Useless knowledge; why people resist education improvement

post by Andrew Vlahos (andrew-vlahos) · 2021-02-26T03:43:03.794Z · LW · GW · 22 comments

I was a physics major, but there were still some general education courses that were required. Although a few had some useful information, most of them were worthless. I went to the first few classes, and if I found that they contained no useful information, I would not read the books or go to the lectures except when needed. One of these courses was called “Survey of the Arts.”

For my midterm essay, I argued that art movements typically have patterns opposing societal change, such as the “Romanticism” art movement standing against increasing industrialization and a decreasing sense of individual dignity.

For my final essay, I argued that art movements typically have patterns reflecting societal change, such as the “Realism” art movement being caused by increasing industrialization and a decreasing sense of individual dignity.

I got good grades on both.

Most of you, just from reading this description, would immediately see some of the problems with this course. The standards of claims are so weak that you can say "most art movements have trends opposite to society's" and "most art movements have trends in the same direction as society" and have both be considered true. (You're already past 100%, and now what do you do when you find a trend unconnected to society?). Many of the things taught are empty labels that neither help predict [? · GW]future trends nor help students make better art themselves. There were a lot more problems with the course than what I said, but this is a good start.

This post isn't just venting off steam, though. The point is to show the mindset of why this persists. Consider the comments that appeared when I posted this story here. They were brutal. 

There were a few common threads though. One is that people thought that rejecting these courses means that I am a total bore who has no interest in learning anything except STEM. Another is that people complained about STEM elitism. Most tellingly, however, is that a lot of them said "look, the poster did learn something! They practiced building strong arguments and things like that" or "There's no such thing as useless knowledge". Putting aside for the moment the fact that much of the information is redundant such as creating an argument, explaining why this is wrong seems worthwhile.

My mom has read dozens of books about racism. She follows blogs about it and regularly has meetings with like-minded people discussing it. She reads lots of "subversive literature" (that has no chance to change her beliefs). Is the result of this clear understanding of racial issues? No. She supports affirmative action even though she had a terrible black professor in the past who the other faculty admitted only wasn't fired because it would look racist. She says "Everyone has internalized racism," and talks about stages of racism awareness. I pointed out that there was a black student in elementary school and I didn't think of him as different or separate in any way, and it didn't occur to me that he was different, and she still continues to say these. The additional benefit gained from each marginal book on the topic at this point (the kind she would choose at least) is about zero. Reading about other topics or volunteering would be far better.(some people had a good point about how this isn't a strong example. I also found a far stronger example about this, I'll describe it at the end).

Philosophy books are not a good source of information. It's painfully obvious that Plato knew nothing of psychology or economics when writing his republic, and didn't benefit from viewing a variety of social systems. Aristotle's logic was okay for the middle ages, but after knowing Renaissance and later ideas about logic, there really isn't much point to studying inferior ones. More modern, history-and-science-informed philosophers can be better, but those aren't the ones usually taught in classes. Sociology can be better but often wasn't. Almost every (not all) sociology and history class "taught" the same US racial and social justice problems that were already noticed by anyone who payed attention in any other middle school, high school, or college class, or someone who just pays attention to society. They also didn't teach skills needed to avoid reforms that do more harm than good (there were quite a lot of communists in the more advanced humanities classes at UCSC), remind anyone that non-whites also did genocide and slavery, or mention hindsight bias. They rarely even taught history that didn't involve the U.S.

In a couple classes the teachers had tenure and beliefs so crazy that strawmen seem sane by comparison. Yet no matter how bad the professors were, my parents kept buying my textbooks and telling me to go to all the classes I could and pay attention. (Once I went to college I was glad to finally be able to choose whether to go or not). Even when I pointed out that the art class professor sometimes uses Freudian interpretations of works of art as if it was the correct one, they said that even if the professor's wrong sometimes he can still have important things to say. Based on the comments I got when I posted the story on another website (link above), this is the common response.

Of course, some humanities classes were much better. I've had great teachers who clearly had worthwhile information that I would have been unlikely to find on my own. My point is that most people are unwilling to acknowledge these problems in most courses, and this is because of the mindset that learning is always worthwhile, and rejecting one source of knowledge makes people worse off no matter what it is.

