By Massimo Pigliucci
In recent days two disconcerting articles crossed my computer screen, both highlighting the increasingly sorry state of higher education, though from very different perspectives. The first is “Ed Dante’s” (actually a pseudonym) piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education, entitled The Shadow Scholar. The second is Gregory Petsko’s A Faustian Bargain, published of all places in Genome Biology.
Let me start with the Shadow Scholar piece. It is a revolting account of how students — at both undergraduate and graduate levels — massively cheat their way to a degree by paying “Ed Dante” and others like him to write their papers, and in some cases even their theses, for them. It makes for very instructive reading, sometimes even amusing in a The Office-like way that makes you cringe and constantly tempts you to put the thing down because you can stand it no more.
There is much to be learned by educators in the Shadow Scholar piece, except the moral that “Dante” would like us to take from it. The anonymous author writes:
“Pointing the finger at me is too easy. Why does my business thrive? Why do so many students prefer to cheat rather than do their own work? Say what you want about me, but I am not the reason your students cheat. You know what's never happened? I've never had a client complain that he'd been expelled from school, that the originality of his work had been questioned, that some disciplinary action had been taken. As far as I know, not one of my customers has ever been caught.”
Perhaps, or perhaps his “customers” didn’t feel like reporting being caught to him. The point is that plagiarism and cheating happen for a variety of reasons, one of which is the existence of people like Mr. Dante and his company, who set up a business that is clearly unethical and should be illegal. So, pointing fingers at him and his ilk is perfectly reasonable. Yes, there obviously is a “market” for cheating in higher education, and there are complex reasons for it, but he is in a position similar to that of the drug dealer who insists that he is simply providing the commodity to satisfy society’s demand. Much too easy of a way out, and one that doesn’t fly in the case of drug dealers, and shouldn’t fly in the case of ghost cheaters.
As a teacher at the City University of New York, I am constantly aware of the possibility that my students might cheat on their tests. I do take some elementary precautionary steps, like phrasing questions for online assignments so that it isn’t easy to simply look up the answer on Wikipedia; or submit their papers to a nice piece of software the university provides that scans the web searching for sources from which paragraphs might have been lifted without acknowledgment, which results in a detailed automatic report to me on which specific sources were plagiarized and what percentage of the paper was cobbled together that way.
Still, my job is not that of the policeman. My students are adults who theoretically are there to learn. If they don’t value that learning and prefer to pay someone else to fake it, so be it, ultimately it is they who lose in the most fundamental sense of the term. Just like drug addicts, to return to my earlier metaphor. And just as in that other case, it is enablers like Mr. Dante who simply can’t duck the moral blame.
The second article about higher education that made me pause in recent days is also disconcerting, but for an entirely different reason. It’s an open letter to the president of SUNY-Albany, penned by molecular biologist Gregory Petsko. The SUNY-Albany president has recently announced the closing — for budgetary reasons — of the departments of French, Italian, Classics, Russian and Theater Arts at his university. Petsko’s response is both humorous and right on target.
Petsko begins by taking on one of the alleged reasons why SUNY-Albany is slashing the humanities: low enrollment. He correctly points out that the problem can be solved overnight at the stroke of a pen: stop abdicating your responsibilities as educators and actually put constraints on what your students have to take in order to graduate. Make courses in English literature, foreign languages, philosophy and critical thinking, the arts and so on, mandatory or one of a small number of options that the students must consider in order to graduate.
It just happens that I recently visited the University of Notre Dame, a prestigious private school where such constraints are indeed in place. There the philosophy department thrives, partly because the administration supports it financially (they have a whopping 38 faculty), and partly because every student at Notre Dame has to take a couple of philosophy courses to graduate.
But, you might say, that’s cheating the market! Students clearly don’t want to take those courses, and a business should cater to its customers. That type of reasoning is among the most pernicious and idiotic I’ve ever heard. Students are not clients (if anything, their parents, who usually pay the tuition, are), they are not shopping for a new bag or pair of shoes. They do not know what is best for them educationally, that’s why they go to college to begin with. If you are not convinced about how absurd the students-as-clients argument is, consider an analogy: does anyone with functioning brain cells argue that since patients in a hospital pay a bill, they should be dictating how the brain surgeon operates? I didn’t think so.
Petsko then tackles the second lame excuse given by the president of SUNY-Albany (and common among the upper administration of plenty of public universities): I can’t do otherwise because of the legislature’s draconian cuts. Except that university budgets are simply too complicated for there not to be any other option. I know this first hand, I’m on a special committee at my own college looking at how to creatively deal with budget cuts handed down to us from the very same (admittedly small minded and dysfunctional) New York state legislature that has prompted SUNY-Albany’s action. As Petsko points out, the president there didn’t even think of involving the faculty and staff in a broad discussion of how to deal with the crisis, he simply announced the cuts on a Friday afternoon and then ran for cover. An example of very poor leadership to say the least, and downright hypocrisy considering all the talk that the same administrator has been dishing out about the university “community.”
