Tuesday, May 12, 2020

Day 53: Important Education

This article is part of The 100 Days Offensive. Go to Day 52 or Day 54.

What were the most important steps in my education? There are obvious answers like school and the university, but they matter less or in a different way that one would initially think.

That does not imply my time at the Christian-Albrechts-Universität was not important, but rather by proxy. My degree in computer science was up to 80+% a degree in mathematics and rather theoretical. The most important skill I learned was to formulate complex problems in a concise and precise language. That is a valuable skill but not earth-shattering.

The school also taught me one important lesson and it was about how much the teacher matters. I could go from being close to failing to star pupil within six months just by exchanging the person standing in front of the class. By that lesson, I also learned how much random chance does influence your path. I was several times just a hair's breadth away from getting tossed out from high school. Remaining there depended less on me than on some teachers who went on the bat for me. It was nothing I deserved or earned. I cannot imagine how many people's careers got derailed because they did not have as much luck as I had.

But the most important part of my education happened at the university but not through the university and was no part of the curriculum. I got involved with the student council for my department. This was at a time of conflict. Germany was going through a time of economic crisis and funding was short. Also, the curriculum was getting out of touch with the job requirements and was threatening the value of the education. Both issues angered me and I wanted to do something about it. The work in the student council taught me the skill of "doing something about it." The power in the department rests alone with the professors and they are not shy about it. One specimen once told me expressis verbis "The privilege to discuss the curriculum comes with the tenure and with the tenure only." So the skill that was absorbed here was to negotiate without power but using just reason and publicity.

But the student council had another lasting impact: Theme-centered interaction (TCI). The student council represented also the students becoming high school teachers for mathematics. Their curriculum was even more lacking than the one for computer science and they took a lot of things into their own hands. They brought an understanding about how learning and group work into the mix, that you nearly never find in computer science alone. We used TCI to structure our work as a council and to hold our introductions for new students.

Beyond that, the work in the student council has brought me into contact with people who became very close friends and who, through feedback and suggestions, worked hard on my education as well.

As already mentioned in a different blog post, I am a pen&paper RPG player. I started playing in 1986. Even today, I occasionally play with some of those people in my initial round. I consider the RPG to be one of the cornerstones of my education. It is hard to overestimate the impact those 34 years of playing had on me. There are so many aspects:

  • Every campaign was a lesson in project management.
  • By assuming different roles I developed more empathy (which was still in rather low supply on my side in 1986). 
  • Combat situations honed tactical skills.
  • But you also learned to avoid combats as your character progressed. The figure becomes dearer and more valuable with the hours you spent with it. And you learn that even the easiest fight carries risks.
  • You could probably write a complete series on group dynamics upon the experiences.
I am pretty sure I overlooked some aspects when writing this text. Though I would not say that any RPG round provides valuable education, the chances are high. I would rate the chance higher than with 90+% of all classroom sessions I have sat through. It will depend heavily on the setup of the group. This lead again to the element of chance: I had an excellent group.

The impetus for this post comes from a discussion with a friend. In totally unrelated chat he mentioned that my passion for strategy computer games and military science fiction has given me a certain advantage. Thinking about it, I would add those two aspects to the "important" list of my education though they do not reach the impact of RPG and my work in the student council.

Strategy computer games for me do not include the so-called "real-time strategy" (RTS) genre. Those games are (at best from my point of view) tactical. While they also may teach skills, I do not consider those important for me. Strategic games include e.g. the handling conflict of aims and long term planning. Military science fiction also teaches nearly the same skills but by a completely different approach.

Overall I can summarize that formal education is a lot less important for me than other aspects. This reflected by the fact that in all my life I never had to show my university diploma. Though the fact that I hold that degree has been useful by itself,  it is not on my top 5 list. This also has the importance that I assign to formal degrees held (or especially not held) by other people.

As mentioned several times in this post, the influence of random chance is scary. There are so many occasions in life where my education and therefore my career could have gone off the rails. I need this awareness to teach me humility, a lesson I find very hard. It is too easy to attribute success to one's skills and hard work. I need to remind me constantly about the luck I had and the people that have helped me to become the person I am today.


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  2. As a student and co-player of one of the famous first Midgard round in the 80' in Kiel I can confirm your aspects.
    The most skilling part for me was the empathy aspect. I often understand the other side in a meeting, as it is usual for me to evaluate the situation from the perspective of the other side (GM for NSC and SC, SC for NSC).

    I work a an IT-consultant.