 

(Additional comment: this view would be a bit more controversial among lesswrong users, but I believe that this also applies to some math courses. Everyone should be taught formal logic, budgeting, probability, and data analysis (and other things), but for most people calculus and matrix math really isn't needed. This isn't just my intuition; this poster shows where each math topic is used, and most of the advanced topics are only used by very math-heavy jobs like architect, physicist and programmer. It would make more sense to teach these topics only to people with some interest in them, and provide more directly job-related skills to others.)

 

 

 

 

Addendum: My stronger example for the racism issue was found on one of Scott Alexander's posts. "Five million people participated in the #BlackLivesMatter Twitter campaign. Suppose that solely as a result of this campaign, no currently-serving police officer ever harms an unarmed black person ever again. That’s 100 lives saved per year times let’s say twenty years left in the average officer’s career, for a total of 2000 lives saved, or 1/2500th of a life saved per campaign participant. By coincidence, 1/2500th of a life saved happens to be what you get when you donate $1 to the Against Malaria Foundation. The round-trip bus fare people used to make it to their #BlackLivesMatter protests could have saved ten times as many black lives as the protests themselves, even given completely ridiculous overestimates of the protests’ efficacy." I had a vague sense that reading about the topics and informing people, like she was doing, was very inefficient, but I didn't realize how useless it was until someone did the math.

22 comments

Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by maximkazhenkov · 2021-02-26T18:52:37.454Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Downvoted for bringing political content to Lesswrong. Even though I'm inclined to agree with lots of points mentioned in the post, it's more important to nip bad trends in the bud. There is a dangerous tendency for social media platforms to degrade into cesspools of political battlegrounds; I've witnessed it before and would prefer not to witness it again here.

comment by panoptical · 2021-02-26T19:21:51.431Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Teacher here: you're conflating course content with assessment, which is a mistake - the two are logically independent.

I assume the purpose of a course called "Survey of the Arts" is to get you to learn some content - that is, some set of facts about art movements.  Because it's a survey course it should be broad general knowledge.  Survey courses often exist to allow students to dabble enough in a subject to see if they're interested in any particular field.  I did a linguistics survey class and discovered I was really interested in sociolinguistics and not very interested in phonetics.  That in itself was useful.

The purpose of an assessment is to measure how much content you learned.  A common assessment strategy is to try to take a sample of your knowledge.  A paper can be a good sample of your knowledge even if you use your knowledge to make a bad argument - the Survey of the Arts class might not consider "making a good argument" to be a course goal.

Also, even if an assessment is bad, or if the task is assessed poorly, that doesn't make the knowledge you gained from the course useless.

Replies from: daniel-tilkin
comment by Daniel Tilkin (daniel-tilkin) · 2021-02-27T20:00:35.329Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Yeah, you can replace "typically" with "often" in both papers, and there's no problem. And presumably his paper didn't actually do the sort of broad analysis you'd need to argue that something held in the majority of cases. So the issue is that the student wasn't being logically rigorous and precise, and the teacher didn't mark down or comment on that. But that really isn't the point of the course.

comment by abramdemski · 2021-02-26T16:19:03.670Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Welcome to LessWrong! I think the other commenters are being a bit harsh to a first-time poster ;p though perhaps you wouldn't have it any other way, given your subject matter. So I just want to say that I agree with your overall message; lots of university courses have poor epistemic standards. But then, lots of society has poor epistemic standards, so is this a real surprise?

Additional comment: this view would be a bit more controversial among lesswrong users, but I believe that this also applies to some math courses. Everyone should be taught formal logic, budgeting, probability, and data analysis (and other things), but for most people calculus and matrix math really isn’t needed.

I agree wrt prioritization of math topics, but this is a lot different from the topic of most of your post, which is accuracy. I don't find this kind of not-commonly-useful argument to be much of a strike against a class. Because if you do take those classes, then you can do those technical jobs (at least, if you get far enough).

Too often it's the kid in math class complaining "this will never be useful to me". It's too easy of an out. If you were training an RL system, you would just put it straight to work and have it do the actual thing it needs to learn thousands of times. But humans get a lot of benefit from broad knowledge, including preparedness for unexpected situations, and having analogies to work from. If you want to do really innovative work, it pays to learn a lot of individually "useless" stuff. (If you don't want to do really innovative work, OK, sure.)