Finally, there is the argument that the humanities don’t pay for their own way, unlike (some of) the sciences (some of the time). That is indubitably true, but irrelevant. Universities are not businesses, they are places of higher learning. Yes, of course they need to deal with budgets, fund raising and all the rest. But the financial and administrative side has one goal and one goal only: to provide the best education to the students who attend that university.
That education simply must include the sciences, philosophy, literature, and the arts, as well as more technical or pragmatic offerings such as medicine, business and law. Why? Because that’s the kind of liberal education that makes for an informed and intelligent citizenry, without which our democracy is but empty talk, and our lives nothing but slavery to the marketplace. As Petsko puts it: “If I'm right that what it means to be human is going to be one of the central issues of our time, then universities that are best equipped to deal with it, in all its many facets, will be the most important institutions of higher learning in the future. You've just ensured that yours won't be one of them.” And this coming from a scientist. Amen to that.
Very well said! You have captured my own thoughts in response to both these articles - I just hadn't gotten around to penning them on my blog. Now perhaps I don't need to - I can simply point to this post from you!ReplyDelete
"the kind of liberal education that makes for an informed and intelligent citizenry, without which our democracy is but empty talk, and our lives nothing but slavery to the marketplace".ReplyDelete
I suppose you've taken into consideration the idea that this may be the very reason for the cuts?
Well I agree and I would be interested to hear your thoughts on how universities _should_ decide which courses to drop, because it seems highly unlikely that the current set of courses is absolutely optimal now and for all time.ReplyDelete
In regards to cheating: If we could try to promote learning as the overall goal of a college education instead of just getting good grades, we would then put the student in the position of having no reason to cheat. I have never really been sure why it is that we are so focused on grading student and and getting good grades. Grades end up not being that important to a students future anyway, unless she is trying to get into law of medical school or going on to graduate school. But it seems to me that the LSAT and the MCAT are good enough predictors on how well a student will do in there studies. As far as other grad schools are concerned writing samples and letters of recommendation will just have to be that much more important.ReplyDelete
there is no magic bullet, but educators - not students or administrators - need to be making decisions about curricula. Just like it is brain surgeons - not patients or administrators - who decide the best way to carry out an operation. I think that denying this is a common example of anti-intellectualism aimed at the teaching profession, as if any other profession requires specific skills, but teaching somehow doesn't.
On the subject of teaching, you say "my job is not that of a policeman". Well there needs to be a policeman. A university, by giving a student a degree and a transcript of grades, is vouching for that individual as having been educated.ReplyDelete
When I taught in a university, what I hated most about my job was that I was a cop. A lot of kids were cheating, and I went to great lengths to prevent it, but it wasn't fun, and neither was failing the kids who didn't learn. My solution was to quit teaching, but that's not much of a solution either.
Just saying "The students are cheating themselves by not learning" isn't enough. They're also cheating society by pawning themselves off with credentials they didn't earn.
On the second article, I don't see how the educators are the best people to make the decision about what subjects are most vital to producing a well-rounded person. Teachers are all going to maintain that THEIR subject is indispensible. I think the administration of the university is in a better position to make an objective position.ReplyDelete
I think the whole education system, high school as well as university, is lacking in that there are no required courses to teach people the basics of technology, how things work. Some people will take introductory science courses, but science is too abstract to be satisfying or relevant for most people. You don't need a strong background in science or math to learn how a lot of technologies work, and such a background would better prepare people to deal with today's world. But that's just my perspective, and (surprise!) I'm an engineer.
100 years ago, education in Latin and Greek was considered indispensible for creating a truly educated person. I consider it progress that we no longer think so.
I agree with you that *some* degree of policing needs to be done, but, again, this isn't the main job of an educator, and society has to put up with the inevitability of people cheating their way through life. It doesn't happen only in school, as you know.
As to your second point, I completely disagree. Most administrators know nothing about education, and many don't even care. The problem of individual teachers thinking that their discipline is the most fundamental is why curriculum committees are made of a large number of people from across disciplines.
That open letter from Petsko is exactly the kind of "literature teaches us about the world" reasoning that spurred me to write Truth from Fiction: Truth or Fiction?ReplyDelete
Just to take one example, he says, "The Inferno is the first book of Dante's Divine Comedy, one of the great works of the human imagination. There's so much to learn from it about human weakness and folly. The faculty in your Italian department would be delighted to introduce you to its many wonders - if only you had an Italian department, which now, of course, you don't."
It seems to me that if you want to learn about human weakness and folly, you'd be better off studying psychology, neuroscience, and history instead of a story one guy made up in the 14th century.
that's because you have a narrow conception of "learning." From which, incidentally, I thought you had retreated in subsequent commentary. (I find it ironic, of course, that Petsko is a molecular biologist...)
