The Best Educational Institution in the World
Note: I originally intended to publish this at the end of February. I decided to hold off until now because of COVID-19.
What would happen to college dorms if all colleges disappeared? Imagine some crazy parallel Universe in which the US government decided to disband all institutions of higher learning: All professors and administrators get fired, all classes are canceled, nowhere to turn anymore to get a university degree, yet all student housing remains open. What happens next? What will this crowd of young adults do? Just a day earlier they were college students with assignments, schedules, exams… Just a day earlier, they were living under the watchful eye of campus security and residential assistants. Now, they are all slammed from their state of extended childhood straight into adulthood.
Maybe they would start by throwing a giant party. Not necessarily because they would be happy that this track, that society had laid out for them to mindlessly follow, suddenly had disappeared, but because that is what college students do when they have nothing else to do. And with no one to stop them if the music became too loud, or if people started to become visibly intoxicated, the temptation would probably be too great.
But then, as the hangovers would pass, these former college students would have to decide what would come next. What would they want to do with their lives? Many would probably move back in with their parents and hope to figure things out there. Others would look for a job, and maybeget the same job they would have gotten had they finished their degree. After all, most jobs don’t require any of the knowledge and skills taught in college.
And since no one would be getting a degree anymore, companies would have to abandon the practice of discriminatingbased on degree completion and invest some more in applicant screening. This would allow those who don’t have a degree, who are disproportionately low income individuals or from a minority background, to have a shot at those jobs that, for no good reason, require a Bachelor’s degree. And when a skill typically learned in college would be required for a specific job, companies could increase the resources spent on employee training.
But some students might stay in the college dormitories. Some students weren’t there just to get a degree and improve their job prospects. Some students were actually there to learn. They didn’t enroll into university because they believed they might be left behind if they didn’t, but because they wanted to study physics, and understand the mysteries of the universe. They were fascinated by the intrinsic beauty of mathematics. They wanted to understand the intricacies of the world’s economic system, and learn how to improve people’s lives. They wanted to discover how computers work, and how to build software. They pursued a philosophy degree, not because they hoped to become a lawyer, but because they wanted to think about the mysteries of consciousness and about what constitutes a good life. They wanted to learn about human psychology, the history of civilization, what unites and divides different societies.
These students didn’t need any extrinsic motivation to learn. And so you might identify them by finding those who were already spending some of their free time reading books, reading blogs and tutorials, watching videos and listening to podcasts about the subjects they were fascinated by. And when the university disappears, some of them might just decide to continue to study on their own.
They would use free online material including the video lectures and other material put online by many top universities. They would find out what textbooks were used in the classes not yet taken, and ask more advanced students for help. They would create reading and study groups to help each other out, and hold each other accountable for their progress.
They might invite their former favorite professors to come over to ask them questions, ask for advice or just talk. These former educators would thus face the most attentive and interested audience they ever encountered in their whole career. None of the students would be there because they were hoping to get a good grade, or because they were meeting some random requirement to get their degree. They would all be there because they actually cared about what the scholar had to tell them.
In the meantime, some of the public money that used to go into universities, as well as some investment from the private sector would be used to open new research labs or think tanks. And because a university degree cannot be used anymore as a screening tool, some clever company might start to develop comprehensive and challenging standardized tests that research organizations and think tanks might be able to use as a screening tool to find those who have the knowledge and skills necessary to contribute to the organization’s mission. These would then allow those young adults who continued to learn after the closure of all colleges to demonstrate their progress, and allow them to make a career in their chosen field of study, despite the complete absence of any higher education institution.
You might think that this scenario is unrealistic. The part about governments closing all universities certainly is. But maybe you also don’t believe that there is at least a substantial minority of students who might be capable of learning without the structure of an expensive 4-year college, or you are skeptical that significantly cheaper alternative structures are possible. I will get back to this in a few paragraphs.
