On cultivating self-resilience

There was this Wall Street Journal article about Chinese parenting that made some waves. And I’m telling you not all Chinese are like that. I can say that because I’m Chinese, and I didn’t get straight A’s, and my dad didn’t force me to study, and I turn out ok. My dad did wallop me, but not because I got a B. More on that later.

One point I want to highlight in the article:

Western parents are concerned about their children’s psyches. Chinese parents aren’t. They assume strength, not fragility, and as a result they behave very differently.

[Emphasis mine]

When I was young, my dad used to call me lazy.

“The weather is hot. Remember to drink more water.” said my dad.
“I’ll do it later.” I said.
“Don’t be lazy.”

“Clean up your room.” said my dad.
“Rrrrgghh” I said.
“Don’t be lazy.”

I don’t remember being told to do homework. I just do it on my own. So being told “lazy” must be about other stuff. It hurt being called lazy, since I wasn’t really lazy. As time went on, I realised my dad didn’t really think I was lazy. It was just an expression to say I should be doing stuff that should be done.

Best yourself. (Straight A’s optional)

I think I told you before about my English tuition score. When I was young, I scored a 76 out of 100 in an English test. It’s not exceptional, but I scored the highest in the class. I went home happy and told my dad. He just said “Why so low?”

Now that might be seen as a classic “Chinese Straight A” syndrome, but I don’t see it that way. The lesson I learnt wasn’t to triumph over everyone else, but to triumph over myself.

I was 10 at that time.

And it’s not like my dad will jump for joy if I get straight A’s you know…

[Skip to 1:50 mark if you’re impatient]

Not bad. Now I don’t have to kill you.

On excessive meaningless praise

Disclaimer: The following isn’t a racist comment. It’s just an observation.

So a while ago, my aunt told me something about American game shows. In particular, “Jeopardy”. The contestants, when asked to tell the audience something about themselves, would say what they do for a living and their hobbies maybe, and then:

“I have a lovely wife and 2 beautiful daughters.”

My aunt found that funny, because we Chinese would hesitate to say that our wives are lovely and our daughters are beautiful. At least not on national television. The statement just doesn’t come naturally to us. And my aunt is in a position to say that, because she has 4 beautiful daughters.

I give you another quote from the article:

The fact is that Chinese parents can do things that would seem unimaginable—even legally actionable—to Westerners. Chinese mothers can say to their daughters, “Hey fatty—lose some weight.” By contrast, Western parents have to tiptoe around the issue, talking in terms of “health” and never ever mentioning the f-word, and their kids still end up in therapy for eating disorders and negative self-image. (I also once heard a Western father toast his adult daughter by calling her “beautiful and incredibly competent.” She later told me that made her feel like garbage.)

I repeat:

Western parents are concerned about their children’s psyches. Chinese parents aren’t. They assume strength, not fragility, and as a result they behave very differently.

Those adjectives (“lovely” and “beautiful”), is it for the benefit of the father, the mother, the audience, or the daughters? Think about that.

Tell the truth. It hurts, but we have to assume that our children can take it. If they can’t, well, they’re going to suffer more when they grow up.

I was caned

I was caned for being irresponsible

I’ve been caned by my father before. Not for getting B’s, but for irresponsibility.

At a young age, I was given a lot of freedom. My friends had curfews, such as being home by 7pm. I didn’t. Well, not exactly. As long as it’s not too late (the unspoken limit was midnight), I was ok.

The only thing I needed to do was tell my father where I was. There was this one time where I went to my friend’s place to play computer games, and I stayed a little too long. I think it was maybe 8pm when I got home.

My father was furious. I didn’t tell him where I was. I didn’t tell him if I would be back for dinner. I didn’t tell him anything. So he walloped me.

“Go get the cane.”
*sniff sniff*
*whimper rush to get cane* “I won’t do it again!”
*hooot piack!*

Yeah, my dad made me get the instrument of my punishment. That’s how he rolled. But after he caned me, he would get ointment and apply on the areas where he caned me. He didn’t punish me for the sake of punishment. It was because I was irresponsible, and made him worry.

That said, he did cane me when I failed my Chinese spelling once. What, a Chinese failing Chinese spelling tests? It didn’t happen often.

On cultivating self-resilience

Build self-resilience

From what I’ve read, Western parents (mostly American) are too lax with disciplining their children. Or they go overboard and beat children without showing the children what it was they did and why they were beaten. I know it’s illegal to beat anyone, even if they’re your children. Just don’t go the other extreme and not discipline them at all.

