A Rant on School and Books

The last years of high-school aren’t just a waste of time, but actually have a negative influence on the person going.  Don’t believe me?

Books are interesting. It’s extremely rare to find an author who actually think like the ‘What is / Why’ system breaking things down. They use these words and never define what they mean. You’ll see some word come out of nowhere and they don’t ever properly define it. You’ll find examples, such as science books where they say “Energy is the ability to do work” — Then never tell what ‘work’ is. They simply shift the burden of defintion onto some other word and don’t define it. Then they use that word everywhere. The sun emits energy. Here’s the energy spectrum. Blah blah.

I had the hardest time in science class and I’m not surprised. Once I started thinking for myself, I noticed these things got complex. I never knew what these spectrums and grids and things were. Memorizing some periodic table. I never understood why it was organized the way it was. They gave some vague groupings but overall it was memorizing. It was all memorizing. Completely impractical mindless memorizing.

I remember Chemistry we’d do these “algorithms” on chemical equations to do various “calculations”. Things would cancel, you’d move stuff around. I don’t remember. I just remember it never made sense, and one day I just stopped caring. I knew that a few months after I got out of there I’d never remember that crap again. I definetely knew I couldn’t use it for anything. Then I was branded as an outsider and didn’t do well in there. I barely held onto a C in that class — and now I’m proud. I’m glad I didn’t waste my time.

I remember history class. It was always just a bunch of memorizing scattered events. Oh, we’d study the Great Depression and learn about laws Congress enacted. That stuff is details. The purpose of history is to learn from your mistakes, but did you ever learn what caused the Great Depression? “The Businesses Failed” — That’s not an answer. That’s not going to stop another depression from coming or help you identify one that is coming. That’s an economics question, so that’s what I studied and it’s not such a mystery anymore. The actions Congress took were recommendations from that of economists. If you learn economics, all the details become details. Never memorize details. Learn the system that drives the details. It’s fine to know the details, but the system is so much more important.

In history, about once a year, we’d have a few week “coverage” of the U.S. government. We’d vaguely talk about the House and the Senate and Seperation of Church and State. Really I didn’t get it. What I wanted to learn was the root of the matter. How could government work differently and WHY is this the best way? Can government work effectively in different manners? We practically worshipped ‘democracy’ as the only way. We never even touched oligarchy or aristocracy. We surely didn’t cover other governments in history that had enacted them. We never talked about Justice, or Punishment, or Liberty, or Morals. Never anything real. Just memorized how we do it here, but never understood the root of the matter. We’d read the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence but never studied the root philosophy behind it. Isn’t that what really matters? This memorizing stuff simply makes people think they know about stuff that they don’t.

Do you remember anything in History other than England? What about Japan and China’s history or any of the Orient? Ever hear about the samurais or the emperors? Ninjas? What about Persia or Babylon? What about Rome? What about all that history that took place in Bible times? What about Egypt? What about Israel? I never heard about this. I went to UMR bookstore and they literally don’t even carry anything about any of that stuff. Not a single thing. China, Japan, etc — they’re just a complete mystery to us in the U.S. They don’t even cover that in their History program. I think they’re pretty important too — don’t you think?

Should I go on? Should I talk about math class memorizing equation after equation? How about Spanish that I didn’t want to learn and can’t remember a thing today? I took two years of the class — what a waste. How about English class reading and treating these fictional works like they’re the Bible. That stuff never changed my life. Eventually, I’ve come to realize that a lot of what I read, such as Thoreau’s Walden is some of the best works out there. Problem is, I hadn’t read the philosophy he’d read and had no idea what he was even saying. I remember thinking, “Why should I care what this stupid guy who lived out in some shed by a lake has to say.” I think that question is reasonable, but once I knew the answer I loved Walden.

That being said, school was actually BAD for me, not good. I was turned off from Henry David Thoreau, thinking this guy is just some crazo, when really I love his work. It’s great stuff. Thing is, everything was presented so poorly that I was completely turned off. The last years of high-school hindered me, not helped.

