I miss college. It afforded me a great deal of time to learn some new things. But these days, undergrad education is getting a bad rap, which is a pity, because in my experience, college was useful.
They say there are some things they don’t teach you in school. Well, there are some things they don’t teach you in banking, private equity, or the entertainment business. And some of the models and tools I picked up in college have changed the way I see the world (for the better):
1. Comparative Advantage: The concept of comparative advantage is simple, but can be counter-intuitive: two parties, no matter how good either of them is at producing a product, can at the very least, benefit from trade. It’s a powerful conclusion and it rests on a truth about any economy or individual: we all have opportunity costs. I remember doing the math the first time, because I had to take a break afterward to enjoy this new idea taking root in my head. How often does that happen to you in the real world? Economist Jodi Beggs does a great job explaining this concept here.
2. Recursive programming: If there is one awesome idea I retain from my comp sci classes, it’s probably this one. If you can express a problem in terms of itself, you’ve discovered something wonderful about the very nature of the problem. This is one of the most practical tools I picked up because I still code as a hobby.
3. Humans as the vessels of ideas: The next best thing to this part of college was picking up a copy of the Selfish Gene, which captures the biological equivalent of this idea. Back in the day when Richard Dawkins was focused on evolutionary biology, he did a great job explaining this idea that organisms can be seen as vessels for these units of life called genes. This helped to explain a variety of behavior where life seemed to favor other life with similar gene sets. Those internet memes you see floating around – they are the social equivalents of successful ideas and will probably outlast you and me for very similar reasons.
4. Ishmael: I came home one day and began talking excitedly to my two roommates like I had just smoked something. We had just been assigned this book by a guy called Daniel Quinn who had wrapped up a depressing outlook on human civilization in a trippy tale centered on a talking gorilla. I retain one important quote from this work to this day:
“There’s nothing fundamentally wrong with people. Given a story to enact that puts them in accord with the world, they will live in accord with the world. But given a story to enact that puts them at odds with the world, as yours does, they will live at odds with the world. Given a story to enact in which they are the lords of the world, they will act as the lords of the world. And, given a story to enact in which the world is a foe to be conquered, they will conquer it like a foe, and one day, inevitably, their foe will lie bleeding to death at their feet, as the world is now.”
To this day, one of my roommates refers to this time as my “Ishmael” period. I think that’s fine because everyone is entitled to a post-paradigm trance.
A couple of other models and skills I picked up in college:
5. The bit (1/0) as the foundation for a useful language. I’m just scratching the surface of information theory here. There is a fascinating history and science herewhere you can get lost (in a pleasant way).
6. The factors that shape human culture. Starting with Guns, Germs and Steel.
7. Asymmetric cryptography. Every cryptography course starts with some interesting problem-solving insights like the Alice and Bob story. Understanding this technology gives you the basis for understanding some of the cloud security issues we face today. If you own a cloud business today, you would be remiss to not take a class on cryptography.
8. Mathematical induction. The idea that combining a truth for n = 1 and a truth for n = n + 1 gets you a truth for all n. More here. Very abstract and basic stuff but extremely powerful.
9. Hypothesis testing and regression analysis on data sets. Once considered very dry but data science is all the rage nowadays. Funny how often that happens.
10. Fund-raising. Somewhere along the way, I began to feel that our economics program could do more to excite undergrads about economics. With the help of a team I drew together, I conceived a journal dedicated to undergraduate writing and research in economics. We had plenty of skeptics, one of whom had attempted the same project the prior year. So although I wasn’t working on a terribly original idea, I persisted. I canvassed the whole economics department and eventually landed several thousand dollars in funding. We managed to release two editions before I had to graduate. Here’s how I sum up what I learnt. Two people with the same idea. One didn’t stay the course. The other did and that made all the difference.
What I picked up in college was more than a couple of mental models and tools that you can find in a library or on the Internet. What I brought away was a far more curated and useful experience.
As individuals, we have a decent understanding of a variety of personal behavior. We can appreciate the survival of the fittest. We can appreciate cheaper is better. These are concepts most of us pick up through our immediate experiences. But our understanding of the world tends to break down as soon as we attempt to rise above this level. Without the ability to consider the sum of the parts, people tend to make poorer decisions or none at all. In my opinion, that’s the essence of a decent college education: it gives you a foundation to make better decisions.
Is it that surprising that so many startup founders are college dropouts or that they spent any time at all there? Where would Facebook be if it hadn’t been founded in a college dorm? Even the universally admired college dropout Steve Jobs found a good reason to return:
“Reed College at that time offered perhaps the best calligraphy instruction in the country. Throughout the campus every poster, every label on every drawer, was beautifully hand calligraphed. Because I had dropped out and didn’t have to take normal classes, I decided to take a calligraphy class to learn how to do this. I learned about serif and sans serif typefaces, about varying the amount of space between different letter combinations, about what makes great typography great.”
We have to shift this debate from the black and white discussion it is today to more useful questions like: how can we make college affordable? Do college degrees need to be four years? How can we make degrees more meaningful indicators? How can we help students gain business experience? Can we rebuild the college education in more digestible chunks? Not everyone can afford a $120K education, but everyone should have access to it in some form.