Scott H Young

Is What You Learn in School Really Useless?


Schoolhouse

I’ve heard the claim that, a few years out of college, most of what you’ve learned will be useless. It’s repeated so often it’s taken as fact.

Obviously the claim about the value of education varies on what you study. I doubt an engineer or statistician could claim academic knowledge has no impact on their job. Without it, few people would know where to start. But for business, teaching, programming and other professions, claims like this are often jokingly made by the professionals themselves.

This raises a broader question about academic knowledge in general. Is practical knowledge, or street smarts, vastly more important?

I’d like to defend book learning. Not just formal schooling, but the idea that learning from books matters and can’t be replaced simply by “going out and doing it”.

Why the Hate for Books?

The idea that book learning is far less important than practical knowledge is really common in business and entrepreneurship. In completing a business degree, I’ve often been asked if I felt it helped whatsoever in running a business. The expectation has been, that the important things can only be learned through experience.

I have a different perspective. Practical knowledge is important, but it’s a different kind of knowledge than theoretical learning. Most claims about the uselessness of book learning strike me as similar to complaints about a screwdriver being useless at hammering nails.

The reason book learning gets a bum rap, is that, in your day-to-day work, it really is useless. When a professional talks about how she doesn’t use her formal training on a daily basis, she’s probably right.

If you’re performing tasks repeatedly, or operating within a narrow spectrum of work, you develop practical knowledge and intuition about that work. So the programmer who spends 90% of his day writing database code of a similar style may find the complex theories he studied in school to be rarely applicable. The narrow use of practical knowledge takes over.

Where theoretical learning shines is in doing tasks outside your experience. No, studying something won’t give you the same level of aptitude as someone who has worked on that problem for years. But book knowledge gives you a much wider breadth in becoming skilled at a larger variety of tasks.

If Book Learning Doesn’t Count—Why Do People Still Go to School?

If many business professionals jokingly admit that what they studied in b-school was mostly useless, why do people still go? Part of it certainly is the networking and accreditation bias of institutions—but that still doesn’t explain the popularity of business books and seminars.

People invest a lot of time in theoretical knowledge even while joking that they never use it. Are they simply crazy?

I think the explanation is obvious: book learning is crucial, but at the beginning, not the end of the phase of mastery. Theoretical knowledge gives you the scaffolding, but only practical knowledge furnishes the building.

I’ve experienced this myself in running this business. Today, I use almost none of the theoretical knowledge I spent when I invested hundreds of hours learning about online businesses, writing, sales or building a website. All of it is either deeply integrated into what I do every day, or it was discarded as not being applicable to my situation.

But even though I don’t use all the books and articles I read getting started, that doesn’t mean the investment was wasted. It was invaluable in getting started. For example, learning copy writing provided the scaffolding of my ability to write a sales letter.

My business had a particularly low knowledge barrier to entry. You don’t need a lot of theory to start a blog, which is the reason so many people have. If I had wanted to build a web start-up the amount of book smarts to get started would have been much higher.

Theory is Broad, Experience is Narrow

In math, there’s the idea of a local and global maximum. The local maximum is a hill next to a mountain. If you were to stand atop the hill, blind to your surroundings, and simply feel the level of the ground, you would believe you were at the highest point. After all, looking around you, everything is downhill. However, in your blindness, you would miss the mountain that rises beside you.

The weakness of practical knowledge alone, in my mind, is that it tends to yield local maxima, not global maxima. Practical knowledge is narrow—you search for immediate solutions to your current problems. You also develop skill within a narrow range of disciplines.

The power of theory is that it helps you see beyond what you can currently reach. Studying business hasn’t taught me too much about running my current business. But it has taught me to look outward at other possibilities. Having theoretical knowledge lets me see other mountains I may want to climb.

This is why I think it’s important to learn from books and not to stop once you graduate from school or get your desired job. Broad, theoretical knowledge may be a lousy hammer at your current station, but it gives you the tools to think beyond your comfort zone.

Do You Need a 4-Year Diploma to Get Started?

No. Just as academics may be derided in the “real world” there are people who use lack of education as an excuse to procrastinate. The truth is, if formal knowledge is necessary for a goal, you can usually teach yourself.

