Thursday, June 19, 2008

Ahhhh, grad school

(This is looooooooong. Sorry.)
To begin, business school is only technically grad school. Being taught how not to feel guilty about exploiting your employees, which seems to be the main purpose of an MBA, has nothing in common with the accumulation of specific knowledge in the hopes of being able to eventually add to that knowledge, or the further development and refinement of specific skills, be they technical or artistic or both. (My family owned a business school for 150 years, so I feel qualified to opine here, btw.) Business school is supposed to be something very different from what it is today, but in effect it is paying to be made into a sociopath. All other forms of grad school are based on a model of increasing a student's knowledge.
So, despite having a highly unrepresentative experience of grad school, Megan let loose with an incredibly long post on the perils of graduate education. In a similar vein, since I went to Vassar and was in close proximity to a strong Womens Studies Department and many lesbians, something which hasn't changed living in hipsterish portions of NYC, I am totally qualified to discuss the perils of being a lesbian Womens Studies major. I'll post about it after this.

It's expensive. It often leaves you, on net, worse off financially than you would have been without the degree. And it makes you stupid.
Ok, her first point is uncontroversial, though depending on the school and program it might be an overstatement. Her second point is one she has no right to make. You go for an MBA in the hopes of making more money in the near future afterwards. It's called spending money to make money. The debt incurred by someone pursuing a PhD in, say, Sanskrit is a burden that person is knowingly and willingly accepting for possibly quite a long time. Megan was in no way, shape, or form ever a representative grad student, and what she says about the topic is as full of shit as everything else she's ever written.
The stupidity, thankfully, is only temporary. But while it lasts, it sure is painful to watch.

