Problem Solving

The value of a college or university education is a frequent topic in today’s news. “Is higher education worth the cost?” “Is higher education worth any cost?” Much jargon is used in these discussions. Words like “formation” and “socialization”. (Is “deformation” a result of a lack of “formal” education? Are uneducated people “anti-social”?) Often I wonder what professional educators are saying. Like an episode of “Twilight Zone”.

Correct information, and the basic skill of how to use it, is essential to success in human life. Evolution created our large brains. The price for splitting off from the rest of the animals is domestication. For that we have needed to solve many problems that used to be “programmed” when we were wild or “non-domesticated”. Solving problems—and being good at it—is as important to our individual survival as it is to our species.

Problem solving is eternal. Consider farming, carpentry, fishing, chess. Even gardening, photography, knitting, cooking. Can’t fake a bad meal.

Acquired at a young age, these measurable skills are essential to a college education. Young people should learn language and numeracy in high school. But “the three Rs” are warmups. Problem solving is the game of education, whether institutional or self-taught.

Take computers. People design and build them, others design and develop operating systems and still others “write” software. All done by problem solving. Many of the leaders in the development of this industry were college drop-outs. Only a couple were PhDs.

Even further, context is paramount. Computer innovations are created in real life. People program and apply the software to a particular business—steps, processes, operations—and, finally, operators use computers as tools, every bit like a carpenter uses a blueprint, saw, hammer and nails. Make a mistake, things fall apart.

Want to learn these information technology skills? Do them. Take a computer, read the instructions, discover what the machine can do for you, decide what you want to do with it—and do it.

From then on, your “education” consists of solving problems. Just as a camera extends your eye—or more exactly your mind’s eye—a computer extends your brain. It is a robot; it works by taking your instructions. You work by understanding its possibilities and limitations as well as the context in which it’s used. It is not intelligent—you are.

As in gardening (What do you want to grow?), or photography (What do you want to shoot?), you must know how to solve the problems that present themselves. Tools don’t work—you do.

Is college or university going to teach you, your child or grandchild problem solving? Maybe. But if you answer, “Absolutely yes”, you are deluding yourself. It may be that the opposite is true. Perhaps it is best to attend “The College of Hard Knocks”, as they call it.

A good example is learning a foreign language. Rosetta Stone and Pimsleur are a waste of time. Go to the country for two to three months, enroll in a part-time immersion course in any given town or city. They are everywhere. The rest of the day, work a part-time job and stay clear of everyone who speaks English. With the exception of Asian languages (4 to 6 months required), and with a strong desire and a natural gift for attentive talking and listening, you will return to the US with the ability to speak the language.

Cost? With the airline industry deregulated long ago, international travel is dirt-cheap. Ask any business traveler over 50. A safe residential hotel that caters to such as you can be had for little in most countries. Family-stays are even better.

College? Even “foreign language abroad” programs are generally ineffective. First, they are filled with Americans. Unless you are extremely bull-headed, you will acquire little skill in the foreign language.

If fluency in a foreign language is gold, skill at solving problems is pure platinum. It runs deeper than language, extends out into the world of material things and, if you are lucky, you can become an electrical engineer or molecular biologist. However, they share a snow-balling effect. Learn one language and the next is less daunting. Develop the first skill at solving a set of problems—a computer, for instance—and you can approach any problem and at least tackle it. It sharpens the way you look at reality.

Schools, colleges and universities that teach the hard sciences, the social sciences that involve metrics, basic industries, professions, engineering—they have great value, especially those that emphasize apprenticeship and “work out” programs. These institutions are worth attending. Many offer great benefits, related to their costs. One fine example is the University of Missouri-Rolla.

But nothing beats a job. An entry-level position at a well-run company of any size is the quickest and cheapest way for young adults to learn problem solving. Or do what many of our parents and grandparents did: work your way through school.

Despite its prosaic descriptive term, problem solving is the mother of intuition, the heart of innovation, and the core of craft. In contrast, and despite its abstruse lingo, most higher education attempts to turn life into art: a futile, tragic exercise. The true romance of humanity is the opposite: to bring the arts—particularly problem solving—to life.

This entry was posted on Friday, January 6th, 2012 at 5:38 pm and is filed under Original Posts. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.
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28 Responses to “Problem Solving”

  1. Estelle DCosta said:

    It was an article which spoke the truth. I graduated from an Ivy League College and felt that it did not give me the practicum, “experience” which was needed for work. I don’t even believe it assisted me to Think ideas through. I went on for my masters and continue to learn as needed from the formal education system. I am a master gardner in my state and my learning remains reading, trying out different gardening techniques and this style works for me and I am now a part-time farmer and love it. I am committed.