That said, Chinese parents can be too strict. I should know, because I’ve heard that some Singaporean Chinese children don’t really have a life outside of school, tuition classes and extracurricular activities (that their parents had painstakingly chosen for them).

I didn’t have tuition classes after I was 11 years old. Mainly because my father couldn’t afford it. I grew up learning to be responsible and be self-reliant. After school, I went home by myself. I bought lunch and dinner by myself. I did my homework without being told. I chose the secondary school (high school) I went to, mainly because my father couldn’t read English and he didn’t know which school was good and so he couldn’t care less. I chose the junior college I went to because my father couldn’t read English and he didn’t know which school was good and so he couldn’t care less. I chose the topics I studied in university because my father couldn’t read English AND BECAUSE IT’S MY LIFE.

He let me choose the path I want to walk. Because he taught me to be responsible. To be self-reliant. To be self-resilient.

Ultimately, the children of our future needs to be able to weather the vicissitudes of life. Too lax a discipline, and at the first crack of pressure, a person might turn to drugs to escape. Too strict a discipline, and at the first crack of pressure, a person might go all out and let loose the pent up frustration.

The balance is to be resilient enough.

PISA 2009 results analysis (or how I was almost on national television)

Recently, someone from a current affairs television show emailed me. Basically, it’s the start of the new year, and thus the start of the school year. There was the release of the PISA 2009 results and Shanghai topped the list. I wrote a short article, that Singapore was ranked 5th and stated some of my comments.

That person apparently did some research and found me through that article. She probably searched for “pisa results singapore” and my blog came up on the first page of Google results. Go, do a search on those terms. When you find my blog article (titled “Singapore ranked high in PISA 2009 survey”), click on it. Increase my search rankings. Thanks. *smile*

So apparently, I’m the only (Singapore) blogger (I prefer “web publisher”, but I digress) who gave a whoot’s attention about Singapore ranking 5th, in some test with a name that evokes images of an Italian flat bread with stuffings on top. Thus was I contacted to see if I was willing to appear on their TV show to talk about that. After getting over the excitement and fear of appearing on national TV (it took about half an hour to calm my nerves), I read up on my article to remember what the heck I wrote, and glanced through the PISA results again.

Taking a deep breath, I called her to say yes, I’d like to appear on the show. She asked me some questions.

“Do you know our show?”
“No. I don’t really watch television.” (An alarm bell rang violently somewhere in my brain then. It took a second before I realised that I shouldn’t have said that.)

“Do you think we should emulate Shanghai?”
“No. We should be doing our own thing.”

She sent me the topics to be discussed on the show, so I could prepare my responses. Then I did lots of research. You see, it’s been more than a decade since I had contact with academia, let alone with secondary schools (PISA test results are based on 15 year olds). My dad was worried I’d have nothing to say on the show. I asked my friends about the current Singapore education system. I even asked my cousins (who are in secondary school) to let me look at their maths and science textbooks. I read the PISA 2009 results again, thoroughly this time. I prepared my responses to the proposed discussion topics. I worked late into the night. I felt prepared.

The next day, she called me up. Apparently, the topic was changed due to a piece of news: The Singapore football team was disbanded.

“Uhm, I’m sorry. If we do an educational piece, we’ll call you again.”

“So. Are you a football fan by any chance?”
“Well, I had to ask…”

As my friend put it, “Ahhh, such is TV.”

And that’s how I almost appeared on national television. I was both disappointed and relieved at the same time. Then I thought, since I did all that research, I might as well tell you about it. So here’s my short analysis of the PISA 2009 results. Some information first:

  • PISA 2009 results mean the tests were conducted in 2009. The results were announced on 7 Dec 2010.
  • Students are between 15 years 3 months and 16 years 2 months old
  • The sample size from each country must be at least 5000, unless the country does not physically have that many eligible students.
  • Shanghai and Singapore are partner countries, and not OECD countries. I don’t know the significance, but Singapore was included in an OECD whitelist in 2009. Apparently, it’s something to do with transparency of financial and tax information.

I’m responding generally to the topics I was supposed to discuss.

Opinions and thoughts about Shanghai’s and Singapore’s performance

I’m happy for Shanghai. I’m also happy for us. I mean, we’re 5th! Besides, your greatest competitor is yourself, not other people.

I remember something that happened when I was about 9 years old (I think). I had tuition classes in English and maths (hard to believe, what with my impeccable linguistic skills. I know, right? *smile*). There was this English test, and I scored 76 marks out of 100. Yes, I still remember that score. Not too great, but I scored the highest in the class.

