Adventures in Ethics and Science

I started out thinking I was writing this as an open letter to my students, but it turns out I’m talking to you all, too.

* * * * *
I have very strong feelings about what the point of a college education should be. Maybe you do, too. It’s entirely possible that we would disagree about this issue, or that you are so happy with your own picture of the point of a college education that you really have no interests in anyone else’s.

That’s fine. But if you’re my student, certain things I get worked up about may strike you as mysterious if you don’t know what I think this whole thing is aiming for. On the off chance that you’d rather not see your instructor as eccentric or wacko, this is where I lay it all out.

A college education is not job training.

Look, I’m not saying you should be unemployable when you graduate. But getting some specific set of facts or skills that prepares you for a particular job in a particular setting is a very narrow kind of education. It’s the kind of education that you might be able to get in 18 months or less at a technical institute, or even in your first month on the job. If all you need is a particular “skill set”, why slog through 4 (or 5, or 6, or 7, …) years to get a bachelors degree? Why go through that huge checklist of General Education courses that have no obvious connection to your intended career? Why, for that matter, complete all those major requirement that have no obvious connection to your intented career?

Because everyone’s doing it?

If all we gave you here was job training, you’d be in a tough spot. Specific jobs can change quite a lot. Software engineers use different programming languages, and deal with different platforms, than they did only a few years ago. Scientists work with new techniques against the background of new discoveries. Teachers have to deal with constantly changing state standards (and the attendant standardized tests) and funding priorities.

Chances are the specific job-related facts with which you walk out of here will be obsolete before you’ve paid off your student loans.

More than that, the economy can change rather drastically. Back when I graduated from college, a degree in computer science was an instant ticket to the good life. Start-ups were falling over each other to snatch up anyone who could write code. Twenty-two year olds were driving fancy cars and eating lunch at swanky restaurants, or playing ping-pong in the office while trying to work out in their heads how much their stock options were worth.

Boom, meet Bust.

When the bubble burst, a solid education in computer science was no kind of guarantee that you’d be able to work as a programmer. Or that you’d be able to avoid living on your parents’ couch.

A college degree that is just about training for a particular career in a particular field is a gigantic gamble. It leaves you vulnerable to changes large and small.

I want a college education to give you something better.

What is valuable about a college education is not something a lousy economic cycle can take away.

Back when the dot-com bubble was a-poppin’, I was teaching Boethius. (Anucius Manlius Severinus Boethius, c. 480 – c. 526. You were thinking of someone else?)

So, Boethius was this big-time Roman patrician who was Master of the Offices for King Theodoric, until he was accused of treason and magic, tossed in jail, tortured, and killed in a particularly nasty way. (If you want to get the details, do some research.) Before his execution, he had a lot of time to mope. Indeed, how could he avoid wallowing in just how far he had fallen from having it all?

While in prison, Boethius wrote Consolations of Philosophy, an imagined dialogue between himself and Lady Philosophy. Here’s a synopsis:

Boethius: Boy, it really sucks to be me. I had everything and now I have nothing.

Lady Philosophy: Dude, snap out of it. The stuff that really matters is the stuff that even a sudden change of fortune can’t take from you.

A job is nice. So is political power, a fancy chariot, hangers-on. But you can have all these things and still not be happy or fulfilled. And, if your happiness depends on having such things, you’re pretty vulnerable to sudden reversals.

So how can a human find fulfillment that isn’t all about having lots of stuff, or a high-paying job, or a top-rated sit-com?

Well, what do you have that’s really yours? What is the piece of your life that no one can take away?

You have your mind. You have the ability to think about things, to experience the world, to decide what matters to you and how you want to pursue it. You have your sense of curiousity and wonder when you encounter something new and unexpected, and your sense of satisfaction when you figure something out. You have the power to imagine ways the world could be different. You even have the ability (the responsibility?) to try to make the world different.

This is what I think a college education should give you: lots of hands-on experience using your mind so you know different ways you can think about things and you start to figure out what you care about.

Yes, you may encounter a lot of facts in your college education, but the real value of those facts is that they give you experience thinking about them in different ways. What you come away with is the ability to think about different facts out there in the “real world”. You get the ability to use the facts you encounter to draw your own conclusions rather than having to take someone else’s word for it. (The thing about those other people who will just tell you what you should think? Sometimes they lie.)