    • George said:

      Thank you very much, Estelle. Very lucid story! It reminds me of how absurdly trivial and almost meaningless much higher education is. Of course, I refer only to the liberal arts. The sciences, law, engineering—the “practicum” as you say—require a great education, well into the mid to late 20s. (But, I must say, a great and tough English or history teacher in college can be immensely helpful for a year or so. But they are becoming rare.) Or, if you cannot afford college or university, pull every string your family has and get a job at a good company.

  2. Karen said:

    Totally agree!!! Awesome blog subject! Am almost eligible yo collect Social Security – am planning on continuing work (am a Controller, with virtually no formal education!). Purchased my home 17 years ago, and immersed myself in learning about perennials, shrubs, etc., because I was determined to have flowers without using all annuals! I went to the best I was acquainted with regarding gardening plantings and design, and chatted them up on a regular basis, along with researching on the internet. Now, many I am acquainted with ask me about plants, etc. – I even designed a new “front yard” for a neighbor. I agree completely with the notion we all can “educate ourselves” if the desire is there!

    • George said:

      Thanks so much for your refreshing story. Your gardens are a quintessential example of the point I was trying to make. Photography, too, especially before the new, high-tech era. (Darkrooms were great “dens” of problem-solving.) But no one forgets their first garden. As an effective learning experience, it is “off the charts”. It’s similar to a gifted grade-school teacher—it takes about ten minutes and you never forget the lesson. I’ll go to my grave with a single one-on-one with my third-grade teacher. She posed a series of simple but serious questions, and made great eye contact. I opened myself up from that moment on.

  3. C Paul Bailey said:

    Thanks George, That was well said.

    • George said:

      Thank you, Paul, for the compliment. I’m glad you enjoyed it. Please post again.

  4. Jamie Shafer said:

    Couldn’t agree with you more. I am self taught in computer skills, especially photo imaging and I have never had a lesson. Just worked things out for myself plus buying a few books on the subject.

    I know any number of women who have taken more than one set of computer classes and who as yet have no computer skills. Do-it-yourself seems to work in many areas, but if we all are going to be self-taught who will employ all these needless teachers?

    My daughter has similar ideas, and she has 5 children who will be needing higher educations in the next few years at a great cost to her and her husband. Perhaps parents do not need to sacrifice and go into debt for much of this education.

    • George said:

      Thank you, Jamie. Interesting point. The “old school” teachers of all ages should teach the new ones. (Once I had an idea that K-8 teachers from the Bahamas should be in an exchange program with US teachers.) And the older teachers—God bless them—will soon retire. Please don’t think I am hopelessly concerned about K-8 or K-12 education. Much of that depends on the parents. But “higher education” I associate (incorrectly?) with college and university. Check out places like Missouri at Rolla. And make sure your grandchildren get aptitude tests from a respectable place. is excellent and worth every penny.

      Your personal story is great—an expression of education at its finest and simplest. But the range of human variation is great. That is what educators find so daunting. That is their greatest “problem”.

  5. Bob Yourell said:

    Thanks–if only schools had more content about the realities of problem solving! But I have to disagree about Pimsleur. It gave me the fundamentals I needed to launch into additional experiences and study. The fact that it isn’t book learning, relying on building up language reflexes was really helpful!

    • George said:

      Thank you, Bob. Maybe I was too harsh on Pimsleur. If you got great value from it, it was worth it, obviously. And your mention of “reflexes” is precisely correct. Right on the money. After a few months living and working in Costa Rica and Honduras, I “broke”. I remember exactly where I was, the time of day, etc. Suddenly I realized that I had been conversing for several hours or so in Spanish. It meant that I had been “thinking” in Spanish. It’s a shift of some sort in the brain. Doesn’t happen any other way. Thanks again.

  6. Chris said:

    Oh, my, gosh, this is truly inspired. THANK you.

    • George said:

      Thanks much, Chris. I’m so pleased that you got some value from it.

  7. stephen gale said:

    my mother got a wonderful education in the New York City Public School system ( of coure that was 85 years ago ) …. I taught myself the “Beginner Allpurpose Symboic Information Code ” ( BASIC ) 30 years ago; Ben Bernanke taught himself Calculus when his High School didn’t offer it. So what’s needed is not college or even more schooling but the ability to teach oneself when necessary.
    problem-solving is another issue; and it likely mandates the acquisition of some real-life experience. I thought I learn the rudiments of horticulture myself; and when confused enrolled in some coursework with power point presentations, texts and exams. But that still wasn’t enough. In horticulture as in many other avenues, there’s no substitute for putting your hands in the ground; examining the rootball of a plant; dividing perennials; taking a cutting and nursing it into an independent plant; etc. Just one example of a venue where real-time experience is indispensable and integral to education and problem solving.