Instead, I think the biggest implication is that there is a lot of value in learning things that aren’t immediately or obviously practical. Will you use most of them? Probably not. But that isn’t the point. The value is in being able to hop between peaks instead of getting stuck on the nearest hill you find.

Image courtesy of sanchom


Print Friendly
StumbleUpon It!

This website is supported, in part, by affiliate arrangements (usually Amazon). Affiliate relationships are always marked by bolded links.


18 Responses to “Is What You Learn in School Really Useless?”

  1. Nicky Spur says:

    Interesting post. At first I thought you were going to go for the anti-school side. I tend to jump on that — agreeing with the maxim that we discard 99% of what we learn in school, in fact I truly believe my time at university was better spent outside the classroom than in it no matter what skill was being learned (social, business, theoretical etc.).

    That being said I like you point. It’s easy to rag on school and all its downsides but in the midst of the tirade it pays to stop and think about what school (university in particular) does provide. For me it taught me distinctly what i did NOT want to do in the future, so much so that it’s driven me towards places and activities outside of school that I truly enjoy. It helped me gain perspective on life by wondering what the f*ck I was actually doing in school when I should be doing something that I truly was passionate about. This “anti-drive” made my future clear and helped m set goals about where I wanted to go, so in the case I found school exceptionally useful as a motivator.

    When I’m feeling more mature I can see the ‘scaffolding’ you speak of. The best way to advance in a skill or towards a goal I feel is a blend of theory and knowledge. However university I feel is very theory-intensive, so much so that even the most out of touch people realize that most of the information they’re attempting to learn or simply memorize is practically useless. Theory needs to be combined with taking action to be of any use. I find when I’m learning something, taking action, making mistakes, looking at theory then trying again is an excellent way to learn. Too much theory (as I believe is in school) kills the creative drive a lot of people have and makes them antsy to finish and focus on something they enjoy.

    I like what you’ve written however — I feel it comes from a mature perspective that makes me slow down, think and accept that maybe, just maybe, the academic portion of school has provided some value. Good stuff.

  2. Vic Magary says:

    I think Seth Godin recently wrote about a diploma being predominantly a marketing tool to find a job. I think there is some truth in that. Going to college/university is almost like a right of passage to get a “job”. But choosing whether school is right for you, depends on your personal goals and drives. . . I did 9 years of school, including graduating from law school. Now I’m a professional blogger. At first blush it looks like my formal education was useless, but as cliche as it sounds, I wouldn’t be who I am today without it.

  3. Fye says:

    I concur.
    Your article actually reminds me of one of my favorite question (mainly used for quick character filtration or generally stumping a smartass):

    If the smartest man were to engage in combat with most experience man in the world, who would triumph? Much like the Irrisistable Force Paradox.

    But since the subject at hand deals with living, thinking and learning beings, I’d lean towards having to acquire knowledge before moving towards the practical part.

  4. ah says:

    the post matched my observation that :

    the most competent guys are those who could COMBINE theory with practical experience……and when situation changed, they could adopt quick……

    however, there are far too many who are highly experienced but lacking theory. They are highly efficient in situations of their area, but they hit their limit at times when they are a little bit outside their area……

  5. Alexander says:

    >If many business professionals jokingly admit that what they studied in b-school was mostly useless, why do people still go?

    Because it’s the path of least resistance. It’s much easier to decide to just enroll than it is to look for one’s own personal path right now. It also relieves people of their responsibility. I don’t know anything about the effectiveness of b-school but I do know that people make decisions out of insecurity.

    off-topic:
    Have you ever thought about the fact that formal education seems to build up, step-by-step? It’s obvious why that choice is made: it seems impossible to learn something which you cannot build upon foreknowledge. However, I think there are disadvantages:
    1. You learn subjects that seem dull at the time because you don’t know yet why you need to learn them; instead of thinking “I really want to understand X, what do I need for that?” we think like “Hm, I’m learning Y right now; I’m sure it’s necessary, but I don’t know for what yet.” In my experience the former way of thought is far, FAR more inspiring.
    2. The possibility of experiencing the knowledge holistically is postponed; if you know beforehand what place the pieces are going to fall in, it’s easier to make connections sooner.
    3. Since the answer to “what do we teach them first” is always a compromise, you are not-learing certain things you would choose to learn if you’d know what you’re working towards.