All I know is if students were given choices as to what classes they should take in college, the Departments of Mathematics and English would probably die out soon.ReplyDelete
Julia, How about a story from the 16th century put out by Shakespeare? Or would an 18th century story from Voltaire pass better muster as a substitute for a particular experience? And should we dispense with Jonathan (18th century) Swift, and Samuel (18th century) Butler, an early evolutionist?ReplyDelete
And how about that Tolstoy, who died one hundred years ago this month. Fuggedaboutit?
Maybe this is not how education works in the US. I thought that general (or compulsory) education (ie. up to high school) is designed to make sure that citizens in a democratic country can perform their civil duties. A balanced and well-rounded education, which includes a healthy mixture of science and humanities, is indeed very important for this purpose. However, college-level education is for personal growth and therefore the person must have a large say about what kind of classes he or she chooses to take. I am disturbed by Massimo's hospital analogy. Students are not ill. They don't go to college to be cured, or to be good citizens. They go to college to learn things that *they* want to learn. Patients are passive. Students are not.ReplyDelete
I agree that students typically do not know what kind of education is good for them. But who does? If I could give advice to myself as a college student, I'd advice myself to learn more math and less literature (I have undergrade degrees in both). I deeply regret how balanced my college education was. As it turned out, you can only learn very difficult things when you are young. You can't properly learn topology, differential geometry, or anything deep after 30. If I knew that I'd do nothing but math in my college days.
That type of reasoning is among the most pernicious and idiotic I’ve ever heard. Students are not clients (if anything, their parents, who usually pay the tuition, are), they are not shopping for a new bag or pair of shoes. They do not know what is best for them educationally, that’s why they go to college to begin with. If you are not convinced about how absurd the students-as-clients argument is, consider an analogy: does anyone with functioning brain cells argue that since patients in a hospital pay a bill, they should be dictating how the brain surgeon operates? I didn’t think so.ReplyDelete
Beautiful paragraph; I have to copy it for future reference. The need is certain to arise at some point...
But the financial and administrative side has one goal and one goal only: to provide the best education to the students who attend that university.
That is how it should be. In my experience, it is one of the greatest follies of humans in general that very shortly after founding an institution/club/party/whatever to promote equal rights/education/research/environmentalism/welfare/whatever, the goal of that institution, and especially of its administrative staff, invariably becomes gaining in influence, often to the detriment of the original goal it had.
our lives nothing but slavery to the marketplace
What Cavall de Quer said. Many, many people are honestly convinced that streamlining all our society to be steered by the wisdom of the invisible hand is the best for all of us. They consider everybody who disagrees to be the raving ideologue. Another case of the One Big Idea Syndrome.
students do have a saying in their education. They pick their major, and there are electives. But I object to the idea that they can customize their major any way they want. That assumes they know what the best education for them is, they don't. That's the point of education.
The students are in your class to get a good grade, any learning that takes place is purely incidental. Those good grades will look good on their transcript and might convince a future employer that they are smart and thus are worth paying more. I don't know what the dollar to GPA exchange rate is these days, but I don't doubt that there is one. Just how many of your students do you think will remember the extensive complex jargon of philosophy more than a couple of months after they leave your classroom?ReplyDelete
and our lives nothing but slavery to the marketplace.
We are there. Welcome. Where have you been all this time? In a capitalistic/plutocratic society money is power (and free speech too according to the supreme court). Money means a larger/better house/car/clothing/vacation than your neighbor and consequently better mating opportunities. You can mostly blame the women for that one I think just like the peacock's tail.
But let us put things in perspective for a moment. If a student of surgery fails to learn they might maim, kill or cripple someone. If an engineer of airplanes fails to learn they might design a faulty aircraft that fails and kills people. If a student of chemistry fails to learn they might design a faulty drug with unintended and unfortunate side effects, but what exactly would be the harm if a student of philosophy fails to learn Aristotle had to say about elements or Plato had to say about perfect forms? These things are so divorced from people's everyday activities as to be rendered all but meaningless.
You are fighting (one might even say quixotically) the tide here. The masses don't want to think, they want to be entertained, which is why you can be damned sure the sports budgets wont be cut. It is easy to watch people in different jerseys play a game on a field. No thinking required. Do I wish it were different? Yes. Do I think it ever will be? Not soon if ever. Some few will come to philosophy because it calls them. Most will not.
As far as what people need to learn to be 'well rounded', consider the sobering fact that human knowledge grows by leaps and bounds every day, but human brain capacity does not, so the portion of human knowledge you can personally hold gets smaller by the minute. Learn (and remember) as much as you can as fast as you can and you will still lose ground. You certainly have your work cut out for you emphasizing the importance of Thales in the Age of Twitter and whatever follows it next year.
Although you have framed your article around higher education, the problems with education are a direct result of the broader problems of our society (in the U.S. anyways). Cheating is not taken seriously in many areas of life for many reasons: overemphasis on results (versus effort and having a sound process), exaggerated sense of entitlement, perception that the "system" is inherently unfair (therefore cheating can be more easily rationalized), etc.ReplyDelete
I agree with Massimo that educators should have reasonable safeguards to prevent cheating, but ultimately putting too much effort into can be a distraction and waste of energy. The issue is far too big and wide reaching for individual educators to be ultimately responsible for.
