Daniel Mendelsohn on the Odyssey

“…I always resist the “classics is impractical” line that people love to come up with when they are critical of the higher study of these fields. You can study accounting. It’s authentically practical in one way. But when your father dies, your accounting degree is not going to help you at all to process that experience. Homer will help you. The Odyssey will help you. Great literature will help you think about mortality and losing loved ones. That seems very practical to me.

A broad education in which you’re deeply read in literature, and history, and philosophy, and mathematics, and science: this teaches us how to be human beings and it teaches us also how to be citizens. I know that sounds very idealistic, but if the current social and political situation in this country is in any way a marker of what a generation spent focusing on STEM does, then I think clearly we need a different answer. The crude preoccupation with moneymaking as the only goal of a college education is giving us a citizenry that is extremely degraded, as far as I’m concerned. I think it’s only the crudest and least interesting practicality that has no time for the humanities.”

Daniel Mendelsohn, “Daniel Mendelsohn on the Odyssey.” The Octavian Report. August 12, 2022

Of course, an important question is which Odyssey do you read, Emily Wilson’s, Richmond Lattimore’s or someone else’s? Another think that I found interesting is how they talked about life being tragedy and comedy modes of viewing the world mentioned a few days ago.

Schools of Virtue

“Marion Turner, professor of English literature at Oxford University, put it frankly: “I’m not trained to teach students how to be good people, and that’s not my job.”

It’s a fair point. It is very pleasant to make a list of intellectual virtues, but why should we believe that academics can teach students courage, humility or any othe r virtue? Yet if not academics, then who? Parents? Primary schoolteachers? Newspaper columnists? Perhaps we should just hope that people acquire these virtues for themselves? I am really not sure.

Barry Schwartz is on to something, that is clear. Facts, logic, quantitative tools and analytical clarity are all very well, but the art of thinking well requires virtues as well as skills. And if we don’t know who will teach those virtues, or how to teach them, that explains a lot about the world in which we now live.”

-Tim Harford, “Learning to think well involves hearts as well as minds.” Financial Times. July 7, 2022

It’s an interesting point. If it is not the job of our universities, colleges and/or grade schools to teach people to be good, whose job is it? Where are our schools of virtue?

It seems the most likely answer: we don’t have them.

Calling Bullshit

“Our learning objectives are straightforward. After taking the course, you should be able to:

* Remain vigilant for bullshit contaminating your information diet.

* Recognize said bullshit whenever and wherever you encounter it.

* Figure out for yourself precisely why a particular bit of bullshit is bullshit.

* Provide a statistician or fellow scientist with a technical explanation of why a claim is bullshit.

* Provide your crystals-and-homeopathy aunt or casually racist uncle with an accessible and persuasive explanation of why a claim is bullshit.

We will be astonished if these skills do not turn out to be among the most useful and most broadly applicable of those that you acquire during the course of your college education.”

Calling Bullshit Syllabus

College Return-on-Investment (ROI)

Open Question: Is a college education worth the expense, including tuition, opportunity costs, debt obligation, etc.?

“Using data from the expanded College Scorecard, this report ranks 4,500 colleges and universities by return on investment. A First Try at ROI: Ranking 4,500 Colleges finds that bachelor’s degrees from private colleges, on average, have higher ROI than degrees from public colleges 40 years after enrollment. Community colleges and many certificate programs have the highest returns in the short term, 10 years after enrollment, though returns from bachelor’s degrees eventually overtake those of most two-year credentials.”

A First Try at ROI

Goodhart’s Law & The Ivy League

“Two years ago I was at an event in Boston and I happened to sit at a dinner table across from a guy widely recognized to be one of the most brilliant people in the world.  We talked mostly about AI but at one point the conversation turned to hiring, and he told me that for 2 decades he has tracked the performance of everyone who worked for him. Based on that performance tracking, he had stopped hiring from Harvard and Stanford. He said that historically, his best employees came from Harvard, Stanford, and MIT, but that starting 5 or 6 years prior, the people coming out of Harvard and Stanford started to really slip in their performance. I asked why, and he said that he didn’t know, but had a hypothesis. He said “I believe that ivy league college admissions has become so competitive that it rewards people who are good at the admissions process, not people who are good.”

This is a form of Goodhart’s Law, which says “when a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure.” You can see where this is going, and that there may be a similar law for machine learning.  We are in a phase of AI where we are using data sets that were created for other purposes, not with AI in mind. What happens when you know all your data is going to be fed into an AI?  Does it change the data you create?

-Rob May, “Goodhart’s Law and AI Data Sets.” Inside AI. June 3, 2019.

The Case Against Education | RadioWest

“Bryan Caplan says our higher education system is a waste of time and money. Caplan is a Princeton-educated, tenured professor of economics at George Mason University. He argues though that while a degree has become indispensable for competing in the job market, college isn’t actually teaching applicable skills or even teaching people how to learn. And worse yet? Many graduates are deep in debt and still not getting a great job.”

Listen to the Interview.