroke around the Hayden Planetarium,  he discovered that the latter had studied Physics in college. When Tyson asked him if his physics training had been useful for him in his diplomatic career. Holbroke replied in the affirmative saying that it had taught him to think logically, quickly separate the wheat from the chaff and arrive at the core of the problem.

In this interview, Neil Shubin stresses the importance of taking a broad mix of courses. (Much of the interview is about fossils which makes it more interesting, don't you think?) His most famous fossil find , Tiktaalik roseae,  was discovered as a result of him stumbling upon the right location while flipping through a geology textbook.

In this talk at Google, Atul Gawande talks of the importance of seeing the scatter plot as well as the dot. If we take the dot as our area of interest and the scatter plot as the wide variety of topics that interest various people, one must not forget the existence of the scatter plot while focusing on the dot of our choice.

Always choosing the utilitarian angle for learning a subject would be a limiting approach. One often hears people ask, Of what use is Geography?' or 'Of what use is Algebra?' long before they realise the use of these subjects. Discussing the oft-asked question, 'Of what use is going to Mars?', Mary Roach says in Packing for Mars:
I could parrot the NASA Public Affairs Office and spit out a long list of products and technologies spawned by aerospace innovations over the decades.  Instead, I defer to the sentiments of Benjamin Franklin. Upon the occasion of history's first manned flights - in the 1780s, aboard  the Montgolfier brothers' hot-air-balloons - someone asked Franklin what use he saw in such frivolity.  "What use," he replied,"is a newborn baby?" 
People mired in poverty may have no option but to concentrate on getting a good job but as Jerry Coyne says, "Those other disciplines aren’t really “ways of knowing,” but they’re ways of experiencing, and to die without that panoply of experience, had it been available to you, is to have lived in vain."It is important to remember that those who have the opportunity are the lucky minority.Education should be of use not only during work but also during leisure. On a practical note, a top executive at Google says, “Quit Your Tech Job and Get a Ph.D. in the Humanities”.

In this video about the reasons for studying philosophy, it is mentioned that the top skills that companies look for in new recruits are 1)written and oral communication skills and 2) critical thinking and analytical reasoning skills. These skills will not be developed by only sticking to a few 'core subjects'.

You can never say how something becomes useful. (Jaya tells me that when she was learning typing, she had never imagined that it would become useful in typing this blog!) On a personal note, a game that I used to play at home when I was a kid back in the middle ages has proved helpful in an unexpected way. In the game, one person would specify a  place or a feature on a map and the other would have to locate it. (Here is a blog about strange maps.)

In many books I read, a map will be given on one page while the matter related to it will be given in subsequent pages. It will be time consuming to convey to the nurse to flip the pages back and forth. I find it easier to memorise the map quickly and refer to memory while reading the subsequent pages. No doubt the game I used  to play as  a child would be helping me.

PS: Talking of geography, Jared Diamond wrote a whole book, Guns, Germs and Steel, about how geography influenced the way various civilizations developed, about why the Spanish conquered the Incas rather than the other way around. Here is a documentary based on the book. He would have had to write a very different book if the land masses were spread out the same way as now - only rotated by an angle of 90 degrees.

PPS: And if you want to have an even longer term view, look at this post.

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