Friday, August 13, 2021

OBG: The Myth of Market-Based Education

(Originally posted on 09/08/2001, slightly revised)

Note: To demonstrate the correctness and stability due to a sound theoretical foundation relative to the industry's fad-driven "cookbook" practices, I am re-publishing as "Oldies But Goodies" material from the old (2000-06), so that you can judge for yourself how well my arguments hold up and whether the industry has progressed beyond the misconceptions those arguments were intended to dispel. I may revise, break into parts, and/or add comments and/or references.

“In a world torn by every kind of fundamentalism -- religious, ethnic, nationalist and tribal -- we must grant first place to economic fundamentalism, with its religious conviction that the market, left to its own devices, is capable of resolving all our problems. This faith has its own ayatollahs. Its church is neo-liberalism; its creed is profit; its prayers are for monopolies.”
--Carlos Fuentes
"We as humans have an instinct for creativity and a moral instinct. A good educational system ought to nurture and encourage these aspects of human life and allow them to flourish. But of course that has problems. For one thing, it means that you will encourage challenge of authority and domination. It will encourage questioning of powerful institutions. So the way schools actually function, by and large, there's a very strong tendency that works its way out in the long run and on average, for the schools to have a kind of filtering effect. They filter out independence of thought, creativity, imagination, and in their place foster obedience and subordination."
--Noam Chomsky
"The educated person is not the person who can answer the questions, but the person who can question the answers"
--T. Schick Jr.



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08/05 (TYFK) Facts, Properties, Relationships, Domains, Relations, Tuples

07/22 Documents and Databases

07/10 Relational Misconceptions Part 2: RDM is Applied Theory

- 08/19 Logical Symmetric Access, Data Sub-language, Kinds of Relations, Database Redundancy and Consistency, paper #2 in the new UNDERSTANDING THE REAL RDM series.
- 02/18 The Key to Relational Keys: A New Understanding, a new edition of paper #4 in the PRACTICAL DATABASE FOUNDATIONS series.
- 04/17 Interpretation and Representation of Database Relations, paper #1 in the new UNDERSTANDING THE REAL RDM series.
- 10/16 THE DBDEBUNK GUIDE TO MISCONCEPTIONS ABOUT DATA FUNDAMENTALS, my latest book (reviewed by Craig Mullins, Todd Everett, Toon Koppelaars, Davide Mauri).

- To work around Blogger limitations, the labels are mostly abbreviations or acronyms of the terms listed on the
FUNDAMENTALS page. For detailed instructions on how to understand and use the labels in conjunction with the that page, see the ABOUT page. The 2017 and 2016 posts, including earlier posts rewritten in 2017 were relabeled accordingly. As other older posts are rewritten, they will also be relabeled. For all other older posts use Blogger search.
- The links to my columns there no longer work. I moved only the 2017 columns to dbdebunk, within which only links to sources external to AllAnalytics may work or not.

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A product marketing manager tried once to sell me on the advantages of his "information-centric XML DBMS that does not require database design". I called his claim exactly what it was: nonsense. "Let the market decide that" he replied. I assured him that sheer experience with products is necessary but insufficient to determine superiority -- foundation knowledge is critical. Shortly thereafter I received a long reaction from a reader, which ended as follows:

“OK, I know ... your "arguments have nothing to do with market and products. They have to do with data and knowledge. That won't be decided by the market, because the market is ignorant." I guess this comes back to my first question: markets may be ignorant, but presumably even ignorant people will seize upon techniques that really give them a leg up on the competition. And since most people in the IT industry presumably learned at least the basics of the relational model in school, it's hard to totally blame "ignorance" here. Isn't it just remotely possible that there may be something to this XML stuff that could be useful even for knowledgeable RDBMS practitioners, and that it's practical value, rather than ignorance and marketing is behind its recent popularity?”
This is one of the most common arguments against the "heresy" that the market does not necessarily produce the best outcomes if it lacks well informed and educated buyers and sellers. This site provides ample irrefutable evidence that, at least insofar as the IT industry is concerned, market perfection is an illusion/delusion. Nevertheless, the belief in markets is so religious, that even incontrovertible evidence is dismissed. It would be a good idea, therefore, to respond not with just another editorial (the first one is quite sufficient ), but rather by subjecting industry operation to some piercing insight by minds much, much more substantial than mine.

That the reader above refers to "techniques" is instructive: it's precisely the exclusive focus on techniques that is the problem: theory (or anything that is not product-specific) is considered not practical. Not only is this false, but sheer experience -- techniques and tools -- is not only not conducive to, but can actually inhibit foundation knowledge.
“Those who are enamored of practice without theory are like a pilot who goes into a ship without rudder or compass and never has any certainty where he [sic] is going. Practice should always be based upon a sound knowledge of theory.”
--Leonardo da Vinci
As I demonstrated so many times

  • It is practically impossible to speak at any industry event about fundamentals, or write about them in any trade publication.
  • On the rare occasions where they are tolerated, they are almost always misunderstood and distorted, often rendered absurd.

