Usefully Useless

I have heard it said that:

“An education is that which remains after you have forgotten everything you learned in college”

This is an interesting quote considering the amount of discussion that goes on in departments about the “importance” of the classes that students are required to take.  There is a debate between the sciences and humanities.  Which will better prepare you for the “Real World” everyone is eventually headed to?  What is more useful?

Professors talk about the syllabus, tests, readings, and homework sets that make their class more effective, more useful than that other disciplines courses.  Hours and hours are spent grading these endless assignments in order to provide effective feedback to students in an attempt to facilitate learning.  Is this time well spent?  Are these the right discussions to be having?

Assuming the role of the university is to provide an education, and assuming that you, the reader, agree with the quote above the debate of Useful vs. Useless takes on new meaning.  If you still have an education after forgetting everything you ever “learned” what remains?  It can’t be the knowledge that was the topic of the useful vs. useless debate at your university.  You forgot that.

Perhaps what remains is the confidence that you can learn something.  Rector Loprieno of the University of Basel shared that while a particular course of study may be deemed Useless by outsiders or industry an individual participating often comes away having retained something Useful.

What is it that separates the Useless from the Useful?  What and who defines that which is called Useful?  And knowing that Useful things often emerge from seemingly Useless exercises how should the university respond to the Useful vs. Useless debate?

Global Perspectives: Leg 2

Zurich->Basel->Strasbourg->Basel->Riva S. Vitale->Milan->Belenzona->Lugano->Riva S. Vitale

My arrival in Zurich on the morning of May 26th marked the official beginning of the Global Perspectives Program (GPP) and my exploration of European systems of higher education.  My bike, kit, and sleeping bag were stowed safely in the basement of hotel St. Joseph.  My bags were repacked to expose the khakis, collared shirts, and dress shoes I would be needing for the next week and a half.  And after a hot shower, good deal of scrubbing, and a quick nap it became hard to tell that I had just spent a week traveling by bike through the rain in Bayern.

The program consisted of 13 participants, Justin Shanks (logistical guru), and Dean Karen DePauw (Mastermind of the program).  I was the second youngest of the team at 24 years old and one of the two master’s students represented in the group.  The majority of the team was comprised of Doctoral candidates and Post-Docs from a wide range of departments at Virginia Tech and none of us except perhaps Justin and Dean DePauw knew in full the amazing journey we were about to embark upon.   Sunday was devoted to sharing our goals, transitioning, and preparing for the pace of the program.

Over the next 11 days we traveled Switzerland, France, and Italy by train, bus, and foot in search of a more global perspective on higher education.  We learned that an international perspective is a limited viewpoint.  What we were looking for was something bigger, something more holistic, something more relevant in today’s interconnected society.  Being in such communicative proximity with all our neighbors now more than ever makes having a global perspective important as we try to make sense of the impacts our decisions will ultimately make on those around us.

Our meetings with students, staff, and Rectors from more than eight universities and intense interactions with the students from the University of Basel helped to shape these new perspectives.  The informal interactions that arose during meals, down time, and personal excursions added to the depth and power of the program as each of the participants were allowed to explore their own passions.

What I learned more than anything is that each system is unique, they each have their own focus, strengths, and weaknesses.  None of these characteristics make any one system particularly better or worse than another.  They just make them different.  They simply challenge you to examine them, without comparing, from a vantage point that is different from any you have previously stood upon.  These explorations let us—the participants of the program—return to our own system with a new set of experiences and a more holistic understanding of the global system we are all a part of.  We can then examine our own system through a newly crafted lens.  One that might allow us to more effectively adapt our own systems to the quickly changing and continuously evolving world we live in.

The expeditionary part of the program came to an end before you realized what happened and each participant trickled away from the Villa in in their own ways.  It had been a place and a space with a feeling of home.  I left with a sense of awe at what we had seen and experienced, a sense of gratitude towards those who accompanied me on that journey, and a sense of respect for each participant’s ability to teach, share, and live as a tight knit community for the time we were together.  I learned a great deal, met some amazing people, and could not have imagined a better way to spend the beginning of the summer of 2013.  Thank you.

For anyone interested a more detailed description of my journeys explore: leg 1 and leg 3.

