The Theologian vs. the Practitioner, Life Lessons from a Digital Filter


Maybe next time, Hermione.

So the Harry Potter marathon was on recently. Remember that scene in the first Harry Potter movie, where all the students are exposed to broomsticks for the first time? Harry gets his broomstick up on the first try, which really upsets Hermione because she’s struggle-busing really hard?

Up till this point, institutionalized education has always made a habit of trying to create ‘Hermione’s, to create Theologians. Despite the rise in popularity of design classes and entrepreneurship and the like, the battle still largely belongs to the problem sets. There’s nothing explicitly wrong with a Theologian, per se. But Theologians lust for perfect understanding of a subject, whether it is signaled by an A+ on an exam, or a 48/50 on a problem set. It’s the old cliché about ‘perfect being the enemy of good’ or ‘paralysis via analysis.’ Theologians struggle to accept practicality or functionality because it represents a sub-ideal state of understanding.

I went to talk to one of my favorite professors (technically, I’ve never taken a class of his, but still counts) a couple weeks ago about digital filtering. Gene Frantz, professor in practice, formerly a Principal Fellow at Texas Instruments. He didn’t start by trying to explain filters at all. He told me the story of the first time he designed a filter. How to choose the coefficients? Pick three numbers that add up to 1. What about ¼, ½, and ¼? And it worked, allegedly. His moral was simple. Dive right in and start tinkering. It’s obviously useful to know the theory, but don’t let it swallow you.

Therein was the first time I truly learned about the Practitioner. A Theologian is capped by the limits of his or her understanding of theory. A Practitioner knows no such boundaries. The Theologians want to know. The Practitioners want to do.

What’s more important- to learn numbers and formulas or to be able to learn how to learn? Something about building a man a fire as opposed to setting him on fire teaching him how to build a fire.

My last two weeks were borderline ridiculous. Three exams, two projects, and a prototype evaluation. It managed to keep me from writing, which kind of upset me. Thank goodness they opened a Raising Cane’s inside the inner loop that’s open late night. It’s almost like professors take a little pride in trying to ‘toughen you mentally,’ or whatever else the purpose of overloading work is.

I wasn’t learning how to do cool things. I was learning about things, some cool and some not, but where was the practicality to all of it? I found the exams to be burdensome because they were taking time away from my projects, from writing, from working towards the prototype eval, things that I really enjoyed.

20141010_195832637_iOSI actually did manage to build my own digital filter in NI’s Labview. And at 4 in the morning, when I got it to work, I felt amazing. My teammate Alex, even in his delirium, managed to give me a high five. Spotify was blasting on one computer, there was an empty to-go box on the table, my phone was dead, and we were the only people left in the OEDK. I chose to be an engineer because I wanted to create cool shit. And that to me was pretty cool, the first digital signal processing project that I myself had done. And that’s the kind of project-based and experiential learning that should be encouraged more.

Nobody rational is going to say that Hermione wasn’t essential to defeating Voldemort, or that she was inferior to Harry. The world needs both theologians and practitioners. But it is equally ridiculous in engineering education to have a system that biases too heavily towards theologians. It is, dare I say, stupefying.


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