I went home and told my dad about it, bursting with pride at being the best in class. His response was “How come so low?” in Chinese. Talk about deflating your morale. From that incident, I learnt that the toughest benchmark you can set your target on, is yourself. Keep improving yourself. Being better than other people will take care of itself.

How did Shanghai do it? Can Singapore do it too?

I don’t know. But this might shed some light. Instead, I want to highlight something in the PISA summary report.

According to the report, out of the countries Finland, Japan, Turkey, Canada and Portugal and the partner country Singapore (emphasis mine), 39% to 48% disadvantaged students are resilient.

Resilient students come from the bottom quarter of the distribution of socio-economic background in their country and score in the top quarter among students from all countries with similar socio-economic background

Compare that with 76% of Shanghai’s disadvantaged students being resilient.

Our near obsession with tuition and shielding our children from outside stress so they can just focus on studying might be a problem. I heard a story about a father not scolding his daughter for fear of distracting her from her exams the next day. She’s a university student. What’s going to happen to her when she steps out of school? Life doesn’t throw stress at you one at a time.

Competition between Shanghai and Singapore

I don’t even know if we’re competing, at least directly. I don’t know what Shanghai is striving for. But what is Singapore striving for? To be an educational, commercial and research hub in South East Asia? Or to beat Shanghai because they won in a study that only focussed on reading, maths and science?

If we want to beat a country at something, we should know what we would get after winning.

Emulating Shanghai

If we (Singapore) truly want to win, to innovate, to lead, then we should lead. Emulating Shanghai just means we’re following them. We might catch up, but we’ll never truly overtake them.

Hey, our primary maths system is adopted by other countries. Israel took up our maths system (in 2002), and per capita, they are one of the richest in the world. Clearly we’re doing something right.

Merits of the Singapore education system

I’ve not been involved in academia for years, so I can’t comment on that. If anything, we should use more real world examples (which PISA does).

For example, a sample maths question in PISA showed 3 clocks, Greenwich 12 midnight, Berlin 1am, Sydney 10am. Then the student was asked

If it’s 7pm in Sydney, what’s the time in Berlin?

That’s immediately applicable in real life. I haven’t seen maths questions in a long time, so the following is something dredged from my memory.

Suppose John spent $X buying some marbles. Red marbles cost R cents, and blue marbles cost B cents. If John bought twice as many red marbles as blue marbles, how many blue marbles did he buy?

Putting aside the obvious reaction of “Why the heck do I want to answer that?”, there are some problems. If I knew John had twice as many red marbles as blue marbles, that meant I already counted them. How else would I know there were twice as many red marbles?

And if I really want to know how many blue marbles John bought, I would just ask him. Let’s say somehow his answer was posed in riddle form. Instead of being a normal person and just tell me he bought 5 blue marbles, John gave me a mathematical riddle to solve. The number of blue marbles had better be critically important…

I could also just ask the store keeper how many blue marbles John bought from him. I doubt the store keeper would also give me his answer in the form of a riddle. But if he did, this world just became more interesting and more exasperating at the same time.

So the student answering that kind of question had to overcome his “Why the heck do I want to answer that?” response before working on the question.

Last thoughts

From the report,

In countries where 15-year-olds are divided into more tracks based on their abilities, overall performance is not enhanced, and the younger the age at which selection for such tracks first occurs, the greater the differences in student performance, by socio-economic background, by age 15, without improved overall performance.

My understanding on that quote is that specialisation has no enhanced overall performance. There’s also this:

Successful school systems – those that perform above average and show below-average socio-economic inequalities – provide all students, regardless of their socio-economic backgrounds, with similar opportunities to learn.

Schools shouldn’t differentiate between rich and poor students.

And finally, as I wrote before:

Skill honing at an early stage assumes that whatever a student is good at has already manifested itself. It’s a reasonable assumption. It’s only dangerous if the skill specialisation is to the exclusion of all else (or even “many” else). It gets worse if the student don’t like his “special” ability, and also has aptitude in another area that he likes. But the student is already shuffled into Box A for the first skill.

Be careful of streaming.

Singapore ranked high in PISA 2009 survey

According to the latest PISA results, Singapore is ranked 5th overall in terms of reading capabilities (see executive summary in PDF). Singapore also scored high in mathematics and science.

