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Sun, 24 Jul 2011

I recently came across two articles talking about whether a traditional college education is really worth it any more, and they awakened a pet peeve of mine. The first article, which is titled College is a waste of time, is by a 19-year-old recipient of a Thiel Fellowship, which he is using to organize "UnCollege" as an alternative to the traditional college education, which he says

...rewards conformity rather than independence, competition rather than collaboration, regurgitation rather than learning and theory rather than application. Our creativity, innovation and curiosity are schooled out of us.

All of these are commonplace (and often valid) criticisms, and the writer goes on to talk about a different way, in what by now are familiar (and again often valid) terms:

The success of people who never completed or attended college makes us question whether what we need to learn is taught in school. Learning by doing -- in life, not classrooms -- is the best way to turn constant iteration into true innovation. We can be productive members of society without submitting to academic or corporate institutions. We are the disruptive generation creating the "free agent economy" built by entrepreneurs, creatives, consultants and small businesses...

But then, right after the end of the paragraph from which I just quoted, I found a link to an article by the president of Wesleyan University on Why liberal arts matter, in which I read:

A well-rounded education gave graduates more tools with which to solve problems, broader perspectives through which to see opportunities and a deeper capacity to build a more humane society.

This sounded all right (if a bit vague), but already I was wondering about the contrast with the article I just clicked from. So college is supposed to be part of a well-rounded education after all? I read on:

Already at liberal arts schools across the country there is increasing interest in the sciences from students who are also studying history, political science, literature and the arts. At Wesleyan, neuroscience and behavior is one of our fastest growing majors, and programs linking the sciences, arts and humanities have been areas of intense creative work.

This is still vague and general (and the only specific major given, neuroscience and behavior, looks like straightforward science to me). How about some specific examples? Well, the article does give a few; these two in particular struck me:

...a philosophy and chemistry major at Wesleyan...founded [a] biotech chemistry company...to "transform the way serious diseases are treated."

...an interdisciplinary social science major at Wesleyan...helped restructure the U.S. auto industry as a deputy director of the National Economic Council.

You will note that neither of these examples illustrates any kind of synergy between the liberal arts and the sciences. The first person's hard science major (chemistry) has an obvious relationship to his achievement, but did his philosophy major really play any role? (Later on, the article says that "cultural understanding, economic planning and ethical reasoning" are needed to effectively deliver vaccines, but it would be nice to see some evidence that a philosophy major, for example, actually has any special expertise in any of these areas, beyond what any well-informed citizen, or chemistry major for that matter, would have.) Reading the second example, one wonders whether economics is included in "interdisciplinary social science", as otherwise there seems to be no connection at all between the education and the achievement, not to mention that the achievement itself is hardly "interdisciplinary"; were any technical people, such as engineers, at the big three automakers consulted about what they thought might help? Based on what I've read about the "restructuring", I'm guessing not.

I can only surmise that the CNN site put the link to the second article in the middle of the first one to provide some kind of "balance" in viewpoints. If so, the second article seems to me to come up short in the comparison. The message I get from the two articles combined is not that college is, after all, worthwhile for some people, if not for all; instead, what emerges from the comparison is that, while a degree in science (preferably hard science) might be useful, one in liberal arts might well be, as the first article suggests, a waste of time.

You are probably wondering, having read the title of this post, how I've managed to come this far without mentioning C. P. Snow. Fear not; I was simply saving him for the coda. Of course the comparison between the two articles above brings to mind his famous speech about the "two cultures"; but I wonder how many liberal arts majors realize that he was not talking about scientists being ignorant of the humanities, but the opposite:

A good many times I have been present at gatherings of people who, by the standards of the traditional culture, are thought highly educated and who have with considerable gusto been expressing their incredulity at the illiteracy of scientists. Once or twice I have been provoked and have asked the company how many of them could describe the Second Law of Thermodynamics. The response was cold: it was also negative. Yet I was asking something which is the scientific equivalent of: Have you read a work of Shakespeare's?

