Saturday, November 12, 2005

Alma Mentor

Most of us know the latin term Alma Mater is used to refer to a college or university you graduated from. It means 'nourishing mother'. I do not feel that way about any modern college; even the one I got my engineering degree from. Since I have lived in MA all my life, my perceptions may be polluted by my environment. So be it.

I have many criticisms of the modern university system. Most of these relate to the bureaucratic and political behavior they engage in. I spent approximately ten years, at night, collecting an education and a degree. In that time, I learned more on the job, than in the classroom. There were many instances, where the class material was woefully obsolete. It was, however, a golden opportunity to attempt real time integration of college learning, with my job.

I could go on and on about the despicable liberal political demogoguery in the college classroom. I wish I had a digital recorder back then. I would have captured some of the absurd temper tantrums, thrown by college professors, at my tuition expense. Most of the offenders were in the social sciences.

What do the these sheltered people really know about the real world that feeds them a salary and a decent standard of living?

This is another rant for another day. I had many fantastic professors. I also had many abysmal professors. Two of my favorite professors had both retired from private industry jobs. They were sharing those life skills with college students, just to stay engaged.

The Sheepskin

If so much importance were not conferred to that paper degree, I probably would not have bothered. The fact is, a degree is still a crucial standard. Without a network of professional friends, it is one of the only things you can use to prove your worth . Another way to prove your worth is to start your own company and make it succeed, like famous college dropout William Gates. I think the degree standard is being abused by the university bureaucracy. If you don't have that degree, you don't get a good job. So you should bite your lip, and suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous liberalism.

All the jobs I have had were referred by friends. Unfortunately, this is poor insurance. That degree is still honored as an achievement milestone. There is a cruel irony here. The product produced by many of the schools can be almost as bad as the public schools. I have seen many a college graduate sliding through the company's hands, with degree in hand, unable to perform basic skills.

The Mentor and Apprentice

One of the smartest engineers I ever learned from is no longer with us. He never went to college. He was a passionate hands on person, who had a strong father mentor. His father had his own electronic repair shop. We do not see many of these places anymore. The global economy of large scale integration and consumer pricing have brought us great toys, but have eliminated the need for a local toy shop to repair them.

Charlie was raised by a father steeped in the curiosity of electromechanical machines. He would often accept challenging jobs, rejected by others. One of these jobs was to repair an optical grading machine being used in his school district. This was the early fifties, so this was a fairly new computing technology. He and his young ten year old son tackled the task, with potentially hazardous results. It was a wonderful wiz bang, whir and purr learning experience for Charlie. His lifelong curiosity and passion were germinated that day.

Charlie's educational institution of learning was his Alma Pater. He had a 'nourishing father'.

Charlie could design circuits in his head, perform the analysis and produce a schematic result. Although it was difficult and sometimes impossible for him to produce a design model for his results, I could prototype his circuits or simulate them on a computer. They worked quite well. They would even have statistically conservative, tested behavior. His engineering was just another example of how incredible the human brain is. It can form its own models, methodology and execution entirely within a private framework of understanding. This works even with complex modern technologies.

Many of the views we have of our world are based on models. Mathematical models are quite powerful. If you can prove that an observed phenomenon follows a math model, you can be sure that your use of that model in design will be robust and predictable. Applied physics is such a math framework. But a model is still only a model . There are many new computer iterative design models based on genetic algorithms, fuzzy logic and non-linear processes which have been proven to produce functional results. Although many of those results cannot be described mathematically, they function nonetheless.

Have we lost something, as a society, by marginalizing apprenticeship?

So many people, operating in the close learning environments, of friendship and collaboration, have produced miracles of new technology. Just look at the Xerox crew, which brought us GUIs, Networking, Object oriented software etc.