Thinking is hard. It requires a lot more effort than floating through the world on auto-pilot. But once you get started, it’s more addictive than potato chips. Thinking is fun. Even a little slice of a life of the mind (maybe reading a novel on the bus every morning) can counteract a fair bit of drudgery (like the job you’re riding that bus to get to). The joe-job is sometimes unavoidable; you’ve got to eat. But nourishing your mind gives you something better than just biological existence.

A college education can do an awful lot to help you survive the job market. People who are good at thinking and who like to learn can be very adaptable in a changing economy. But a really good college education prepares you for life. If helps give you the mental tools to live a life that matters to you.

Comments

  1. #1 John Wilkins
    October 2, 2006

    So why is it nobody ever teaches Boethius’ On Division or Porphyry’s Isagoge? Much more important than that drivel the Consolations

  2. #2 SMC
    October 2, 2006

    That settles it.

    When they (you know – THEM) inevitably get around to asking me to designate who will be on the Secret Council That Rules All Education Policy, you’re on the list.

    I occasionally find myself wondering if I’d have time to take a class in GIS, so as to better understand its applications to, for example, environmental microbiology. Then I find that the “GIS” classes aren’t about GIS, they’re really “job training” in “Which Buttons You Push When You Use ESRI(tm) ArcThingie(tm)”…nice to know there are still educators who know what education is supposed to be for.

  3. #3 Chris
    October 3, 2006

    I really liked this post. It was well thoughtout and very coherent. You expressed my thoughts accurately and I hope you don’t mind me posting it on my myspace blog, with credit to you of course. I think many people fail to see the reason for getting an education beyond just the field of expertise they want to go into. I didn’t understand that however I had a great teacher that showed me that at my community college. I think this is something you should consider giving all of your students and not just putting it on their syllabus but as a reading assignment (so they actually read it). It may spark something in a student or two but at least it affected someone.

  4. #4 Jackie
    October 3, 2006

    Surgeons need to know how to use a scapel. Artists need to know how to use a paintbrush. Scientists need to know how to use computer. We shouldn’t underemphasize the usefulness of skills, which one might define as an activity in which thinking meets the physical world. I think any college or university that sent students into the world without the basic skills necessary to apply their knowledge would be doing them a serious disservice.

  5. #5 llewelly
    October 3, 2006

    Well, what do you have that’s really yours? What is the piece of your life that no one can take away?
    You have your mind. You have the ability to think about things, to experience the world, to decide what matters to you and how you want to pursue it.

    Every 6 months or so, I spend some time reading about Scientology. Every week or so I will read a description of how some alt-med charlatan misled some innocents. Every damn day I will read about how right-wing propaganda has been conning America into supporting some incredibly immoral and appallingly stupid action. These readings have convinced me that people’s minds do get taken away, and used for unscrupulous purposes.

    The world is full of con-men, unscrupulous advertisers, and political propagandists who would love to control some facet of your behavior – and have the skills to do it. There are even a few organizations that will go to great effort to transform you wholly into one of their own droids.

    Why did so many people support the invasion of Iraq? Why do people believe in creationism? Why do people remain in denial about global heating? Because modern propaganda techniques can take control of your brain, and take you for ride, and you will not necessarily even be aware of what is happening to you.

    If you don’t think this can happen to you, I direct you to the dozens of well-educated Democrat politicians who supported authorizing Bush to use force ‘if necessary’. Their brains were vulnerable, and someone else climbed into the driver’s seat, and drove them all the way to Iraq – specifically, the political enemies of the Democrats decided what mattered to Democrats.

    A quality education should not be founded on the dangerously naive belief that a mind is the one thing that can’t be taken away. It should be founded on the recognition of how vulnerable a thing the human mind really is.

    Having finished ranting, I will grant that most of the other items you discuss can make a valuable contribution to protecting one’s brain from being taken way … provided one somehow obtains a recognition of the danger.

  6. #6 JM
    October 3, 2006

    Today in my [freshman composition] class, it was the first day we really talked about thinking and reading critically.

    All but two completely FAILED the in-class assignment. They can’t engage their brains.

    I’ve found a new assignment for Wednesday. I’m printing this out and making them write about it for Monday’s class.

    Unless you say not to, of course.

  7. #7 llewelly
    October 3, 2006

    As a wiser friend of mind pointed out, you already said most of what was in my rant, but I’m still bothered by that one line I quoted, even though it’s not germane to your thesis.