If I didn't know better... the comments about Universites not being businesses sounds a bit naive. I realize that you are just making a point, but in reality how many decisions that are made at a University are 'business' decisions versus what is best for the education of the student? How many SUNY schools have tried to raise the profile of their athletics (e.g. by becoming division I) only to bring more money in? How many Universities have their most important departments as football and basketball? Not that there is anything wrong with these things in principle, but in practice these are not the actions of schools only concerned with learning.ReplyDelete
What opticalradiation said - university (as opposed to basic) education is supposed to be about enriching one's brain, following one's passion, not about the job market. Students should be disposed to find they have slipped back in the earnings race because of their studies, leaving it to the MBA's to fleece their fellow-citizens. For the matter of that, universities should be places where people "do" their fields: teaching is an added extra and students a burdensome bunch who are allowed to hang around and absorb wisdom simply because there is no gainsaying their desire to learn.ReplyDelete
Having said which, one would hope the personal enrichment would result in an overall enrichment for society, but I am aware that this is advocating a trickle down effect in wisdom which does not work in economics.......
I assure you that I'm not naive about these things. I've been in universities too long for that. But my points are about what universities *should* do, despite what they actually do. It is not naive to criticize the system, it is naive to think that it will change overnight as a result of your criticism...
good points, but I would maintain that a liberal arts education is just as important as a technical one for the engineer or the surgeon. People vote, for instance, or make decisions in their personal lives, in accord with their education or lack thereof. The result can mean a democracy only in name, and millions of empty lives spent in front of the television because one has no concept of what else one could do.
"but I would maintain that a liberal arts education is just as important as a technical one for the engineer or the surgeon."ReplyDelete
I noticed that many people don't understand the basic concept of education. I find that many, if not most, people view an undergraduate education as a means to an end: as if undergraduate degrees are like vocational schools preparing you for your career. There are good reasons, for example, why people who want to go into Medical school have to obtain undergraduate degrees (not just "pre med" classes). I just wish that they made more humanities students take more sciences and math/logic. When I was an undergrad (and this may have changed) these "gen ed" requirements seem to be a little lopsided.
"but I am aware that this is advocating a trickle down effect in wisdom which does not work in economics......."
...and it doesnt necessarily work in education either. Departments that don't stress the education of their students are not doing their job. This is a common problem in my experience, and the attitude you expressed about students is part of the problem really. Not that it is not accurate, but it is counter productive to the process of education. It is a "self fulfilling prophecy"... detached educators can turn off students who would be otherwised interested in learning.
ccbowers, again, I actually agree with most of what you say, but nobody has ever thought of me as a detached educator, I can assure you.ReplyDelete
Perhaps the traditional requirements for writing papers need to be changed. If the process is essentially competitive, competitors will find ways to cheat, especially where winning is the goal and learning is an incidental byproduct.ReplyDelete
Requiring the tailoring of more papers to the individual student's past experience with the subject matter could help. Such as requiring more of a personal critique than one that any ghost could come up with.
Of course where teachers have no knowledge of the differences between or among their students, nothing will succeed as easily as cheating.
Julia: Really? You think everything there is to know about human weakness and folly is covered by the fields of psychology, neuroscience and history?ReplyDelete
If you rephrased that to say "better off studying literature alongside psychology, neuroscience and history" then I'd agree with you. But somehow I suspect that those fields have not yet fully described human nature. Indeed, I doubt they ever will -- and even if they someday do, I doubt the pedagogical value of literature will be exhausted.
I agree with Julia, generally, that literature is not particularly good at teaching us about human nature. If you want to learn about human nature, studying psychology and history is better.ReplyDelete
But even better is just hanging out with friends and observing what they do.
It seems to me that a lot of supporters of broad general education requirements believe in a sort of trickle-down theory of humanistic education. The theory is that, no matter your profession, you will be a better person if you are forced to take a course on Shakespeare. I simply don't buy it, and I have never heard a convincing argument that people are much improved by a general liberal education.
"ccbowers, again, I actually agree with most of what you say, but nobody has ever thought of me as a detached educator, I can assure you."ReplyDelete
I was not referring to you at all. I was just pointing out the flaw of an overemphasis on research if it is at the expense of teaching (as implied by a commenter). It is clear that the people here find you an engaging communicator, or we wouldnt be at your website. It is actually through your talks and debates available online that I first became interested in following your blog and appearances/interviews.
Some people have an ability to communicate ideas well (without compromising accuracy), and that is often an underappreciated talent.