Relight the Torch

Universities and colleges are supposed to provide the substance of a career interest. They are supposed to provide a toolbox for learning new things. They are supposed to teach you how to think. Is that standard toolbox always the best start? Is it always the best set of tools? When I meet people like my late friend Charlie, I think we need to rethink our emphasis on institutionalized models and teaching.

Not everyone is a natural teacher, but there are many with natural gifts for creative building and innovation. Charlie was that rare blend of natural teacher and renegade technologist. He got all of that power from his own study and family dynamics. Apprenticeship is a old, tried and true concept, preceding all of the modern institutions of learning. Can this old concept be reinvigorated in our time, for more than the traditional electrical, plumbing and legacy trades?

Perhaps attempting to tap this mentor to apprentice communication will destroy it. Small team chemistry is meant to be small. Maybe it is best left alone.


Peakah said...

I couldn't agree with you more. As I was taking classes at Syracuse Univ, I didn't know any better out of HS. Since I left (dropped out actually) of SU and did a stint in the Air Force, my life's priorities began to change for the more disciplined.

After I married I was determined to finish the degree I started, this time at UNM in Albuquerque. I had started my family and became ultra focused. I was pouring concrete by day, classes in the afternoon, and driving a cab at night, only having a few precious several hours a week with my new family.

One of the biology professors at UNM took me under his wing in more of a big brother sort of way. He had been one who dropped out of an Ivy League school, joined the Navy, got out created a family and finished his degree and now held the job I wanted eventually. Biology Professor.

He loved to let me in his lab and disclose to me the internal politics of a university science department. It was sad... especially when the Bush vs. Gore election was being disputed in 2000. He was a closet conservative but could never make it known for fear of being relegated to obscurity in his department. Sad how politics has its dirty little fingers in just about everything that we do.

I'm not sure what point I was trying to make except that I relate to your post quite intimately in my own way. I try to expose these discrepancies on my site and usually wind up being attacked for exposing these phony professors for being an ignorant right wing nut job.

The state of our educational institutions are in crisis and have been taken over by communist bullies, particularly the 'elite' Ivy league schools. I don't see this trend reversing anytime soon unfortunately.

I guess the best we can do is to disclose the insanity, put a mirror up in these commies faces, and show them for who they are despite the good intentions.

Glad to see you back Insol, hope the paws are better! Keep up the good work my friend.

Insolublog said...

Peakah - Thanks for your extensive comment. I think everyone should take the position of lifelong student.

How many gifted people have slammed the door, in their own face, by assuming a position of arrogance?

If you treat every person as someone you can learn from, even if it is not true, you present an opportunity to learn something yourself. There really is very little to lose.

I can glean your point. People with life experience bring more to academia than those who have never left the institution. They expose themselves to the learning and experience of everyone else out there. Everyone else makes their living, by building and defending the nation. It is the best mental position to be in, whe you apply academics.

BTW, thanks for the concern. I am still feeling the after effects. I would have posted on Veteran's day, but I was driving my father around to the various vet day functions he attends. It's a pleasure watching him make the MA politicians squirm, by putting them on the spot.

Uber said...

Do you believe that attempts to incorporate the apprenticeship methodology into colleges isn't a worthy idea or will not produce expected results? Or maybe that's not what you were saying at all, just curious.

I think we are definitely seeing a renewal of apprenticeship today. Only social engineers who want to restructure education to suit their ideology stand to lose, imo.

Thought provoking, by the way. Great to see you back. :)

Insolublog said...

Uber - I am saying I do not know if formal integration into our higher learning system is worth the try.

As you know, you need to get to know someone personally over a long time to begin to understand their craft. This could require many years of exposure, if the gifted person is not a natural teacher or is unskilled in describing their methods.

Will the attempt to measure the thing, alter the thing? (Much like measuring things at the quantum level)

I would not know where to start. The only thing I might suggest, is re-emphasizing the value of apprentice/mentor relationship. I think it has suffered in our culture. Whether we integrate that effort into the colleges and universities, is another matter.


Dr. Phat Tony said...

