You should try practice, then theory

Thursday, June 14th, 2018

Nassim Nicholas Taleb had plenty to say to Bryan Caplan about what’s missing in education:

You know the Romans despised theory, and the Greeks despised practice, which is why The Black Swan is dedicated to Mandelbrot, a Greek among Romans, and the next one is dedicated to Ron Paul, a Roman among Greeks.


The route I was suggesting, education, is you send people, you make people work as nurses and then they go to medical school. Effectively, I spoke to a lot of doctors, and they think it’s a good idea because they’re afraid of medicine being now too theorized, becoming too theorized.

You make people run a local racketeering shop or a casino or something like that, for seven-eight years and then you go study economics.

We’re living longer, so this idea of front-loading education makes no sense.


I started trading and then discovered math. I said, “Oh, this is interesting.” I started discovering math, so I got immersed into math, and 15 years later, I went back to school. I went back to try to do math and effectively doing those classes. I did my thesis and that was it. But the idea — I started writing papers — the idea of having to start by theory and ending up with practice doesn’t work.

You should try practice, then theory.


Then, the root of that, my feeling, in the Anglo-Saxon world is the desire — this is why they call it liberal arts education — to aristocratic ties to themselves.

Again, let’s talk about the Greco-Roman world. You had the trivium or quadrivium, absolutely nothing practical about them, the rhetoric, the grammar, some things. The liberal education was what people learned in order to become aristocrat and idle upper class.

Then you had the real professions of becoming a baker, how to do something with wood. And the English, the upper class — of course they didn’t want to be working class, so they sent their kids to learn that stuff. And this is what came to America.

Education is split in two. You have technical education like law — not technical, but professional education — law, medicine, what else? Engineering and all these things, and then you have mathematics. If you look at it historically, the engineers didn’t really connect to the other ones because the Roman engineers did not use Greek geometry.

We only started using Greek geometry late in life after the educational system started including mathematics for these people. Engineers built cathedrals without clear geometry. It was actually more robust.

Geometry will give you these ugly corners. Before, we didn’t even know what the right angle is. Before, it was more involved, it was rule of thumb, and it was different. They had the separation, segregation.

So what you want to do? Is this liberal education that’s contaminating the rest? Or is it the technical that’s contaminating the expectation of what education should be like?

You say, “OK, this is the kind of thing you do like piano lessons on the weekends.” You read Homer and stuff like that. It’s important, and you become civilized. Stuff you do to be civilized and be able to have dinner with the vice president of the World Bank, these are the things you do. And these are the things you do to get you ahead in life.


You end up with a lot of people, in fact, today, this generation — because of the competitive environment and the closed circuit in the humanities — that basically don’t know anything about humanities. All they know is the theories du jour about this and this, and the postcolonial approach to this or that.

For example, when you start arguing with people who studied about something called Middle Eastern studies — which shouldn’t exist as a discipline — they start talking about colonialism of the French.

The French spent 21-and-a-half years in the Levant as a United Nation mandate. Explain to me the colonialism.

They say, “Well…” They don’t even know the basic facts because the more you have a ratio of theories and way more -isms, and stuff like that and the Marxism, so someone that’s good at Marxist interpretation of this and this in the postgender world. And they don’t know the facts.

This is why we can’t rely on these instructors to teach you the humanities — because you don’t get tenure from knowing the facts. You get tenure from inventing some full structural theory of baking beans and mint in Sassanid Persia. That’s how you get your tenure. These guys are ignorant.


The problem is, as society got rich, everybody wanted to reach education by imitating the aristocrats, with the illusion that it’s going to help them get rich.

When in fact, it’s the kind of thing you do when you’re already rich. This is where Alison Wolf and Pritchett come in to discover that these educational things are effectively the product of societies that are rich and definitely not causative to wealth.


  1. Bob Sykes says:

    Engineering is not immune to theorizing. During my life, first as an engineering student, then an engineering faculty member, all the faculty with actual engineering experience disappeared. Once, you could have a career as a structural bridge designer, get an MS, and then become a tenured faculty member at a major state university. I knew and worked with such guys. Nowadays, all new engineering faculty go directly from school to teaching without any experience of any kind. As to teaching, they are hired to get external research dollars, and they are judged, rewarded, promoted, and tenured on how much money they bring in. They might as well be used car salesman.

    Over 95% of engineering faculty are not registered to practice, and many cannot pass the licensing examination. (I did.) Moreover, virtually none of them do any consulting (I did), and they have little or no contact with the engineering profession. They also are not interested in teaching the topics the profession wants, and if it were not for the fact that practicing engineers control the accreditation process and specify minimum curriculum requirements, the undergraduate degree would not be helpful to new engineers.

    Many modern engineering faculty do not like to be called engineers, whom they regard as bumpkins, and prefer the title “research scientist.”

    Fortunately, engineers are immersed in the real world, and the pressure of succeeding in real world problems keeps the engineering faculty tethered.