Today I don’t tolerate crap. I normally have to buy a ton of books on any subject I plan to study then I systematically start going. One book is vague here and another book covers where this guy was vague. It’s the only way I’ve found that works. That’s why my room looks like a library 🙂 I spent $1500 on books last year (2004). That’s quite a bit of books considering most really good books on Amazon are around max $25. I don’t buy those rip-off college text-books. College text-books almost always suck. Always. I own at least two college text books on “Business”, Accounting, Calculus, Psychology, Economics, History, Physics, and Chemistry. I also own textbooks on Anatomy, Sociology, “Marketing”, and Astronomy.

Just about the only textbook that’s any good is the Managerial Accounting textbook I own. Now that’s a good book. But, if you notice, Accounting is VERY objective and very exact. They did a good job on that one. Most of the rest I’ve determined are worthless. I only own them to quote how bad they are on various things. I haven’t went through the Anatomy textbook yet. It seems better.

I always love to go the the university bookstores and buy the textbooks that are one year old. You see the “updated” version that basically changes a few grunt-work problems and it’s selling for $150. Buy the “old” previous release textbook for $5 or sometimes even lower. I don’t think Physics and Calculus or Sociology has changed THAT much in one year. If it has, the book authors aren’t going to be that fast to keep up. It’ll take them time to rewrite the new chapters anyways. Poor college students. They have no money and get ripped off.

Also I’ve found I own all the original books that most of the textbooks quote and “recap” from. I saw a “Management Theory” book at a University Bookstore. He mainly quoted from Peter Drucker and some others. Well, I think Peter Drucker, who restructured GM, and several other huge corporations and has literally spent his entire life in the field would know more than anybody else. Drucker wrote a book about the size of that textbook called “Management: Tasks, Responsibilties, Practices”. Drucker’s book costs $20 new, whereas “Management Theory” costs $150 at UMR bookstore. Huh. So for that $150 I can buy every book that you’re recapping, and they know the stuff better.

So people who learn on their own save money and read better material. I’m glad I dropped out of college. I’ve learned more than I ever would have in school learning on my own. I’ve also been studying the things that are most important and haven’t been memorizing anything. It’s been great.

12 thoughts on “A Rant on School and Books”

    1. To do the work I’m wanting to get involved in, there’s no choice but get involved in academia. They don’t let people just walk in off the street and build quantum computers. You can’t get research funding to do computational physics research without proper credentials. The labs you need to work in easily cost $10 million dollars, and universities have access to this sort of technology, which you could never afford to buy on your own. You wouldn’t even know what to buy considering you hadn’t ever had a chance to work in the lab.

      I still have a low opinion of school, at least classes. I have a lot of things I could add too. For example, putting students in competition with one another for grades is really stupid. All the memorization. I don’t want to even get started. The professors can be really helpful though, especially when it comes to explaining advanced physics concepts.

  1. I’m not sure if it’s not really stupid, anyway, what do you think about the idea to learn physics not from classical mechanics to quantum mechanics but the other way around i.e. from lesser scale to larger to decrease the amount of things one needs to memorise and increase actual understanding?


    1. I don’t think that’s a good idea. You won’t understand any of it. For example, the Hamiltonian operator represents the kinetic energy plus the potential energy. If you don’t know what energy even is or how it’s defined, you’ll be totally lost when dealing with superpositions of energy eigenstates. Quantum mechanics is a lot more complicated than regular mechanics. It’s even more difficult to understand. All quantum mechanics books I’ve read already assume you understand differential equations and concepts from classical physics. I don’t think you’d understand anything in a quantum textbook if you haven’t mastered classical mechanics and electrodynamics.

      I’d recommend a book called “University Physics” by Young and Freedman to begin with. You can download an ebook of it and a full solution manual to every problem. Work through each section, working a bunch of problems at the end of each chapter. Make sure you grasp it all. Then it’d be good to do a book on classical E&M (electro-magnetism). Basic E&M is in Young and Freedman’s book, so that may be enough. Then I’d recommend maybe Griffiths’ Introduction to Electrodynamics. That book also has a full solution manual available online.

      As for your math background, you’ll have to have fully mastered algebra, trigonometry, calculus (all of the content in a book like Stewart’s Calculus — full solution manuals are available online for it too) — stewart’s book has vector calculus, working with series (taylor series, power series, etc). You’ll need to have mastered Fourier transforms and Fourier analysis. I’m not sure if that’s in Stewart’s textbook or not. So much of quantum mechanics is based on Fourier analysis.

