- Scott H Young - https://www.scotthyoung.com/blog -

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 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 [1]