I’ve had many criticisms of education before, see learn-dont-study and learning-used-to-be-fun. But coming to university, has shifted the lens I used to wear. My view on education used to be highly pragmatic, I thought people should learn exactly what they needed, when they needed it.
Just-in-time learning I thought was the key, because you learnt things you could directly use in the solutions to problems.
One of the reasons I picked a UK based university, was that fact that it didn’t have a liberal arts stance. The engineering program at UCL makes at best a passing reference of much of the social sciences, at the exception of the multi-disciplinary projects that we had to do. This is in contrast with American and Singaporean education systems, which place a stronger focus on a more holistic approach to knowledge.
Despite this, it’s interesting to note that, even in UCL engineering program I’m learning things that aren’t directly what I’m interested in. An interesting example is my Photonics course which I had to learn as part of my requirements, but which I had no real curiosity in. That is until, I actually started learning it.
Pasteur said, Chance favors the prepared mind.
And one of the realizations I had while preparing for my second year exams, was exactly that. My pragmatist view of just-in-time learning fails because, it’s hard to even recognize the type of solutions to a problem, which a broad based understanding of a variety of problems and their prior solutions. Even without a deep understanding of a solution, the mere knowledge that a solution is possible to a class of problems can usefully lead to a direction of exploration.
In other words, you don’t know what you don’t know, and the point of university is not to make sure you know everything in excruciating detail, but to make sure that you know what you don’t know.
Which is an interesting lens to bring to “purposeless” exploration of curious things. Even with the lack of time to delve deeply and fully understand photonics theory, an exploration and awareness of photonics alone is enough to recognize similar classes of problems in other fields. (to give an example the knowledge of LASER operation lead me and a flatmate to stumble upon SASERs as a solution to a specific design challenge)
I guess the broader point I’m trying to make in this note is that, it’s okay to not know everything in detail. I struggle with this, I feel like if I go down a specific exploratory path, I owe it to myself to understand it completely. So that means, I tend to not go down exploratory paths which I think I don’t have time for.
But, there’s inherent value to just exploring and being curious for curiosity’s sake. And knowing what you don’t know is just as important as knowing things in depth.