This post grows out of a conversation I had recently with someone who deals regularly with graduate students. I was relating an exchange I'd had with an interviewer, a PhD economist, who'd asked me about my MBA. "Well, while I was getting it, I thought I knew everything," I told him. "Sadly, that turned out not to be the case."
Which explains why Megan is never wrong, but often misunderstood. She's clearly changed and grown, as her own willingness to complement herself clearly demonstrates.
To judge from the number of people who think that their PhD makes them an expert in, well, everything, he's absolutely right.
I guess Megan knows lots of engineers.
Semi-inside snarking aside, her claim is somewhat true, we've all known the pompous PhD who thinks they know everything. But we, not being Megan, also know that these types act that way because they are insecure and/or mediocre. In my experience the adjunct prof at MidSouthEastern Georgia State Community College puts on many more airs than the at the head of her field, frequently honored, tenured at a name Uni full Prof who actually learned something from grad school. My personal experience of grad school has been quite humbling, as it's made me realize both how very little I know of even the things I know best, and that it's very hard to come up with anything truly original, considering the thousands that have tread your very narrow corner of learning before you. I've also found that most of my fellow grad students are quite willing to be proven wrong. (I suppose it's something of a quirk of philosophy students, but we actually want to be proven wrong. It's usually more productive.)
In any case, Megan's description of grad students only works as a description of herself. Not as a grad student, just as Megan McArdle. She didn't grow out of these flaws, she merely found ways to fool herself. Mostly faux humility.
[Grad students] get not merely the feeling that they have learned things others haven't mastered, but that they are the possessors of knowledge that others can't master unless they, too, are initiates. They develop an amused contempt for anyone who is not in a PhD program. Oddly, they are more easily convinced of the competence of people with advanced degrees in entirely unrelated fields than, say, policy professionals.
No, Megan, this is how people who go to professional programs in Ivies think, not how grad students think. The closing of a mind you describe is the precise opposite of what should happen in grad school.
There's an additional effect in a lot of social sciences; graduate students tend to drift towards schools and professors whom they find ideologically sympathetic. They read some books that agree with them, and listen to their professors confidently smiting the arguments of people they didn't like in the first place. After a year or so of coursework, they feel like able masters of a difficult body of material which proves, scientifically, that they were right all along.
Does anyone know what the fuck she's talking about? This sounds like how you'd describe the worst department at a bad community college. Where are these professors who only agree with you and reinforce your sense of genius? My gpa is... pretty, and I get along well with my professors, but most of the time we find ourselves in productive disagreement, where each pushes the other for greater clarity of expression, not final agreement, as Megan says in the very next sentence.
Meanwhile, those professors are constantly challenging them--forcing them to jump a series of ever-higher hurdles, exposing their logical mistakes, breaking them down and building them up again in the mold of their school.
..... so wait. Grad school reinforces someone's biased self-opinion by putting them through a cult initiation? I take back any element of snark in calling business school learning to be a sociopath. That is literally what it is. Also, it doesn't teach you to reason logically, or coherently.
At the end of this process, they are like movie Marines coming out of boot camp--they feel ten feet tall, tough as nails, and hungry for some action. This is generally when they start making total, and all-too-often extremely public, asses of themselves.
.... wasn't the original premise of this post that one becomes less of an ass out of grad school, eventually?
The new graduate student's lack of humility is a stunning thing, perfect, seamless, and unbreakable. They begin issuing their opinions to anyone who will hold still on the assumption that the benighted masses have just been waiting patiently for a clever graduate student to explain How Things Really Work.
"New" in this case meaning "one who has gone through the portion of the process Megan described earlier", which I think translates to a second year student. And for potential future teachers who are beginning to approach that role to have an urge to lecture about what they know is clearly proof of know-it-all-ism, as opposed to evidence they chose the right path for themselves. It's an annoying thing, sure, but it sounds like Megan's jealous of folk who know enough about something to actually teach others about it.
The new graduate student, bolstered by the opinions of their professors, tends to become extraordinarily indignant at the notion that anyone would challenge them.
Unlike Megan.
Since no one without a graduate degree could possibly have mastered the requisite knowledge, disagreement becomes a sign of willful malice.
Or a failure to properly understand Megan's point.
They stride forth confidently into arguments with professionals armed with the three books they have read on the topic, the opinions of their professors, and enough arrogance to power a high speed monorail between Moscow and Vladivostok.
Unlike Megan, who doesn't need to so much as Google a topic before wading in.
That's when they get their asses handed to them. Even worse, they are often too dumb to recognize this has happened; at the nadir of the disease, they are simply constitutionally incapable of recognizing that a slot at a good school is not the same thing as omniscience.
Rush Limbaugh isn't capable of the kind of projection Megan's last paragraph demonstrates. I really and truly think Megan doesn't know what a mirror is.
The problem is that the professors whose ideas they are parroting, the authors of the books they have read, have honed their beliefs against the harsh grindstone of academic and political debate. Their professors thoroughly understand the canonical works of the other side, and can defend, at length, the subtle judgements that led them to reject their conclusions. The graduate student can usually only walk through one or two rounds of a lengthy rehash of these arguments before they are forced to fall back upon "My professor says that Mr. A is right and Mr. B is wrong."
Whereas Megan simply quotes Hayek.
Unfortunately, there are few topics of great interest in which all the authorities are on one side. In economics, the subject with which I'm most familiar, trade and asset price controls are among the very few topics of which this could actually be said.
.......... I'd give up now, as I want to, but we have to make it to the conclusion. It's even worse.
Or must everyone suffer as I did when I discovered, with brutal shock, that there were still a surprising number of people in the world who knew more than I did?
"were". Not are, were. Now that Megan is a full adult no one in the world knows more than she does, and the flaws she diagnoses in others are not her own. Megan's problem now is she knows too much, and can't put all of her knowledge into her writing lest she overwhelm our tiny wittle brains. Cuz it's a universal feature of effective knowledge that people who really understand something can't explain it clearly, at all.
I could write two or three more posts, each longer than the one prior, in response to the stupidity Megan has poured into this post and about how it reveals the flaws in her mindset, but this one is too long already.
George Bush is more self-aware than Megan. Ronald Reagan's corpse is more self-aware.


nilsey said...

her whole post is basically to the effect of "i am too lazy or stupid to refute kathy g's argument, here's a few hundred words laying out a completely fabricated archetype of a grad student so i can excuse myself from arguing with an actual one."

you have to hand it to megan, actually. usually people like her just build strawmen of her opponent's argument. in this case she has built a strawman of her opponent herself. like a combination ad hom/strawman.

i propose this mode of attack be called henceforth "ad strawmanum".

Clever Pseudonym said...

She doesn't even have the guts to come out and take Kathy G on in a straightforward manner. She's got to make a snide, stupid side-swipe at her. What a moron.

spencer said...

"ad strawmanum" is full of win.

Susan of Texas said...

disagreement becomes a sign of willful malice

Heh, that's one she pulled with me, among others. You're so right, it just screams projection.