If someone were approaching school with an attitude of getting as much out of it as possible, it seems like they'd want to identify skills to level up (EG they might identify art history as not being a skill to level up), and then grind those skills as much as they can. Any of those proficiencies, once you grind enough, becomes a marketable skill. (Even if you make an economically poor choice, like law or art, there will be ways to succeed, and potential applications beyond getting a job. Not that I'm recommending making economically poor choices.)

It seems better to have an attitude of collecting as many of those as possible, rather than as little as possible. So long as you're at school anyway.

Replies from: rudi-c
comment by Rudi C (rudi-c) · 2021-02-27T00:35:24.168Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

This ignores the opportunity costs, and just assumes the problem. The OP is arguing for reform, not questioning the mainstream strategy of success for an individual. A smart person can be, e.g., a productive programmer with a middle-school level of math, and two to four years of programming training (i.e., basics of a programming language, data structures and algorithms, and lots of hands-on toy projects). Doing “really innovative work” also might not be efficient either at the individual level or even the societal one. There are lots of normal work to be done.

The problem is more than mere epistemics as well; Most rigorous courses teach few useful skills. Most of what one learns is forgotten when not actively used.

comment by gjm · 2021-02-26T04:43:43.792Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Forgive me for my bluntness, but if you think that "affirmative action must be a bad thing, because my mother once had an incompetent black professor" and "it can't be true that everyone has internalized racism, because I once went to the same elementary school as one black person and I don't remember thinking of them as different" are good arguments, and that if someone's read a bunch of books about racism but doesn't consider their contents refuted by these two anecdotes then that shows that they haven't learned anything of value ... then I'm not sure it's your mother who's most conspicuously failing to think clearly about racism.

Replies from: andrew-vlahos
comment by Andrew Vlahos (andrew-vlahos) · 2021-02-26T06:54:09.821Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I didn't say that she learned nothing of value, I said that the marginal value of reading additional books at this point is close to zero. The first few books were probably different. Also, one incompetent professor isn't close to the only reason I have for opposing affirmative action. Finally, I didn't simply "not think of them as different", I didn't even have the mindset to understand the argument that he was when I first heard it, which is clear evidence against the claim that "every white person has internalized racism against black people and these are the stages of racism awareness". One paragraph is not my entire mindset.

Replies from: gjm
comment by gjm · 2021-02-26T14:08:11.057Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Well, unless I'm entirely misunderstanding you, both of those arguments are of the form "despite reading all those books she still holds these obviously wrong opinions", so I don't see how they do any good if you aren't arguing something pretty close to "she hasn't learned anything of value". And you did say, in so many words, "Is the result of this clear understanding of racial issues? No."

So I will plead guilty to overstating the case a little at that point: you aren't necessarily saying she's learned nothing of value. But you are explicitly saying that reading those books has failed to give her a clear understanding of racial issues, and your evidence for that is the aforementioned two arguments from dubious n=1 anecdotes.

I didn't claim that you have no other reasons for opposing affirmative action, nor that one white person not being aware of any internalized racism in themselves-in-elementary-school isn't any evidence against the idea that every white person has internalized racism awareness. I do claim, though,

  • that your n=1 anecdote about one bad professor is very weak evidence that affirmative action is bad (primarily because it's perfectly possible for something to have some bad consequences, while still being a Good Thing overall, though there are other reasons too)
  • that your n=1 anecdote about your own attitude to the one black student who was apparently at your elementary school is very weak evidence against the proposition that all white people have internalized anti-black racism (primarily because surely the point of this "internalized racism" idea is that one can have internalized racism without knowing it, and I remark that elementary-school pupils are not noted for their infallible self-awareness, though again there are other reasons too)

(For the avoidance of doubt, I am not claiming that affirmative action is in fact a good idea, or that all white people do in fact have internalized racism; nor am I claiming the reverse of either of those. I'm saying that you are presenting things are knockdown arguments against them that are very, very far from being knockdown arguments.)

On that second issue, you say "I didn't even have the mindset to understand the argument that he was [different] when I first heard it". Do you actually think that when people say things like "all white people have internalized racism" they mean that all white people have heard arguments for racism and been convinced by them? Because I'm pretty sure they don't mean anything even slightly like that. The idea is more like this:

  • Almost everyone has (innately; it's not something they need to learn, contra South Pacific) an inclination to be a bit suspicious and mistrustful of people who look different from the people they're already familiar and friendly with. So white people will tend to have negative attitudes to black people, and black people will tend to have negative attitudes to white people.

and maybe this:

  • Our language, and indeed our thought, is full of metaphors (e.g., the word "full" earlier in this very sentence). We have lots of metaphors that equate light with insight, truth, goodness, and the like and darkness with the opposite (perhaps because our ancestors were safer in the (literal) light than in the (literal) darkness). This spills over into our attitudes to lighter and darker coloured things and, alas, people. So both white and black people will tend to have negative attitudes to black people.

