Thoughts on university

published 2023-06-13
last updated 2023-06-13

I had some thoughts about my degree that I figured I would compile here. While this only describes a fraction of my life during those times, I think it has some useful ideas worth recording.

I started university when I was 17. I didn't realize it at the time, but I felt subconsciously that I wanted a skill, profession, or vocation of some sort. Compelled to make things and become successful, mastery is what I sought. At first I was admitted to a BEd major in Comp Sci with the goal of teaching the subject. Unfortunately I am a person of action and less of bureaucratic boondoggling, as Education is oft to do. And how could I properly teach CS without having any expertise? In any case, the banshee wail of the compiler called and I was compelled to answer. I transferred to the Faculty of Science in second year.

Computer programming is my chosen craft. I like it. I like creating. I don't think most people know that programming is creative. It is necessarily creative because there are as many ways to write a program as there are ways to write a story, most of which are equivalent and a matter of taste. There are always hidden nuggets of genius for intrepid, creative programmers. And when your ideas are finally realized you feel like a god. Maybe some see computers as rigid, harsh, and cold-- "ERROR!". I see them as fair and malleable. Like pottery of the mind. And is it not kind to be truly fair and without judgement? Is a storm cruel, the sun compassionate? No. Those things just Are. Emotions, judgements, errors, cleverness, hubris, victories, defeats, belong to mankind. When I stare into the glass screen, I am reflected. When I am tired, my programs sag and droop. When I am sharp, they slash and execute. When I am playful, they, too, tarry. And through it all they carry my hello across the wires of the world at lightspeed. At once the entire endeavour is complete fantasy: gazing into a magic mirror, imbued with lightning, twisting arcane language, talking to both many and none, head in the clouds, building a castle of the mind. Or is it a lone tower?

Coming out of high school I also liked animating. I could have gone down that path. But I wanted to prove to myself that I could do a hard science. In this respect I'm very happy with my degree. I reached the highest level of STEM rigour that I care to achieve in the only subject I care to do it in. My life may be very different had I pursued the arts instead. If I was 17 right now with my current experiences I could make it happen, but I remember back then I was not confident in myself or in art. I thought it was too risky. In that way I chose the safer pragmatic path, the path of plodding progress, and not the path of bold daring. The Smart Way versus the Stupid Way -- a matter of perspective. Yet I am still grateful for my resolve and what I've learned. Besides, I reckon it's easier to go from CS to art than the other way around. Art is always there if I want to study it, and what's more, now I have a means to afford it. I'm happy with my choice. In a corner of my mind I regret not studying Design. Ah well. Had I followed that path instead I would probably think the same of CS.

There's a well-trodden poem by Robert Frost, "The Road Not Taken":

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.

The eighth-grade english class interpretation of this poem is to take "the road not taken"; be different instead of following everyone else. But there's another more interesting meaning. The excerpt I quoted here suggests that the two roads are equally good. The best road is the one you picked, and the life you lived, no matter what precipitated. Because the past is the past and what actually happened is the best simply by virtue of it being real. That's a comforting thought.

"There were loose threads, untidy parts of me that I would like to remove. But when I pulled on one of those threads it unravelled the tapestry of my life." -Picard, TNG S6E15 "Tapestry"

You have to accept that you will make mistakes. I know that things are alright as long as I still care to try.

The idea of easy careers in tech was propogating when I started university. For me, the money has always been secondary, though still very much relevant. I want to satisfy my curiosity and desire to create, sustainably. I genuinely like to hack, write codes that rhyme, and compose elegant systems. Similar to how cleaning the house improves my mood, writing a nice code to be just so makes my brain happy. I do value the financial stability, provided my creative needs are met. There is nothing noble about being poor for its own sake.

However, I have noticed the effect of this gold rush on computing science. It seems like everyone and their mom wants some of that software engineering money. CS is in a unique position among other white-collar vocations: the bar to entry is lower than in medicine, law, or finance. To reach the upper echelons of tech all you need is a Bachelor's in CS, or if you're smart, no credentials at all aside from a sharp Github and a fat LinkedIn.

Honestly, it's annoying to me that people think tech is easy. It's actually quite difficult. I've been doing this for 8 years and I'm not even close to being an expert. There is just so, so much to know. Only a particular kind of person really excels at programming. But somewhere along the line the mainstream got it into their heads that anyone can code! Maybe anyone can code. Just not well. Coders that don't seem to care about the quality of their work are horrible because they create problems that have to be cleaned up later. You have to have the right mindset, and chasing the bag only gets you so far. Though, I would not hold the gate closed for anyone daring enough to try, nor would I deny anyone their supper. Remember that this is all coming from a guy that writes jank PHP for a living now.