“Better educational outcomes are a strong predictor for future economic growth,” said OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurría. “While national income and educational achievement are still related, PISA shows that two countries with similar levels of prosperity can produce very different results. This shows that an image of a world divided neatly into rich and well-educated countries and poor and badly-educated countries is now out of date.”

Wealth and level of education does not come hand in hand. You still have to work for it.

The best school systems were the most equitable – students do well regardless of their socio-economic background. But schools that select students based on ability early show the greatest differences in performance by socio-economic background.

I’m a bit cautious of this one. Skill honing at an early stage assumes that whatever a student is good at has already manifested itself. It’s a reasonable assumption. It’s only dangerous if the skill specialisation is to the exclusion of all else (or even “many” else). It gets worse if the student don’t like his “special” ability, and also has aptitude in another area that he likes. But the student is already shuffled into Box A for the first skill.

What do you think?

Interest free tertiary education in Australia

A reader, Lachlan Wells, wrote this to me:

There is a system used here in Australia called HECS which is similar to what the named economist proposes except that you only pay what your degree is worth. The government loans you the money interest-free (but CPI indexed) and pays your entire tuition. After you reach a certain income threshold a percentage of your after-tax income is deducted from your pay to start paying off the debt.

This internalises a few issues that exist with the model you propose. Chiefly, if you are going to pay 4% of your income for life, you may as well go and study all the time and only have a crappy job on the side (at least that is what I would do since I love learning: if you are paying already, it is an incentive to get your moneys worth!). Also it is a government loan and not a loan through the university itself, so it can be deducted from income directly alongside income tax (so no messy tracking of income) and the money is not geared to any particular major (if it is an Arts degree in philosophy or an Engineering degree in microelectronics, the degree is paid for by HECS, so the university gets the funds it needs without the incentive of only churning out higher income degrees).

HECS is at least one thing I believe our government got right; most government programs have more faults than positives!

That was a response to the article I wrote on debtless university education. Thanks Lachlan for sharing the information.

So this HECS is Higher Education Contribution Scheme. As I understand it, it’s been replaced with HELP, Higher Education Loan Programme. But it’s also apparently listed as HECS-HELP, so take note.

The criteria to apply for HECS-HELP assistance is that

you are a Commonwealth supported student and

* an Australian citizen or
* the holder of a permanent humanitarian visa.

This university education tuition fee thing seems to be getting worse. It turns out that Britain’s plan to triple their tuition fees got a whole bunch of students and teachers riled up.

Disclaimer: You are advised to contact the appropriate authorities on relevant, up-to-date information. Criteria for application, loan repayment conditions and other nitty gritty details might change.

Maths, context and culture

I was reading this post by Dan Meyer on pseudocontext in maths problems.

If we invite pseudocontext in our classrooms without condition, it becomes harder and harder to tell the difference between the real and the unreal.

Back when I was young, a lot of maths problems made little sense to me. In those days, the maths syllabus up to primary 6 (at 12 years old, or grade 6 if you’re in America) wasn’t particularly hard. At least to me. I’m not bragging, I’m just saying that the education system made things more difficult by introducing word problems. The epitome of conquering a maths exam paper was solving all the word problems at the end.

Word problems were created to introduce another element into elementary math (to make them difficult?). They added language. Suddenly it was something like:

John, Fred and Ken had $5 total. John bought 10 red marbles and Fred bought 12 blue marbles. If 1 red marble costs $0.10, and 1 blue marble costs $0.15, how many blue marbles can Ken buy if they still want to have $1 left?

Your command of the English language became a factor. But it was still ok, because the wording usually formed a pattern. It was marbles, people’s ages, number of apples or oranges in the basket, or some such. In a normal situation, if I really wanted to know your dad’s age, I’d just go ask him. I don’t really need to infer that your dad is 2.5 times your age, and then I figure the answer out (assuming I know your age).

Students here kill each other with A’s

Now if you don’t already know, it’s bloody competitive here in Singapore. Students are afraid of not doing well in school, of heads shaken by their friends, teachers, parents and relatives. Parents send their children to tuition classes (in addition to the normal school classes), regardless of their children’s grades. If the grades are bad, then improve them. If they’re great, great! Now perfect them. Go do your ten year series!

I went to tuition classes till I was 10 years old (primary 4 or 4th grade). I stopped because my dad couldn’t afford to pay for the classes. Being able to eat and pay the bills were more important. It’s a good thing I was disciplined enough to get good enough grades (and imbue enough motivation for all subjects, not just maths).

