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30 October 2009 @ 08:42 am
Sensible, harsh, nuanced - a comment  
There was a comment on an online article which was substantially better than the article itself that I felt like passing along. Like the commenter, I think it sounds a bit more elitist (against other elitists, amusingly) than it is. Read to the end before you decide he's just stuck up.

I don't think the main cause has anything to do with Math or Science per se. Someone upthread said that there's a profound anti-intellectual trend in America. I agree, but I think it specifically takes the form of A DISDAIN FOR PROBLEM-SOLVING SKILLS IN ACADEMIC SUBJECTS. This is just as true when it comes to Shakespeare as when it comes to Math.

The life-goal in America seems to be to get a well-paying job in which you don't need to think very much. I doubt this is a conscious goal, and it sounds so insulting that I doubt most people would admit to pursuing it. But in my experience, it is what people pursue -- and our education system trains people for it.

I became very aware of this when I started teaching computer classes. I was teaching applications such as Photoshop, Illustrator and Flash. Most of my students were upper-middle-class, educated, "smart" people. The majority were middle-aged.

Over and over, I heard people say, "I can't do this stuff. I'm just not a computer person." Now to some extent, this is true. These people were born before the Internet and the PC revolution, and their fear of the technology WAS a stumbling block. But the bigger stumbling block seemed to be that these folks couldn't handle basic problem solving.

The apps I taught mostly didn't hold your hand. For instance, if you want to make a photo look a certain way in Photoshop, there generally isn't a button to press. You have to think through the various tools and figure out how to combine them to create the look you want. That said, it's far from rocket science. I found that the moment I stopped giving people a formula that they could learn by rote, their brains turned off. It soon became clear to me that the problem wasn't new technology; the problem was that I was expecting people to use their brains in a way that no one else expected of them.

I started thinking about what these people did all day at their jobs. Gently, I asked some of them about what they did in their jobs. Many of them hand distinguished careers. How could they perform well at work without problem-solving skills? Answer: they don't need problem-solving skills.

It's not always obvious that these people don't solve problems (or puzzles), because many of these people are experts -- meaning that their brains are crammed with obscure facts. Our schools do very well at training people to learn facts*. At least when I went to school, memorization was pushed as a major intellectual virtue. We memorized the multiplication tables; we memorized the periodic tables; we memorized speeches form Shakespeare... Cultural literacy was pushed, too, though not as hard as memorization. No one was expected to really get into Shakespeare, but you were expected to know who he was and to have read one or two of his plays.

(*true, in America shocking number of people can't tell you the name of their congressman or the capital of North Carolina. But these people DO know the facts needed to get their specific jobs done.)

Pop-culture values reinforce fact-based intellectualism. A couple of years ago, if you'd asked people who was the smartest man in America, many would have said "the guy who won all that money on 'Jeopardy.'" (When I was a kid, there were many game shows on that actually required some problem-solving skills. These are almost non-existent. The shows are all about trivia now.) A "smart person" on a drama or sitcom is usually a guy who knows a huge number of facts.

I grew up around (humanities) academics, supposedly the ultimate smart-set. In my experience, they were coasting on memorized facts just as much as people in the corporate world. A professor would read every major German novel written in the 19th Century and all the critical writing about 19th-century German literature. Then he would spend his career passing on facts to his students. His "intellectual" work mostly involved keeping up with academic journals (learning new facts).

(From what I can tell, most G.P. doctors and most lawyers don't have to do much problem solving either. I do know that my doctor seems to be able to make a good living by doing the same formulaic tests over and over.)

Let me be clear that I'm not anti fact or memorization. Facts and rote learning are important. Facts are the building blocks you need. The are the tools you use when you problem solve. Problem solving is the next step. But it's a next step that most people don't take and don't need to take.

I don't think it's laziness. One can get by in our culture without problem-solving, so why bother with it? By get by, I mean that one can make a good living, have a big house, kids, etc. without having to solve intellectual problems.

And -- most important -- one can be a "smart person" (as our culture defines it) without solving problems. Most people want to be smart. They want to be seen as smart by others. Our culture sends a really strong message to them, which is "memorize a lot of facts and you'll be smart." My guess is most people think they ARE doing rigorous problem solving when they see something that needs to be done and have to search through their mental database to find the right fact or the right formula. I guess this IS a kind of problem solving, but it's the easiest kind. It's similar to solving a problem by searching on google until you find the answer.