  8. #8 Janet D. Stemwedel
    October 3, 2006

    llewelly, your point is well taken. There is always the danger of going overboard with the idea that the life of the mind is the only life that matters, which could be used as an excuse to get people to pipe down about truly horrible material conditions. And, a mind is not invulnerable to certain kinds of threats, whether natural or man-made. Still, I’d rather have a supple mind than a whole bucketful of skills so specialized they might only be useful for another six months.

    (On the power of propaganda, etc., I can’t help wonder how many of the credulous played an active role in giving their minds away, as it were.)

  9. #9 Genevieve Williams
    October 3, 2006

    On the power of propaganda, etc., I can’t help wonder how many of the credulous played an active role in giving their minds away, as it were.

    It has been my experience that smart people are awfully good at fooling themselves.

    If there’s one thing at the core of my job (I’m a librarian), it’s not about the books, or the databases, or the Internet. It’s getting people to think about what’s in those things. (And how to search them effectively. Speaking of skills…)

  10. #10 Abel Pharmboy
    October 3, 2006

    Professor, this post is a perfect example of why I started reading you and why I come back so delighted, so often. Well done!

    Having spent most of my career as a pharmacy professor, I found that many students have the myopic, technical-school view of what preparation for their profession should be. Even amongst science material, complaints would arise as to why one must learn seemingly boring biochemical pathways like isoprenoid synthesis. It wasn’t until the multi-billion-dollar statins came out that isoprenoid biosynthesis wasn’t so boring anymore (well, it may still be boring, but it is not much more relevant.).

    I somehow used a highly-technical course of study to develop a decent career path, but it has been my post-graduate, self-exploration of the liberal arts in my adult years that will prepare me for continued research funding downturns and, if needed, an alternate career.

    Thanks for giving a voice to what so many professors are thinking.

  11. #11 Agnostic
    October 3, 2006

    That’s all well and good, and I certainly wish things would go that way, but here are two massive impediments that aren’t likely to go away soon:

    1) The illegality of using intelligence tests in job hiring, despite the fact that general intelligence is the best single predictor of job success (and success in general). This means that to distinguish yourself from the rest of the stack of applicants, a degree from a prestigious institution — prestigious because the kids who go there are really smart — will save the schelp responsible for hiring a lot of time figuring out how bright or dull you are. Lacking sufficient time to research every candidate in depth, they rely on simple measures like college degree or none, or college degree from Harvard vs State U.

    The solution to this problem is to annul the decision to outlaw intelligence testing in job hiring. Jesus, imagine that in a world where height mattered the most — say, all jobs involve basketball skills — they weren’t allowed to ask for or measure your height. Suppose, though, that they were allowed to ask who your tailor was, and that certain tailors cater only to tall customers while others only to shorties. Then mentioning that your tailor was a tall-only tailor would convey the gist to the HR dept in so many words. This is exactly the kind of social Rube Goldberg machine that we currently enjoy.

    2) While females may be able to say “the hell with money and status,” since their worth is judged by others based more on looks and pleasantness of disposition. Males, in contrast, are judged based on income, status, power, etc. Only the most jejune among them will follow the nobel advice to do what they want, even if it doesn’t lead to minting at a law school. Some will pursue their passion, of course, but then these aren’t the problem kids you’re addressing your letter to.

    The solution here, completely infeasible, is to alter the average (not outlier) female’s preferences, such that her ears will perk up when she hears that X is pursuing his passion despite lack of future high status or high income (which is not to say he’ll be penniless), rather than when she hears that X just graduated law school, med school, biz school, or whatever. Short of this, the guys you’re talking to won’t budge an inch on the narrowmindedly preprofessional approach toward education.

    The female preprofessional students you could probably change, of course, since they don’t sink or swim in the dating & mating arena based on their income or status.

    So, yes, this is how things would work in a utopia, but there are two unbudging barriers in the way: one is easily do-able, but it requires going against PC law; the other is pretty intractable, requiring a retweaking of the default setting for the average female’s mate preferences.

  12. #12 Natalie
    October 3, 2006

    I teach an intro Understanding Science course at a liberal arts school and I try to incorporate some of these thoughts into my class. One of the things I try to emphasize is that science is important to YOUR life, even if you are an [insert non-science major here] major so that you can make informed choices about policy and the application of science. Another key concept is thinking critically about the information that is provided.

    I’m always happy when a few of the students “get” it, but it’s sad when I consider how many sit in class for the rote memorization.

  13. #13 Kevin
    October 3, 2006

    This is such a great post. It sums up my thoughts on education to a tee. I’ll be passing this along.