Joseph - I think that literature can offer insight into human nature the same way that your example of general observation of your friends. The main limitation of just looking at the science is that humans are complex and you have to "put it all together" ...sometimes that is difficult. Literature can sometimes communicate ideas that may be otherwise difficult to grasp in a more accessible way.ReplyDelete
"The theory is that, no matter your profession, you will be a better person if you are forced to take a course on Shakespeare."
--I don't think that this is an accurate representation at all. You use the term "profession," but these are students, not employees in training. Look at it from this perspective: if a student wants a degree from a school, then he or she must meet the minimum requirements for that degree. The school sets the standard for what that degree means. If you don't want a broad education don't go to the school and get that degree... go to a vocational school, they exist. I personally think a broad education is extremely valuable to many, but I realize not everyone will benefit (if they are not open to it)
Abut Jualia's comment on literature: If I am not mistaken, modern scholarship of literal criticism tends to emphasize the fact that writers are products of their times and that they are as biased as anybody in their observation and characterization of human nature. The idea that literature reflects deep truth about human condition is, I don't think, all that popular even in humanities. I mean, have you taken a class in colonial literature? You'd be laughed out of the door if you praise Dante fir his deep insight in the human condition.ReplyDelete
This is reflected by modern writers as well. Many (post)modern writers intentionally highlight the artificiality and playfulness of their work. The writers themselves don't necessarily want to play the role of knowers of humanity. That is a very heavy burden that limits what a writer can do. If you ask a writer about the human condition, they probably will refer you to psychologists, philosophers, and anthropologists too. Have you ever talked to a write in a party? Does it strike you that he or she knows anything about the human condition?
ccbowers, thanks for the clarification, much obliged for the nice comments.ReplyDelete
optical, let me just say that every time I hear the word postmodern I reach for my (thankfully metaphorical) gun. Of course Dante had great insights into the human condition, that's why we read him so many centuries later. And literature gives you a completely different "understanding" of humanity from science. The two are complementary, not mutually exclusive, as every great scientist from Einstein to Sagan has clearly understood.
Heh! Massimo. I thought you advocate a balanced education... :)ReplyDelete
It seems logical to me that if what you wanted was to improve the quality of democracy in this country then what you would do is to make people take courses in civics, political 'science' (to know how the present system functions), and of course psychology (to know how people are likely to react) and history (to avoid mistakes made in the past. I can't really see the immediate applicability of philosophy. The situation reminds me somewhat of early economic theories which postulated that people would all be logical maximizers and it turned out when the evidence was looked at that they weren't. The philosophy that I have run into seems to treat people as one big group that would (or should) react the same way rather than a conglomeration of individual groups (much like an accreted asteroid).ReplyDelete
One size does not fit all. Someone with a fascination for and love of engines doesn't need to know and probably wouldn't remember what Rousseau said about the social contract. It seems to me that the best that you can do is to match someone's natural inclinations and talents to a societal need for those inclinations and talents. Try as you might you wont be growing any Saguaros in New England (not outside anyway)but that doesn't mean that Saguaros are inadequate plants. It just means they are in the wrong circumstances.
I think this 'well rounded' person is something of a mythic figure. I am all for exposing people to many different things to find out what they are attracted to that they might not have known, but making them slog through a class memorizing and regurgitating something they will forget within a month or two because deep down they just aren't that interested does not to my mind make them any more 'well rounded'.
People can't know everything, and each special interest will be arguing for the importance of their particular fragment. A good case could be made for having a basic knowledge of yourself and the things in your immediate environment, but I don't think people have that. For instance. We are surrounded by electrical devices and yet how many people know the first thing about what electricity is and where it comes from? The same would apply to things like cars, computers and communications technology. How many of the devices that you own do you really understand? Can you say you are well rounded if your everyday objects are essentially magical to you? And it just gets worse with biology. So like I said. I think 'well rounded' has all the elements of a myth. Who ultimately decides what you should know? How is that decision reached? All very mysterious.
The trouble with using literature as a substitute for personal observations of people around you is that it's a poor substitute. You can't read facial expressions in literature. In literature, the loser gets the girl (see Julia's post). In literature, characters often embody ideals or concepts. In literature, people don't spend their mid-twenties working at book stores and wasting their evenings with frivolous activities. You'll learn a lot more about the way most people live their lives if you just interact with other people and pay attention.
The trouble with your objection to my statements about Shakespeare is that university-wide general education requirements mean that Chemistry majors, Art History majors, and Accounting majors all have to take the same core courses, when they shouldn't have to. There is absolutely no reason that all accountants should have to know what Platonism is. Reading moral philosophy will not make most Chemistry majors better people. Taking a Chemistry course will not make you a better literary critic.
Students should be able to apply to SUNY-Wherever and get a degree in Accounting or Chemistry without being forced to take courses that have little relevance to their lives whatsoever. I am making a normative claim here.
opticalradiation, I see where you're coming from, but I think you're overstating the case. Of course Dante was biased; but I doubt that many critics would claim that his writings are devoid of insight on that count.ReplyDelete
It's also helpful to distinguish between Dante's insights and the insights to be had reading Dante -- and note that Petsko doesn't talk about the former. You might indeed be laughed out of the door if you praised Dante for his deep insight into the human condition. But that's because such talk encourages us to idolize writers, which in turn leads to distortions of their work and of historical fact.