When I was a kid, there was almost no problem solving in school. How often did the teacher just present us with a puzzle and say, "Here are some tools. Solve the puzzle!"? Almost never. One would think that MOST of education should be about solving puzzles, but in my experience, almost none of it is.

The exceptions (to a point) were Math and Science. But unless you're going into specific fields, you can quit taking Math and Science pretty early on in life. The other courses are easier and it's pretty clear you won't need Math and Science to get by in life. So why waste your time on it?

Meanwhile, the few people who stay in problem-solving fields move further and further from the intellectual norm: I program computers for a living. Which means I solve puzzles eight hours a day. I constantly have to create something from nothing, and I constantly have to learn new skills. Sometimes, I am so mentally exhausted that I can't do my job.

It was when I started discussing this with friends that I realized how different my career was from most of theirs. Sure, they often are exhausted at work. But they CAN get their work done. They say things like, "I was SO sick of filing today" or "Uh. If I have to grade ONE more paper!" But they don't say, "My brain just shut down and I was unable to figure out..."

I know this sounds snobbish. But I am not trying to diss other people or their jobs. My doctor may not do much problem solving, but I am grateful for his help. I am just saying that most jobs involve little or no problem solving. Mathematicians are from Mars.

I have been talking mostly about corporate and academic jobs. In reality, I think there's a lot of problem solving going on in America. It's just outside of the intellectual world. And it follows a long tradition. In America, our main problem solvers are farmers, football players, carpenters, etc. People who build things and who play games MUST solve problems or they fail. It's really weird, because most such people can't talk the intellectual talk. They don't know Shakespeare from Euler. So we don't consider them smart, and they aren't smart in the limited way we tend to define the world.

Meanwhile, the "intellectuals" are barely using their intellects.
The Water Seekerplymouth on October 30th, 2009 04:27 pm (UTC)
One of the things I really hate about my job is that I don't get to solve interesting problems very often :( I really want to find a job where I can get back to doing that. That's what made work fun.
KJBcapnkjb on October 30th, 2009 04:51 pm (UTC)
Dude makes an interesting point. If only the two worlds could work together for the forces of good! :}
KJBcapnkjb on October 30th, 2009 04:52 pm (UTC)
Noahangelbob on October 30th, 2009 04:58 pm (UTC)
Right. Lj-cut. Good point :-)
msde on October 30th, 2009 06:52 pm (UTC)
What I find disturbing is that critical thinking is supposed to be one of the few advantages you get coming out of the USA school system compared to the rigid ones of say, China. China has realized this in the past few years and begun adapting, although in that strange way China can do things sometimes. (How can we encourage critical thinking without encouraging free thinking in subjects like politics?)
rbusrbus on October 30th, 2009 08:53 pm (UTC)
consider musical talent: almost anybody can be taught to play an instrument, after a fashion, but very few people are really good at it.

it's been my experience that problem-solving is like that: you can teach the basics of the skill, but some people have a talent for it.

back when i was in collge, i had a formal class on problem-solving taught by an old PhD in the Education of exceptional children.

the whole time was figuring out figuring out what and how to learn what we needed to know to solve all kinds of unfamiliar problems.

and we had to explain the steps we took to solve a problem.
"it just came to me" was met with ridicule and scorn.

i can still hear him: "Inspiration is spurious. You solve problems with work, not Heavenly Intercession!"

Noahangelbob on October 30th, 2009 09:18 pm (UTC)
Sounds like a really excellent class :-)
Shelby Davisfirimari on October 30th, 2009 09:47 pm (UTC)
So what part of "How the hell do I get these children to pay attention in class and learn" is not problem solving?
If you have 25 kids in your classroom, you have at least 25 _different_ problems each and every day. Most days many more so.
Noahangelbob on October 30th, 2009 09:55 pm (UTC)
So what part of "How the hell do I get these children to pay attention in class and learn" is not problem solving?

That's decent problem solving. Though his point that such an activity isn't widely considered "intellectual" certainly holds for that case.