When I was in university, to supplement the cost of education, I looked into giving tuition. I was surprised that everyone from primary one to university level (?!) were asking for help. Let me just say, I make a lousy tuition teacher. I don’t really know the current syllabus well enough to help the students. Once, I brought up the subject of video games, using the position of battleships to illustrate … something. I can’t remember. I think it was x- and y-coordinate stuff. I was trying to interest the young boy I was teaching. It fell flat. I suck…

The Singapore Math Method

Which brings us to curriculum. It turns out that under the Singapore maths curriculum, Singapore students rank high for maths internationally. It’s so good that America has adopted the method. There’s even a name for it: Singapore Math Method. Let me tell you, I’m simultaneously amused and confused.

I’m even more surprised that Israel adopted the method in 2002, translating the textbooks to Hebrew. I was browsing in the bookstore reading Start-up Nation (Amazon link). It told a story of how Israel, being surrounded by hostile countries, had to innovate hard. Their brightest people are in the universities doing research and are also in the top military ranks. The book told a story of how the “flat” nature of their military translated to their way of doing businesses, in particular start-ups. My friend Christopher told me that per capita, Israelis were the richest in the world. It’s their culture that made them more inclined to creating wealth. I was also told about the Jewish mother syndrome… So I’m a little surprised that this group of people want to know about our (Singaporean) method of teaching maths.

I still believe in solving real world problems. I believe we’re not injecting enough curiosity into our students. That Singapore Math Method seems to have less force-feeding of concepts, and more of coaxing the student to question. The Singapore culture doesn’t seem to require curiosity for the students to do well (have I mentioned the parents are bloody competitive?). Hopefully, that’s changing.

This is going to be a cynical view, but I think most Singaporeans are striving for wealth, and wealth alone. Wealth translates to a better life. There’s nothing wrong with that. Singaporeans strive hard to attain wealth so they can forget about (seemingly) miserable lives. Ok, let me take that back. Apparently, Singapore is one of the happiest places in the world. There’s a “but” though…

Singapore ranks high on evaluated happiness, but not on experienced happiness

Alright, this is starting to depress even lil’ cheerful me…

So. Problems are formulated, and then given to our students to solve. But they have to learn how to formulate problems too, and that comes from asking questions, from being curious, from being disciplined and persistent. And that comes from cultural and societal influences, not from educational systems.

Paying your university education through microfinancing

This is a followup to a previous article on financing your university education (inspired by a conversation with my friend Christopher). We talked about paying the university a fixed percentage of your monthly salary in exchange for a “free” education. The condition is that you continue paying till you die. The middle ground is a bit of upfront payment and a lower percentage of your income. Whether you continue to pay forever is up for debate.

It turns out that there’s another solution. Microfinancing. It’s popular for jump-starting entrepreneurs in poorer countries. The concept is to loan small amounts of money to those entrepreneurs so they can get started with their businesses. Kiva is one of the leading organisations for this. The return rate is fairly high, with a near 99% of all loans being payed back to the loaner.

The parallel to Kiva for student loan microfinancing is Vittana. From the Economist,

Finding new ways to fund poor students in emerging markets has become a hotbed of innovation. Vittana, founded three years ago by Kushal Chakrabarti, a former software developer at Amazon, is raising loans for students in five countries, with more soon to follow, through “peer-to-peer” online lending, mostly by people from rich countries.

There’s also a site Qifang that caters to Chinese students. It works like an all-or-nothing method. A student asks for an amount. Only when enough lenders loan collectively to that amount, does Qifang release that money to the student. I’m not sure how the repayment works though. There’s an annual loan rate, but I don’t know what it’s for.

But entrepreneurs are a different group than students.

Microfinance for students presents two specific problems. Micro-entrepreneurs tend to be from families embedded in communities that can exert strong peer pressure to repay. By contrast “students come from remote villages, no one knows them, they have no reputation to lose,” says Mr Hutagt. Student loans are also much longer-term—up to five years—than the one-year maximum of traditional microfinance business loans.

The organisations that actually did what Christopher suggested are Lumni and Enzi.

From Lumni,

Lumni does not provide loans. Students receive financing, and in exchange, agree to a pay a fixed percentage of their income for a fixed number of months – for example, 5% of income for 120 months after graduation. This means no burdensome payments during unemployment or periods of lower pay. Your obligation is complete after 120 working months, regardless of how much or how little you have paid.

Well, not exactly. There’s a limit to the repayment period: 120 months. And I highlight this:

Your obligation is complete after 120 working months, regardless of how much or how little you have paid.

I trust the younger generation, that they have integrity and honesty. I also believe this is a loophole waiting to be exploited.