      I’d also recommend working through Taylor’s textbook Classical Mechanics, though there isn’t solution manuals available. You’ll want to have experience with Lagrange and Hamiltonian mechanics. I wish I had a good textbook which has full solutions which you could use. I don’t know of one. There is a website called Chegg.com, and I believe they have a full solution manual to Taylor’s Classical Mechanics.

      Once you work through all of that, you’ll be ready to start Quantum Mechanics. I’d recommend Griffith’s Introduction To Quantum Mechanics, as it has a full solution manual available. And to grasp things conceptually, there’s a textbook by MIT Introductory Physics series by AP French called An Introduction To Quantum Physics. It is very light on the math, so I’d recommend it as well. Actually I’d read French’s book first, and then practice working the problems in Griffith’s quantum book. From then on you’re ready for graduate level material. I have a full solution manual to Shankar’s Principles of Quantum Mechanics (a graduate level text), if you’re interested.

  2. So, “He found that … Thus Coulomb established what we now call Coulomb’s law: The magnitude of the electric force between two point charges is directly proportional to the product of the charges and inversely proportional to the square of the distance between them.”

    Sorry for ranting, but why? Why is it so? I hoped that, maybe, it was my textbooks that didn’t explain things; looks like not. There is no understanding. Only mindless memorization. Ah.

    1. You have to remember that physics is an experimental science. Coulomb placed different amounts of electric charge on conductors and measured the force between them. For example, he’d place charge on metal sphere balls and have them hang from small strings. He’d then watch them push away from each other and he’d measure the forces. Like charges repel, opposite attract. He deduced that the electric force between charged particles is proportional to how much charge both objects have and their distance away from each other. It’s true because he did the experiment and observed that it’s true.

      If you’re going to ask “why” that’s true, you end in an infinite regress. If you do an experiment and observe a pattern which always happens, every time you do the experiment, it’s true. Say you did the most simple experiment. You drop things from a table and measure how long it takes for them to hit the floor. You then calculate that the objects accelerate at such and such a speed, and so on. You say, “Objects which I drop fall to the ground in such and such a way.” Well, ok. Is that “true”? Say we went to the moon and tried again. The object would accelerate more slowly. Then you’d say, “Objects on Earth fall like this, objects on the moon fall like that.” Now you could form a more general law of gravity which could explain how objects fall on every planet, not to mention capturing their orbits in space. But your first experiment where you simply dropped things on Earth and said, “They fall like this”, was true.

      It’s possible to find even deeper, more comprehensive laws which give a broader picture of charged particles and how they tie into everything else, and so forth, but I don’t see what else your textbook could do for you. Coulomb’s law was true in 1785 and it’s true today. Coulomb’s discovery helped set forth the start of all the future discoveries in electricity made by Faraday and others. Textbooks teaching electromagnetism tend to start off with Coulomb’s law because it’s simple. If they immediately threw quantum-electrodynamics at a student, there’s no way they’d understand it. So, even if it’s a bit slow starting off, don’t let that stop you. Stay with it. It only gets better the further you go.

  3. “experimental science”

    So obvious and so deep. Probably I should have remembered about it when decided to drop Edx’s courses on Electricity and Mechanics, crying “Fuck this mindless memorization; I wanna understand!”

  4. I should clarify that, actually, I dropped these courses because they were hard. “I wanna understand” is just a pretext.

    1. As a student in one of your physics II recitation sections I have had the absolute pleasure of having you teach me physics. One day during class you mentioned that tests are trivial so it encouraged me to read more of your opinions on school and the educational system. You are an excellent professor and your methods of thinking align very closely with how I look at things. I am appreciative of your ability to give in depth explanations of where different processes and equations come from. It leads to a much more profound understanding of the concepts and makes it enjoyable to learn as you can see how different topics are related. You are outstanding and I am thankful to have you as a professor.

      1. I’m glad to have you. You must remember though, I wrote this post 15 years ago. In fact, it may be an old post that I wrote long before that. It could be twenty years old. I’m nearing 40 years old now, and this was probably written in my late teens or early twenties. I keep all of this stuff online though for people who may find it interesting.

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