    • George said:

      Thank you very much, Stephen. You make the point of the “best of both worlds” approach much better than I do. In fact, you should have written the article. By the way, once I had a lawyer who had received the highest score for his group in the New York bar exam without ever having set foot in law school. Just read all the law books. And he wasn’t a genius or savant. President Lincoln did the same. Like Bernanke learning calculus. Please post again!

  8. Drew Graham said:

    Probably your saddest blog to date…unfortunately, it seems all that is being taught in K-12 is
    THE TEST ! Learn where to darken the little circles that that we can receive more government money…forget about learning to problem solve or worse–THINK !

    • George said:

      Thanks for posting, Drew. You are very perceptive. I felt sad writing it. But there are hopeful signs. Missouri State at Rolla (as my friends who went there knew it) is a model for the future. Interestingly, the only national or popular culture notice it has ever received (besides graduating hundreds of bright low and middle income kids from all over the US for many decades) was about ten years ago, when it was voted “Most Boring” school in a magazine poll in either US News & World Report or Newsweek. That sort of attention symbolizes the state of education. “Boring”? College is supposed to entertain students? Even to be “interesting”? The student is a customer? A consumer, even? Sad, indeed.

  9. Lloyd Richards said:

    You haven’t defined “problem” sufficiently for the reader to buy in to your theme. Exactly what is a problem? You need to know that before you can “solve” it.

    • George said:

      Thanks, Lloyd. You’re right. I struggled with how to describe abstractions that don’t exist in plain terms. It was, so to speak, a writing “problem”. For example, in my former company, I used to have difficulty proving that the research department was productive. How can something be “productive” when its “products” do not exist? A “problem” poses a similar difficulty: if I knew or “had” the answer, I wouldn’t have the problem. Most of the time. I realize I am over-simplifying things in the article. But I was trying to emphasize a state of mind or way of approaching life. A problem-solving mentality. And my point about higher education is that such a mentality or culture seems to be getting replaced by vague—almost unintelligible—“creativity” workshops and a general culture of trivia or fun and games. A lack of seriousness. I tried to deal with it in “Ivy Casinos”. I’ll try again, and harder, next time. Thanks again.

  10. mamasun said:

    Amen. To many individuals rely solely on the college education: they don’t even know the existence of a “school of hard knocks” because their parents never let them enjoy plain old childhood. Here is where the mind is free to imagine, create, explore glow in success or learn in failure.

    • George said:

      Thanks much, mamasun. Children aren’t left alone long enough. Granted, urban and suburban communities have creeps driving around. But children—or most of them—gain a lot of self-knowledge spending time with themselves roaming the towns and woods, or doing so with a couple of friends. I mean entire days—not hours. Or hours, not minutes. This may sound old-fashioned, but I’m told it works. This is why growing up on a farm or a ranch is so good for children. Also, you bring up a great point about failure. It has an unfortunate negative association. In science, failures (the “errors” in trial and error procedures) are our bread and butter, our mother’s milk. And, similarly, they are essential to learning. “More failures!” Thanks again.

  11. Geri Nelson said:

    Wonderfully presented on values of education in all its forms.

    • George said:

      Thank you, Geri. I’m glad you enjoyed it. Please post again.

  12. Sarah Morton said:

    Dear George,

    I’m sorry to be critical because I usally really like what you write. Plus I know nobody is making me read it and its free to anyone who logs on. But I’m not sure what your taking about. One other person said you didn’t say what a problem was. Well I couldn’t agree more. A problem is anything from being to tired to get up in the morning to having brain cancer like my mother had. With the one you go to bed earlier and hte other you just die. Problem solved. But I don’t think that is what your talking about I wish you’d spent some time telling us what you were going to talk about before you did it.

    • George said:

      Thank you for posting, Sarah. First, I’m sorry you lost your mother. I was discussing problem solving rather than the definition of a problem, per se. However, I’ll try to do so. Obviously, the word is broad and not precise. Using a “problem” I had many years ago in seed quality (it suddenly declined), I attacked it first (and habitually at that time) at the symptom level. Then a colleague—much wiser than I—told me to stop and back away from the plants (“mother plants” are called “seed parents” also—and they live much longer than “crop”, or plants harvested for their fruit, which in our case is technically not “seed”). He advised that we use a “systems” approach.

      We analyzed every step of the long and complex process of large-scale seed production. We looked at it from angles with which I was unfamiliar, and which I would have never considered. And, furthermore, the workers involved in all these phases of the seed farming operation took a very negative view of this approach. But it is “systems problem solving”, and they didn’t understand it any better than I did. Only this one single colleague knew this approach. This type of thoughtful analysis is similar to the approach doctors use.