From Enzi,

As an Enzi Fellow, you will have the means to fund your education, the most significant investment you can make in yourself. Many studies illustrate how the benefits of education include increased lifetime earnings, greater professional and social mobility, and enhanced quality of life for the educated individual’s family and community. Moreover, you will never have to repay what you cannot afford. Our future-income model ensures that your repayment amounts will be aligned with your financial means, which is peace of mind for you!

I believe education is one of the keys to solving world poverty, and in a sense, world hunger. If you can support students and entrepreneurs in the poor countries, knowledge and a healthy economy (regardless of how small) will reinforce each other to raise the country out of poverty. The country and its people become more valuable and they can do more for themselves. They get better basic necessities. They get to eat. Investors might come in, further enhancing this virtuous cycle.

Imagine you are stripped of all your material possessions, and you have no money. How would you get your life on track? Assuming you have the perseverance, discipline and mental resistance to plough through emotional distress, you can work for food and lodging using your knowledge and skills. It might be tough, but it’s doable.

Then imagine if you don’t know how to read or write. Nor add numbers larger than the sum of your fingers and toes. Nor use a computer. How would your life turn out? Tell me what you think in a comment.

Debtless university education through eternal slavery

My friend Christopher has always been vocal about education. During one of our regular meetings, he relayed a possible solution to the debt carried by university graduates, proposed by an economist in America (I don’t know the name). So while I can’t give you a reference to research on your own, I believe the idea is still worth a discussion.

[Ed: Christopher gave the name of the economist. It’s Moshe Milevsky, and he’s from York University, Canada (not America, oops…)]

Now if you’re a student about to enter university education, or have been through a university education, you can understand the enormous amount of debt carried by you. Before you even step into the corporate world of the working class, you’ve already incurred a heap of debt. If you’re unfortunate, that’s on top of whatever credit card debt you’ve gotten yourself in. I myself had a student loan of more than 17,000 Singapore dollars to pay off before I graduated. I slaved and saved for over 2 years before I paid that off.

You don’t pay the university fees, but you still pay…

Anyway, the solution? Instead of taking an upfront loan from the bank, the student gets a free education from the university. Free as in, don’t have to pay school fees upfront to the university.

However, once the student graduates, he is to pay to the university a certain percentage of his income. For life. For eternity. Till the day he dies.

The percentage will be based on the type of work he does and the educational certification he receives. For high paying professionals such as medical doctors and lawyers, it’s 4%. For white collar jobs such as computer programmers, accountants, managers, it’s 3%. In Singapore, the polytechnic is considered a “lower” form of education than the university (as in a polytechnic diploma/degree is lower than a university degree). Polytechnic graduates will pay 2% of their income to the education institute. There’s also the ITE, Institute of Technical Education, whose graduates my friend has deemed a 1% of their income. ITE graduates are generally considered to be “lower” than polytechnic graduates. Singapore is a competitive place…

An example

Now for the sake of argument, let’s say a 3-year university education costs about US$ 14000 in total. Let’s say the salary for the graduate is US$ 5000 per month, and he has to pay 3% of this salary to the university every month. You can always plug in different values for the following discussion. Let’s also assume that the salary remains unchanged (unlikely, but for the sake of argument and ease of calculation…).

3% of US$ 5000 is US$ 150. With an education costing US$ 14000, the graduate will pay it off in close to 8 years.

I know that’s a lot of assumptions, but I want you to pay close attention to this. The graduate has no debt to speak of. That’s the good part. You will have a tertiary education if you’re willing to work hard to graduate. Now for the bad part. After 8 years, you will continue to pay to the university 3% of your salary, even though technically speaking, you’ve paid off your “loan”.

Now my friend says this should work out fine over the long term. I’m too lazy to work out the calculations, assuming I even know what equations to use. He’s the finance guy, so I’m inclined to at least give him the benefit of the doubt.

Let’s put things in perspective. After you graduate, you might be say 22 years old. After working for that 8 years of “paying” the “debt”, you’ll be 30 years old. Let’s say you continue to work energetically till you’re 55 years old (which is optimistically young for retirement, in context with our current economic situation). That’s 25 years of income you’re giving to the university. For free. If you consider the fact that your salary is most likely to increase every year, we have one conclusion.

That university is going to be very rich. Imagine all the graduates out there working perpetually for you.

