Useless knowledge; why people resist education improvement

I was a physics major, but there were still some general education courses that were required. Although a few had some useful information, most of them were worthless. I went to the first few classes, and if I found that they contained no useful information, I would not read the books or go to the lectures except when needed. One of these courses was called “Survey of the Arts.”

For my midterm essay, I argued that art movements typically have patterns opposing societal change, such as the “Romanticism” art movement standing against increasing industrialization and a decreasing sense of individual dignity.

For my final essay, I argued that art movements typically have patterns reflecting societal change, such as the “Realism” art movement being caused by increasing industrialization and a decreasing sense of individual dignity.

I got good grades on both.

Most of you, just from reading this description, would immediately see some of the problems with this course. The standards of claims are so weak that you can say “most art movements have trends opposite to society’s” and “most art movements have trends in the same direction as society” and have both be considered true. (You’re already past 100%, and now what do you do when you find a trend unconnected to society?). Many of the things taught are empty labels that neither help predict future trends nor help students make better art themselves. There were a lot more problems with the course than what I said, but this is a good start.

This post isn’t just venting off steam, though. The point is to show the mindset of why this persists. Consider the comments that appeared when I posted this story here. They were brutal.

There were a few common threads though. One is that people thought that rejecting these courses means that I am a total bore who has no interest in learning anything except STEM. Another is that people complained about STEM elitism. Most tellingly, however, is that a lot of them said “look, the poster did learn something! They practiced building strong arguments and things like that” or “There’s no such thing as useless knowledge”. Putting aside for the moment the fact that much of the information is redundant such as creating an argument, explaining why this is wrong seems worthwhile.

My mom has read dozens of books about racism. She follows blogs about it and regularly has meetings with like-minded people discussing it. She reads lots of “subversive literature” (that has no chance to change her beliefs). Is the result of this clear understanding of racial issues? No. She supports affirmative action even though she had a terrible black professor in the past who the other faculty admitted only wasn’t fired because it would look racist. She says “Everyone has internalized racism,” and talks about stages of racism awareness. I pointed out that there was a black student in elementary school and I didn’t think of him as different or separate in any way, and it didn’t occur to me that he was different, and she still continues to say these. The additional benefit gained from each marginal book on the topic at this point (the kind she would choose at least) is about zero. Reading about other topics or volunteering would be far better.(some people had a good point about how this isn’t a strong example. I also found a far stronger example about this, I’ll describe it at the end).

Philosophy books are not a good source of information. It’s painfully obvious that Plato knew nothing of psychology or economics when writing his republic, and didn’t benefit from viewing a variety of social systems. Aristotle’s logic was okay for the middle ages, but after knowing Renaissance and later ideas about logic, there really isn’t much point to studying inferior ones. More modern, history-and-science-informed philosophers can be better, but those aren’t the ones usually taught in classes. Sociology can be better but often wasn’t. Almost every (not all) sociology and history class “taught” the same US racial and social justice problems that were already noticed by anyone who payed attention in any other middle school, high school, or college class, or someone who just pays attention to society. They also didn’t teach skills needed to avoid reforms that do more harm than good (there were quite a lot of communists in the more advanced humanities classes at UCSC), remind anyone that non-whites also did genocide and slavery, or mention hindsight bias. They rarely even taught history that didn’t involve the U.S.

In a couple classes the teachers had tenure and beliefs so crazy that strawmen seem sane by comparison. Yet no matter how bad the professors were, my parents kept buying my textbooks and telling me to go to all the classes I could and pay attention. (Once I went to college I was glad to finally be able to choose whether to go or not). Even when I pointed out that the art class professor sometimes uses Freudian interpretations of works of art as if it was the correct one, they said that even if the professor’s wrong sometimes he can still have important things to say. Based on the comments I got when I posted the story on another website (link above), this is the common response.

Of course, some humanities classes were much better. I’ve had great teachers who clearly had worthwhile information that I would have been unlikely to find on my own. My point is that most people are unwilling to acknowledge these problems in most courses, and this is because of the mindset that learning is always worthwhile, and rejecting one source of knowledge makes people worse off no matter what it is.

(Additional comment: this view would be a bit more controversial among lesswrong users, but I believe that this also applies to some math courses. Everyone should be taught formal logic, budgeting, probability, and data analysis (and other things), but for most people calculus and matrix math really isn’t needed. This isn’t just my intuition; this poster shows where each math topic is used, and most of the advanced topics are only used by very math-heavy jobs like architect, physicist and programmer. It would make more sense to teach these topics only to people with some interest in them, and provide more directly job-related skills to others.)

Addendum: My stronger example for the racism issue was found on one of Scott Alexander’s posts. “Five million people participated in the #BlackLivesMatter Twitter campaign. Suppose that solely as a result of this campaign, no currently-serving police officer ever harms an unarmed black person ever again. That’s 100 lives saved per year times let’s say twenty years left in the average officer’s career, for a total of 2000 lives saved, or 1/​2500th of a life saved per campaign participant. By coincidence, 1/​2500th of a life saved happens to be what you get when you donate $1 to the Against Malaria Foundation. The round-trip bus fare people used to make it to their #BlackLivesMatter protests could have saved ten times as many black lives as the protests themselves, even given completely ridiculous overestimates of the protests’ efficacy.” I had a vague sense that reading about the topics and informing people, like she was doing, was very inefficient, but I didn’t realize how useless it was until someone did the math.