The limits of education

There’s a saying about education (I would call it a joke, but it hits too close to home for that), the process of education is learning more and more about less and less until finally, you know absolutely everything about absolutely nothing. This is pretty close to the truth. For a period of time in the 90s, I was one of the world’s foremost expert on the subject of using artificial neural networks for image and video compression – talk about your niche subjects. If you read the titles of dissertations, they are all extremely specific. For the most part, PhDs are specialists and generalists are few and far between. In fact, I was once approached to interview at Sandia National Labs because I was one of the few PhDs they had a resume for who was a generalist (I turned down the interview since I had just started in my current position).

Given the nature of PhDs, I was amused by this article in the Washington Post about officers in the military with PhDs, advising on the war in Iraq. Don’t get me wrong – I don’t doubt that these officers are all very intelligent and are well qualified. But one shouldn’t assume that because the advisers have PhDs, they will be independent or will give you new ideas. Petraeus has found a set of educated advisers that will almost certainly confirm the ideas he already has – that’s probably why they were picked. It doesn’t mean they are right. You could just as easily find other officers with PhDs having entirely different ideas. The PhD is a credential. It does demonstrate that the officers are intelligent, but it doesn’t mean that their specialty is necessarily relevant.

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