Why do I get the idea that Italians don't appreciate negative opinions about Dante? :) Only joking. Massimo, I hope at least you can agree that the "truth" as expressed by Dante's Divine Comedy only speaks to some people? We certainly can all admire the artistic achievement, the imaginary and the sheer creative ambition of Dante's work, but a large amount (not all) of what he wrote was deeply embedded in Christian culture. if you don't grow up in such a culture, you simply don't see the described human condition as profound. As a matter of fact, it is deeply confusing. Who knows that deep insights about humanity can be so weird and so contrived?ReplyDelete
I appreciate the joke, but of course it's Dante only because that was Petsko's example. The same can be said for Shakespeare and so forth.
As for the universality of it, two answers: first, I don't think one needs to be steeped in Christianity to appreciate Dante (or in Elizabethan England to appreciate Shakespeare); second, that's why liberal arts education exposes students to a variety of writers from a variety of periods and cultures.
So because we "cannot know everything" we shouldnt bother to learn things we don't want to learn? Why does that necessarily mean there are no "well rounded people." That sounds like the continuum falacy to me (yes I know this is not a formal logical fallacy). Some of us enjoy "learning everything," and think it benefits our lives besides the enjoyment. "Who ultimately decides" is not mysterious... its the individuals choice with regard to higher education, because college or university is not mandated. Anyone can walk around as dumb as possible, check out your local DMV for examples.
Pimps are always self-righteous. Ed Dante's comments are unsurprising in that respect.ReplyDelete
Psychology teaches us about the Oedipus complex (which someone once said should be more rightly called the Hamlet Complex, since the Oedipus story supports Westermarck's insights) and the Electra Complex. Does one have to have satyriasis to be a Don Juan (a question for psychology)? And one can point out that Hegel developed his idea of thesis-antithesis-synthesis from the Orestean trilogy.ReplyDelete
If one had to choose between the works of Shakespeare and the entire history of psychology merely on the basis of insights into human psychology, Shakespeare wins hands down.
As for history, Aristotle correctly observed that fiction is philosophically superior to history because the latter merely tells us how things were, while the former tell us how things could and should have been.
Of course, these protean (from the story of Proteus) concepts may be too much for the unimaginative reductionist who does not understand human truths. I suppose I am on a quixotic odyssey of herculean proportions to explain the difference between artistic truth and scientific fact.
But I guess not knowing these things would be the Achilles heal of the uneducated and ignorant.
"Psychology teaches us about the Oedipus complex" - the heavens (or equivalent) forfend! Why would it do anything so foolish?ReplyDelete
And to piggy back on Massimo's point above. Besides their major, most students have to take a little bit of this, and a little bit of that for general education credits.ReplyDelete
I am not much of a literature person myself, but I am glad I had to take a class from that column. Broadened my horizons.
At my undergrad institute, we did have a hypothetical contract major option. After my major in anthropology, and instead of a minor, I attempted to do a second contract major which I proposed to be a degree in "Natural History" and would be comprised of classes in biology and geology. Reps. from those departments wouldn't sign on to it though, seeing it more important to get me to sign on to minor in their respective dept., and I think they were wrong about that. So I went with a minor in biology, and probably took the same amount of minor credits I would have in the first place. Oh well.
It has been my observation that learning things which you either do not use constantly or have no interest in have a very short half life in your brain. Learning things which you are just going to forget would seem to meet the definition of a waste of time. I think temporarily learning things to fulfill someone else's vision of 'well rounded' is similarly a waste of one's rather limited time. It will be enough of a struggle to learn and retain the fullness of all those things which you do need and use or those that interest you.
There are people out there that pay millions of dollars for something I wouldn't pick up off the street if it was free. Given the inherent nebulosity of 'art' I surmise that there are nearly as many 'artistic truths' as there are people.
It seems to me that you undermine your own position. First you say:
"It seems logical to me that if what you wanted was to improve the quality of democracy in this country then what you would do is to make people take courses in civics, political 'science' (to know how the present system functions), and of course psychology (to know how people are likely to react) and history (to avoid mistakes made in the past)."
Something I completely agree with, but later you say the following:
"It has been my observation that learning things which you either do not use constantly or have no interest in have a very short half life in your brain. Learning things which you are just going to forget would seem to meet the definition of a waste of time."
Given your previous comments I don't think I have to remind you of most people's (not just in the U.S.) lack of interest in Civics, Political Science, of for that matter, any Science beyond the initial "oh, that looks cool" stage. From those two comments I see a contradiction, could you please elaborate?
