Education Is Chaotic

While I’m quoting other people saying smart things, Timothy Burke has another great post on the failures of economic models of higher education

There is a lot of information that you could acquire about courses or about colleges that you could reasonably use to assemble a decision matrix. What size is the class or the college? Do you have a good reason for thinking that you flourish in small or large classes or institutions? What do you think you need in terms of knowledge or training? What kinds of environments and teaching styles do you enjoy or find stimulating? And so on–this often information you could have, and sometimes, I agree, information that is hard to come by that shouldn’t be so hard to get.

But then think on all the things that make a difference in a class or a university that you cannot possibly know about no matter how much information you have. The friends you will make. The people you will love. The mentors who will strike a chord with you. The class that will surprise you and change your views of everything. The chance experience you have that will transform you. You can find an environment that is rich in people, in time, in resources, in the unexpected (and some colleges and classes are impoverished in all or most of those). But you can’t determine any of the specifics with all the information in the world and yet it is these specifics that create the most “added value”. Perhaps even more importantly, it’s not the person who just had the experience who will value the commodity most (or rue it most dearly), it’s the person you will be in the years to come. That person is not you in so many ways: you are today very very bad at predicting what that person needed or wanted and you always will be bad at it. If we could sue our younger selves, many of us probably would.

That bit really struck a chord. It’s not that I had a particularly erratic path through college, or anything– I went in thinking I would major in physics, and I did– but around the edges of that, there are a zillion little decisions I made that had a profound effect on me and my future career, very few of which looked like they would be all that significant when I first made them.

Educationally, two of the very best classes I took at Williams came out of a lightly made decision. I needed to take at least one course about a non-Western culture, and had just read a bunch of William Gibson novels, so I went for “Modern Japan.” The class turned out to be fantastic, and I made a point of taking the same professor’s course on Vietnam a couple years later, which was also awesome. And that first class also played a big role in making me take the opportunity to spend a few months in Japan when I was a grad student.

Socially, a lot of my path was set when I decided to go see what rugby was like in the fall of my freshman year, after one of the officers on the club stopped by to visit one of the JA’s in my entry, and talked me into it. The combination of a fun sport and all the alcohol I cared to drink drew me in, and most of my close friends from college are people I wound up hanging out with through rugby. And it also colored all my interactions with non-rugby people as well. If I’d decided to try Ultimate Frisbee instead, or hold out to see if I could make the basketball team, my college experience would’ve been very different.

Even within physics, chance plays a big role. I enjoyed my classes quite a bit, but didn’t have a very clear interest in anything all that particular until my junior year, when Claude Cohen-Tannoudji came to campus and gave a talk about Sisyphus cooling. He’s a really wonderful speaker, and that talk really caught my imagination; when I heard there was an experiment being started to do laser cooling at Williams, I definitely wanted in on that. And doing my thesis there led me to apply to the Chemical Physics program at Maryland, where I got offered a fellowship and a summer job working in Bill Phillips’s lab, and the rest is history. A different inspiring speaker, though, and I might’ve gone in a different direction.

This ends up reflected in a lot of the advice I give students. I try not to be annoying about it, but I do make an effort to push them to try things they might not otherwise, and sign up for courses that just sound sort of like they might be kind of interesting, maybe. I actually have a bit of a hard time dealing with students who are too focused on a particular Plan for their lives– people who have their whole lives plotted out in detail at eighteen kind of creep me out, to be honest.

The post title isn’t a suggestion that education is fundamentally disorderly or unruly, it’s a reference to a more mathematical notion of chaos, as “sensitive dependence on initial conditions.” Most courses and even majors follow a pretty orderly and deterministic path, from one day to the next, and one class to the next. But the exact sequence of steps can be shifted in a very different direction by tiny, seemingly insignificant decisions, by details that you don’t really notice at the time.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that the decision of whether to take a history course about Japan as a sophomore is going to make the difference between a tenured professorship and sleeping in a van down by the river, or anything– the vast majority of the different directions things might’ve gone for me would also probably end up with me being more or less successful and more or less happy in whatever I decided to do. The details, though, could be very different, in a way that would amount to my being a qualitatively different person.

And that’s a big part of why my standard advice on college decisions is basically “Everybody calm down.” Education is sensitively dependent on initial conditions that you can’t really measure. As such, it’s not really worth getting too worked up over finding the exactly perfect school, or major, or whatever. You could go to the “perfect” school, and get stuck with a horrible roommate and end up transferring to get away from them. Or you could end up taking some odd course because you wanted to be in a class with your significant other, and end up being captivated by the subject and changing your major. Or any of a thousand other small random perturbations that shift the overall experience in a very different direction.

That’s not to say that nothing matters, so you should pick colleges and majors by throwing darts, or whatever. There are broad factors that make a big difference– prestigious colleges and universities will generally give you more opportunities than for-profit schools, and some broad groups of majors lead more directly to good jobs than others. But beyond that really coarse level, so much of what will happen is beyond your control that it’s not worth the trouble of trying to nail down every tiny detail. Just accept that there will be some unavoidable uncertainty, and try to enjoy the ride.

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