Sunday, February 8, 2009

Perhaps incorrect, will edit later

The academic institution has lost its focus.

From the question of, "How does one understand the world?" (or something similarly phrased, I think you get the gist) - we ride along some thought trains:

1) Polymaths are widely taken not to exist any more, so 'one' is believed to be incapable of any real understanding of the world.

Response to 1) Polymaths are considered implausible because the system by which we disseminate information and certify students as being qualified is a lengthy, slow beast. One must spend 10 years of their life to be qualified and then they end qualified in something like "Molecular Microbiology as it applies to Pathogens in a Feline Diet" or something ricockulously thin like that. After all that time and focusing in, to change topics to something in Physics? Or Literature? It's absurd.

So maybe they shouldn't focus so much. Or maybe it shouldn't take so much time. Let's analyse.

You focus because you're told to. Because you have to distinguish yourself from the myriad other "Biochemists" out there and do something particular. In the slow-paced academic environment, you spend 5 years in an undergrad showing you can commit time, then 2-3 years in a masters showing you can write something legible then 3-8 years in a PhD showing you can write something worth reading. By this time you're focused pretty narrowly, because one person can only do so much, and you've still usually got classes to take and teach alongside your real work. So you'll have spent 10-16 years getting to the point where you're really good at your field, but then you'll be so narrowly focused as to be disabled in truly general discussions. Scary.

You take so long because that's just the way the system works. Ooooh, here we can start calling this a systemic barrier to timely education. You feel like you're doing great if it takes you just 6 years total university to get your masters. You spend that entire 6 years learning in 1 hour segments 3 times a week for 12 weeks, 3 times a year. And you're usually learning several things at once like that.

The issue here is that this is oriented toward a single master having not much time to deal with a large number of students, and the students having no other means of learning than hearing the master's voice. But things have so greatly changed.

Students can learn everything given to them in first and second year University on the internet. Probably in years above that as well - the only reason I limited myself at year 2 is because that's the year I'm in. There's one element we can't, which is practice and teamwork, but we'll get to that. The point here is that the lecture system in which a student receives bite-sized packets of divine data from the master 3 times a week is unnecessary now. It's a relic. Students could spend however much time they like reading about the topic on the internet, discussing it in a forum or chatroom, or in some sort of interactive lesson-game-thing, and probably learn this material better and faster than ever before. How much faster? Just because I like not sounding credible and because I just throw numbers around without any backing, I'll say an order of magnitude.

Under that assumption, it takes you 1-2 years (instead of 10-16) to become an expert in a field. If this were possible, a person could become an expert on many things in their lives - no long winding track that locks them in.

The only point I've been trying to make in this response is that the plymath is not necessarily dead yet. They may have gone away for a while, but it is possible thast, with the right tools and structures available on the internet, they are poised to make a phenomenal return.


2) Regardless of the existence of polymaths it could be argued that no single person can be an expert on everything simultaneously. There would be no retention, no practical use of a person constantly doing nothing but learning to jam expertise in on as many diverse subjects as possible for their entire life - when would they come to fruition and do something worth their time?

Response to 2) The trick here is that we operate under a paradigm of "a man is an island" - even though we've been long made aware that that's not true. A person presented with a problem, under our present system of thought and education, should have the correct answer (or the mechanism by which to arrive at a correct answer) stored within their heads. They then must take only the information given, process process process and using their stored up knowledge and expertise, produce some sort of solution. What a fine show it makes but it is truly ridiculously impractical.

No man is an island. You have friends, family, books, and by gods, THE INTERNET to ask for help. Use your lifelines like a millionaire.

When presented with a problem, a person needs only expertise in using the tools available to learn about the problem's parameters, find solutions or paths to solutions, and how to formulate solutions to the given problem.

So we need to be able to research, to synthesize, to actually do some figuring (because there's probably some to be done), and to write out our process and findings in a legible, worthwhile form. Those are things that could be hard to teach - but they could be the things taught to us by teachers.

A person like that, operating in that way, needs no advanced knowledge of a problem when presented with it. They simply receive a problem, (or run into it) and go off to solve it. They come back smarter with a solution, and if they forget it all after writing the answers, they can learn it again fairly easily. The important things will be learned so often that they'll stop being forgotten.

This person is a kind of half-polymath. They know what they need to know about anything. They can operate on any problem.

3) Regardless of a new-age polymath's ability to find a solution to whatever problem, they would likely waste a lot of their time if they didn't focus somewhat. Biology to astrophysics to shakespearian literature to Chemistry to biblical study to computer science - these are some pretty insane context switches. A true polymath would waste a massive amount of their time doing basic research and not be very productive in their life. They could exist but wouldn't really be worth having.

Response to 3) Ahah, you've beaten me. The only answer I have to this is: more polymaths. Have them be less than a polymath - find an optimised route. Polymathitise to the point that they are able to research and find solutions to whatever problem, but let them choose a field or group of fields that interests them. They only really deal with problems relating to economics. The economics of chemistry? Sure, they can learn that and work on it, they've got some grounding there. But they can choose a region of thought to stay within the bounds of and become an 'expert' by knowing the groundwork flat out. They can then spend all of their time going from midlevel of a problem up, working on the hard details. Any time a problem wanders into another region, they can pass it off or at least collaborate with a friend who operates in a different region.

The best part, let's say they get sick of economics. It doesn't take an entire life to switch over to literature! Within a year or two they could be similarly focused in a different area. How agile.

So the solution I'm presenting to properly understanding the world is having a team of part-polymaths who are all very good at analysing things in their fields, but not so focused that a question not shaped to their specific needs would scare them off. This could be some sort of free association of new academics - this could be the new University.

It wouldn't even have to be a place. It could simply be a collection of people communicating on the internet.

Store the answers to the problems they solve, have testing mechanisms provided by / to them, organize their knowledge in a clean and useful way, showing dependencies clearly, and you have for yourself a sort of utopia of learning. A true force that can operate with the intent of better understanding the world, and forwarding all of human kind.

It's kind of crazy, and it's so full of holes it couldn't hold frozen water - but it's a start in a new direction. Give it thought, give it pause. Let roots of change take hold and come up with your own ideas on how to make this place better, because the only thing it doesn't need to be is worse.

(to some extent this was brought on by reading this - thank you reddit)