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Annoyances in Education

The trouble with wanting to be a lawyer is that you have to go to law school. The trouble with law school, at least for me, is that I've never really 'fit in' with the academic paradigm. When I was younger, I used to question why I was being put through academic hoops that made little sense to me. [1] Years of experience taught me that while you learn a lot of things at any level of school, the primary function of education is a kind of sorting hat, where the skills your tested on bear some peripheral relationship to what you'll eventually do upon graduation. In other words, an employer can count on the fact that by hiring 'the best' graduates, he can't guarantee an employee will be good for his firm, but he's less likely to have to fire them later.

In any event, my standard attitude towards inexplicable pedagogy these days will be to approach it as a client project: (a) figure out what my professor wants, and (b) hand that in as an answer. That's not as grim as it sounds. Some professors want creativity in their responses, and that's good. Some just want to see that you can use the tools they've been teaching--even if there are better ones about--and for those, you stick with the tried and true. Not as exciting, but it gets the job done quickly and with a modicum of fuss.

Every so often, however, I'll get a problem, or an assignment, or just a task, and that onery youngster in me pops out. "You can't draw that conclusion, even though it's what's wanted," he says. "Yes, this all works within the bounds of the question, but what happens to someone who tries this in real life?" Mostly, I tell the kid to shut up--it's the advantage of age.

But every so often, I look at him fondly and quiet him with this almost certainly apocryphal story about Niels Bohr:

The following concerns a question in a physics degree exam at the University of Copenhagen:

"Describe how to determine the height of a skyscraper with a barometer."

One student replied:

"You tie a long piece of string to the neck of the barometer, then lower the barometer from the roof of the skyscraper to the ground. The length of the string plus the length of the barometer will equal the height of the building."

This highly original answer so incensed the examiner that the student was failed immediately. The student appealed on the grounds that his answer was indisputably correct, and the university appointed an independent arbiter to decide the case.

The arbiter judged that the answer was indeed correct, but did not display any noticeable knowledge of physics. To resolve the problem it was decided to call the student in and allow him six minutes in which to provide a verbal answer that showed at least a minimal familiarity with the basic principles of physics.

For five minutes the student sat in silence, forehead creased in thought. The arbiter reminded him that time was running out, to which the student replied that he had several extremely relevant answers, but couldn't make up his mind which to use. On being advised to hurry up the student replied as follows:

"Firstly, you could take the barometer up to the roof of the skyscraper, drop it over the edge, and measure the time it takes to reach the ground. The height of the building can then be worked out from the formula H = 0.5g x t squared. But bad luck on the barometer."

"Or if the sun is shining you could measure the height of the barometer, then set it on end and measure the length of its shadow. Then you measure the length of the skyscraper's shadow, and thereafter it is a simple matter of proportional arithmetic to work out the height of the skyscraper."

"But if you wanted to be highly scientific about it, you could tie a short piece of string to the barometer and swing it like a pendulum, first at ground level and then on the roof of the skyscraper. The height is worked out by the difference in the gravitational restoring force T =2 pi sqr root (l /g)."

"Or if the skyscraper has an outside emergency staircase, it would be easier to walk up it and mark off the height of the skyscraper in barometer lengths, then add them up."

"If you merely wanted to be boring and orthodox about it, of course, you could use the barometer to measure the air pressure on the roof of the skyscraper and on the ground, and convert the difference in millibars into feet to give the height of the building."

"But since we are constantly being exhorted to exercise independence of mind and apply scientific methods, undoubtedly the best way would be to knock on the janitor's door and say to him 'If you would like a nice new barometer, I will give you this one if you tell me the height of this skyscraper'."

The student was Niels Bohr, the only Dane to win the Nobel Prize for physics.


Even Snopes considers the story to be a garden-variety academic legend. Still, sometimes one should give the inner child a bedtime story.

[1] I was assured by my fourth-grade teacher that these things would make sense to me when I got older and went out in the working world. What I found when I reached the working world was that those to whom obscure matters of pedagogy made sense had often remained in academia. It is possible, however, that I am simply refusing to grow old/up, an opinion on which I will defer to my readers.

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Comments

Nope, you're right. As exhibit A I'd like to point you to marketing professors.
I've often wondered why otherwise intelligent people with the power to construct curricula and the desire to teach would put up with all this educational b.s. My only answer is that education isn't the only purpose of schooling. Especially professional schooling. These other purposes include indoctrination into the norms of the profession, strengthening conformity, increasing uniformity, etc. All of which are diametrically opposed to the quaint idea that "independence of mind" is the only goal...
My friend's father (who taught at a university) was firmly convinced that the number of degrees you had correlated with the amount of bulls**t you were willing to put up with, and absolutely nothing else. Having several myself, I think he's basically correct. But there's nothing wrong with reverse engineering exams - I find it to be a reasonably interesting endeavor, and very useful.

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