  14. #14 bsci
    October 3, 2006

    I agree that college is much more than a trade school and learning how to think and adapt is vital, but training on an employable skill set is also important. I’ve known too many smart philosophy majors who couldn’t get a job right out of college. Yes, they picked up valuable skills that would benefit them in almost any job, but an employer is rarely going to waste time paying a philosophy major to learn how to program. (The one exception I know is consulting firms which seem to hire smart non-eningeers and figure they can train them in Java and use farm them out at a much cheaper rate than hiring fully trained programmers).

    And for your computer science example, anyone can learn a language, but the theory and skills behind good programming really does require college level training (not that all colleges give this training).

    The ultimate proof of the importance of technical skills is if the goal was just to learn or learn how to learn, why are there majors? A major is a certificate saying that while you picked up broad and adaptable skills, you also gained very specific skills.

  15. #15 Kevin
    October 3, 2006

    Natalie – I agree. I teach Freshman Writing Seminars in the English dept. at my school (we’re a WID/WAC school). One of the things I try to do from a pedagogical standpoint is to break down the supposed dichotomy between the sciences and the humanities. I think it’s really detrimental to learning and critical inquiry. I have a section in my class were I declare Einstein the class muse and then discuss how the scientific method and the critical analysis of literature really isn’t that different. Of course at first, the science kids don’t buy that artsy English major dude cares about science and the liberal arts kids feel betrayed because artsy English major dude has gone to the “dark side,” but like you say, the goal is to get the kids to think critically about the information that is being provided to them and to be able to make informed decisions about what they read, whether it be scientific in nature or not.

    But hey, I’m just one of those jejune dudes that think learning and knowledge is good in itself. What do I know?

  16. #16 sam
    October 3, 2006

    I really enjoyed this post. I must say that, the entire time I was reading it and agreeing, I was also recognizing the ideas behind this discussion as reasons that my wife and I homeschool our kids.

  17. #17 Jess
    October 3, 2006

    I always printed the following quote in my syllabus, even though I know nobody ever reads the syllabus:
    “You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake at night listening to the disorder of your veins, you may miss your only love, you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honor trampled in the sewers of baser minds. There is only one thing for it then — to learn. Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting.”
    – T.H. White, The Once and Future King

    I hope yours read what you wrote. It’s important for them to hear. Of course one wants kids to graduate with some skills, and college can provide some training, but I wonder whether the people arguing pro-job-skills here are teachers… personally, I found that it was deeply detrimental to my job when even my brightest students could not see why they should do anything outside their department, which they had in turn chosen out of a sense of obligation.

    Honestly, my preference would be to separate job training college from learning-to-think college, and require everyone to do BOTH. I thought a lot in school, and as a result, all my skills are skills I bred myself in my free time — not super-employable! But at the same time, I can’t stand watching students minmax their ways through life.

    Anyway, if I were still teaching writing and rhetoric this would be on my syllabus, first day.

  18. #18 PhysioProf
    October 3, 2006

    The cool thing about learning a field of inquiry is that the more you learn, the easier and faster it is to learn even more. In my opinion, this is why having a “major” in college is so essential, and why the craze (at least it was when I was in college) for “personalized majors” and “interdisciplinary majors” is so misguided. Interdisciplinary inquiry is, of course, essential to moving forward the boundaries of knowledge, but first every student needs to master at least one existing mature discipline.

  19. #19 Terminal Degree
    October 5, 2006

    This is brilliant. Thanks.

  20. #20 karen Lewis
    October 7, 2006

    THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU!!! As a high school teacher with an Ivy League degree and two Master’s degrees I have often been asked, “If all you were going to do is teach, why didn’t you just go to a teacher’s college and saved your parents a lot of money?” Honestly, I don’t think I would be the teacher I am today, Nationally Board Certified in a subject that was not my major and totally loving my job. The opportunity to flourish as a human being is as important as “finding a job”. I’ve changed careers many times and found one I loved, even though I don’t earn as much as others with commensurate backgrounds. There is a huge difference between education and training. The truth is, I live a life filled with joy, happiness and delight in the world and that is due to having a wonderful education. Education, I fear, will soon become a luxury, because the pursuit of knowledge is often seen as superfluous in a culture where money is worshipped above all.

  21. #21 Paul Gowder
    October 7, 2006

    Every time someone references Boethius, my mind snaps to Confederacy of Dunces. It’s really sapped the inspirational power of the Consolation right out. Kind of a shame. Perhaps some Plato instead?

