Thursday, July 9, 2015

why we study what we study (or don't) ... and (possible) applications of early education in later life

Kids often complain that many of the things they are "made to study" in school simply have no real world application or use ... so why bother? In this post we look at some subjects people study growing up, and how they might (not will, might) potentially be useful as they grow into adulthood. Of course, given my STEM background, some of those biases might show, but I try to take as objective a view as I can, as I type this. Might add more as new ideas occur to me...

"Why study history, mommy? How does it matter who ruled when, what wars were fought, and how today's world came to be?" - seems like rational criticism, especially when kids are forced to remember dates for major events - not fun. However, history plays an important role in letting us see cause and effect, learn from mistakes (some that were monumental) others have made, without having to make them ourselves. It also teaches us how statesmen learned, were forged in the fire of destiny, and remade the world into (in many cases) a better place than they found it. It also helps us understand how policy is formed, why it is important, and how to live well. "Those who do not know history are condemned to repeat it." and "History doesn't repeat itself but it often rhymes" are two quotes that immediately spring to mind about history. Besides, history of specific areas - like the history of technology or of finance, can be extremely important to understand recent and upcoming developments, or why regulations are crafted in specific ways. There can be profit in this too.

Does it matter which country is where on the planet? Why, of course it matters! Two quick examples:

  1. If you are an investor, you want to know what kinds of social, cultural, political, meteorological, agricultural etc impacts geographic boundaries and tensions might have on your capital deployment plans. Will a war in a neighboring country affect my investment in this one?
  2. If you are a technologist, you want to know all about the markets you are targeting, to learn more about the demography, spending patterns, the "lay of the land" to discern technical solution delivery options etc. A colleague of mine used to give his students in a communications networks class the assignment to design a communications network strategy for all the kingdoms in the Lord of the Rings, given their distinct geographic features and weather patterns. 

Social Studies:
People are not automatons. Different people have different cultures and social mores, and even within those contexts behave differently. But getting a macro-level understanding of crowd behavior often requires the ability to slice populations laterally by spending patterns, or age, or gender, and vertically by country, continent or some other metric. Purely statistical social studies venture into the realm of Asimov's "psychohistory" (from his brilliant "Foundation" series), but apply directly today in many ways. Again, two examples:

  1. A country edges ever closer to default with a heavy debt burden from borrowings from multilateral organizations already, but severe austerity measures have left it weak. What is the potential impact a possible default may have on the social fabric within the country? on various surrounding markets?
  2. You want to deploy a new mobile technology into a country with a large population. What do you know about the spending patterns of the people there, and their willingness to purchase your service, would they move quickly or slowly? en masse or separately? How is the diaspora of one country connected to the rest of the world? (typically there are lots of connections to the home country and then with other emigrated populations in other countries as well).
The importance of mathematics to real life cannot be over-emphasized. If you work in retail, at the very least you need to be able to make change, and depending on role, need to track market structure, marketing opportunities, inventory, supply chain management and the like. If you work as a programmer, you need to understand data structures, algorithms etc. You work in finance, you need to understand (at least) the basic mathematics that underlies finance. Every role you can think of that has a "science" component to it requires at least some understanding of math, and every person needs to learn at least some of it to be successful.

Everyone needs to manage their finances well, tap the cheapest sources of funding when they need the cash to go to school, acquire an asset etc, get out of (hopefully never get into in the first place) credit card debt, manage stock options at work, manage their 401K accounts if they have them, and tax, estate, and retirement planning. This is another key field everyone needs to at least get somewhat of a grasp of.

Some things nourish our bodies, others, our souls. Music is one such. It can elevate your emotions when you feel down, and as recent research has shown, synthesized happiness is as good as the real thing. I tend to think of music as (the good kind of) chocolate for the soul.

Well, things that go up come down, but there is more to physics than just gravity. Learning physics enables one to appreciate the natural world we live in, while at the same time enabling us to apply natural analogs to thinking about complex dynamic systems - if we work with such in other fields e.g. finance. And physics lends itself to mathematical modeling and application. Need I say more?

This was popularized in a cool but perhaps not so righteous way in "Breaking Bad". But chemistry has powerful uses - want to get tarnished silver clean? neutralize the sting of a bee or a wasp? Well, recall your knowledge of chemistry then. Besides, you have to admit, knowing the formulas for chemical compounds and all kinds of equations for various reactions is wicked fun in its own way (alright, I am a geek, but still...).

Biology: (includes basic knowledge of anatomy, pharmacology)
A basic knowledge of biology and biological processes is extremely important both for first-aid type situations - what to do when Henry broke his arm? Jeffrey is bitten by a snake? Callum suffers pain radiating into his left shoulder into his arm? Also, knowing where is what in your body, at least roughly helps - severe pain on the right side of your abdomen? That's where your appendix is, you dolt! Rush to the doctor!

Language here refers not just to the syntax and semantics, but also the underlying culture. Not enough to know Mandarin Chinese if you don't understand how to use it idiomatically and the underlying nuances of what various ways of stating the same thing convey to native speakers.

People use ideas from engineering in some form or another every day without thinking too much about it. Need to raise a heavy load? Use a lever. Or set it on wheels and use an inclined plane. Or use a pulley. Want to simulate a complex natural system? Build a computer (or better still, use one already built... see below). Still wondering if the moon is made of cheese? Go build a spaceship and take a trip.

This helps you speak with our future computer overlords in their native tongue (besides helping you solve incredibly complex problems or simulate/model complicated dynamical systems seemingly effortlessly). Need I say more?