Give up hope, all ye who enter here

There is no royal road to geometry: let no one who does not know geometry enter.

The title of this article is supposedly written over the entrance to Hell, if you believe Dante’s Inferno. The two lines above are what Euclid said to Ptolemy, and what Plato had over the doors to his academy.

The standard culture trope is that full time study is like a full time job: you’ll need to spend 9-to-5, Monday-to-Friday on it. But it’s worse than that. Learning is a damn chore, and it isn’t ameliorated by being paid to do it.

All lecturers and all tutors teach in different ways. And all students learn in different ways. And, if, by some fortunate coincidence, there’s an overlap between the two, then someone (usually the student, but not always) learns something. But most of the time lecturers call their students lazy and students call their lecturers hopeless. Neither of them realise they’re working at cross-purposes: that the lecturers want the students to learn all the things, and the students want learn enough to pass.

There’s also the phenomenon of the ‘pons asinorum’, which makes teachers forget the how difficult it was when they were learning their stuff for the first time. Yes, this stuff is simple and straightforward and the kids are idiots for not having spent every day for the last 30 years thinking about it – if only they had, they’d understand that the assignment wouldn’t even take an afternoon – including breaks for tea and knocking off early to go to the pub – and everything would be rainbows and lollipops and what the hell are they bitching about now?

Every combination of lecture, tutorial, workshop, group work or seminar, ‘criteria fail exam’, continuous assessment or ‘take home exam’ has been tried and none of them work. All of them are treating the symptom, not the cause: that learning is hard, and no-one can do it for you.

Back in the bad old days you had to go to the lectures and make your own notes. Lectures weren’t turned into PDFs: when doing your homework you used log tables and slide rules. And why not? Log tables and slide rules put a man on the moon. These days it’s all on the Internet or Blackboard or “in the cloud”. And none of it makes a difference. “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet” and the same goes for less savoury allusions. It does cost less (if you ignore the cost of the hardware and hardware support), so there’s that.

I came to this realisation while taking a tutorial in which the tutor an unintelligible accent and a worse attitude, the room had a nasty echo, my fellow students were blithering to each other and the tutor was raising his voice to drown them out. The echo was turning what my ageing hearing could pick up into gibberish and I couldn’t read the board because my failing eyesight couldn’t resolve the out-of-focus projector and – in the words of the Midnight Oil song ‘The Power and the Passion’ – it was “…just enough to make you want to cry”.

And yet our University is supposedly one of the best engineering schools in the country. How crap must the rest of them be?
I had to go away and do it myself. As it happens, I ended up getting a credit for that course. That’s uni for you: like Morpheus said to Neo, “I can only show you the door. You have to walk through it”. Or something like that. Include citation in best Harvard style here.

Peter is a mature-aged engineering student, who is caught between appreciating what a bloody awful job lecturing is and how much work is involved, and being on the receiving end of some bloody awful teaching. He is looking forward to Kurzweil’s singularity, where all the things can simply be downloaded directly into one’s brain.