“Debunking database myths may be good, but the IDUG SJ is looking for articles that provide tips and techniques for use in their jobs.”
--IDUG Solutions Journal
“Our criterion for selecting abstracts was first people with case studies of business rules projects within corporations and government. We received many of these types of abstracts. Then names that are well known within the business rules community and our attendees almost expect to see on the program were selected.”
--Business Rules Forum

“We normally hold university sessions open for those people who have received high marks at past IOUG-A conferences.”
--Oracle University
The reader thinks that "most people in the IT industry presumably learned at least the basics of the relational model in school, it's hard to totally blame ignorance here." But, first, a vast majority of practitioners do no longer go through a formal education, at best are self-taught (often erroneously), but usually have just tools experience, if even that -- witness the many weekly quotes exhibiting the "cookbook approach".
“Q: I have no IT experience, am changing jobs after 20 years, which certification should I take for DBA and will the certification without experience be accepted by workplace? Thanks.
A: ... First, you need to decide among the top systems: Oracle, DB2, SQL Server, Informix, Sybase, etc. Then you'll need to take a training course (thousands of dollars) or read a hell of a lot of books. The cheapest way to proceed is to download, for example, Oracle 8i from the site, install it, then start playing with it. Read the reams of free Oracle info on the web, and get your hands dirty. That's the best way to determine if this career is right for you! Good luck.”
–-Newsgroup exchange
Second, not only is training -- distinct from education -- focused almost exclusively on tools, but even on those rare occasions when they touch on fundamentals, trainers do not know and understand them any better than their students.
“I have been trying to find the correct way of normalizing tables in Access. From what I understand, it goes from the 1st normal form, to 2nd, then 3rd. Usually, that's as far as it goes, but sometimes to the 5th and 6th. Then, there's also the Cobb 3rd. This all makes sense to me. I am supposed to teach a class in this starting next week, and I just got the textbook. It says something entirely different. It says 2nd normal form is only for tables with a multiple-field primary key. 3rd normal form is only for tables with a single-field key. 4th normal form can go from 1st to 4th, where there are no independent one-to-many relationships between primary key and non-key fields." Can someone clear this up for me please?”
Third, there is an increasing misplaced reliance on tool vendors for information who, aside from ignorance about the basics, have a different agenda that is often anti-education.
“My first impression is that the [seminar] topics (and the expected level of technical depth) covered in these presentations is not likely to be what our members are used to. We are predominantly Sybase-DBA-centric, with over 90% of our members falling into this category. Also, over the past few years we have focused even more on detailed technical presentations - often given by Sybase engineers themselves and the [seminar material] looks quite generic.”
--Sybase user group
Fourth, the notion that data fundamentals are taught in school is by now a total myth. As I argued in the first editorial, academic institutions are becoming vocational training grounds for vendors as substitute for education.
“We are very interested in additional Oracle instructors...”
--Academic institution
“Does [your course] cover accessing a database via CGI? (i.e. VB, Java, Perl, C++ access to SQL Server or Access DB)? We're a computer science department, so not so interested in the user-developer side of things.”
--Academic institution
“... the truth is--all faculty must provide their own funding for now. It's not going to be the same in the future -- but for now the reality is that we have to pay for our new buildings, labs, etc within a few years. Therefore -- grants is our only way to survive. It is sad because it doesn't give us a chance to do any fundamental research unless it is externally funded.”
--Academic research institute
And as B. F. Skinner observed,"Society attacks early, when the individual is helpless."
“High school business teacher Shirley Williams Cash is one of more than 150 teachers signed up to become instructors for Oracle's Internet Academy, which offers teacher training in basic Oracle technologies. She's just completed two weeks of intensive training on SQL and Java at Oracle headquarters in Redwood Shores, Calif. Now, Cash can teach database and Internet courses to her students at Osbourn High School in Manassas, VA. Because they live near major offices of America Online, Lockheed Martin, and Oracle, her students want careers in IT. "This gives them valuable skills to build upon," she says.
Worse, attempts to educate, or to recommend education can be hazardous to one's career and wealth. Instead of being rewarded, more often than not such efforts are actually punished.
“Unfortunately, I am regarded as sort of quirky, with a "distracting" interest in the "theoretical" side of things. Now, I don't fool myself by thinking I have any mastery of things relational -- although I have an engineering background, I am self taught in the relational model from reading things like your UNDERSTANDING RELATIONAL DATABASES book and some of Date's text and writings. I do realize the immensity of what I don't know. But what's really frustrating is that many of the folks I must persuade don't even know what they don't know. They don't really distinguish between coding and database theory/design (sort of "if you can drive the Microsoft Access user interface, you're a database designer" kind of mentality.) This situation means I can expect few champions to go to bat advocating generic database seminars, yet this is precisely what we need.”
--Name withheld
In fact, this is a much more serious cultural systemic problem.
“There are people who don't accept, who aren't obedient. They are weeded out, they're "behavior problems". The long-term effect of this is to reward and foster subordination; it begins in kindergarten and goes all the way through your professional or other career. If you challenge authority, you get in one or another kind of trouble. It's not 100 percent the case, and there are some areas of life where it's dramatically not the case, but on average and overwhelmingly in the outcomes, it holds. If something comes along that you don't like, there are a few sort of four-letter words that you can use to push it out of the sphere of discussion. If you were in a bar downtown, they might have different words, but if you're an educated person what you use are complicated words like "conspiracy theory" or "Marxist”. It's a way of pushing unpleasant questions off the agenda, so that we can continue in our own happy ideology.”
--Noam Chomsky
Promotion of education based on science and theory rather than conforming to a "market and cookbook approach" is to market believers "conspiracy" and "Marxism". The consequences of an industry with such absurdities do not have pretty consequences.
“The end of democracy, and the defeat of the American Revolution will occur when government falls into the hands of the lending institutions and moneyed incorporations.”
--Thomas Jefferson

And so it is with education: it too ends when it falls into the hands of moneyed incorporations. It becomes training at best, indoctrination at worst -- it stops independent, critical thinking.

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