I have a very hard time doing things for their own sake. If I want to learn a programming language, I will get very little done if the strategy mainly involves reading the textbook and doing the exercises. I feel like I am wasting my time—this is probably why I have “issues” with the way the industrial school system works with students being engaged in homework for its own sake effectively producing nothing. Fortunately for many, I don’t think they realize on a deep level that this is simply a default mode and not the only mode.

When I try to learn something I prefer to learn as I go along. Courses and seminars don’t work as well for me. This of course depends on the kind of knowledge. It is in intellectual information, it works quite fine, but if it involves doing things either with the brain or the hands, it is better to be involved in the process of learning it rather than listening to someone talking about what they learned.

This is why I vastly prefer the apprentice model as a way to learn specialized skills. This model has fallen on the wayside because frankly, most jobs today actually do not require skill(*). Verily, the kind robots are already looking to replace you.

(*) For any given job, how long does it take for you to learn to do things without supervision in the sense of someone looking over your shoulder to check at all times. In most cases, not too long.

When I learn new things, I prefer to take on a real project. If you read previous posts, you can see how I did it with bike repair. I did not take classes and I did not buy “the set” of tools. I got a broken bike and concentrated specifically on the parts that needed fixing and I specifically got the tools required for fixing that particular bike(*). Then I got a new bike and repeated the process. And so on. Interestingly enough I eventually ended up with almost exactly the tools in “the set”.

(*) Bike repair is relatively simple as it is all a collection of nuts and bolts. The most difficult part is sourcing replacement parts, but once you got them it is simply a matter of screwing the bolts in. If you can put the cap back on a tube of toothpaste, you can do bike repair.

Here, my “education” was based on real work rather than doing exercises for their own sake. Imagine how much labor would be available if everybody did real work instead of exercises.

You could have 12 year olds checking the math of real tax returns—perhaps working in the back office(*). Recumbent exercise cycles at the gym could be hooked up to electricity generators. Instead of going them and lifting barbells, you could go to a dockyard and lift sacks of corn. Even for writing I remember my 9th grade teachers suddenly noticing that my essays had taken a remarkable turn for the better after I started participating in newsgroups with the aim to convey a point rather than fill two pages with words about some inane novel.

(*) Actually, when I was 12, I was summing up inventory lists for a supermarket.

The amount of effort thus wasted on exercise in an “educational” setting must be staggering. I can actually give you a number. Based on the length of a typical education and life expectancy, it must be close to 25–33%, namely the time spent on institutional education.

Of course if this labor was made available, it would drive the cost of labor significantly down. There would simply be much too much supply given the demand. sure everybody could work, but then we would, as we do now, have a real problem of having enough wasteful consumers clearing the shelves of all the products they produce. Instead, we have a limited demand for labor, yet since employers ceteris paribus wants the “best” labor they can get the educational demands on the employee has gone up not as a function of the actual skills required but simply because competing employees have them. As a consequence, employees engage in a pointless exercise merely to “win at getting a job” and this is why we now have job ads that say “Store manager. Must have bachelors degree and the ability to lift 50 pounds”. This is also why researchers in some fields are now into their 30s before they can even think of applying for a real job. The supply is simply so large that in order to rise to the top much additional effort must be spent, not on learning (even though that’s what the employers say) but simply competing with the others.

This is quite sad.

There are two models for this.

In the first model, you actually pay to work. This is called education or getting a degree. Here you work is pointless. In this case it is in the interest of the payee to give the impression that what you are paying for is very important and worth it.

In the second model, you get paid too little for your work. In this case it is in the interest of the payee to increase worker supply to drive the supply curve upwards. This is why industry is always saying there are too few scientists and engineers. It’s not true, but if they say this, they can get them cheaper.

What is the solution to this systemic problem?

In either case it is very hard to tackle the problem head on. The problem is particularly hard if the vocation involves perception, that is, the buyer thinks he is somehow getting better quality because the seller has more or better credentials. This is a problem whenever the product is intangible or it is something which the buyer has little understanding. Unfortunately, this involves a lot of different products these days. However, sticking to simple and tangible products makes it a lot easier to compete based on the virtues of the product. Most people can understand a bicycle to some degree. Fewer people can understand a car. Hence, you can set up shop as an uncredentialized bicycle mechanic, but it is harder to set up shop as an uncredentialized auto mechanic.

Originally posted 2010-03-01 11:47:08.