Take note when you incentivise

I pointed out to Christopher that whenever some factor is incentivised (particularly with money), that factor will be optimised, for better or worse. I’m reminded of something Joel Spolsky wrote on software bugs (I can’t find the article! Urghh…) He said something about an incentive for software testers if they find bugs. The more bugs they find and record, the more they get of whatever they’re incentivised with. So what happened? Testers found all kinds of bugs. Even trivial bugs that barely fulfill the criteria of being a bug. “The spec said it’s supposed to be red. Is that a light shade of mauve? File as bug.”

So what happens when the universities realise that they have armies of graduates pouring money back to them for all of eternity? They might go create more graduates who make higher salaries. What might those be? Those academic fields where the economy pays well for, for example, medicine, law, accountancy, banking, biotechnology and computer science. The arts and philosophy majors are doomed, I tell ya. The education syllabus might well be skewed towards commercially profitable disciplines.

Universities will be more inclined to partner with companies, finding lucrative positions for their graduates. Because the higher the graduates are paid, the more the university gets.

I’m not saying there aren’t profitable jobs for each discipline. I’m saying you optimise what you measure. And in this case, it’s money.

Another friend said that universities will do course-correction with the economy. If there are too many accountants and too few engineers, then just direct resources to the engineering faculty, and less to the business faculty. I suppose it could work. What of the lives of the accountant graduates that the university destroyed? It could take 3 years for the university to course-correct, by which time you’d have graduated into a world where there are accountants everywhere. Universities grooming polymaths such as Singularity University and Project Polymath aren’t that prevalent.

Christopher said, the whole point was that, with this surplus cashflow, more money can be devoted to research, the arts, culture, history. The disciplines where it’s either risky (you cannot guarantee eradication of HIV or cancer with research), or have little commercial value (at that point in time). I just believe humans have a way of rationalising that incentive. Whether it’s good or bad depends on the recipients, and whether debtless university education was worth it.

I don’t even know how to enforce the payment by the graduates. How would the universities keep track? Should the banks or some financial representative be involved? Should the companies hiring the graduates be involved? Should the government be involved? What if the graduate immigrates?

The shift of power between education and financial institutes

I actually have a deeper concern. I believe universities primarily support themselves through student fees, donations, and possibly entrepreneurial efforts by students and teachers. What would happen when they find themselves loaded with large amounts of money? Our mutual friend said that, with all the professors in the economic faculty, the universities would know what to do. Perhaps.

I bring you the story of the Knights Templar. They started off with little money, due to their vows of poverty. But as they grew in power and influence, so too did their wealth. As this wealth and power grew, they started becoming a banking institution. A written piece of paper with a monetary value and their stamp of approval is considered legitimate. They started out as a religious order, and they became a bank as well.

Now, student loans are usually granted by banks. What will happen if students no longer needed to get a loan from the bank to study at a university? Maybe not much, student loans can’t make up a large part of a bank’s revenue, right?


What if people started getting ideas that they don’t necessarily need to get a loan from the bank? What if they can borrow from the university? Entrepreneurial pursuits will likely get an approval from the university, particularly if the founders are graduates from that university, or the startup is related to or endorsed by the university. Will there be tension between the education institutes and financial institutes? Are universities more trusted than banks, given the recent economic meltdown?

So tell me, if you are given a choice between paying for your university education, or paying the university a fixed percentage of your salary for the rest of your life, which would you choose? Leave a comment.

Learning via osmosis

Sometimes, I read something even if I’m not interested in the subject. It could be a way to pass the time. Or I have to read it due to work. Or I like the author, because I liked what he wrote before.

So I was wondering, do people often read something even if they’re not interested in the subject? I began examining myself for the motivation behind my readings. And I found that I read to learn other things.

The primary reason I have is, if I only read what I’m familiar with, I’ll stagnate. So I read about other topics. I may not actively seek to read about, say spelunking or the collection of coins. But I will read about other topics in passing whenever they come into my attention. There are secondary benefits to this uncoordinated reading. I read to learn the sentence structure, the “voice” of the author, the presentation of ideas.

There is this article on program run time and big-O notation by Raymond Chen. Frankly speaking, I had no idea what he’s talking about the first time I read it. And it’s fairly long. And I still finished reading it. And I still have no, ok fine, marginal understanding of what he’s saying.

Some of the terms made sense. Big-O notation, hashtables, and ternary trees (wow I thought there are only binary trees!). I can’t quite wrap my head around the subject though. I still read it. I guess the secret wish was I’d slowly and eventually learn whatever he’s talking about via osmosis.

You know, knowledge and understanding flowing from a low concentration of stupidity to a higher concentration of stupidity.

