Adventures in Ethics and Science

This was asked on a listserv I’m on, and I decided that the question is interesting enough to share here — largely because I’m interested in how you would answer.

In an article titled “What is a Generally Educated Person?” in the Fall 2004 issue of AAC&U’s Peer Review, Jerry G. Gaff asks readers to list 5 answers to each of these questions:

1. What are the ideas and skills students should learn?
2. Who are the people (living or dead) students should know?
3. What are the places students should visit?
4. What artistic or musical performances should they see or hear?
5. What are the books they should read?

You have to keep each list down to five items — the point is to choose what is most important rather than every good answer that occurs to you.

My answers (and some thoughts on the exercise in general) below the fold.

1. What are the ideas and skills students should learn?

  • How to tell valid from invalid inferences.
  • The ability to gauge whether a numerical result to a problem is in the right ballpark.
  • How to discern subtext — and present reasonable evidence for the plausibility of the subtext they’re seeing.
  • How to work out strategies to test claims (against empirical evidence, or other well-established claims, etc.).
  • How to use a library and/or databases to research a topic they care about (and how to evaluate the reliability of the sources they find).

2. Who are the people (living or dead) students should know?

  • Barbara McClintock
  • W.E.B. DuBois
  • Walt Whitman
  • Gandhi
  • Kepler

3. What are the places students should visit?

  • A library “special collection” (to see old-timey manuscripts and volumes from the early days of the printing press).
  • A working farm.
  • A hospital.
  • A legislature, parliament, etc., in session.
  • The Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology.

4. What artistic or musical performances should they see or hear?

  • A Shakespeare play (let’s say Macbeth).
  • The Seventh Seal.
  • Argentine tango at a really good milonga.
  • A Josh Kornbluth monologue (such as “Red Diaper Baby”).
  • Billy Bragg with the Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy (totally worth the price of the time machine).

5. What are the books they should read?

  • Charles Darwin, Origin of Species
  • Azar Nafisi, Reading Lolita in Tehran
  • Chaucer, Canterbury Tales
  • Primo Levi, The Periodic Table
  • Herman Melville, Moby-Dick

Narrowing each list to five items is brutally hard. To my mind, there really aren’t “definitive” answers, so I ended up thinking about different areas that are part of a “general education” (at least as I understand it), and then drew upon works or people or experiences connected to these area that I think had an impact on my education.

This might mean that my desert island 25 will only work properly for me. You might need to pack your own supplies.

But this raises a question for those of us in the ed. biz — how do we prioritize what we pack into the finite time we have with our students? We’re not restricted to just 5 items per list, but we don’t have forever to devote to the educatin’. What if the works or people or experiences that grabbed us don’t grab our students? How much “redundancy” needs to be built into a broad education to make sure something grabs our students?

And, while we’re here, what would you put on your lists?

Comments

  1. #1 RPM
    September 6, 2006

    I’m a bit surprised that Barbara McClintock is the biologist you put on your list. Her work was important, but I’d put Darwin above her and few others at her level. What made you choose McClintock?

    And Macbeth never works in production. That’s why you’re not allowed to say it inside of theatre. It will curse whatever production the group is working on.

  2. #2 Thomas Winwood
    September 6, 2006

    I asked my mother.

    1. What are the ideas and skills students should learn?
    - Independent thought.
    - Clarity of vision.
    - The bases of communist and capitalist systems, and political theory in general.
    - Life skills (cooking, banking, looking after oneself).
    - How to disco.

    2. Who are the people (living or dead) students should know?
    - William Shakespeare
    - Aristotle
    - Galileo Galilei
    - Leonardo da Vinci
    - Rosa Parks

    3. What are the places students should visit?
    - A world-class museum/art gallery.
    - A place of some spiritual significance.
    - An area of outstanding natural beauty.
    - A proper grown-up restaurant.
    - A festival.

    4. What artistic or musical performances should they see or hear?
    - A classical concert (recommend Mozart or Bach).
    - A major exhibition of a major artist at a gallery.
    - A stadium rock concert (recommend Foo Fighters, Rammstein and Queen if you can timetravel).
    - A major religious event (like the Hajj or a Midnight Mass).
    - A retro ’70s disco (dancing to YMCA with the original movements is important).

    5. What are the books they should read?
    - Tess of the d’Urbervilles.
    - Paradise Lost (all books).
    - Waiting for Godot.
    - Cold Comfort Farm.
    - 1984.

  3. #3 Janet D. Stemwedel
    September 6, 2006

    RPM, I snuck Darwin in via the books list. I thought McClintock’s experiences as an outsider in the biological community (probably at least in part due to her being a woman) would make her an interesting person to learn about.

  4. #4 Zuska
    September 6, 2006

    Well, why the hell not Barbara McClintock? Can’t we have at least one woman on the list of five people? If you don’t like McClintock as a biologist then let’s have Admiral Grace Murray Hopper who invented the first compiler, has a warship named after her, is buried in Arlington National Cemetery, and was the winner of the first “Man of the Year” award, in 1969, from the Data Processing Management Association. Why the hell they didn’t make it the Woman of the Year Award and let the men deal with it afterwards would be a good question for young people to consider. Or just call it the Person of the Year award. And please please please don’t give me that crap about how “man” refers to women and men. ‘Cause it doesn’t.

  5. #5 Erika
    September 7, 2006

    I gave my answers to the questions, but it ended up so long that I posted it on my own blog instead. I could not help commenting just about every answer. Unlike you I ended up with mostly women on the second question.

    http://turioturen.blogspot.com/2006/09/perfect-education.html

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