Rules: the TWO Sets

This world in which we lived is governed by a set of rules.  Or perhaps more accurately two different set of rules.  The first set of rules is a set of facts that we have come to understand about the physical world in which we exist.  These are often called the Laws of Nature and they include: “Newton’s law of gravitation, his three laws of motion, the ideal gas laws, and the four laws of thermodynamics to name a few.  The second set of the rules are the ones that we have structured to govern society.  This second set of rules, I would like to believe, have been created in an attempt to help us live more harmoniously with one another.

There is a difference between the two.  The first set has been discovered, and our attempts to more deeply understand this set while occasionally transforming our understanding of how the world works ultimately bring us to a more complete image of how the universe works.  These rules are hard and un-yielding (unless we are pushing our understanding of them).  For example if don’t respect the power of a river you might try to cross a swift deep river on foot.  If you aren’t aware of foot entrapment and get snagged by an undercut rock or hole you might be quickly pushed under the surface.  The river doesn’t care who you are, what you have done, or what you plan to do.  She doesn’t care that you might have a family at home who depends on you to bring food back to the table.  You didn’t respect her power and now you are in a deadly situation that will resolve itself in minutes without some type of outside help.

The second set of rules have been created in an attempt to govern, control, direct, manage, organize, simplify, and administrate  for the convenience of all those involved in the system.  As our understanding of the world evolves our second set of laws seem to expand, intertwine, and transform into an ever more complicated set of “Laws” that are enforced by humans.  These rules can be broken by some but not by others, are enforced at times and not at others.  This is essential because our attempt to develop an inclusive set of rules is always limiting and there are exceptions.  When you but up against these laws a genuine smile and honest interest in the person across the counter may determine whether your parking ticket is enforced or waved.  Never forget that the person on the other side of the counter is just that a “person” yet they have the power in that situation.

In Simak’s “Immigrant” earth finds itself encountering another race that is just a bit ahead of us humans and a lucky few are invited to join them on their home planet where a human quickly finds their understanding of how the world works unraveling at the edges.  The Kimonians seem to have gained a much deeper understanding of the first set of rules and in doing so have been able to eliminate many of the second set, or at least on a level that people interacting with our current understanding can grasp.  In this world the human is required to live by the physical laws of nature but this time another tangible being can occasionally hold the strings on when to enforce our limited understanding of those laws and when to intervene in an attempt to maintain a more harmonious Kimonity.

It leaves a human wondering how he could gain an understanding at that level.  It could be learned, perhaps it’s a current limit on our ability to perceive.

“But it wouldn’t be a school—at least not the kind of school he’d ever known before”

“You’ll want to get up early” said the cabinet “so you aren’t late to school”

The Nature of Discomfort

The majority of Humans trend towards comfort.  This makes sense.  We build houses so we don’t have to sleep outside in a rainstorm.  Many houses are elaborate but at their base level their purpose is to provide shelter, one of Maslow’s basic needs.  A shelter is something that offers protection from the elements, a dry and warm place to sleep at night.   It should be a place to recover from the day’s adventures, a place to relax, a place to be comfortable.  These additional functions of a shelter are dependent on having something to recover from.  A mildly uncomfortable experience of my own is included below in an attempt to visualize the importance of exposing yourself to discomfort on a regular basis.   DSC_0218

It is the view from the top of the mountain that is remembered, not the strenuous climb to reach it.  Yet without the struggle you can never experience the view.  If we forget to leave the comfort of our shelters we will forget the reasons the struggle is worth it.  We will forget what the view from the peak looks like.  We might become content with a picture in a magazine or on a screen.  We might miss out on the chance to uncover a new perspective.  Our homes are comfortable places and they should be, but without something uncomfortable to recover from their function may become irrelevant.

Perhaps our educational systems should be a series of uncomfortable experiences that build on one another in an attempt to uncover new perspectives for the pupil.  Perhaps the system should be something that lets you acclimate at your own pace yet encourages embracing the uncomfortable experiences in an effort to grow the mind and the body.  To build a muscle you must tear some of the fibers on a molecular level.  If the tear was of the right magnitude the fibers heal stronger.  If it was too great it might cause permanent damage.  The trick is finding the right level of stress to expose to the muscle in order to achieve maximum growth.  Do our minds operate in a similar way?