  22. #22 GP1
    October 8, 2006

    Thanks. Very nice post.

    You have your mind. You have the ability to think about things, to experience the world, to decide what matters to you and how you want to pursue it. You have your sense of curiousity and wonder when you encounter something new and unexpected, and your sense of satisfaction when you figure something out. You have the power to imagine ways the world could be different. You even have the ability (the responsibility?) to try to make the world different

    Unfortunately, this is exactly what an academic education sets out to eradicate. So many brilliant students choose a career in science only to find out that they have become Newtonists.

    I had both an art and science education. What you describe above is valued in art but not in science.

    Thanks again.

  23. #23 Caledonian
    October 12, 2006

    Unfortunately, this is exactly what an academic education sets out to eradicate. So many brilliant students choose a career in science only to find out that they have become Newtonists.

    I’ve noticed a fascinating trend among those people who have responded to this post favorably. Hopefully additional responses will reveal whether this pattern is genuine or spurious.

  24. #24 llewelly
    October 12, 2006

    So many brilliant students choose a career in science only to find out that they have become Newtonists.

    What do you mean by a ‘Newtonist’? Someone who practices gematria and tastes strange chemicals? Someone who prefers fluctants to derivatives?

  25. #25 llewelly
    October 12, 2006

    Every time someone references Boethius, my mind snaps to Confederacy of Dunces.

    Confederacy of Dunces is easily the best treatise on what one ought not to do with one’s good education.

  26. #26 Wowbagger
    October 12, 2006

    Don Randel, the ex-President of the University of Chicago, used to tell students all the time that the purpose of college was not to teach you what to think but to teach you how to think. And to that extent I think the U of C is one of the exemplars of that style of education. Janet’s post is an excellent expression of what I think is a noble ideal which unfortunately most people don’t care for.

    I’ve noticed a fascinating trend among those people who have responded to this post favorably. Hopefully additional responses will reveal whether this pattern is genuine or spurious.

    Caledonian, I suspect what you noticed is that the favourable responses have been from people who have had interests and experiences in both the sciences and the arts. In which case, as a double major in physics and philosophy who’s torn between my loves for science, philosophy and music, I can add myself to the list of favourable respondents with that profile.

  27. #27 He
    October 12, 2006

    I wouldn’t want an education that didn’t involve getting some skills that are useful in the job market, but I agree that an education should be a lot more than that.

    I know it can be challenging to try to get that into your students. But turning it around, it can be hard to get that if you *are* a student trying to get a thorough education out of your coursework. It winds up pretty hit-and-miss, and a lot of the actual education is self-taught.

    There’s a pretty huge demoralization factor that can kick in when a student who wants a thorough education gets compelled to sit through classes filled with students who are barely literate and wouldn’t know critical analysis if it bit them. After several of those, the more skill-oriented classes start to look like a better bet since at least you know what you’ll get out of your time and effort.

  28. #28 David Harmon
    October 13, 2006

    I certainly agree that the life of the mind is important, indeed it’s sustained me through some very dark periods. But I’m not so sure that it makes sense to talk about “learning how to think” as isolated, or even opposed, to “learning how to do”. Our minds can go well beyond our surroundings, but ultimately, the kernel of a human mind, is the understanding of the world around us, including how to manipulate that world.

    Someone who is really good at manipulating ideas (only), but isn’t grounded by an understanding of the world, is liable to spin off into meaningless drivel. (Q.v. the abuse of deconstructionism, or the pseudo-philosphies accruing around quantum phenomena.) I feel that a familiarity with “ground truth” — that is, the realities of the world around us — is fundamental to “learning how to think”, and I’m dubious that these can be separated.

    On the flip side, I’ve observed that a sufficiently deep study of almost any aspect of the real world, inevitably leads into other fields, eventually forming connections to the whole of human knowledge. I know that if I wanted to train a computer programmer (my own field) from scratch, I’d see more potential from an experienced mason or landscaper than, say, a journalist or marketer.
    (All else being equal, of course! Other interests and activities make a difference too.) The “physical workers” would at least understand that “the rules” aren’t completely arbitrary: There are some things that just work, and some that just don’t, and the difference is not a matter of persuading the teacher. Only after you get past that can you move on into questions of style or “preferred methodology”.

  29. #29 gp1
    October 15, 2006

    What do you mean by a ‘Newtonist’? Someone who practices gematria and tastes strange chemicals? Someone who prefers fluctants to derivatives?