    Two examples:
    1. What if someone said “hey, here is a book/film in the foreign language you want to learn; and here is a list of grammar and phrases, *in the order they are first used in this book*”? Instead of learning how to say hello and buy bread you learn real instances of the language. This is, of course, how one learns languages by speaking.
    2. The famous problem Seven Bridges of Königsberg is very simple application of graph theory. Instead of first explaining graph theory and Eulerian paths (pretty abstract, dull and why-learn-this-ish), you start by explaining the problem that is to be solved and then introduce graph theory around it. I think this can be done much more often than is currently being done in classes.

    Textbooks teach forwardly too, but at least you can read them from back to front.

  6. Wendy Irene says:

    Some of the greatest learning I have ever done has been through books. I heart books and think they are of tremendous value. Some teachers actually teach better through the written word.

  7. I think the answer is “it depends”. If you are getting a degree just for the sake of getting one, I would recommend instead to go travel, volunteer and work overseas to first get some inspiration.

    And if you are the entrepreneur type, you may be better off just doing it!

  8. Scott Young says:

    Vic,

    Accreditation is huge. People go to school to *signal* that they are intelligent, not to learn, primarily.

    That being said, books and seminars lack the obvious signalling benefits but they are still consumed a lot (particularly in business) which suggests theoretical knowledge still has value.

    Alexander,

    My post isn’t really about the weaknesses of academic teaching methods, of which there are many, but rather looking at theoretical knowledge versus practical knowledge in general.

    I believe my argument about local maxima applies *particularly* to cases of backwards learning, where you find the problem in search of a solution. The reason is that only forward-based learning allows you to solve problems you hadn’t considered before. Learning calculus doesn’t just enable you to solve more problems, it enables you to ask better questions as well.

    That said, forward-learning or theoretical learning doesn’t need to be done in school. One of the reasons I try to read a lot of books is to be able to ask better questions to problems I hadn’t considered previously.

    -Scott

  9. Alexander says:

    I’m no proponent of the naive cost-benefit way of learning. But I do know, from experience, that backward-based learning doesn’t imply learning methods that are only useful for solving problems similar to the one that got you started.

    As an analogy: (almost?) all fields of mathematics have been inspired by nature: geometry, number theory, calculus, fourier analysis… And they’re used to solve problems that have very little to do with the problems that they were discovered to solve.

    want to solve the heat equation => discover fourier series => be able to use it for sound engineering

    My point is: being practice oriented, while having certain benefits, doesn’t imply not learning new, broader theoretical knowledge. The randomness needed to find the nonlocal maxima needs not come from forward-based learning, as long as you are not stubborn enough not to keep introducing that randomness.

  10. Scott,

    I believe a little balance is in order. Read the book first to familiarize yourself and then go out and apply what you have learned.

  11. Scott Young says:

    Alexander,

    I’m not against backwards-based learning in general, my essay is a more general defense of forward-based learning. Practical knowledge is important and I think if we want to go to extremes, one could learn anything from “doing it”. My point is just that, on average, backwards learning has *more* of a local maxima problem than theoretical knowledge. It’s a generalization, not an absolute.

    Curiosity matters too, and that drives forward learning.

    For example, if I staunchly refuse to learn beyond the necessities of computer science when writing a software program, there will probably be a great deal I miss from computer science, simply because it doesn’t answer an obvious question I have.

    To be really successful, I’d probably combine my dedication to solving current problems with a curiosity for programming/computer science in general which would lead me to learn things that have no immediate practicality but could help me down the line.

    That, ultimately, is what I’m advocating–that ideally you want to blend practical and theoretical knowledge.

  12. [...] Is What You Learn in School Really Useless? I’ve heard the claim that, a few years out of college, most of what you’ve learned will be useless. It’s repeated so often it’s taken as fact. Obviously the claim about the value of education varies… [...]

  13. Darren says:

    Scott,

    What if it wasn’t as simple as two types of knowledge? You may enjoy a book called ‘Frames of Mind’ by Howard Gardner. He’s most known for his theory of multiple types of intelligence (8): Linguistic, Logical-mathematical, Musical, Bodily-kinesthetic, Spatial, Interpersonal, and Intrapersonal intelligence.

