On On Leaving Academia

Several people in my influencesphere have linked to this essay by a CS prof who’s leaving academia to join Google in order to “make a positive difference in the world.” I am, of course, wholly supportive of such a program, if not of his precise rationale, which is a mish-mash of ranting about wicked Republicans and wild-eyed idealism about the Academy.

What interests me most about his essay is the section entitled “Mass Production Of Education”, which is misguided in all the ways you’d expect from someone steeped in the culture of “bespoke” education. It lists three “worries”:

First, I worry that mass-production here will have the same effect that it has had on manufacturing for over two centuries: administrators and regents, eager to save money, will push for ever larger remote classes and fewer faculty to teach them.

Said differently, technologies that allow fewer faculty to teach the same number of students will allow universities to operate with fewer faculty. Let’s call this worry “Luddism“. I love a good loom-smashing as much as the next guy, but it’s sort of hard to take seriously a preference for the 19th-century manufacturing regime.

It seems likely that in a hundred years our grandchildren and those of us who’ve successfully been cryonically revived will share a laugh about how “education” used to involve crowding people into a room and making them sit still while someone stood up front and lectured at them. And then someone will brain-cast a ludicrous hyper-essay about how 4-D printing is democratizing the singularity, pining for the good old days of 3-D printing. And so on.

Second, I suspect that the “winners win” cycle will distort academia the same way that it has industry and society. When freed of constraints of distance and tuition, why wouldn’t every student choose a Stanford or MIT education over, say, UNM?

Said differently (and with apologies to UNM, which I’m sure is a fine school), if every student has access to cheap, high-quality education, few of them will choose to pursue a low-quality education. It is easy to see how purveyors of low-quality education might worry about this, but it’s hard to imagine why anyone else should.

Are we approaching a day in which there is only one professor of computer science for the whole US?

Seems pretty unlikely, but if we were that would be awesome because it would free up all the other computer science Ph.D.s, many of whom are brilliant, to do other stuff (like building Groupon and Pinterest clones)! This would be sad for the ones who really, really, really want to be teachers, but on balance it would be a huge win for the world.

Third, and finally, this trend threatens to kill some of what is most valuable about the academic experience, to both students and teachers. At the most fundamental level, education happens between individuals — a personal connection, however long or short, between mentor and student.

I have no idea how to say this differently, so I won’t try. Having been a teacher, I agree that the most rewarding moments happened between individuals. (Particularly when one of the individuals was the cute goth freshman girl who aced all the quizzes but still came to office hours.) Were those the most valuable parts of the teaching experience? Less clear. What’s more clear is that what was/is most valuable about my experience as a student was/is learning stuff. And these days most of what I know that’s useful I’ve learned from books or doing or even Coursera, not from the academy. I’ve broadened my horizons by pleasure reading, by arguing on LiveJournal, by discussions with peers on geek hikes far more than I ever did through school. With very few exceptions, my most profound intellectual connections have been with people I met outside of the school system.

It resonates at levels far deeper than the mere conveyance of information — it teaches us how to be social together and sets role models of what it is to perform in a field, to think rigorously, to be professional, and to be intellectually mature.

I suspect you have to have spent your whole life in academia to seriously assert that “the human connection in education” is the only path to these things, or even the easiest path to these things. College taught me how to play the same juvenile bulshytt status games we played in high school but at a slightly higher level. College professors were (sometimes) great role models for how to behave if you ever became a college professor, but not for much else. The levels of professionality and intellectual maturity I experienced in the academy were certainly no greater than I’ve experienced in the real world. I will freely admit to learning rigor (some would say too much rigor) while studying mathematics, which primed me to recognize the lack of rigor in so many other fields.

I am terribly afraid that our efforts to democratize the process will kill this human connection and sterilize one of the most joyful facets of this thousand-year-old institution.

Said differently, “we fear change”. Hopefully at Google he’ll learn to stop saying “democratize”, and maybe he’ll even meet a Republican or two. There must be one or two Republicans at Google, right?

3 thoughts on “On On Leaving Academia

  1. Andrew B

    Why would someone who fears the democratization of technology go work at Google? That seems counter-productive…well, no, not if his goal is to made fat stacks of cash while espousing feel good rhetoric…but I mean, it would seem that way if he wasn’t a greedy liar.

  2. William Sullivan

    It says something that someone who loved academia but couldn’t handle its fast-paced changes sought refuge at Google. Will Google start closing products when its engineering team gives it a no-confidence vote?

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