For now, the only point I am hoping to illustrate with this thought experiment is that the higher education system today is full of bullshit. It becomes quite obvious when you know what to look for. Students will take classes they have no interest in. They usually do as little work as they can get away with. They choose the easiest professors, cram for exams and don’t care if they forget everything right after the end of a semester. They feel frustrated when they learned something that ended up not being on the test, and happy when they get away with not doing a required reading. Professors are waging a battle against ignorance with unwilling conscripts that fear a bad grade infinitely more than leaving the semester having learned nothing.
But who can blame them? They can smell the bullshit. For most students, their college major ends up never being relevant to their career. Meanwhile, colleges have little respect for those who learn things on their own rather than concentrating on whatever busywork is required of them. The student’s behavior is quite rational given their environment. Of course, if college actually were about learning, students would indeed do themselves a disservice, but unbeknownst to most students and professors, the core product of universities isn’t actually an education, but just the degree one gets at the end of it. Ask yourself, would you rather have a Yale degree without the education, or a Yale education without the degree?
People often complain that their work often feels meaningless. Employees don’t see how their effort is contributing to the company they work for, or the society they inhabit. But there is nothing more meaningless than the arbitrary deadlines and irrelevant coursework that are the subject of college students’ attention, and the cause of their stress for four years. It’s bullshit. And it is this bullshit that is at the root of the student debt crisis, the rapidly increasing cost of higher education, and it is also one important factor in the recent decrease in social mobility, and itcontributes to the hiring discrimination faced by vulnerable minorities. Why would anyone want to put more public money in such a system?
But is there really a better way? Is the vision I present at the beginning, of students taking responsibility for their own education, a realistic one? Or is it just a pipe dream? Today I can say with some conviction that the education experience I sketched earlier is indeed possible, as I have experienced something quite similar for the past eight months.
I got my first hint that an educational experience significantly different than what is currently on offer is possible when I dropped out of high school two years before graduating, and passed the French Baccalaureat with honors by just studying on my own. I wrote about this experience in detail in a previous post.
It was this attainment, getting into college despite having dropped out of high school, that then gave me the confidence to also drop out of college in the summer of 2018. When it became clear to me what a sham higher education had become, I set myself the task to find an alternative. I had become convinced that, in theory at least, anything traditionally learned within the gates of academia could also be learned outside of it. This was informed by both my experience dropping out of high school and my observations in college, where more often than not, students ended up learning the class material on their own anyways. The professor’s main function being just to set the content and pace and to enforce deadlines.
My initial plan had been to look for a junior software engineering job in London. I did a handful of interviews, but I ended up giving up on that plan. I was feeling increasingly ambivalent about the idea of getting an entry level programming job rather than self-studying Machine Learning (ML), where I ultimately wanted my career to go. I also became increasingly depressed. Living alone in a tiny airbnb room with no desk in a city in which I knew no one turned out to be more difficult than I had anticipated.
At the end of 2018, I ended up moving back in with my mother. This set-back was quite sobering, but there were some silver linings. During my time in London, I increasingly became aware of the importance of social support, and outside accountability. Sure, a smart disciplined individual can get far on his own, but a solitary education is still quite sub-optimal.
And so, I started to experiment with my ideas of outside accountability. I started to learn probability and linear algebra. During the day I left my door open and left my screen facing the door, so that I at least had to look busy at all times. And I started meeting with my mother every evening to tell her what progress I had made, and what were my plans for the next day. It worked quite well for a while though due to various circumstances this routine ultimately petered out.