I now believe that if I had asked an even simpler question - such as, What do you mean by mass, or acceleration, which is the scientific equivalent of saying, Can you read? - not more than one in ten of the highly educated would have felt that I was speaking the same language. So the great edifice of modern physics goes up, and the majority of the cleverest people in the western world have about as much insight into it as their neolithic ancestors would have had.

And this type of ignorance is worse than ignorance about the arts and literature, because it's about things that can be objectively tested. We can argue forever about whether a given novel is "good" or not, or whether "absolute truth" is possible, or whether we can truly "know" anything, and liberal arts types often do. But we know to a moral certainty that the Earth is round, not flat; that it goes around the Sun; that energy is conserved and "perpetual motion" is impossible; that human beings evolved from apes, and in fact all living things on Earth evolved from a single common ancestor; and a host of other scientific facts. And yet non-scientists can still get away with being ignorant of, or even denying, these facts, or saying things like "the jury is still out" on evolution, without being hooted down in derision. (As the comedian Lewis Black said about George W. Bush when he made that remark about evolution, "What jury, where? The Scopes trial is over.")

But at least everyone agrees on the ultimate goal, don't they? Both articles appear to:

It's not a question of authorities; it's a question of priorities. We who take our education outside and beyond the classroom understand how actions build a better world. We will change the world regardless of the letters after our names.

We should have confidence, as my parents did, that a broadly based, liberal education will help our young people lead lives of creative productivity, lives in which they can make meaning from and contribute to the world around them.

So we all agree that we want to make the world a better place. But in that case, it seems to me that we don't need Shakespeare or a philosophy major or an interdisciplinary degree to tell us the right thing to do. We already know that. What we need is practical knowledge of how to solve the practical problems that stand in the way of a better world for all. In other words, science and technology.

Of course the liberal arts types have an obvious retort: if science and technology are so great, how come we still have all these problems? And how come we now have new problems, like environmental pollution, that we didn't have (or at least it's claimed we didn't have them) before science and technology entered the picture? Doesn't that show that we need input from the humanities in order to use science and technology for good ends?

The problem is that, if we look at the barriers that are keeping people from taking advantage of known solutions to their problems, we find that they are mostly economic and political, not technological. (The same goes for the reasons why cultures of the past, for example, often weren't such good stewards of the environment as they are portrayed in the liberal arts version of history.) And those economic and political barriers have not changed much through all of human history. Science and technology, on the other hand, keep discovering ways to not so much remove the barriers as make them irrelevant. (The medium by which you are reading this is one outstanding example.)

Daniel Dennett (a philosopher, no less!) gave a similar answer to a similar point, in the essay "When Philosophers Encounter Artificial Intelligence", which appears in his book Brainchildren. He was talking about other philosophers' responses to AI in particular (Hilary Putnam's in this case, but he makes similar comments about other philosophers elsewhere), but what he says applies just as well to the general case we've been discussing:

But still one may well inquire, echoing Putnam's challenge, whether AI has taught philosophers anything of importance about the mind yet. Putnam thinks it has not, and supports his view with a rhetorically curious indictment: AI has utterly failed, over a quarter century, to solve problems that philosophy has utterly failed to solve over two millennia. He is right, I guess, but I am not impressed. It is as if a philosopher were to conclude a dismissal of contemporary biology by saying that the biologists have not so much as asked the question: What is Life? Indeed they have not; they have asked better questions that ought to dissolve or redirect the philosopher's curiosity.

Yes, science has utterly failed, in a few hundred years, to solve problems that the "liberal arts" have utterly failed to solve over the entire length of human history. Science recognizes when something isn't working, and tries something different. Liberal arts types keep on saying that if we just try one more time (using their pet solution, of course), maybe it will work. Isn't the classic definition of insanity repeating the same actions over and over again and expecting different results?

All of which further underscores the comparison between the two articles I started with. The first article recognizes that a standard college education isn't working for many people, and proposes trying something different. The second, purporting to address the same issues as the first, proposes...more standard college education. You do the math.

Posted at 21:34   |   Category: rants   |   Tags: education   |   Permalink
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