The Contents of this package are….

…Liable to break or be broken…

Like a twig, your mother’s prized china, or your child’s toothpick art project

…Easily snapped or shattered…

Like a birds wing, a wine glass, or the window when introduced to the baseball.

…weak, perishable, easily destroyed…

Like flesh, tropical fruit, or important documents too close to a bonfire.

…in need of special treatment.

Why label packages this way?  What is it we want to happen with the contents?

I would argue that the labeler is interested in ensuring that the contents of this package reach the intended destination Just as They Are.  No rough handling, nothing should change, extra care should be taken to avoid sudden shocks, unpleasant experiences, or generally harsh conditions.  A great goal if the contents of the package are a glass vase you are sending to your grandmother but what if that you have labeled as “FRAGILE” is a bit less physical.

Why has the graphic of a globe been included in the label?  Could it be possible that we are considering all things on our globe fragile?  I don’t think so but it brings to mind several points that Taleb is making in his book Antifragile.  Dr. Gardner Campbell is responsible for introducing me to the book and while I am at the beginning I am so far struck by the discussion of the special treatment something that is fragile gets and the potential that our behavior around those fragile items, ideas, topics, systems, are inadvertently preventing them from growing.  He is exploring the value or shocks in the system and the fact that systems that respond well to random, unpredictable events are actually “Anti-fragile”.  They are the opposite of fragile in part because of their ability to morph, adapt, change, and let parts perish so that new things can take their place.

I wonder what aspects of daily life on which we have stamped the red label and if some of them could perhaps benefit from unexpected shock, blow, or catastrophe as considered from a particular perspective.   Do you have anything you consider to be Fragile?  Is it imperative that that item reach its final destination completely unchanged? If not then why have we labeled it as such?


As a veteran of the Virginia Tech Engineering Program I had the chance to battle amongst the trees of the Tech’s Curriculum for Liberal Education (CLE).  Of the seven arenas’ only four were not spelled out in my Enlistment | Contract and I am proud to say that I took full advantage of my 16 credits of freedom.  I chose my optional skirmishes as follows:

COMM 1014 (3cr. Area 3), ECON 2005 (3cr. Area 3), TA 2014 (3cr. Area 2), FA 2004 (1cr. Area 6), NR 3954 (3cr. Area 3 & 3cr. Area 2))

These are simply a set of symbols which contain little to no meaning to you as the reader unless you happened to have taken one of these courses.

The CLE’s are described as “Comprising 25 – 30% of an undergraduate’s credits toward graduation” and if the requirements for each subcategory are summed you will uncover that 36 credits are required to complete the CLE’s.  I wonder if this might be a bit misleading because while 36 credits make up 28% of the Mechanical Engineering’s required 130 credits I only consider that 16 of those credits as pushed me outside of my required course load.

That means that only 12% of my education here at Tech was devoted to this “Vital Component of my undergraduate education”.  What do they mean by Vital? How important is it to develop into a well-rounded professional when trying to get employed or is it more important to do a deep dive in your subject area?  I didn’t know so I’d thought I’d look around.

Here is what I discovered:

Credit Hours




Scientific   Reasoning and Discovery

Area 4


Writing and Discourse

Area 1


Ideas, Cultural Traditions, and Values

Area 2


Society and Human Behavior

Area 3


Quantitative and Symbolic Reasoning

Area 6


Critical Issues in a Global Context

Area 7


Creativity and the Aesthetic Experience

Area 6

Certain Areas are weighted more heavily than others.  Why is only 1 cr. committed to creativity and eight times that to Scientific Reasoning?

 I uncovered two sites that masquerade as the homepage for a committee known as the UCCLE and discovered a schedule of meetings and list of minutes indicating that there is a “strong desire for ( A complete change) –to consider where the university might be going in the future and fundamentally restructure the CLE in accordance with that future trajectory.”

In an attempt to uncover what the university intends to do during this change I started to explore some meeting minutes and discovered that the postings for those minutes are not up to date on either site.  The first shows the last entry in 2011 and the later in October of 2012.  I am curious as to what has been going on since their October meeting and why I have had trouble tracking it down.  I guess time will tell what the Controllable Learning Experiment decides the future of Virginia Tech’s Curriculum for Liberal Education looks like.