Wasted School Time

Quote of the Day

Censorship reflects a society's lack of confidence in itself.

- Potter Stewart


I frequently talk to young engineers who have just completed university. I am always curious as to what they studied in school. I sometimes wonder how much of their education time will end up having been wasted. I completely understand that each school has a set curriculum that they must follow in order to make sure that all of their students are receiving a well-rounded education. It is their job to do this. And don't get me wrong, they do it well, especially if you have found that you rank high on the school league tables for the type of educational establishment that you run due to grades and other findings. It's great, and it's definitely an achievement worth celebrating.

While there are many students who value school and think that it is the best years of their life because of what they have learned, you'd be surprised to know that there are others who feel that their school life has been wasted. I'm yet to clarify just how much of this time they are talking about. I ask that question because so much of my education time was spent on things that ended up being of no use or just plain wrong -- particularly in junior high and high school.

Let me give you a few examples. The list is far from complete, but you will get my point.

Grade School Wastes of Time

  • Cursive Writing
    I have never cursively written more than my signature in my entire life.
  • Every class emphasized that the US needs to win the Vietnam War.
    The Vietnam War was equated with making the world safe for democracy. This was beat on very hard in 5th and 6th grade. Lots of discussion about dominoes, but they never told us what a domino was. I had to ask my father, who played dominoes when he was in the US Army. You could tell that the Tet Offensive in 1968 put doubt into many people's minds.
  • Lots of discussions on communism versus capitalism.
    This discussion is probably left to history classes today.
  • Characteristics of fallout
    My staff and I have been sharing stories of all the stuff they taught us about fallout. Things like:

    • Don't drink milk because it might contain strontium-90 (I still remember this isotope).
    • You can wash most of the fallout off, just make sure you don't breath it in.
    • Half-life ... this is where I learned about half-life.
  • How to build a fallout shelter.
    A government representative handed me a green and white pamphlet that showed how my family could build different kinds of fallout shelters, which I read very carefully. After I completed studying the pamphlet, I told my father that building a shelter was going to be a lot of work and we should start on it right away. My father said don't worry about it -- we lived near Minneapolis (a major population center) and had no hope of surviving a nuclear attack. His answer bothered me, but he was right.
  • A huge amount of time spent on the evils of marijuana.
    The training emphasized marijuana as a gateway drug that led right to heroin. I used to live in Colorado -- they have now legalized marijuana.
  • Endless hours in religious education.
    None of it worked on me. As my mother says, I am hopeless. In an effort to give me a bit more religious focus, we tried one year in Catholic school. That is the year my mother and I agree not to discuss anymore.

Junior High School Wastes of Time

I went to a school that focused on vocational training. Most of this training was obsolete by the time I left university.

  • Logarithm and trig function tables (including linear and quadratic interpolation)
    I have never used these tables for a real problem.
  • Hand drafting
    In real life, I have only done CAD.
  • Offset Printing
    Anybody done any offset printing lately?
  • Learning the California Job Case
    We had to memorize the placement of steel type in a wood chest. Anybody set any type lately?
  • Film development
    I don't think I need to say any more.
  • Using typewriters and mimeograph machines
    I haven't used any of these outside of school either.
  • Anti-smoking education
    I watched cigarettes kill my father -- I never once considered smoking.
  • How to work with video tape and film strips.
    Pretty much dead technologies.
  • Social Studies classes telling us that we were winning the Vietnam War
    Our school pushed the importance of going into the military pretty hard. They even had a colonel and sergeant come into our one of our history classes to tell us that the Vietnam War was really going very well and draft dodgers should just stay in Canada. They implied the media was lying to us.

High School Wastes of Time

As with my junior high school, my high school had a strong focus on vocational education.

  • Taking a deviant social behavior class
    If I told you what was considered a deviant social behavior in the early 1970s in rural Minnesota, you wouldn't believe it – or maybe you would. Today, everything we discussed in this class is now a lifestyle option.
  • Punch cards
  • All my interactions with career counselors.
    They kept giving me tests that told them I needed to become a carpenter, a field which I never wanted to do for a living. I wanted to become an engineer, but none of the counselors knew what an engineer was and they were no help in guiding me toward an engineering career.
  • Learning how to rebuild carburetors.
    I have not seen a carburetor in a long time.
  • My social studies classes that emphasized that we can now see the light at the end of the Vietnam War tunnel.
    I guess they were right about the war ending soon, just not the way they thought it would. This particular installment of my Vietnam War indoctrination ended with the warning that we needed to register for the draft. I ended up being too young to go. However, I did get a draft card.

University Wastes of Time

My university training was actually pretty focused and there were relatively few wastes of time. Since I was training to be an engineer, the items are all technological.

