My thoughts on academia, two months in

Performing Arts and related disclipines have their celebrities. Their visionaires. Everybody who dreams of, one day, becoming a famous actor or musician, has their source of inspiration. We strive to learn from the greatest, to one day be one of them ourselves. This thought is embodied within the image of celebrities within our society. The famous have chosen their path, and even though their goal may not be the perfect one for everybody, it’s the will and commitment that matters.

These celebrities are the “stars in the sky” for the young people starting out their studies within the fields of Performing Arts. Without anyone to look up to and admire, the feeling of being overwhelmed by the subject of study would drive even the most dedicated students away from pursuing their dream. Even though they may be from another country or continent and completely unreachable, having an idol justifies the insane time and talent investments. For the aspiring artists, there is the general notion to “suck it up”, keep at it, and concentrate on smaller, accomplishable steps.

This perception always struck me as melodramatic. I used to blame it on the subject — after all, why study Drama if you don’t like yourself some of it.1 Why would I need to be the loser for the first part of my life, and then suddenly (or progressively) become more successful, creative, and inspiring? I can see the purely psychological and pragmatic reasons explaining the ‘success’ of this line of thought. Weeding out uncommited students. Focusing the attention of the freshmen on smaller tasks that eventually lead to grasping a whole field. “Learning to learn.”2 Clear goals and clear visions are just that, goals and visions. They are not clear instructions, and clear instructions you probably need in order to advance.

And still, I disagree with this concept of education. I should be able to decide for myself how, when, and on which grounds I want to study what. Of course higher education is completely optional. Still, this is not a case of “you just don’t yet know that you want it”, it’s a major investment of human time and talent. When starting out, you certainly get to know that, apparently, you don’t know nothing yet. First, you study the basics, then diverge into a vast array of topics, and maybe eventually converge again on a very specific area of research.

That’s exactly how I imagined studying a scientific disclipine to be.

But now, two months into my first semester of studying Computer Science at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology, it seems to me that actually, the ‘arts’ and ‘science’ schemes of education are actually not that different from each other. Within the first two months, around a third of freshmen have already dropped out. We study linear algebra and mathematical analysis. The amount of time spent on working on more closely CS-related subjects is not even worth a footnote compared to the hours upon hours spent every week to solve the math problems. Albeit very interesting, their sole purpose seems to be to sort out the people who aren’t willing to invest that much of their time.3

It’s totally common for students of all skill levels to go to the math lectures and don’t understand a word of what the professor is saying or doing. When asking higher-grad students whether this is normal, everybody replies, “Yup, just be sure to go to the tutorials.” I don’t think that’s education. It’s presentation. Maybe you get some of it, maybe you don’t.

Of course, there is also a positive side to this situation. Similarily to the concepts described above, forming a notion of “us students versus the evil content/professors/world” leads to a strengthened bond between the students. The importance of celebrities is minuscule compared to their equivalents in popular culture. Still, dedication is usually caused not by the content itself, but by the tiny possibility of one day having as large a scientific impact as Alan Turing, or satisfying one’s scientific curiosity regarding the inner works of the universe, or just making a truckload of money at a software shop. It’s everyone’s guess.

In retrospect, all of this may seem glaringly obvious. But I think it’s like seeing somebody sitting at the curbside in the rain. You instantly know: Oh wow, that guy is probably sad.

You just don’t know what it really feels like until you’ve been there in the rain for yourself.

I am very interested to learn whether and how my perception of education or my attitude towards either of the described education schemes will change during my time at university.

  1. I presume everybody has a certain desire for drama. What differs is merely the magnitude. 

  2. Don’t Learn Algebra by Roshan Choxi is a nice read on the topic. 

  3. That’s not to say I don’t think what we learn now is going to be irrelevant for the later semesters.