Brain Barf, Cooper Union, Data Science

On data science and how I see its relationship to art, philosophy, and my experience as an engineering student at Cooper Union, Part 1

As I hurdle towards the inevitable – my college graduation in May 2017 – I’ve been thinking a lot about the purpose of my education, its place in the greater context of my life, and the way it intersects with my place in the world.

I came to Cooper Union essentially by luck, driven by the same things as most high-achieving students proficient in math and science my age – grades, class rank, the perception that those above me in the hierarchies of family and scholarship knew what was best, that the ultimate purpose was to be the Best, do the Best, whatever the hell that even meant. So I ended up applying to engineering school because it fit the persona I felt I was “supposed” to be (smart, useful, wealthy) and thought I wanted to be. Cooper was free, and falling in line with my tendency towards risk-aversion (failure means weakness, and weakness is unacceptable!), that too seemed like the Right thing to do. So I went to Cooper Union.

Like many of my classmates, I was intoxicated by the idea that STEM was a superior set of fields – we were “smart”, we got good grades (the ultimate validation), we enlightened beings understood that the only correct way to look at the world was through the eyes of logic, reason, and rationality. We were – ironically enough – objective zealots.

Except it isn’t in the slightest. Engineering in the way that it’s been presented to me by many of my professors and peers – an overwhelming series of theory-dense courses that reward rote memorization and the ability to perform well under arbitrary pressure, is anything but superior. Like the education of my early and formative years did, it shapes directionless students into 4.0-hungry followers and suppresses recalcitrance and stifles original thought. Of course it does – most of them(us?) have been raised with similar value systems that we swallowed without question – most of them don’t seem to have thoughts outside their field of study or quest for some nebulous sense of ‘success.’

The only time I’ve found myself to be truly happy/thoughtful in my time at Cooper – and I’m not talking about the spikes of adrenaline that accompany the feeling of checking my semester grades – is when I struggle to make sense of something, only to come to the realization that my original perception of the concept or idea in question is missing something. Some examples I can pinpoint: figuring out how cell towers work or experiencing critiques in the class that utterly upended my life.

Last semester I took an art class that challenged the way I saw myself in the classroom setting and totally altered my perceptions of what it means to have “a successful education.” For the first time, I was surrounded by people (artists) who all seemed to have passions and practices that drove their educations, instead of vice versa. There was no ‘right’ answer to find in the solutions manual; the point was not to smile and speak up in class and do the assignments so that the professor would like me and give me an A or a glowing recommendation so that I could get a job and make lots of money and retire in a house with a garage and some dogs. As someone incredibly comforted by following the rules and the paths of other people to avoid discomfort and failure, this class was a shock to my system.

For the first time in my life, I was forced to think for myself. “Bullshitting” a project, as my engineering peers call the execution of an assignment with the minimal amount of work and receiving a stellar final grade, was not a badge of honor anymore. Because making art isn’t about the grade you get when you present a finished work at critique. It’s about how a thought process is explored and questioned and expressed and critiqued, but it’s also about the fact that nothing is ever finished or answered. I assert these things about art, but to be completely honest, my  experiences and perceptions of it are constantly changing but will never reach a deterministic truth. It’s exhilarating.

To be continued…

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