Charlie sound so much like Pop it's incredible. My father, despite having limited college education, is perhaps one of the best trouble shooters I've ever met, and might possibly be able to fix anything. Of course he did aprentice for an electrician.

Uber said...

Aha, I see your point. Thanks. ;)

Insolublog said...

DPT - I have met many people like Charlie and Pop. Even when they prove the system wrong, they do not seem to get the credit they deserve.

How many times have you heard stories about people with hands on experience, reporting flaws in a new design or assembly system, being repeatedly ignored until something catastrophic happens?

"In theory, there is no difference between theory and practice. But, in practice, there is."
- Yogi Berra

The Conservative UAW Guy said...

Well done, Insol.

I had a great mentor in my field.
You can't beat it.
Our education system is in dire need of change.
Pointing out the shortcomings of the present system is the first step.

Glad to see you back.
Hope you feel totally better soon.

You are in my prayers...

Insolublog said...

jimmyb - Thanks for the prayers. You are right. You cannot beat the quality of that classroom of one on one friendship.

fmragtops said...

Dang, Insolu! Great post. I saw some of what you are talking about in law enforcement. I don't know if it necessarily applies in this instance due to the subjectivity of what makes a "good cop."

Being a Field Training Officer, I was with alot of new deputies on their first encounters with real criminals. I would watch them try to figure out why we were at a particular complaint, and what it was that they were supposed to be doing. And I'd see the "light" come on when I would step in and ask the complainant, "what can we do for you?"

I don't know that learning how to be a cop is similar to learning how to be an engineer, but every cop I have ever known will tell you that you don't know anything about policework until you start doing it. I imagine it's that way everywhere.

Insolublog said...

fm - Thanks. I think your career path is probably one of those, which can only be successful through mentorship.

Any situation which relies on understanding how people think day to day, has got to be learned by experience. You may get general safety tips and such, by formal training, but learning how to react instinctively must be difficult.

I am talking completely out of ignorance here, since I have never held a job which requires a working knowledge of psychology.

a4g said...

Insolublog -

I knew you'd come back thought-provoking.

I wonder how much the internet might be capable of changing education.

It seems to me the very weaknesses you point out in the traditional system of education are in a way the product of a square peg/round hole problem: applying an essentially industrial age solution for educating people to an information age environment.

When technology changed at a less prodigious rate, universities could keep up with, and were often the vanguards of, the "latest". While in certain disciplines this is still true, overall, the university education is struggling to keep up with the breakneck speed of modern development. While students may graduate with a certain valuable skill set of general abilities, often they need to be trained ground-up for any specific occupation.

There is only so much pigheadedness that sticks around in business. Eventually, the old saw of 'hiring the college graduate' loses out to the more profitable alternative. The paradigm changes at that moment when someone figures out how to quantify the alternative qualifications and can justify it on a colorful chart to the boss or the board.

I think the information revolution has some part to play in educating the employees of tommorrow. Like everything else on the internet, it won't be dictated by sitting around and planning out a solution-- rather, it will grow organically from a number of good ideas that 'gel', like a blogswarm or a f****n' meme you get tagged with.

The really interesting part will be to see how rigid, intractable systems of education currently operating will yield to the lightning-fast thrust of the web. When competition/ adaptation are matched roughly in speed, you can have a gradual evolution. But I can't see how universities can adapt quickly enough to survive in today's environment. When the tipping point comes, it may all change faster than we ever anticipated.

GunnNutt said...

My favorite professor was about 100 years old and had worked a lifetime at IBM. He was hired by IBM as a mathemetician when they were selling adding machines. I only had him for two classes (FORTRAN and Calc III), but he was the best teacher ever.

Have you read any of the Prof's "UACJOB" stories over at RightWingNation? this one is insane!

I'm glad you're feeling better. Are you going to post about your adventures with your Dad?

Insolublog said...