I did start to consider various bootcamps or online coding schools at the time. But I had started to develop a fairly concrete idea of what the ideal educational institution would look like and Lambda School or any other bootcamp weren’t it. For one thing, they produce their own educational material, which given the abundance of free online material, is a clear sign to me that they are doing something wrong. Education startups should be complementary to, rather than competing with, the wealth of content already available online. Here’s an excerpt from one well received review of Lambda School, in my opinion one of the best online coding schools out there, on the r/learnprogramming subreddit:
TL,DR: If you’re smart enough to teach yourself topics you will succeed without Lambda, if you go to Lambda and learn the stuff at an equally fast rate you will also succeed except you will have to give up 17% of your earnings for 2 years. (If you earn over 50,000)
This is not entirely fair, but insofar as Lambda School is busy hiring teachers and creating lectures for their course, it is true that it isn’t adding much value. They are probably just duplicating educational content that already exists for free online. The real value of Lambda school comes from the accountability it provides for students. Students in bootcamps make a big commitment at the beginning, and roll calls, live lectures and deadlines for assignments keep everyone on track. Sure, it’s possible to learn everything on your own, but it takes a lot of discipline, and that’s what these online coding schools are selling: Discipline.
The other problem with these coding schools is that they are all still one size fits all. Everyone has to go at the same rhythm, and the content learned is the same for everyone. So, there is no incentive to go faster than the official pace; people who cannot keep up flunk out. If you already know parts of the curriculum, you will waste money, and if you want to learn something outside of the curriculum, then again, you’re faced with the problem of having to learn everything on your own.
I did however see one organization that did have many of the ingredients I saw as lacking in all other educational organizations. While in London, I had gone to a few rationalist meet-ups. I had become aware of these during my research for the piece I wrote to explain my decision to drop out of college. I had stumbled on a few excellent posts on the problems with the current education system on the Slate Star Codex blog, and saw some meetups advertised there.
In one of these meetups, I heard about the “EA Hotel.” The effective altruist hotel. All they did was offer room and board for people working on effective altruist projects, or for effective altruists wanting to further their education. That sounded almost exactly like the ideal study setting I was imagining. It came with the social support, the freedom and also some accountability that I was looking for.
And so, in June of 2019 I moved to the EA hotel in Blackpool, UK. My experience at the hotel has been quite close to what I describe in my thought experiment. It was as if I had gotten into some weird and awesome graduate school. I was suddenly surrounded by a group of smart and highly educated young adults with whom I had regular high-level conversations about economics, philosophy, politics, psychology, AI...
Since I got there, I filled gaps in my understanding of the probability and linear algebra courses I had worked on, I went through the textbook “Introduction to Statistical Learning”, I built a lightweight deep learning library, I learned about computer vision, natural language and reinforcement learning and implemented various papers in those fields. Some of those papers were published less than a year ago. It took me about six months to go from knowing only some basic MLto getting to a point at which I understood much of the cutting-edge deep learning research.
I also developed a meditation habit, something I had tried to develop, but had failed at, many times before coming to the hotel. For the past eight months, I have meditated for 20 minutes six days a week. And I recently started to practice public speaking at the weekly “lightning talks” event. I also have read more books in the past eight months than in my two years in college, though, admittedly, that’s a fairly low bar.
The Hotel is not the perfect educational institution. Since I was the only person working on ML, I have had no one to discuss what I have been learning, or to turn to, to ask for help. Over the summer of 2019, an incoming senior at Cornell University stayed at the Hotel for a month and spent some of his time working on implementing DQN, a reinforcement learning algorithm developed by DeepMind. So, I dropped what I was working on then and put myself to the same task. I have some fond memories of our discussions trying to figure it out.
Also, I suspect most people would need more supervision. For the most part, I’ve managed to stay productive by getting into good habits from the start, always working in the common area and waking up early every day. The lessons I learned during my previous experiences with self-teaching came in quite handy, though people who are used to always being told what to do might find it more difficult. The ideal educational environment should externalize people’s own learning aspirations.
But despite the fact that I have some ideas on how the Hotel as an educational institution could be improved, I still believe that it provides the best learning experience currently available. The best opportunity for intellectual development isn’t offered by some expensive prestigious private university, but by a small charity in Blackpool, UK, the operating cost of which is less than 500£/month/resident.
To the question of whether the vision of a better education system I present at the beginning is in fact a realistic one, I can now answer that yes indeed, it is. Something very close already exists.