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Of what use, education?

The question came up on QSL forums about the need for calculus. The core question is about the need for a formal education. That was Sridhar‘s topic in How We Recruit – On Formal Credentials vs Experience-based Education. The company, Zoho/AdvenNet, “offers online business, network, and IT infrastructure management applications, and software maintenance and support services. The company owns and operates,, ” (ht: hacker news).

One question that comes up often: if you don’t look at formal credentials, what do you actually look at? This is a surprisingly difficult question. … At one level, the answer is very simple (“go by gut feel…), but at another, it is exceedingly hard. The difficulty comes from the simple observation: any formal rule-based system involving human beings is very easy to game and will be gamed.

There are two concepts identified. One is the fact that people learn deepest by doing. Another is this ‘game the system’ problem. You can also see the market at play in that, when the ‘system’ to provide credentialed people didn’t provide the necessary human resources for the company, they found something else that worked for them.

A key not stated is that of any good apprentice system. The employer must commit to developing the apprentice and must provide the training and education necessary. That is expensive. Avoiding that expense is why credentials and certifications are often cited as job requirements. Those requirements shovel (most of) the resource development expense off to the individual and society.

I need to keep an eye on Sridhar’s blog to see what he says about gaming the system. Teaching one how to do that is one of the primary functions of the educational system. Good grades are more an indicator of how well one has managed to please the right people at the right time than they are of knowledge gained. In recent years, so many people have gone so far in this that folks like Glen Reynolds are thinking it is a bubble about to burst, much as the housing and mortgage industry did a couple of years ago. There are many online sources to compete with the customary stix’n-brix education that bypass much of the gaming and there are many companies, like Zoho, who are finding the help they need is not necessarily the establishment product.

The caveat: One thing to keep in mind is that you are dealing with an extremely complex system with many subtleties when it comes to human development. Single approaches are nice and formulaic but almost  always incomplete. The systems of formal education are a western culture thing that are probably a very big part of its success. The question is not whether or not people should undergo such an education but rather how much should be formal and how much apprentice (guided practicum) and how much informal.

Amateur Radio is a special avocation in that it is a means to encourage and motivate informal education via hands on efforts but needs a solid formal basis to advance the art.

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