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The Real Reason You Didn’t Learn Jack Sh*t In College

Filed Under Personal Improvement, Thought Stuff

Mickey Mouse Graduate

I have been going through a lot of self reflection as of late, and as you can imagine there are a number of things that haunt my current psyche.

One of these such things is coming to the realization of just how special I thought I was as a college graduate. After all, I had shed the skin of the cocky teenager and had a true grasp of who I was and what I was capable of. I had degrees. I worked at Microsoft. Martin Fowler look out – there’s a new guy in town…

Although I can say (with little ego) that I did have a lot going for me, and I had accomplished a lot - I knew little to nothing about the real world.

You see, college never allowed me to learn through failure. As Alan Watts below puts it, I was placed in this “nursery society” where I was allowed to believe that real life was about pretending, having fun, and no matter what things will be alright.

Translating that into software development, I never had to write programs that lasted more than the next weekly project. As a result, my solutions were short sited, problematic, and all-round crap. But I didn’t need to care, as long as the teacher did not find that one little bug I swept under the rug or care about code maintainability or the fact that there were no tests – after all, it’s always a sunny day in Disneyland.

In a sense, college wired my habits to approach solutions wrong. I went to college to grow into an adult, and came out an over confident child.

Recent graduates and veteran developers alike take heed – we all have a lot to learn about our profession and even more about ourselves. Never allow your confidence to block your ability to learn from the mistakes of yourself and others. After all, we all graduated from the University of Mickey.

For the true significance of Disneyland is that it reflects our notions of children – what they are, what is good for them, and what will please them. Children are a special class of human beings which came into existence with the industrial revolution, at which time we began to invent a closed world for them, a nursery society, wherein their participation in adult life could be delayed increasingly – to keep them off the labor market. Children are, in fact, small adults who want to take part in the adult world as quickly as possible, and to learn by doing. But in the closed nursery society they are supposed to learn by pretending, for which insult to their feelings and intelligence they are propitiated with toys and hypnotized with baby talk. They are thus beguiled into the fantasy of that happy, carefree childhood with its long sunny days through which one may go on “playing” – in the peculiar sense of not working – for always and always. – Alan Watts, Does It Matter?: Essays on Man’s Relation to Materiality

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Comments

17 Responses to “The Real Reason You Didn’t Learn Jack Sh*t In College”

  1. Tiago Fernandez on February 9th, 2009 5:17 am

    Great post! I think all of this might be also applied to some (still) academic folks that don’t have a clue about the software development industry. Cheers.

  2. Dew Drop - February 9, 2009 | Alvin Ashcraft's Morning Dew on February 9th, 2009 8:21 am

    [...] The Real Reason You Didn’t Learn Jack Sh*t in College (Max Pool) [...]

  3. Jason on February 9th, 2009 8:52 am

    Don’t underestimate the impact of beer either Max!

  4. Justin Deltener on February 9th, 2009 10:25 am

    While higher education can be very beneficial and necessary for many people, it sure isn’t for everyone. As an individual with a whole 1 year of college completed with a 1.6GPA tis very true NOT going to school allows you much more time to make horribly horribly stupid mistakes..and boy does it sting. For those of you still in school I say.. Stay there as long as you can! Don’t ever leave..this is a cruel cruel world. Stay safe..stay in school. Don’t do drugs and drink your milk.

  5. Arjan`s World » LINKBLOG for February 9, 2009 on February 9th, 2009 12:54 pm

    [...] The Real Reason You Didn’t Learn Jack Sh*t In College – Max Pool I have been going through a lot of self reflection as of late, and as you can imagine there are a number of things that haunt my current psyche. [...]

  6. Swizec on February 10th, 2009 9:44 am

    I’ve known this even before I enrolled into college and that’s why I do college to get that pesky overly required piece of worthless paper and work as a developer on the side. Real life experience is what matters, college just gives you a piece of paper imho.

  7. McCoy Pauley on February 10th, 2009 11:18 am

    After two years of college (with a 4.0), I stood up in the middle of a lecture one morning and walked out—straight down to the recruiter, whom I told, “I want infantry, I want airborne, and I want Vietnam.”

    Best move I ever made. Got me away from those overgrown Mouseketeer pod-people before I started strangling them in the stairwells.

  8. Chip Overclock on February 10th, 2009 1:38 pm

    Funny, just last Friday evening I had dinner with a buddy of mine, Dale, that I’ve known since 1976, with whom I went to undergraduate and graduate school as well, as worked with more than once. We both agreed that, looking back more then thirty years, we have been well served by our college educations. We both keep in touch with our favorite faculty members (those that are still alive) and with several of our old classmates (ditto). (In fact I had breakfast the next morning with another two old classmates, Brian and Paul, from the 1970s.)

    Are we somehow special? Was our college education that special? Were we (as Dale and I both asserted) just lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time with the right people? I dunno. But I can tell you, not everyone has the experience you (and many commenters) describe.