Semi-relatedly, I'd argue that problem solving with people is a very different thing than problem solving with matter, mathematics or other nonsentient materials. Problem-solving with people is nearly invariably the same thing as persuasion, which is a whole other problem than dealing with things that are nonpersuadable (stone, electricity, theorems, gravity, the lambda calculus and so on).
Krissyrightkindofme on October 31st, 2009 01:46 am (UTC)
I would put forth that few teachers try all that hard. They say, "pay attention" and then punish if people don't pay attention. That's not really problem solving.

(When good teachers work on maintaining attention it is problem solving--but it is a different kind than this article is talking about.)
msde on October 31st, 2009 02:54 am (UTC)
The teachers that I know all try hard, but tend to be limited by either class sizes or fear of parental lawsuits.
bayareajennbayareajenn on October 31st, 2009 03:16 am (UTC)
I dunno. I find this entire comment to be an over-generalization based on what appears to be a thoroughly disappointing set of people s/he's had life experience with.

I can think of two college professors just offhand who not only were great problem-solvers, but were also great at teaching those skills. Most of my friends and husband are good at it, too.

And they're all Americans. His/her application of these generalizations to Americans seems to be based on an sample pool of people based entirely in America.

So, meh. I disagree with this person.
spiffikins: alienspiffikins on October 31st, 2009 05:15 am (UTC)
Having worked for the federal government in a variety of positions, both while I was in university and for a year or so after I graduated - I do agree with this person. The vast majority of the people that I worked with in the Canadian government, were putting their time in, following the steps that they had been trained to do - and nothing more.

It was frustrating to me - in one of my positions I worked collecting past due income tax (yes, my job sucked - hence why I no longer do it ). One of my cases was a person who had not filed their tax return in several years, and the government had "filed" it for them and sent them a bill.

Looking at their income from their T4 (equivalent of W2) it was *impossible* that a person who worked part time as a waiter or busperson, could owe $32,000 in taxes and penalties. I dug a bit deeper and found out that we (the tax people) had made a *math* error on the tax return and had not included the tax taken off their cheques over the years - a rough estimate was that if the tax returns were done properly, he might owe a couple hundred dollars.

Of course, being someone who hadn't filed a tax return in several years, and who worked for a few months at one restaurant then moved on - this was not an easy person to find. And, I'm sure getting a stern letter from the government saying 'You owe $32,000 in taxes' didn't make them any *more* interested in communicating with us...so I wasn't able to find that person and say - look - you can fix this, just file your returns and it will all go away!

And nobody in the department that had made the mistake was interested in changing it - they didn't see the problem - the return was done, if the person didn't agree, they could make their case. This didn't fall into their list of situations they were trained on how to handle - so they didn't handle it.

Now, I work for a software company and I totally *get* what this person says - after a week of work, sometimes my brain just *hurts* and I'm *done*. Occasionally I lose my words too - I know it's been a long day when I can no longer make coherent sentences without *really* concentrating :)

The Ginashipofools999 on November 3rd, 2009 01:50 am (UTC)
Just wanted to say I adore your alien icon. I find myself staring at it, memorized. I go back and forth seeing it as the end of the nose moving and feet moving. And then I go back to staring at it. I don't know why. I find it fascinating.
VanderVeckenxthread on November 3rd, 2009 08:07 pm (UTC)
But there's more to it than that...
The public view of most jobs seems to be pretty shallow - that is to say, what goes on in doing a job is fairly poorly visible to people who aren't doing it. This gets worse and worse as your output gets less tangible. So it's not (entirely) that people are trying to optimize for greatest dollars with least effort, but also that an awful lot of intellectual effort is deeply invisible.
Noahangelbob on November 3rd, 2009 08:18 pm (UTC)
Re: But there's more to it than that...
That's a good observation. It's a lot of why programming stuff is often so hard to schedule and project-manage, especially if the one scheduling/managing isn't a programmer.
VanderVeckenxthread on November 3rd, 2009 08:24 pm (UTC)
Re: But there's more to it than that...
Yeah. Well, and programming also has a problem in that an awful lot of what a programmer does doesn't actually look like doing. What are you doing? I'm designing an algorithmEr?Yeah, I'm thinking through what the data transformation needs to look like
And that's even before you get to the stage I'm reading about what everyone else is doing, to find out if someone else has had a problem like this before.