      Turns out the “answer” was, first, multifaceted, and also the main “problem” was not at the plant level at all. The seed quality turned out to be a minor symptom of a rare disease affecting the population of seed parents at this farm; and the main answer was located in several pieces of equipment involved in the rate and application of water. Far away from the plants. I would have never solved this problem had I not had a colleague with both the experience as well as the theoretical training to “see” the problem within the overall possibility of the problem. It is like being blind—you have to use all your other senses. That sort of thing.

      So, a problem is usually “something is wrong”. It means “obstacle” in its original ancient Greek—something like that. An answer or solution is a result that removes the obstacle. The “systems” approach goes to the “root” (pardon the pun), so that the obstacle doesn’t simply reappear.

      I was referring to the importance of experience as the single greatest teacher. In music, my experience is similar. I have ability, a bit of talent. But if I do not practice—keep up with the instrument mentally and physically—my ability is absolutely worthless. A few good lessons are essential. Or more, if you want to be a professional. But any veteran will tell you that practice is everything in music and, in fact, leads to inspiration and “the muse”.

      Conservatories are like technical schools. Ask anyone who attends one. Learning harmony, counterpoint, etc. is extremely difficult, even for the most talented. That is just reality. So, I was trying to address the virtue of the “hard” versus the lesser virtue of the “soft” in higher education.

      I hope this helps and thanks again for posting. I’m glad you enjoy the blog.

  13. Anne said:

    This was wonderful! I love your outlook on life. I work at a university and I struggle all the time to make it meaningful and worthwhile for the students.

    • George said:

      Thanks very much for the compliment, Anne. I hope I did not sound too harsh on the liberal arts. Some of today’s liberal arts colleges and universities are fine and wonderful. Georgetown and Fordham come to mind. Others, such as Harvard, Princeton and Yale—not as fine, in my opinion. And you are right: teacher quality makes the greatest difference.

  14. Mark Orlofsky said:

    Dear Mr. Ball,

    I’m an occasional reader of your blog. My wife is an avid gardener and buys your seeds and reads your blog regularly. I used to teach at a small liberal arts school so my interest was piqued when I saw your focus was “education”. I agree entirely with you about the value of “technical” schools such as the one you mention in Missouri (the actual name though is “Missouri University of Science and Technology”). You don’t mention, though you could have, “trade” schools which are also excellent for some students. Sure there are problems in education, the high cost being a big one, but I must take issue with you about your representation of “liberal” education in general. I think you are overly skeptical and perhaps even cynical in your portrayal. At my school we prided ourselves in turning out students who were well rounded. Our students had a sound background in the Western Tradition as well as the major contributions of other cultures from around the world, places like Latin America, Africa, and China. As far as problem solving goes, this allowed our students to view the world and their lives from a multitude of perspectives or frameworks and respond accordingly. I see this as one of the most valuable gifts a person can be given.

    • George said:

      Thank you for your thoughtful comments, and please thank your wife for me for her business.

      Missouri-Rolla had a different name when my friends went there. Both were from Brooklyn, by the way. “Rolla”, as they called it, was a godsend for them, since they had little money and yet had great talents for science and engineering. Rolla is not an ordinary trade school. Other places like it, such as Michigan Tech (in Houghton), provide a level of excellence that is extremely high. But in most cases, you’re right—a good trade school is an excellent choice. I was trying to highlight the “Stanford” or “MIT” for kids from middle-class, blue-collar or working class families. The other choice, obviously, is the armed services, all of which provide very good technical educations. I have a godson who trained for the SEALS but dropped out at the very end of BUDS due to an inner ear imperfection detected in a rapid deep dive from an aircraft—one of the final tests. I went to Coronado to spend Thanksgiving with him and got to know a few of his fellow trainees. Their technical training was off the charts.

      As for the liberal arts, I think these issues and subjects should be addressed and learned in high school. Besides, these sorts of “problems” require a long time—a lifetime at least in some cases. My point about language tried to raise this. But my overall attempt was to focus on problem solving. That, to me, is the heart of an education.

      Finally, I don’t see the “well-rounded” person as a realistic or even worthy goal. I’ve worked with nature so long that all I see are essential variations. Being well-rounded seems to be a fantasy, and perhaps even a liability if realized. “Jack-of-all-trades”, it sounds like. I used to hear “well-rounded” in prep school and college and I disliked it then and dislike it now. It strikes me as a pipe dream, as I say. I’m sorry to be so vehement. Rather, I think young people should identify their strengths and concentrate hard on them, leaving aside the question of intellectual “roundedness” for later.

      I greatly appreciate your interesting comments. Please post again.

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