    Thanks. Great example about calculus. Today college education teaches Leibnitz’ calculus but celebrates Newton. My point was that I agree with the statement in the article defining how a college education should be. But when I look at physics education I see no room to question what is taught. Students are not allowed to use their own minds and question calculus. No, they are supposed to cram it. Students are not supposed to question Newton’s laws but believe in them in order to pass standard exams. If a student starts to question Newton’s laws she would fail. The only place where I could feel free to use my mind and be happy and feel a semblance of discovering something new was in the library where I could read original writers in their own words and pause a question and go look it up. In the library I did not have to memorize the textbook laws of physics describing a world view which was archaic even when it was defined three centuries ago. I believe this is why the advice is a good advice, if I am understading it correctly: you have to cram and pass the exams, this is how the system is set up, but don’t lose your curiosity about knowledge which brought you to college.

  30. #30 gp1
    October 15, 2006

    I teach an intro Understanding Science course at a liberal arts school and I try to incorporate some of these thoughts into my class. One of the things I try to emphasize is that science is important to YOUR life, even if you are an [insert non-science major here] major so that you can make informed choices about policy and the application of science. Another key concept is thinking critically about the information that is provided.

    I’m always happy when a few of the students “get” it, but it’s sad when I consider how many sit in class for the rote memorization.

    Natalie,

    Thanks for this post. It points to a subject that I am interested in. I would like to ask if you teach physics as science. If you do, and if you expect your students to emulate physicists and think like physicists I believe, this is not fair to them. If students applied the standard reasoning used by physicists they would end up with absurd results. String theory is a good example of “scientific” reasoning as understood by physicists. Can you give specific examples of why a normal human being needs to learn physics in order to reason rationally?
    Thanks.

  31. #31 P. Edward Murrayq
    October 16, 2006

    I don’t know about you but I don’t know anyone hardly who really got job training in college.

    I didn’t see it graduating in 1980, now maybe things are different today but I tend to doubt it.

    Yes, it should be about preparing you to be a good citizen but everyone needs to earn a living and most of us are not teachers, professors or doctors or lawyers.

    What we don’t do is to prepare young people to go out and find a job and we certainly don’t seem to give them the real help that they need.

    P. Edward Murray
    Past President,
    Bucks-Mont. Astronomical Assoc., Inc.

    B.A. Political Science, Xavier University, 1980.

  32. #32 Kristine
    October 25, 2006

    I have to seriously question this following statement by another poster :
    “But when I look at physics education I see no room to question what is taught. Students are not allowed to use their own minds and question calculus. No, they are supposed to cram it. Students are not supposed to question Newton’s laws but believe in them in order to pass standard exams.”

    I disagree heartily with the assertation that “students are not supposed to question Newton’s laws.” The entire point of laboratory exercises is to test the claims, to question them and to see for yourself that the laws and theorems hold up in real life. Yes, you can memorize your way through a degree in science, but if you do that you will never be a scientist and you will have missed the beauty and opportunity I am sure your professors invited you to partake in repeatedly. I know because I see many students who come through, and some grasp the concepts by the horns, and they ask “what’s really going on here” and struggle with the ideas until they own them; while others work at “how can I remember this?” That second group of students typically has a much poorer attitude about their science classes and teachers, and expect someone else to make the pieces fit together.

    One thing to consider is the very different environments for teaching that students are given for their first year of science versus their first year of English. I never took an English course with more than 22 students enrolled (and I have a minor). On the other hand, my general biology lecture had 250 people. This was a decision made by the school, that general science could be taught effectively in large lectures while humanities and social science classes required intimate teaching experiences. I think if you took a small chemistry or physics class as your introduction, you would have a profoundly different experience than a student who sits among a sea of faces.

    Most science professors love interaction with students; the questioning is why they becamse scientists in the first place. What they don’t have much time for is arrogance. These “ideas” that students question are ones the professors have grappled with, and recognize the need to come to terms with, but things that often they know to be completely true, or conditionally true enough that to introduce the shades of grey would simply be overwhelmingly confusing to most students.

    Finally, I challenge the poster to come up with a viable alterantive way to teach calculus other than to present the rules of calculus and ask the students to prove them using mathematical theorems and practice that doesn’t necessarily require the student to reinvent the entire field (which would be impossible). If GP1 can do this, then he or she will be in great demand in the universities of the future. Please remember, though, we’ve seen “new math” come and go, and we fall back on centuries-old methods of instruction only because in the long run, they’ve proven themselves to work and we honestly don’t know any better way to guarantee skills competency and promote critical thinking.

