Lessons from an English Genius

If your child is in school and has made it all the way to high school or beyond ask them about George Boole.  If you get a blank stare back, change schools.  Then there is the possibility that none of the adults reading this know about Boole, which is also telling.  If you are reading this, then thank George Boole because without him there would be no computers nor anything that requires a chip.  There would be no smart phones, no genome studies, no moon shots, and no internet.

Everyone, and we mean everyone, needs to know the name George Boole and how in his short life he changed the world.  Your children probably think that the father of modern computing is either Steve Jobs or Bill Gates.  If you are a little older you might think of Thomas Watson or Charles Babbage.  But all of these answers are wrong, because the father of computing is a little-known English mathematician and genius who lived from 1815 to 1864.  It was Boole who figured out that all questions can be reduced to a simple yes or no conclusion, but we are getting ahead of ourselves.

The real story of George Boole is how he was prepared by his father to take advantage of his natural talent, the opportunities that came his way, and to overcome adversity.  You see George Boole’s father was a cobbler with little formal education, but who just happened to have a lifelong thirst for knowledge.  He took George under his wing and encouraged him to learn languages, astronomy, and mathematics.  By the age of twelve he could read five languages, including ancient Greek.  His ability to study mathematics in their original languages proved to be a major step in his understanding of complex issues.  Difficult family financial issues forced him to go to work early in life, and to become the primary breadwinner for the family.  He was hired as a teacher at just sixteen and was exposed to calculus, which he mastered on his own.

Boole then founded a boarding school at the age of twenty, and at twenty-three he took over an even larger school.  By 1839 he was submitting mathematical papers to the British Royal Academy, an unheard-of accomplishment for someone with no college degree.  In 1841 and 1842 he founded a new field of mathematics known as Invariant Theory, which we know today as Boolean Algebra.  Fortunately Boole turned down a teaching position at Oxford and went on to teach at the new Queen’s College, County Cork, Ireland, where he became the first mathematics professor.

Boole came to an untimely death from pneumonia at the age of forty-nine.  This unfortunate incident robbed the world of a mathematical genius who may have gone on to even greater discoveries.  Prior to his death he was accepted into the British Royal Academy, studied the relationship between religion and mathematics, and published a number of books on his works.  Perhaps because of the remoteness of Queen’s College, or the obscurity of his field of study, his discoveries and publications seem to have been lost to time.  Eventually Boole’s work was rediscovered and became important in physics.  It is an important component of Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, where in the formula E=MC2, C is the Invariant.

There is a lesson for all of us in the life of George Boole.  Difficult circumstances, a lack of resources, no formal education, and lack of opportunity can either open doors or close them.  People can become victims of their circumstances or master them as steppingstones to greatness.  Like Boole, many of the most successful people of our time either did not go to college or dropped out.  Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Richard Branson, Oprah Winfrey, Kobe Bryant, Maya Angelou, and even Bruce Willis either dropped out of college or did not attend.  If many of our brightest become successful by not attending universities, then what is the value proposition for universities?

In the past universities were places where young people matured, were exposed to new ideas, and learned about American exceptionalism.  Most of our universities have now become bloated bureaucracies that often turn out many useless degrees that lead to unproductive lives.  For certain careers in medicine, law, mathematics, physics, and the sciences need additional years of study.  But the rest are often just babysitting young adults with classwork waiting on them to mature, or indoctrinating students with the professor’s particular brand of philosophy.  The expense of this babysitting has now grown to a point where it is unaffordable for all but the wealthiest.

The solution to this is not to further subsidize these poorly run universities.  We must begin to put value on education that leads to productive work and self-sufficiency.  If universities were that good at what they do, then all successful people would have a degree.  University administrators must believe that the more you pay for a degree the greater the value.  If this were true, then only graduates of the IV League schools would run the world.  If this were true, then the management and accounting professors would have made our universities shining examples of efficiency and cost control.  But by failing at cost control and efficiency, the universities have clearly demonstrated and exposed their incompetence.

You cannot learn how to do something by learning the theory of how to do it, you must actually do it!  You learn to manage by managing; you learn to program a computer by programming; and you learn accounting by being an accountant.  The one positive thing to come out of the attempted Biden college loan forgiveness is it is bringing to the forefront of our national conversation the real value of impractical educational degrees.  If our universities cannot manage themselves, then why should we trust them to prepare our children to be productive members of society?  Only one member of Congress lacks a college degree, and we know how that is working out!