  • Training on the slide rule
    I still have my old slide rule -- I couldn't tell you how to use it. I had several professors tell me not to use those newly introduced calculators because you lose your feel for numbers. Today, I NEVER manually do any arithmetic. It would be embarrassing for people to see how bad I am at manual arithmetic. I do not worry about it.
  • Booting my computer with paper tape.
    Ahh ... the old PDP-8 ... memories ...
  • Using Teledeltos paper
  • Using rubylith
  • How to use a nomograph.
    I actually think nomographs are interesting, but they have been of no use in my daily work.
  • Learning about magnetic bubble memory.
  • Learning about NMOS IC design.
    CMOS replaced it right after I learned how to design chips with NMOS.
  • Learning about MSI TTL design.
    I moved from custom chips to ASICs to FPGAs. I was not really a medium-scale integration person.

A Story of Wrong Choices

We all have to make education choices and those choices often do not look wise when viewed from a later date. I was taking a training course (in transputers -- another dead technology) at the University of Rochester. While there, I had lunch with a physics professor who had education stories similar to mine. Here is one of his tales.

I had just completed my undergraduate degree and I needed to find a physics professor with a research program that was going to get me into a high-paying startup company. The first professor I interviewed was working on something called "liquid crystals" and he said that someday that technology would be used to make cheap, low-power displays. I thought he was nuts, so I moved on. [Today, liquid crystal displays are a multi-billion dollar market]

I interviewed another professor who was doing work on making semiconductor lasers. I couldn't see where there would be any market for this technology. I thought he was nuts. [Today, semiconductor lasers are used everything from DVD players to high-speed fiber optic communications]

I then interviewed a professor who was working on magnetic bubble memory. Now there was a technology that was going to go places. [Today, bubble memory is considered a historical oddity -- it went nowhere]

Like any investment, education has its risks -- sometimes it pays and sometimes it doesn't.

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4 Responses to Wasted School Time

  1. CC says:

    I use cursive writing quite a lot, but printing is just as useful, if marginally slower.

    Film developing is a hobby now, so, only useful to those who enjoy it.

    Drafting - I actually do a little bit by hand, but I don't know CAD beyond That One Class. The little bit that I do is sketch/draft quality. But the actual CAD folks I've worked with say that my hand drafting is pretty good, and they easily change it to electronic form. The funny thing is, the majority of the one drafting class I took was CAD (which I don't use) and only a tiny bit of it was hand drafting (which I do use).

    I have a slide rule. I can multiply and divide with it but that's about it. It is good to have a sense of numbers though; without that your answer could be off by a lot and your general sense of "is this right?" isn't there to prompt you to double-check your work.

    Nomographs are amazing -- but how useful they are may be field-specific. I've used a few, as well as some plain 2-axis graphs, and those ones were enough easier than calculating that I found it worth my time to convert all my data to whatever oddball unit set it was created with. (Which is to say, they often weren't metric.) Likewise, lookup tables for various properties, it's sometimes easier to look it up and interpolate than it is to run the equation, assuming there isn't a program that'll do it, or that the company doesn't own a copy if the program exists. And sometimes there isn't an equation, there's only a list of measured values with an approximate equation that mostly matches them.

    School career counsellors... ugh. And yeah, they don't seem to know what engineering is.

    It looks like your "waste of time" criteria includes things that are both generally not useful and that became not useful because science marches on. I'm curious -- how much of the obsolete tech you listed here was already obsolete when you learned it, and how much became obsolete later?

    • mathscinotes says:

      You are correct about the "generally not useful" versus the "near obsolete". Learning manual typesetting took a quarter and was an exercise in learning something that was already obsolete. I had the class in 1970 and no one was setting type by hand then.

      Offset printing on the old manual machines was just beginning to be phased out when I had that. So it was near obsolete when I learned it.

      Film developing went out just recently.

      Probably half of what I learned in my technology classes was obsolete when I learned it. Schools have a terrible time keeping up with industry.

      I will say that I learned BASIC in 1970 and I still use that today (modified in the form of VBA).


  2. akismet-5a3f6666545b653fecda53c66f863fbe says:

    It seems that your list could be subdivided into:
    a) things that were just dumb, then, now, and in the future (drug education, cursive writing, all the Vietnam lies)
    b) things that were clever then, but dumb now (rebuilding carburators, film development)
    c) things that you think were dumb, but probably still had some value (typing... your computer looks a bit like that old typewriter, film development might not happen much, but many photoshop tools are overtly digital analogs of old darkroom techniques).

    I'd argue that only category a) are a problem. Otherwise, it's like the argument that we should only fund research that we know will be useful... following that filter probably would have led to a lot more of category b) still being taught today.

    • mathscinotes says:

      I agree completely with your statement. I am just amazed at the amount of time I spent on learning things that ended up being wrong or obsolete by the time I got into the workplace. I have some engineers in their early 30s. Some of their training is following a similar path to mine.

      Thanks for the response.


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