(That second one sounds pretty far-fetched, but whatever the mechanism there is actually some evidence for its conclusion, though I personally don't find it very convincing. E.g., "implicit-association tests", which among other things attempt to identify unconscious associations between race and other things, find that ~70% of white people "prefer" white people to black, but black people "prefer" white and black people roughly equally often, which suggests a combination of prefer-your-own-group and prefer-whites.)

Once again, I am not claiming that "all white people have internalized racism" is true. (My guess is that it probably isn't, even if you take "all" to mean "almost all" which you probably should because scarcely anything interesting is true of literally all people in any interesting category[1].) But, true or false, the kind of thing it says is not refuted by saying "five-year-old me can't have had internalized racism because five-year-old-me didn't have the mindset to understand the argument for being racist" (or "the argument" for thinking black people are any different from white people) because these claims are not about arguments at all, they are not about conscious thoughts at all, and people are extremely capable of having attitudes that aren't justified by, or derived from, any argument they have heard.

[1] You can jury-rig counterexamples; e.g., tautologies like "literally all Christians are Christians", or coincidences when the category happens to be extremely small, or maaaaybe "universal" features like shivering when cold (though actually I bet most of those don't actually quite work because of people with very rare mutations, diseases, injuries, etc.). But in general, if you make a statement of the form "literally all A-people are B" it's almost certain to be false unless it's some kind of triviality.

Replies from: andrew-vlahos
comment by Andrew Vlahos (andrew-vlahos) · 2021-02-26T22:30:38.955Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Thanks for your well explained response! I'll keep your reasons in mind for future posts.

Replies from: rudi-c
comment by Rudi C (rudi-c) · 2021-02-27T00:42:58.369Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I suggest you don’t include such unrelated politics in your posts at all. They actively detract from the main issues under discussion, and prime people for tribalist attitudes. Make a separate post about racism if you want, but don’t use it as an offhand example for a post on education.

comment by Donald Hobson (donald-hobson) · 2021-02-26T20:47:14.991Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Suppose you are a maths teacher and give the students an assignment of proving or disproving X. 

One student rights what appears to be a proof of X. You have looked over it closely and can't find any mistakes. Another student has written what appears to be a proof of not X. Again you can't find any flaws. A few students have handed in nothing or rubbish Some have just asserted X or not X without proof.

You have no higher authority to appeal to. You don't know whether X is true or false yourself. If you use your weak personal suspicion that X is slightly more likely to be true than false, the class plays a game of guess the teacher. The best you can do is to pass the student who "proved" X and the one who proved not X. A perfect mathematician would pass. A rock or coin toss would fail. 

Replies from: rudi-c
comment by Rudi C (rudi-c) · 2021-02-27T00:48:13.500Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

You would have given your students what is called an “open problem,” and students will tell everyone to never take your courses. 

comment by AspiringRationalist · 2021-02-27T17:31:09.860Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Do you have a link to a higher resolution copy of that poster? The text is too blurry for me to read.

Replies from: andrew-vlahos
comment by Andrew Vlahos (andrew-vlahos) · 2021-02-27T23:00:52.309Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Sorry, that was the biggest I could find

comment by alexgieg · 2021-02-26T20:31:53.193Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

In regards to Plato and Aristotle, they're taught because they're foundational. They provided the initial points and counterpoints to almost all, if not literally all, Philosophical fields, to the point many consider everything ever wrote by any Philosopher as comments for, against, or overcoming something either posited. Hence, if you don't know them, and proceed to more recent Philosophers, you end up missing a lot of the context upon which their more modern arguments are based, as well as risk failing to understand the criticisms levied against these arguments which in turn are based on alternate update path tracking back to either Plato or Aristotle.