I agree that a "one size fits all" education is of little use, but so is a "fluttering butterfly" one that lacks any curricular guidance of those with more experience on the intricacies of each particular subject. Additionally, you go to an university to learn things you do not know, how can you a priori decide that you do not have interest in this or that subject if you have no real knowledge of it? Such a position strikes me as a child unwilling to eats his veggies just because.
Universities today are a rather schizophrenic institution that cannot seem capable of striking a balance between being an educational institution, a research centre, the R&D branch of private enterprise, a social improvement institute, a vocational training centre and a sports conglomerate. Most of those facets have been tacked on due to demands in the market, others due to demands of society, however it seems rather clear to me that most of what we call Universities are pretty much unsustainable in their current form.
We live in a culture of fraud. Whether it's students or banks, it exists at every level and corner of our society and it will be our undoing.ReplyDelete
The predominate themes in the history of the world's literature are those concerned with the conflict between the trustworthy and the deceptive. We have not necessarily been irreparably undone by those "facts of life" so far, perhaps because some (such as our founding fathers) put the lessons found in the classics to good use.ReplyDelete
Students "forced" to acquire at least some degree of familiarity with those lessons may at least be able to defend themselves against the more fraudulent among us with more success. Especially in a representative democracy where fraud has a field day with the gullible and the great unwashed.
"Art History majors, and Accounting majors all have to take the same core courses, when they shouldn't have to."ReplyDelete
Don't forget that what "major" means. A person is obtaining a degree that fulfills the requirements of the school for that degree. Fulfilling the requirements of the major is only part of the equation. All of these people are obtaining an "education." Again these are not people learning a trade as an apprentice.
"There is absolutely no reason that all accountants should have to know what Platonism is."
OK... well there is no "reason" to learn anything in particular. People who are looking for a specific utility for everything that they learn (you wouldn't want to waste precious brain cells on unnecessary learning) should perhaps look elsewhere other than a college or university. I've seen ads on TV that you can learn "plumbing" or "electricity" in just a few months.
Now setting the sarcasm aside, perhaps it is the execution of these requirements that people object to. As an undergrad, I cannot recall ever being "forced" into any class outside my major. There were other requirements, but they were sufficiently flexible (in my estimation) that I felt I had a choice of classes to fulfill those requirements. Perhaps if the requirements were very inflexible, I could see a problem.
"I think temporarily learning things to fulfill someone else's vision of 'well rounded' is similarly a waste of one's rather limited time."
Again, maybe this type of education is not for everyone. I don't mean this in an insulting way, but some (many) people are not interested in getting an education but just want to 'get by' so they can get a decent job. Learning is not really that important for them, and the current system does not accomodate these people well.
In retrospect, however, there are many classes I would have never taken, but I am glad I did. I probably would have never taken the anthropology, logic, and philosophy classes as an undergrad, and did so in order to fulfill some requirement for my degree outside of my major (was psychobiology major and pre-health as undergrad). I had a very large credit requirement for my major, especially when compared to humanities majors yet I still didn't feel too constrained. A school has to set forth some requirements outside of the major requirements, some of those majors (as I can recall) only require around 30-something credits. A school has to therefore set the standard for what constitutes a degree at their school.
"Learning things which you are just going to forget would seem to meet the definition of a waste of time. I think temporarily learning things to fulfill someone else's vision of 'well rounded' is similarly a waste of one's rather limited time."ReplyDelete
Much of this paragaph implies that you do not believe in learning or education. Perhaps you are not aware, but you will forget many orders of magnitude more than you will ever remember... even for subjects for which you have interest. DO you find it all a waste of time?
Don't get the education for the purpose of meeting another's definition of 'well rounded.' Most people are not forced into a college or university.
Jesús Pineda -ReplyDelete
I would be happy to elaborate. Those things I listed seem to be the best ways of achieving the goal of making a better democracy. However I think learning them is against people's general inclinations (of laziness and lack of interest )and you would have a very steep climb in order to get people to do that and I think the percentage of people in the U.S. who vote vs. those eligible to vote backs me up there. I would imagine the picture even gets grimmer when you consider how many of those who vote are actual informed voters rather than reflexive.
"Much of this paragaph implies that you do not believe in learning or education."
I am all for learning for those who wish to learn. It is my observation that most people don't beyond a very narrow range. How many of the people who walk around under the sun know what it's source of power is? That information is readily available and has been for some time, but, if you will forgive the colloquialism, most people just don't give a shit.
What I am for is educational triage. Let those who wish to learn learn and don't try forcing it on those who don't because you are wasting their time and yours.
"I am all for learning for those who wish to learn. It is my observation that most people don't beyond a very narrow range."ReplyDelete
If you are going to a college or university there is (and should be) an assumption that you wish to learn. If you don't, then you are in the wrong place. If you do wish to get an education, it is not appropriate to let someone only learn the things they think they should know. In order to make such a judgement you would have to be educated yourself on the subject(which the person is not or they wouldn't be taking the program).