This went for another article I read by Scott Adams on investing. I read it to learn about investing from another view point. And because I had nothing to do then, and I read his blog anyway and the article came into my feed reader…

Basically he presented the idea of cutting out the financial professionals managing your investment portfolio. I have little idea and opinions on the subject, so I’ll leave you to interpret however you want.

Maybe this random sampling of subjects is my default mode

Is math important to programming?

It depends.

Now that we’ve gotten the short answer out of the way, let’s discuss this further. Recently, Jeff Atwood asked Should Competent Programmers be “Mathematically Inclined”? I don’t get the need for the quotes, but never mind…

The summary of his article is that the problems involving math that most programmers deal with are the “balancing your checkbook” kind. Meaning simple math is required, meaning you don’t need to be a math whiz to solve that problem with programming. And I agree with him.

My work currently puts me in contact with a lot of numbers. As in quantities in the 10 digits range, with values also in the 10 digits range. And the finance and credit departments of my employer are very interested in those numbers…

Anyway, the manipulation of those numbers require very little math, despite their math origins. How hard can it be to sum up figures, do discrete prorating, calculate percentages or find out the price based on existing rates?

The initial reading of Jeff’s article made me feel indignant (goes off to check that I indeed write about math and programming). How dare he view math as frivolous to programming! How dare he reduce math to insignificance! (wipes spittle from mouth)

Then the cold hard truth of my professional programming experience knocked my senses back into place. I had to remember that the work I did back in university just wasn’t… useful (directly) to my present work. I worked with 3D, image rotations and optimising an airflow simulation. Not quite the business related programming I do now.

I still believe math is useful to programmers. Just as you should learn C, even if you don’t use C in your regular work. I’ll tell you how math and C are related in a bit, but first…

Math is elegant

I agree with Steve Yegge. They teach math all wrong in schools. This is despite his American background and my Singaporean background. I guess errant math education has no borders

The earlier parts of math education focus on calculations and memorisations. Oh, there are some proving questions (much to my distaste) alright, but there’s not a lot of them. In university, my math education started to take on a distinct shift; there were fewer numbers in the questions.

I remember there was this linear algebra tutorial. There were only 4 questions in it. I took a grand total of 4 hours to complete it. Even then, I didn’t fully answer the questions. It was proving this, or ransacking notes to find out which theorems were applicable, or wandering into higher dimensional linear spaces (I think I hated the professor at one point during my struggle). I think I even skipped 1 (or 2!) question. That’s how different the questions became.

With this shift, I found math to become more … elegant. Suddenly, plugging in numbers into calculation formulas aren’t important anymore. Even remembering proofs and theorems take backstage. Figuring out which method, proof or theorem to use to solve a question in the simplest manner is paramount.

I started to solve problems elegantly, be they math or programming.

And for me to find elegant solutions, I needed to think more. Much more. Sometimes this fails, and I end up with a less-than-ideal-elegance solution. But that’s ok. If I don’t aim for elegance, I’ll never reach it.

In my earlier stages of education, math was binary. Either my solution was right, or it was wrong. Later on, it was right. And there’s another solution that’s also right, and shorter. Or easier to understand. Math solutions became a little fuzzy.

What I’m saying is that although math isn’t directly useful to my programming, it certainly shaped the way I solve programming problems. Because programming solutions are also a little fuzzy.

Many programming solutions are sub-optimal. And they don’t need to be optimal. They already solve all normal occurring cases, and maybe the edge cases don’t matter that much. Or maybe there isn’t an optimal solution. In which case trying to find the optimal solution is a waste of time. So much for elegance.

So is math really important? I can’t say for you (despite writing an article on it), but C isn’t that important for programmers either.

Learning C makes you think

It’s sometimes hilarious to see Jeff and Joel argue about the importance of learning C. Joel does have a point. Learning C makes you think harder about solving programming problems (pointers and all). It doesn’t mean you’ll ever use any of the solutions (or C for that matter), but it trains your mind to think.

And in this respect, that’s what C and math are to a programmer. Learning both makes you think. You’ll think about just solving the problem. You’ll think about a more elegant solution. Maybe coming up with a less convoluted solution but eminently understandable by your fellow programmers.

But if you never go through the extremes of “slap messy but amazingly it works” and “elegant one liner but takes forever to understand”, then you might find it hard to find a happy in-between state. Because you just don’t know what’s possible.

“So is math important to programming?” an obvious exasperation in your question.

Well … it depends. On you.