    I think it may have had a lot to do with the predominate culture where we went to school: way more blue-collar-strong-work-ethic than maybe upper-class-elitist-sense-of-entitlement.

    Or maybe we _were_ just lucky.

  9. Max Pool on February 10th, 2009 4:31 pm

    Perhaps I am making a wrong assumption here, but I feel a lot of comments disagreeing with this topic are centered around I believe college is worthless.

    I believe I did learn a lot in college. In all honesty, I originally went to college to become a social worker and didn’t even know how to use a computer.

    However, college did nothing to prepare me for dealing with team members, ongoing legacy code, proper patterns, architecture, or testing. All lessons were centered around something theory or simple coding constructs.

    Not to sound harsh, but I am that type of father that teaches his kid by allowing him to skin his knee in a controlled environment.

    College is also a controlled environment however their concentration is not focused on learning through failure, and failure is the greatest teacher of all…

  10. anti knijn on February 11th, 2009 5:33 am

    Agreeing with Max here.

    I always cringe when seeing the umptieth blog post about how little there is to be learned in school/college/whatever formal education path there is. In short, formal education seems to be worthless, misguided, hollow and generally screwing up people’s lives.

    Now, hold it there. Do people really expect to be fully prepared for the real world when graduating? I certainly did not. It’s been some years since I graduated and I’m learning new things every day. I hope to do so until the bitter end, it actually is an integral part of my education.

    Stop seeing college/real life as black/white. College gives you the theory, a basis to work on, real life gives you the practice, the opportunity to see it all in action. Including the unexpected implications and side effects of what you learned, or of what you didn’t learn yet.

  11. Jef Claes on February 11th, 2009 5:40 am

    You are so right! :)

  12. Swizec on February 11th, 2009 5:51 am

    @anti knijn: the thing is, there _is_ a way to teach people the theoretical stuff while still giving them the chance to learn about what actually makes things work.

    Personally I think the perfect college programming course would be if students were given an assigment at the beginning of the year that’s complex enough to take them a few months to complete. Professors should just give advice and gentle nudges into the right way, but listen to the student and let them think (I have a big problem at school because when I propose a better solution than what they’re teaching me they just say I’m stupid and should do it their way, even if I later prove my way was much more efficient, if a little more difficult to implement and thus actually required a little effort from them as well to grade it).

    Then when they’re done with the assignment, by this time they’ve learned a great deal. You change the requirements ever so slightly. This will teach them all about the importance of code maintainability.

  13. Max Pool on February 11th, 2009 6:18 am

    @Swizec – Exactly, but that almost never happens…

  14. anti knijn on February 12th, 2009 2:08 am

    What you describe sounds really great. But such projects require resources: a guiding professor or PhD assistants with time on their hands and enough pedagogical background to steer each and every one of their students. In practice, such situations are rare: professors need to do their own research, publish and gather project money. So on one hand, these are pretty ambitious ideas.

    On the other hand, what about Master’s thesises? Those basically *are* complex year-long assignments, right? I think they fit your description quite accurately. Around here, every university student gets to do a Master’s thesis, so in a way we’re doing just fine. What’s your view on this?

    Just one more quote from your above post:

    “when I propose a better solution than what they’re teaching me they just say I’m stupid and should do it their way, even if I later prove my way was much more efficient”

    I would *definitely* call this real life experience :-)

  15. Swizec on February 12th, 2009 4:15 am

    Hah yes, master’s theses and doctorates are exactly what I described. But why do they have to be so bloody far away?

    Take me for example, I’ve been a programmer since I was 9 years old and have done countless very large projects all on my own, I’ve even had one where a whole research team of computer scientists gave me their kudos and said it took five of them a few years to get as far as I did in a single year on my own.

    However, I cannot seem to be able to pass first year of computer science college. Doing it now for the second time and I have to say it’s not going too well. Whereas I could very easily do a master’s or doctorate in a heart beat (a year long heart beat but whatever)

    Wouldn’t you say there’s something extremely absurd about this situation?

    As for the quote and saying that’s RL experience. My RL experience is that team leads, bosses, whatever, listen to me and do as I tell them is best because they recognise my solution as superior once I elaborate.

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  17. Just Thinking on March 28th, 2009 9:18 am

    Great post. I totally agree that there it too great a gap between what is taught in college and what goes on in the real world. Not to mention the amount of money that goes into obtaining that piece of paper. For the amount of debt we incur from attending college we should graduate as true masters of some sort of discipline. I think our entire educational system should be reformed. Children are the best learners. They are extremely curious and eager to explore. They should be taught the most challenging concepts early on. But from a learn by doing perspective. Theory should enter in when we explain why a certain result occured. The goal of education should be refocused to produce highly skilled masters of what ever course of study you choose to embark on. General liberal arts theorectical styled educational models are useless.

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