For an analogy then, we might say Plato and Aristotle correspond respectively to the arithmetic and geometry of Philosophy. And then Descartes to its algebra, Kant to its calculus, and Hegel to its hyperbolic geometries. Everything is built atop one or more of these five, and requires knowing their ideas to be properly understood, which is why one's expected to have at least some familiarity, if not with all of them, with their core ideas, in this same order of relevance.

PS: "The Republic" isn't a proposal for an actual system of government, it's an analogy for the internal working of a person's psyche according what was known at the time. It uses the analogy of the individual psyche as a city and of different public roles for different mental functions, somewhat akin to what the animated movie "Inside Out" did. If you're interested in Plato's actual political philosophy the book to read is "The Laws", in which he discusses different systems of laws, with a particular focus on the pros, cons, and differences between the Athenian and Spartan systems, and considerations on how to construct sets of laws for polities.

Replies from: Mo Nastri, TAG
comment by Mo Nastri · 2021-02-28T13:03:18.265Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

As a footnote to your comment, there's Scott Alexander's Read History of Philosophy Backwards (example: What the Hell, Hegel?).

comment by TAG · 2021-02-27T05:08:21.372Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Foundational means more than one thing. Platos writings may be foundational to the western tradition as it turned out, but that does not make them into something analogous to mathematical axioms that must ground ant possible version not philosophy.

Replies from: alexgieg
comment by alexgieg · 2021-02-27T12:56:10.805Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'm confused by this reply. I said that much in my first paragraph, and I provided the second as an analogy to better illustrate the first. I even said as much, informing at its opening it's an analogy.

In any case, you draw an important point. Philosophy isn't a set of axioms, and in fact doesn't have one. Rather, it's a set of problems. Philosophers, specially the major ones, ask questions no one asked before, and then try to answer them, in the process drawing even more questions. Since they're usually the very first person to have asked that question, the answer they tentatively provide to their own question is a prototype solution, the very first attempt at solving a problem no one even knew was a problem until then, which usually makes of them bad answers. But irrespective of their answers being bad or (rarely) good, the questions themselves remain, continuously prompting new and more refined answers. Until, eventually, sometimes, an actual definite answer is reached. But that takes centuries, or even millennia.

Sometimes the Philosopher is running out of time and doesn't even try to answer their questions, they just write them down for posterity. As in many other things, Aristotle is also the very first case of this. He wrote a book composed entirely of questions he was curious about but had no idea whatsoever how to answer. It took the development of the modern scientific method, itself based directly and indirectly on many of the ideas he developed, for those to begin being answered, and even so it still took the development of modern biology, and then that of the modern evolutionary synthesis, for many of those questions of his to be answered for real. I've seen an estimate that so far about 20% of this book was answered. Give it a few more centuries and the remaining 80% will be too. Probably.

So, it's in this sense these five philosophers are foundational: in the proper sense of Philosophy being about the questions. Their questions build upon each other, prompting new tentative solutions, which in turn prompt new questions, and so on and so forth, in a process through which every new generation of philosophers and non-philosophers alike try all over again to answer them, both the old questions as well as the newly developed ones.

PS: By the way, it'd be extremely weird for anyone to consider Plato and Aristotle "axiomatic" given they provide diametrically opposed answers whenever they answer the same question. Whatever one affirms, the other denies, and the other way around. I doubt anyone would be able to draw, taking both together, any shared belief between them, much less any agreed-upon axiom.

comment by Ericf · 2021-02-26T05:32:25.079Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Although a few had some useful information, most of them were worthless

That looks like fallacy of the excluded middle?

Most of college has never been about providing information to students. It's always been about

  1. Teaching how to get information (research, paying attention)
  2. Teaching how to understand and interact with an authority figure
  3. Interacting with other young adults to network. (Common courses give you something to small talk about with other humans)
  4. Teaching a few specific things that you will use later.
Replies from: andrew-vlahos, TAG
comment by Andrew Vlahos (andrew-vlahos) · 2021-02-26T07:04:16.410Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Really? That's your argument? Do you really think people wouldn't have small talk topics or understand authority figures or learn anything without these classes? If after reading this [? · GW], you still think those courses are essential to learning those skills, let alone teach them efficiently, I eagerly await your reply to this.

Replies from: Ericf
comment by Ericf · 2021-02-26T18:20:30.539Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'm not saying there are no alternatives to college for learning those - I'm sharing that college was designed as one way to provide those.

comment by TAG · 2021-02-26T23:43:19.315Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

What happened to critical thinking?