  33. #33 Leslie C. Miller
    October 27, 2006

    This is excellent. You have given a good summary of the first few weeks of all my Introduction to Philosophy and Critical Thinking courses. My students laugh at me and other professors heartily disagree, loudly proclaiming that our job is to train workers–nothing else. Thanks for letting me know I am not the only one.

  34. #34 GP1
    November 12, 2006

    Kristine, thanks for your comments. It was nice to read how the subject is seen by a practioner. I was relating my recollections from more than a decade ago. I think you made several great points which was enlightening to me. I would like to comment on the one about the professors who “have grappled with, and recognize the need to come to terms with” questions students ask. I think this is true. But I would like to emphasize that professors have come to terms with these ideas by rationalizing them. Regarding Newton’s laws I believe this means that teachers learned to accept Newton’s laws as is. They reasoned that Newton’s laws work so they must be true. I don’t think this can be called questioning Newton’s laws.

    This topic is really interesting to me but this blog may not be the right place to discuss this subject in depth. The subject being, science education, particularly physics education, how it is taught in physics departments and outside, what benefits students get from studying physics, can it be improved, and so on. If you like please join me to discuss this subject in depth in another blog created just for this purpose. Reply here if you want to co-create such a blog. Thanks.

    Just a note also about your big class v. small class point. I remember practically nothing from my physics education except one demonstration in Columbia’s historical auditorium in Pupin Hall where my first introductory physics class was held. The teacher filled the blackboard with formulas and then talked about them and towards the end of the class he untied a huge pendulum hanging from the ceiling with a lead ball as the bob of the pendulum. He stepped on a chair on one side of the auditorium, pressed the lead ball against his nose and then with theatrical movements let it go. He did not budge. We all knew that he was safe. The pendulum went through its motion and it fell short of hitting the prof as expected. Probably this is a typical physics demo but it was impressive and I remember it even though it was in a big auditorium. Also remember that Richard Feynman’s classes were in auditoriums and they were extremely popular and I believe they must be educational as well. Thanks again.

  35. #35 Matthew C. Nisbet
    December 3, 2006

    So what is a college education for? Over at Framing Science an interesting example is taking place, as my students at American University debate the Internet’s impact on society.

    http://scienceblogs.com/framing-science/2006/12/the_internet_and_society_in_bl.php

    This semester in the sophomore-level course I teach on “Communication and Society,” we spent several weeks examining the many ways that Americans are using the Internet to alter the nature of community, civic engagement, and social relationships.

    For many college students, having grown up “online,” it’s easy to take for granted the “virtual” society we live in, seldom pausing to consider how it might be different from more traditional forms of community life. One of the goals of the course was to encourage students to think systematically and rigorously about the many changes introduced by the Internet over the past decade.

    From political blogs to online dating sites, students were introduced to the latest scholarship in the area, grouped into opposing teams, and then asked to research and write evidence-based position papers on the topic. This week, after turning in their papers, the teams squared off in a “face-to-face” class debate.

    But now things get really interesting. Below the fold, in the blog window panes, I have posted the opposing teams’ position papers. Until Friday, Dec. 8, they will extend their classroom debate to the comment section of the blog. Each individual student will be evaluated on the frequency and quality of their posts, drawing on research and evidence to back up their claims.

  36. #36 Zbu
    December 3, 2006

    I really enjoyed this article and found it to be truthful to my life especially. Back in 1999 I was in community college I was thinking about Computer Science as a way out of my miserable life and spent five years of it relearning math and all that good stuff only to find out that I wanted nothing to do with it. After the bust, the only good thing computer science could have done for me is to get me a low-paying job at a call center being yelled at for 45 hours a week. I finally smartened up, went to school for something I loved, and am now graduating this semester with two Bachelor’s Degrees and am headed to graduate school in a subject I love with the support and encouragement of several professors.

    To argue the point that college shouldn’t teach any job skills, I’ve found that while job skills do work, it negates the ability of having a good education. With a college education, I find I can go out on my own and learn how to do nearly any job without having to sit in a classroom about 95% of the time. If I wanted to go code now and get certified, I would have enough ability mentally to do it on my own. In fact, I could do anything I really wanted to and do specticularly in it without wasting money on classes just to be read a book.