Speaking of misconceptions, it seems to me that there is a misconception about university. The goal of an undergraduate degree isn't to specialise-- actually the opposite. An undergrad degree exposes you to multiple complex fields of knowledge at an introductory level. It's merely a beginning of building knowledge and skill; a foundation. It should leave you with more questions than answers. Those looking to specialise (ie. everybody who wants employment) should either commit to the long haul of post-grad study, go to a technical school, or build a skill on their own to complement their studies. Or, create your own product or service. Opportunities are abundant and many paths are yet undiscovered and unique. The point is that your education only has value for you, not for others. You have to convert the value you gained from your education to value for others, in whatsoever form that may take. You gotta find a niche. The good news is that value for yourself, in the form of your character, knowledge, experience, and expertise, has incredible potential energy. If you can convert even a fraction of that to your livelihood, you'll probably be fine. These are economics of knowledge.

Many people have it the other way around: they think a university degree should provide specialisation in a particular field. This is a mistake. University degrees are coveted because they should give you superior communication and reasoning skills. Like muscles, these skills need to be strained and practiced to grow. They make you fit for Great tasks, challenges, and responsibilities. If you graduated university without a foundational ability to write, research, problem solve, plan, question, think independently, and act independently, then you wasted your time. If you did gain these skills then in theory you can fathom anything, even if you don't have the resources (yet) to create reality. University could then be considered a bootcamp of the mind.

If this sounds elitist, well, that's because it is. This concept of an education without vocation used to only be available for rich aristocrats. And to a large extent, it still is, except that now you can go into debt to pretend to be an aristocrat for a while. That's a bad deal for most. So administrators try to include both vocation and education in the same program. At the end, you get what you put in. Some work their butts off and get both; others cruise by and get neither.

Tech offers relatively easy access to white collar work and class mobility, so compsci programs are flooded with students. Inequality and the cost of living is rising, which leads to higher stakes for students to succeed. More strain is placed on the school. Fewer services and supports are offered. Tensions between parties rise proportional to tuition. What you get is an experience that's less like an education and more like a transaction. People are less like students and more like customers. Perhaps this is why faculty complain about students being entitled. I bought the class, so I should get a grade, right? I bought the degree, so I should get a job, right? The customer is always right, right? Many students literally cannot afford to fail.

Not to mention the public meme of "university == good job". Perhaps this was true fifty years ago when educated folk were few; being educated automatically implied many important virtues that qualified you for running an operation. And that still may be at least partly true, but a combination of supply & demand and the degregation of education are taking effect, plus a good many other interlocking societal phenonema. It's a bit of a spaghetti mess that I will not claim to understand fully. But it is a positive feedback loop that ends in the university being a diminished place of learning, new ideas, or innovation. It loses the ability to transmit wisdom, rationality, and independent thought to its students. That's the difference between an Education and a mere degree.

Should everybody go to university? I don't know. I sure hope so. That would be utopian. Maybe if everything was automated we could eliminate scarcity -- then everyone could major in venezuelan gender studies or whatever. But until then that's simply not the world we live in. Somebody has to grow food and repair pipes and collect garbage javascript.

For computer programmers, perhaps a better distinction of professions would help. Break up the Yugoslavia that is Computing Science. Polytechnics, technical schools, vocational schools, and bootcamps can train the Web Scripters. And universities can educate the Computing Scientists (theoretical math discipline) and Software Engineers (applied engineering discipline). Though in practice there is overlap between these still. No system is perfect, but at least this way people know what they're signing up for. I can already see this happening a bit with the appearance of an actual "Software Engineering" program in the Faculty of Engineering.

The X-factor that I'll ignore for the sake of brevity is the power of the web for education. Probably half of my programming skills I taught myself using the web. You can certainly educate yourself by reading classic texts on your own. Maybe one day universities will no longer be the most robust repositories of knowledge. The internet has the power to deliver excellent education to anybody that is willing. Now if we could just solve the problems of curation and structure. Google? Hello?

Anyway, all this elitist talk is rich coming from me. I scrapped and bled my way through my major. Some people are naturals at compsci and ace all the theory classes, but I don't really speak math. It probably takes me 3 or 4 tries to actually understand theoretical material. Saying my degree was a lot of work is putting it lightly. At 60 hour weeks across 14 semesters, I estimate that my degree took around 11 thousand hours of work to complete. On more than one occasion my program was in jeopardy. After years I eventually took it for granted that I was a student. Especially during COVID, I only saw the next assignment in front of me. I kept my head down and worked. Until one day, it was done.

My last CS class was "Security in a Networked World"-- intro to network security. At this point I was a grizzled 6th year student among juniors. It was the first semester back in-person since COVID and my peers were rankling at the paper exams. They had taken their first two years of university online, and had never written in-person exams. But not me. I still remembered the Before Times when we would be herded into the gymnasium for the slaughter. I studied two-thirds of the material, sharpened my pencil with my fingernail (yes, really; I didn't have a sharpener), and killed that test.

The very last exam of my degree was for a senior humanities class, "The Viking Age". Three long-form, researched essay responses. Take home. It took me 7 hours to complete. I wrote about the Battle of Stamford Bridge. I slew that test too.

That's how I knew I had conquered university.