Over the past few years I have grown increasingly cynical with the value of formalized education, especially that of college undergraduate education in technical fields. This has largely to do with my experiences working in tech where I find that although some people with high calibre educations deliver on expectations, many do not. My lack of specific schooling in the field I am working on, in my experience, has at times been an asset and has rarely been a detriment. When it has been a detriment, I could definitely make up for it in other ways. My lack of in-depth understanding of machine learning techniques could at minimum be brought up to an undergraduate level via the numerous online learning opportunities, assuming I had motivation. This is a key point, as I’ll revisit later.

Recently I’ve also been trying to learn Chinese. It’s not something I expected to do and I certainly expect it to take quite some time, but it’s been engaging, difficult, not related to my job, and it has substantial returns. It’s going to take me quite some time to know enough characters and their meanings (both English, and their phonetic pronunciations) for me to be able to make sense of most anything. That being said, once I get to that level I should be able to follow through and acquire the language. With the huge quantity of online materials available in this day and age, nothing besides my own motivation and consistency will stop me from making substantial progress.

My experience with education up to an undergraduate level is there will always be more to learn. A course is never complete and there is always content beyond that which is directly taught by the instructor. Any of these courses should give one enough of a foothold to learn further and engage with the material. One would hope these courses would force participants to this level, atlhough this is far from being a given.

When learning any given topic there will be both intrinsic and extrinsic values. I find wide varieties of topics to be interesting, and once I have enough knowledge to be capable and involved I get great intrinsic motivation out of the field. But to get there is oftentimes difficult, and the work involved may be arduous. Here, in general, formalized education can play a role essentially forcing significant extrinsic pressures on one to complete a certain amount of study to a certain standard.

In my own situation I was forced to learn Spanish to a standard at which I could engage with the language, if only roughly. Now I am aware enough of the space to be able to engage further, albeit imperfectly. I could pick up a Spanish novel and read, requiring only minimal further help from a dictionary. My goal is to get my Chinese to this level, but this will not be a trivial thing to do.

I could certainly see a future where this is explicitly the point of education: to deliver an individual to the point where they are able to truly engage in the subject matter. Whether it be History (relatively low baseline barrier to entry) to Chinese or Machine learning (both of which require substantial training, some of which may have to be entirely extrinsically motivated), this model seems to have some truth in many situations.

But perhaps this is far too optimistic a view of the intrinsic drive of humanity to learn. Regardless, I’ll be here aiming to gain a foothold in Chinese, and perhaps exploit mine in Spanish!