Gas station without pumps

2012 April 21

Fast-forward through college

Filed under: home school — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 09:42

I recently came across and old web page that talks about education in a different way from most: There’s no speed limit. (The lessons that changed my life.) | Derek Sivers.

In it Derek describes an encounter with a music teacher (Kimo Williams) who taught him the fundamentals on music theory in much less time than is usually spent on the subject (5 lessons for 6 semesters worth of material, according to the web page).  This inspired Derek to teach himself about half his college curriculum and finish his BA in 2.5 years (when he was 20).  The key quotes that he attributes to Kimo Williams: “There is no speed limit” and “The standard pace is for chumps.”

I also finished my BS early (at age 19, after 3 years in college), but I didn’t do it by racing through the material.  I started kindergarten young, I skipped a grade in elementary school, and I had a fair amount of AP credit (by the standards of 1971, not necessarily by current standards).  Perhaps more important was that I was in the Honors College at Michigan State, which mainly meant that the general education requirements were waived, sidestepping a lot of tedious survey classes. (I never got the advising nor the small honors courses they claimed as a benefit—though I did get small honors classes in my major, which was probably more important.) I was a math major, so the requirements of the major were fairly unstructured (calculus, plus enough upper-division math), and so there were none of the scheduling difficulties that plague students in engineering and most of the hard sciences.

Still, I don’t think that minimizing the time to degree is the best use of an accelerated learning style.  Increasing breadth and depth is probably more productive.

I had broad enough interests that I managed a fairly balanced undergrad education without paying much attention to general ed requirements, but if I had the ability to advise my younger self, I would have recommended some different courses.  I would have recommended taking some rigorous statistics, for example, and a year or two of physics.  I would have recommended not taking the useless chemical thermodynamics class (which was taught without calculus, and so covered about 1 week’s material in 10 weeks), and I would have recommended checking what the proportion of education majors were in any class (the worst classes I had were dominated by education majors and were painfully slow).  The pigeon psych class (the only class I had with experimental science) was also pretty useless. Since in those days information about courses was less available than it is now, a simple proxy might have been not to take any class with more than 50 people in it—once they get that big they are almost guaranteed to be slow and watered down.  That proxy might not work at a small school, where even the slow classes might be small, but it would have been pretty good at MSU, which had about 40,000 students at that time.

I compensated for some of the lacks of my undergrad education in my long (8-year) path through grad school, taking courses in many fields (math, computer science, electrical engineering, medieval music, computer music, Japanese, teaching English as a second language, …), but I did not fill the hole in physics or statistics then.  I took still more courses after becoming a professor, eventually noticing and correcting the lack of statistics (taking grad classes in stochastic processes and in Bayesian statistics).  I’m only just beginning to fill the hole in physics, by home-schooling my son in calculus-based physics and learning it at the same time as him.  We’re almost done with mechanics this year, and we’ll do electricity and magnetism next year.  After that, I’m not sure—my son will definitely want to continue into more modern physics, and I’ll probably try to learn some quantum mechanics, but I’m not sure I want to learn all the mess that makes up the Standard Model, and I’m sure I don’t want to learn string theory.

The bottom-line lesson that Derek took away seems like a good one about the value of high expectations of oneself:

If you’re more driven than ‘just anyone’—you can do so much more than anyone expects. And this applies to ALL of life—not just school.


  1. […] the weekend, I read a post by GasStationsWithoutPumps on speeding through college.  The Washington Post has a great article about Virginia Tech’s Math Emporium that provides […]

    Pingback by A CS Emporium would be wonderful idea: Efficient and Tailored Computing Education « Computing Education Blog — 2012 April 25 @ 05:58 | Reply

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