Apprenticeships at scale

Nassim Taleb calls it “breaking the chain of transmission”:

“In the past people in finance used to learn rich heuristics from elders who picked up from elders, etc. These days they learn from an ignorant B School professor who learned from books.”

As an observation, it has a certain weight. But Taleb’s citation of the trader Micheal Harris’ words as the reason for this—“the process of ‘scientification’ of society for commercial reasons”—is misleading. Mainly because the “chain of transmission” that Taleb is discussing is the age-old apprenticeship model of education, and that model has faded due to necessity, as well as a combination of other base motives and stratagems. For example, the master-apprentice relationship, to function properly, must not exceed the ratio of one-to-one. If it does the quality of the “transmission” which Taleb is talking about deteriorates. It can probably be stretched to two or three to one, but not much further. Which is a problem because the apprentices vastly outnumber the masters, in any and all domains—the apprenticeship model doesn’t work on a societal scale.

I’m sure Taleb recognises this—in fact, I believe this realisation is the driving force behind his Real World Risk Institute and the idea of an “Uberised education”. First, from one of his Facebook posts:

“An Uberized education is when –as in antiquity — one goes to a specific teacher to get lectures, bypassing the university. The students and the teachers are thus matched. If a piece of paper is necessary, it would be given by *that* teacher, or a group of teachers. It is not too different from the decentralized apprenticeship model.

This already works well for executive “education”. I give short workshops in my specialty of applied probability (I have given a few with PW, YBY and RD, though only lasting 1-2 days), limited to professionals. An Uberization would consist in making longer workshops, say of 2-3 week duration, after which the attendees would be getting a piece of paper of sorts.

From my experience, both students and lecturers are more sincere when they bypass institutions. And, as with other Uberizations, it would be much, much efficient economically.

A full education would be a collection of such micro-diplomas, which can be done on top of a conventional one.

Finally I would personally like to attend such workshops in disciplines outside my specialty. After my experience with Aramaic/Syriac last summer, I have a list of subjects I would be hungry to learn *outside* university systems…”

And second, from the Real World Risk Institute website:

“If you need to study a standardized subject, say Calculus 101 or Econ 102, you go to a reputable institution where you can expect the subject to correspond to the norms. Variations matter, but not much, except for the the reputation of the university. The instructor and to some extent the university matter less than the subject.

But if your aim is to acquire a professional skill, then you would go to a specific professional or a group of specific professionals who have an intimate knowledge of the intricacies of the subject matter and a long clinical experience. That is how the apprenticeship mode worked in the past. Even in subjects such as philosophy or medicine you went to a person, not an institution and your training or “degree” (when available) was attached to the instructor.

Risk is an Uberized concept, not a generic topic.

You cannot rely on an academic who learned stuff in books and texts written by other academics to have a clue about risk, hence be able to teach you the subject.”

Essentially, if the apprentice-master relationship cannot be scaled up, then what is needed is masters with the ability to teach intensely to a constantly changing variety of apprentices and apprentices who are independent and able enough to learn from a rotating roster of masters.

I would like to think that such masters and, more importantly, such apprentices exist in great numbers. But time will tell—for if they don’t then we will continue to learn “more and more about less and less”, and see our understanding decay as our civilisation grows.