  2. Candide III says:

    Hellenistic Greeks weren’t averse to practice by any means. To give a couple of examples, Eratosphenes had designed a cubic-root extraction mechanism, specifically mentioning its utility for constructing catapults, and requested that it be put on his tombstone. Archimedes was chief naval architect at Syracusan shipyards. Etc. Read The Forgotten Revolution: How Science Was Born in 300 BC and Why it Had to Be Reborn.

  3. Adar says:

    “We only started using Greek geometry late in life after the educational system started including mathematics”

    I have always thought Greek geometry to be more an exercise in logical thought and using a rational thinking process.

  4. Aretae says:


    Learn enough experience, then apply theory to experience.


    And Yes. Again.

  5. Albion says:

    When I taught, briefly, at a college I was amazed how little the students knew. There was also the fact that they had no interest in finding out in the classroom, either.

    All the tutors at the college found this, so it wasn’t just me.

    After leaving, I gradually began to run into students who had eventually found jobs and my question to them always was: how much did you learn at college and how much have you learned in the world of work? The answer was always that work — being out there and doing things — was a far better educator.

    Perhaps they might one day go back to the classroom and see what they had been missing now they began to understand what life and work were and how people behaved.

  6. Kirk says:

    The biggest con job of the 20th Century was the way we here in the US and other Western nations bought into the whole idea of making the academy centric to every sort of job qualification and training program. The reality is that the more schooling we require for trivial things, the worse we get at doing those things. My sister got into doing purchasing and logistics from the bottom up, and without a college degree. You could write a long and sordid book, detailing all the idiocies her “educated and credentialed” peers and superiors have perpetrated, over the years. Academic knowledge and “book-learning” are not even a pale substitute for practical experience and what you learn on the job.

    The most invidious thing about it all is this: Many “educated” people flatly refuse to learn from practical experience and reality, even when surrounded by the ruins created by the application of their entirely theoretic knowledge. It’s amazing to observe, when it happens.

    The disconnection between the real world and the academy have severe repercussions, and we ought to be asking a bunch of questions about these issues, and figuring out how to fix them.

  7. Lucklucky says:

    Kirk, she should write that book. One of the reasons that Marxism advances is that those stories are not told.

    Can I quote this?

    Many “educated” people flatly refuse to learn from practical experience and reality, even when surrounded by the ruins created by the application of their entirely theoretic knowledge. It’s amazing to observe, when it happens.

  8. Kirk says:


    Feel free. I’m only occasionally guilty of turning out good prose, so when it happens…?

    I don’t know that it is necessarily Marxism that’s the cause of the issue. I think that Marxism is actually a symptom of a deeper-rooted problem, one that is actually behind the over-academization of life. I don’t know what the actual cause is, but I have been observing and dealing with the effects all my damn life.

    Basically, the root of it all lies in the direction of humanity’s inability to effectively deal with things at an organizational level above that of the hunter-gatherer band, football team, or infantry squad. We manage to do just well enough to get something like NASA off the ground, but when the initial impetus and mission is over…? Institutions inevitably decay into dysfunction. Happened to the Romans, happened to the East India Company, and has happened to every single agency of the US government.

    I think the solution is quite simple: Quit erecting these massive bureaucratic edifices that outlive their purpose and effectiveness, and start doing things in a more decentralized and ad-hoc basis.

    Napoleon did military operational art and strategy the way I think we ought to approach problems that we’ve tended to bureaucratize. For Napoleon, the enabling trick was to have decentralized control and converge his subordinate commands on the target, overwhelming them with force in detail, then scattering his elements to forage until they were needed again. Instead of setting up these massive structures that can’t adapt to change, we need to set up small, polyvalent entities that can be repurposed and directed dynamically at problems as they arise. Instead of having a situation where you form up a massive structure to deal with a problem, decentralize and let the lowest level that encounters the problem take ownership and deal with it. The paradigm that we use to approach these things needs to change, so that instead of having your problems addressed by the structure and process of your organization, the problems are dealt with by the lowest level possible and in such a way that the guys solving the problem take ownership upon encountering it.

    Too often, when you go looking at the question of “What the hell went wrong, that this happened…?”, what you will find is that there was someone down at the rubber-meeting-road point that saw the problem coming, reported it, and then was completely ignored by some set of idiots higher in the food chain of the organization. Instead of the guys at the low level being empowered and responsible, they were treated as though they were safely ignorable. These are the reasons why the academic/bureaucratic/socialistic approach to life simply doesn’t work–The guy who has his finger directly on the pulse needs to be the guy with the power to solve the problem, or he needs to be able to get the actual and effective attention of those who can.

    The way we do things…? The guy whose finger is on the pulse is usually ignored, until the patient dies.

  9. lucklucky says:

    Kirk i think is the desire to get out of world things and reach the Gods.

    Marxism is just another codified way to Aristocracy= out of world/human things

    Where the Marxists gather? : media(priests), school(priests), state(controlling others)

    Nothing of that stuff has to work against nature, physics.

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