fvck school

I offered the following bit of advice on twitter.

A number of people agreed. A number disagreed. But the vast majority suggested I was being controversial for controversy sake. Or a “hipster.” Or something. This is not the case. So, in an attempt to rectify that, I offer you this sincere exegesis of my tweet and my first weekly installment to the svbtle network.

 Shapes

Ben Shahn is an American artist who gave a series of lectures at Harvard which were later collected into a book published in 1957 entitled “The Shape of Content.”

shahn.png

In his first lecture, “Artists in Colleges,” he posits that a successful integration of art into academic policy would be one which promotes unifying different branches of study into a “whole” culture. Here diverse fields like physics or mathematics would come within the purview of the painter and the physicist/mathematician would be encouraged to fully embrace nonmeasurable and extremely chaotic human elements which we commonly associate with things like poetry and art.

On the basis then of several fairly extensive observations he goes on to offer three major blocks to the development of such a culture, and to the artist’s continuing to produce serious works within the “university situation.”

 Logical Extension

The three blocks Shahn outlined above hold true for not just art in the 1950’s, but for nearly all fields in academia today—including, but not limited to, Software Development.

With this in mind, reconsider my initial sentiment: “Drop out of school or study english. This is how you win at javascript.”

Shahn will make the point early and repeatedly that “art has its roots in real life.” Similarly, the need for Software Development arises from something stronger than simple classroom simulations—its utility manifests itself through actual provocation, and a proximity to real life.

Dropping out does not mean discontinuing your studies, on the contrary, most engineers, like artists, do and will continue to read a great deal about their craft, and do and should know a great deal about it. However, the organic pursuit of any solution is infinitely more valuable when grounded by a real problem, much in the way that algorithmic questions are terrible interview devices.

It follows then that English serves as an alternative to dropping out only insofar as it acts as an attempt to approach what Shahn was calling a diverse or “whole” culture. Here English should be understood as a stand-in for any field which could be held in dialectical opposition to Computer Science: anthropology, criminal forensics, art history…

Pursuing knowledge in this way, much like learning a new language, not only introduces you to, but installs you within, new diverse cycles of thought and promotes a creativity which I think is essential to excelling, dominating, or “winning” at Software Development. What’s more, it does so in a way that undergraduate “humanity requirements” simply cannot—which is precisely why Shahn’s “wholesome” utopia fails to be realized today. That is to say, undergraduate requirement policies promote a debilitating Dilettantism and are the scourge of our academic system, subverted only by enrolling in a field you don’t plan to pursue after college.

Consider this final anecdote from Ben Shahn:

In another university I once had occasion to pay a number of visits to its very large ceramics department. I noticed that there was a great leafing about among books whenever a piece of pottery was to be decorated, and that not even the shapes of pieces were original. It seemed to me that the students were missing whatever pleasure there may be in the work. In talking to them, I made the odd discovery that they did not consider themselves capable of originating a decoration; it was not for them. In fact one student explained to me that that was not the course they were taking.

Universities continue to encourage students to look for solutions which already exist rather than encouraging students to pursue new approaches. This isn’t to say you should always try to reinvent the wheel, it’s just that you shouldn’t be afraid to.

This coupled with the hoisting of theorists, critics, library authors, and book authors to insurmountable and infallible heights is a truly diabolical combination. I know first hand many of these figures, Alex Maccaw (drop out) for example has written two books, and released several successful projects, but I assure you he’s nearly human and is wont to making mistakes.

In the end, this isn’t to be read as a direct attack on people who have computer science degrees. Some of my favorite engineers of all time have CS degrees and are many times more competent engineers than I could ever hope to be. That said, I don’t think that these individuals represent the norm (particularly having interviewed “new grads” for the past 2+ years) and more over I don’t think these successes owe their brilliance to the institution which awarded them their document.

In closing: Drop out or study English. It’s your best bet.

 Edit: A note on Non-U.S. academia

I was amiss in failing to point out that Ben Shahn’s discourse, “Art in Colleges,” is really a discourse on “Art in U.S. Colleges.” In fact, Shahn makes a point of offering praise to the European system:

Nowhere does [the American’s] limitations become so conspicuous as in his contacts with Europeans of similar background and education. For the European, whatever his shortcoming in other directions, will be perfectly conversant with the art and literature of his own country as well as with that of others. It is not at all improbable that he will know considerably more about American art than will the American himself.

Interestingly however, Shahn is also quick to point out his concern in the future of European universities, a concern a number of you shared.

Not surprisingly, we see similar fears issued throughout history by intellectuals like V.S. Pritchett, Francois Mauriac, and even Jean-Paul Sartre: “If France allows itself to be influenced by the whole of American culture, a living and livable situation there will come here and completely shatter our cultural transitions…”

So? What do you think, Non-U.S. scholars?

 
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YES PLS LETS BURNNNN

Today’s contribution comes from another good friend of mine, [Divya Manian](//twitter.com/divya). Worried that my introduction was sounding a bit too “officious"… I’ll just say I met Divya on a boat full of JavaScript nerds in Austin,... Continue →