    In my work with people I’ve become somewhat sensitive to ‘how’ people learn and my biggest observation is that not everyone learns the same way. I am however, in the camp of believing that I actually learned a lot more upon finishing school than being in school. Though I still believe school is an integral part of my skill-set and who I am today. The reason I found I got more post-school, may have been because I suddenly had more control to learn specifically what I wanted to learn and not what was ‘required of me,’ thus I developed more intrinsic motivation to learn, instead of the extrinsic motivation of paying tuition.

    Generally speaking a few of the problems of conventional institutional learning is that they are mostly afraid to a) Teach newer, cutting edge materials that may not be fully proven or completely factual, b) Teach anything that does not have a significant body of research to support the theory, c) Teach based on practical experience, ideas or advice. The courses they offer also tend to be 5-10 years behind the actual research world.

    Sometimes research is impossible, sometimes it’s just wrong in practical settings.

    There are not the same stigmas associated with continuing education (often not done through traditional educational delivery) in the business environment. I believe people go to seminars, get coaching, take courses, post-school life, because it is a far more ‘practical’ form of learning, but also niche in the sense that they often take one course or a certification or something small and specific to their interests.

    The courses that you offer are far more ‘practical’ I’m sure too, somewhat taken from research, somewhat taken from books you’ve read, from conversations with others and their experiences and somewhat taken from your own experiences. Those experiences and the research you’ve done, have given you ideas about how to present a book or course to your audience in what you deem to be the most effective manner. Ultimately books are really about presenting ideas, not ‘learning’ in the traditional sense of the word.

    No one stops learning, your interaction with your environment every single day is still ‘learning.’ Learning is essentially adapting to a stimuli.

  14. Crystal says:

    I have to disagree with your point about theoretical knowledge being a global maximum and practical knowledge being a local maximum. From my experiences, both types of knowledge produce local and global maximums. For practical knowledge, while there is the threat of only being proficient in a small area, there is also the chance to take the knowledge that you’ve already earned and use it to see the wider scope of an issue or solve a new problem that bears some similarity to problems you’re already solved. The inverse is true for theoretical knowledge – taking knowledge that doesn’t seem applicable and making it applicable. Though to be honest, I think the whole practical knowledge vs theoretical knowledge is a false dichotomy. It would say that it’s more of a sliding scale and dependent upon your situation (what’s theoretical for you may be practical for me). Furthermore, though you use the terms interchangeably, book/theoretical/school-based knowledge aren’t the same thing. For instance, if a book is on weight-loss and dieting techniques and you’re reading it because you want to loose weight, it would be considered practical knowledge since it’s immediately applicable. Then, the knowledge you gain from school isn’t always book-based or theoretical if you consider the hands-on nature of learning how to count and write and how important they are on a day to day basis now that you’re older (though to be fair, you could categorize counting and writing as a skill or a combination of knowledge and skill).

  15. Keri says:

    I feel that college taught me HOW to think (liberal arts degree). Much of the information I learned has not been retained (except, oddly, the medieval history; my hobby is medieval re-enacting), but I did learn how to think critically, analyze what I’m reading, etc. And despite my love/hate relationship with the creative writing department, some of my teachers’ rules have been coming to roost in my writing.

    And those skills, along with the ability to research, serve me pretty well in the legal field.

    And, as others have said, I learned a lot outside the college classroom–namely how to be independent. I think of college as real life with training wheels attached.

  16. Lola Davis says:

    In the spider-web of facts, many a truth is strangled. – Paul Eldridge

  17. eva says:

    Unfortunatelly, in my business school they teach no theory and pracise make me just mad, as what we are tought is only self-promotion. This pitching approach disencourges me just crazilly. I am happy to read someone thinks theory is needed too.

  18. Whatevergirl says:

    Everything you said is bullshit! We DON’T need this stuff, Some people don’t like to read and the reason we go to school is because we’re forced too! Anyone who agrees with this idiot is an idiot, too!

Debate is fine, flaming is not. Pretend that this comment form is a discussion taking place in my house. That means I enjoy constructive criticism and polite suggestions. Personal attacks, insults and all-purpose nastiness will be removed especially if it is directed at other readers.

Leave a Reply