Wednesday, 24 May 2006

Uni blues

Forgive me for blogging about Scientific American articles again. It just happens that I now have the habit of reading a article of theirs over lunch, and they just happen to have some interesting articles.

The first article I want to mention is pretty straight forward. A relatively long article on Alzheimer, I was expecting it to be dead boring and full of scientific lingo that would be too complicated for this idiot to digest while eating his tuna.
I was surprised. Not that I can attest to have understood it to the point, but it turned out to be quite a fascinating overview of the disease, its cause (at the molecular level), techniques to fight it, high risk indicators, and other interesting relating facts such as the statistically proven reduced risk of catching this disease if one happens to consume anti cholesterol medicine.
All I am trying to say here is that this supposedly dry topic was very interestingly conveyed. It's all about the presentation, and this one was excellent. Where was this guy when I did uni?

The second article was a rather funny historical overview of the slide rule - that tool used by engineers and scientist before the age of the pocket calculator or the Excel spread-shit.
Unlike the Alzheimer article this was not the type of article that expanded your horizons that much, but it did make me reflect back on my uni days yet again.
During our 3rd year in uni, we had this course on Control Systems. Basically, it was about applied electronics: the design of systems to control, say, the guidance system of a missile (a rather exotic example, but also a real life example for our lecturer who came from the "defense" industry; don't forget I'm talking about Israel in here).
The funny thing was that our lecturer was rather old fashioned and kept saying "use your slide rule to calculate that" when none of us has ever used one but most of us had pretty sophisticated (even by today's standards) HP48 scientific calculators.
Before the final exam, Yuval, my dearly beloved uni companion, wrote this program on the HP48 that did ALL the calculations required for the test. You didn't need to think at all - just follow the program. Everyone got to use this program, and the lecturer managed to pick it up, asking us to put the calculations down on the test forms.
Not to be beaten, Yuval wrote a program that provided us with the middle of the way calculations, too.
At the test itself I didn't know a thing about Control Systems. I couldn't be bothered - it was as interesting as the political agenda of the Liberal party - and the lecturer was so bad (the opposite of that Scientific American article that was so good on the presentation front) that I just couldn't connect. So I based my approach on Yuval's programming and ingenious techniques such as scribbling lots of stuff on the graphs I had to draw and then erasing them, just so it would look like I genuinely created the graph rather than copy them from the calculator. If you think that's extreme, let me tell you about extreme: I spat on the form and rubbed it in so it would look like some genuine calculations took place there.
Bottom line? I got a 100 out of 100 score.
You could say that grades aside, I was on the losing side because I didn't learn much. You'd be right, but I and everyone else with me forced to take that course would tell you that it was the most irrelevant course in our degree, put there by conservative idiots (ala the Liberal party). They just didn't want to change the curriculum that was effective during the 50s.
I also argue that uni was not a place of learning. It wasn't Scientific American. It was a place of acquiring degrees and getting grades so that you'd be able to get a good job afterwards. Nothing about making a good, thinking person out of you (although they achieved that to one extent or another because you couldn't survive the attrition of 7-8 courses per semester over 4 years without developing some brains).
Our focus was on passing the courses, not on learning, because that was what we were measured on. And since I think this production line that refers to itself as "educational" is just a necessary piece of shit I have to endure in order to make a comfortable living now, I am perfectly satisfied with the way we tackled it.
So yes, I am saying out loud that the way the Western societies educate their young ones is just fucked up. Back on 6th grade I was reprimanded by my teacher (Aliza) for saying that (albeit at a more politically correct way). Now I am sure she would agree that I was right, big time.

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