A4g – Excellent material. I think I will resurrect an old post on the very theme you identify in your comment; the effect of enabling technologies. They have such intense impact on our society.

Communication is the key. The Roman empire may not have fallen, if they had access to the modern information age technologies we benefit from. They suffered from one arm not knowing what the other is doing. They had long time spans to reflect and analyze small bits of data.

We suffer from a reciprocal torrential flood of knowledge on all things, with a rush to analyze. With information available from search engines like Google etc., it is the analysis and digestion that needs to now be refined and understood.

Some pig headedness is useful. It is why I am conservative by many measures. I like to revisit old ideas, shelved but not forgotten. Technology is evolutionary and non-linear. You never know when that old method, technique or gadget might bring new life to something far down the line; jumping past it’s progenitors. You often see mathematical oddities, suddenly achieve relevance in real world problems.

I like the organic metaphor. It has the same appeal to me that free markets have. Let the beast balance itself on the whims of the participants. As you say, the tipping point might be a fulcrum of high drama and accelerated understanding of new learning technologies.

How many new problems will be introduced alongside all those new benefits?

How many new people, unable to express their creativity through the old academic structures, will be able to bring their gifts to many others through these enabling technologies?

How will people protect their intellectual property?

All good thoughts.

Insolublog said...

GunnNutt - Sorry, your post came through as I was composing an answer to a4g.

My Electromagnetics professor was about a hundred years old. He was teaching his last two semesters. I lucked out on that one. He was one of the most brilliant teachers I have ever experienced, in a subject that required it.

Are you sure I didn't meet RWN's UACJOB over at the Stop and Shop deli a while back? Dead ringer. Heh.

I've got some Dad stories that would have everyone rolling. I just have to write them up.

HydroplaningCulture said...

Insolublog, you always say the right things. What a beautiful post.

Insolublog said...

Hydro - It is nice to hear from you again. I try my best. Thanks for the encouragement.

Fitch said...

Excellent again, Insol. It's great to have you regailing us with your wisdom once again. I definitely agree with your psition that some who are skilled at something, are not skilled at communicating ideas. I've done training for rather simple tasks at the jobs that I have held, and I wind up not understanding why I can't explain such simple ideas effectively. Fortunately they are simple ideas.

Peakah - You are a right wing nutjob. We all are. Why haven't you embraced that yet? Has the great Insolukuta taught you nothing?

Insol - One more thing. I kind of got lost there in your response to a4g. D@mn you and your superior intellect.

I hope you fully recover soon.

Insolublog said...

Fitch - You make my point about both Charlie and myself. He was a natural teacher. I am not. He was a master of analogy and delivery. But he still could not communicate his design technique or method to someone who only had that college toolbox. Language is always fascinating. In situations where it fails, we resort to long, tedious observation and study, such as apprenticeship.

Here’s the reader’s digest of my reply to a4g’s comment, since I can be long winded:

A4g was saying the university system is a slow dinosaur, unable to adapt to the information age. The information age might/will facilitate a whole new way of learning by allowing people and information to come together. At some magic point, this may rapidly obsolete the academic systems.

I was saying that this was a definite possibility, with some digressing observations.

When you have very little data to work with, you over analyze. You wind up with many interpretations of the limited data. When you have too much data, you often don’t know what analysis to use. You wind up with too many variables, which you do not have the time or resources to analyze. Picking the data which is most important becomes the issue.

Sometimes harvesting older ideas, from the past, such as apprenticeship or even engineering ideas and designs, can fit into brand new systems of thought or design, in ways people never realized. People will work these issues out (organically in a4g’s vernacular).

Fitch said...

So, Since the current edumacational system isn't working, and technology is advancing at a rapid pace, which will further render the current system obsolete, someone who is much more smarter than me will figure out an ingenious way to combine the old with the new to develop a better system.

Did I get the grasp of that?

Insolublog said...

Someone smarter than the both of us! We will just have to observe.