    The point in this article is valid: teaching nothing but job skills in college is foolish because every job will want you to do something in their way and paying money to get a job that would fire you in an instant if the stockholders wanted another BMW is foolish. Yes, job skills are important. But what college does is provide people with those skills along with furthering their interest and broadening their horizons. Job skills are mostly a very nice secondary perk to this. While it doesn’t sound economical for today’s market, today’s market will not last beyond today. The market will always change and spending money to try to get into it is silly. From my time in the call center talking to the refugees from the dot com bust talking to people who were making six figure incomes now working for $13 an hour without benefits and kissing up to the managers to get $2 more an hour….that’s no life to live. That’s a disgrace.

    Anyway, good article. Sorry to blather, just wanted to throw my two cents in.

  37. #37 niku
    December 6, 2006

    In the end what people would want from a college are skills and not some “values”(and deciding what values are important for others doesnt sound just right). Its one thing to say that education should be fairly broad(to which I fully agree) and quite another to say that the only thing to be done is proclaiming at the time of graduation, “rejoice, you’ve learnt to think!” (as some posters suggest). If this is all, then we can well do away with all technical courses. (for after having this most useful thing in life, you can learn it all by yourself, from internet, say.)

    Btw, I would prefer it the old-apperentice-style!

  38. #38 Caledonian
    December 9, 2006

    Caledonian, I suspect what you noticed is that the favourable responses have been from people who have had interests and experiences in both the sciences and the arts.

    No, I’m afraid that isn’t the pattern I’ve seen arising.

    I must say, though, I’d love to see the skyscraper designed by a person who valiantly rejected the hegemony of archaic physics and set themselves free to create their own physical laws.

  39. #39 Mike Haubrich
    December 10, 2006

    I found your post and supporting comments to be a great articulation of the points I have haltingly tried to make to both my children and to their mother. Their mother believes that college is vocational training, and while I am working on enouraging them to attend a liberal arts college (and graduate) she wants them to concentrate on vocational schools with which they can get a “real job.”

    My kids take subjects in middle and high school because they are requirements, and study them just for the grades while I am trying to instill in them the process of learning, so that as they move into college they can see the relevance of even the core curriculum. I was helping my daughter with an essay on school funding referenda, and she didn’t seem as concerned about the long-term implications beyond getting a good grade. She can study a subject and learn it well enough to pass the test on it, and then discards what she has learned, because she doesn’t think it is relevant. I have a hard time understanding it.

    Another recent event that I found entirely disturbing is that Harvard is in the process of reviewing its core curriculum, and students are petitioning to make the core curriculum more relevant to their particular field of study. In an interview on NPR on Friday, one student made the argument that he is wasting his time on classes in cultural studies because he can’t figure out how learning this stuff is going to make him any more money when he graduates.

    Similarly, on Minnesota Public Radio, students complained about how “boring” math and sciences are; and I realize that math and science are not everyone’s greatest interest. However, the fear that I have is that if colleges take the bait and make themselves over to provide strictly vocational applications of learning acceptable, then we will have given in to the forces of cultural separation. We will be bringing H.G. Wells’ vision of the far future closer to reality, with a world divided into the proletariat and the bourgeoisie. We will revert to a dvision between the leisure class, those with an appreciation of critical thinking separate from those who actually turn the gears. And those that turn the gears will be poorer in spirit.

    Imagine how dry and empty Dawkins’ chapter on the accumulation of minor changes would have been without references to Hamlet. (Methinks it is like a weasel.)

    Liberal education enriches the lives of the people that are willing to take it to heart and learn its methods, carrying those lessons throughout their lives. Those that merely want to get rich will end up realizing that their lives have been wasted.

  40. #40 Caledonian
    December 10, 2006

    We will revert to a dvision between the leisure class, those with an appreciation of critical thinking separate from those who actually turn the gears.

    Somehow I don’t think that letting people decide to avoid exposing themselves to ‘cultural studies’ is going to cripple their critical thinking abilities.

  41. #41 Tobias
    August 26, 2009

    Caledonian:
    No the (Humboltian) concept of cultural studies says exactly this:
    A course like Old-Assyrian curt rituals will give you wonderful skills in critical thinking and logically applying your mind. So every graduate has to take a course like this to become a good person.

    An applied course like functional analysis will cripple your logical thinking skills because it might have some uses in some field of work. So nobody should ever be required to learn something like this. Work (like formal logic) is for slaves, the old Greeks had it right.

    This is why interdisciplinary studies always require something out of the real soft (and superior) sciences. Economists need not apply.