People are often only interested in a narrow range of things, but I'm not sure that you could predict who those people will be a priori. Some people intellectually mature over time, and sometimes exposure to the right professor or class is a trigger. I realize that this may not be efficient, but I don't think that there is a shortcut... life is not always efficient.
"What I am for is educational triage. Let those who wish to learn learn and don't try forcing it on those who don't because you are wasting their time and yours."
How is this not what we have now? Last I checked college or university costs are measured in the $ tens-of-thousands in US dollars, and it is not required for citizenship or many jobs. I do agree that too many people are taking on that debt and not getting as much out of it, but its tough to come up with a solution for those people. Some are ambitious in some way, but intellectually uninterested in many things. What do you suggest?
There are many reasons people go to college. As I alluded to earlier one of those is getting a good paying job. I am sure a lot of people are also there because it was simply expected of them. I don't personally think that many are there simply for the joy of learning irrespective of future employment considerations.
What would I suggest? Well I think they should sit young people down and show them what their possibilities are and make the steps toward reaching that goal as clear as possible. If you want to be X then you will need to learn A, B, C and practice 'D'. This would include thumbnail and in depth bios from the people who actually have those jobs detailing just what it is they do all day. Ideally there would also be a reliable series of tests to ferret out their talents (which might well differ from their interests). There are some crude approximations of these now but they don't seem too strong in the way of guidance.
As for those lacking both significant ambition and ability? Well, general unskilled labor pool I guess at least until the robots take over all those functions.
But if you want to be a biologist then there is more than enough biology for one person to learn in a lifetime and you should not be made to learn Shakespeare or the economics of the oil market. You can do theater as a hobby if you have a genuine interest in it.
There are several problems with your perspective. First is: if students feel "forced" into going to a college or university for reasons outside of getting an education, I don't think it is the school's responsibility of accomodating their lack of interest in learning things that they don't want to know. The school sets the standard for what constitutes an education, and if the student doesnt like it... tough, thats what an education is.
"Well I think they should sit young people down and show them what their possibilities are and make the steps toward reaching that goal as clear as possible."
-Who is this "they" that will be doing this? This can (and is) done, but it takes some initiative of the student. The other problem is that a career does not necessarily follow directly from the education one obtains. Education and career are rarely that linear, and they shouldnt be. Outside of a few undergrad degrees, vacational degrees/training, and professional ones, most people get a B.S. or a B.A. in something that has little direct resemblance to the job they later obtain.
"But if you want to be a biologist then there is more than enough biology for one person to learn in a lifetime and you should not be made to learn Shakespeare or the economics of the oil market. You can do theater as a hobby if you have a genuine interest in it."
-Again, rarely is someone's path so linear. Without exposure to these things, how would someone even know what their options are (or what their interests are)? Most people do not graduate with a major that they thought they would take prior to going to college, and even less actually obtain a job that matches their high school ambitions. There are options available in college that didnt even exist for high school students, so the first possible exposure occurs in college.
Sure there is much biology to learn (in your example), and after they get their degree, they can spend the rest of their lives with as narrow a focus as they like (grad school and beyond). I don't see how any of this exposure to other subjects is detrimental in any way, and for many it can be very benficial.
'They' would be the school system. It would have been kind of nice if they had made it clear that - you will be an adult some day and you will have to do something for a living - here are your choices. A little practicality would have been appreciated in an amongst the stories of people descending a fictional hell and such.ReplyDelete
Perhaps if people had that kind of information they might be able to make better choices and avoid at least some of the career changes you mention. Eliminating those changes completely would of course be unlikely.
The only detriment that I see is as I pointed out. Time (and money) wasted being required to learn things you will soon forget and which are as far as I can tell arbitrarily decided upon up there in the ivory tower somewhere. They are the ones who decide what you get exposed to and what you do not.
Of course this is all pretty fantastical I don't expect that anything about our system will change. I expect that our educational system staffed by publishing and tenure obsessed educators will continue to churn out students whose major concern is getting the most return for the least effort so they can move right into a life where their greatest concern is what their favorite sports teams and entertainers are doing/saying/eating/wearing that day and to get there they need to cheat their way through Massimo's class.
I see where you are coming from, but I don't think that I would place the problems only (or even primarily) at the feet of the education system. Many of the issues you bring up are larger societal problems, that involve parenting, government, and our culture. I cannot expect that our education system can be held responsible for the broader problems of our society, or be expected to fix them by itself. Career guidance is only part of what a school does, most of the real work and preparation has to be done by the individual. If those individuals are the lazy and disinterested people you describe, then it is not the fault of the school if they have problems with direction in their lives.
I still don't see this as a problem of "forcing" people to learn. The problem appears to me as a lack of appreciation of learning, and the anti-intellectual vibe that our society has had recently. Hopefully we are turning the corner on that, as this wasn't always the case.
I did enjoy your last paragraph. It certainly is one way to view students. Although I don't find it inaccurate, I also realize that this same sentiment was probably shared by every generation about the next.
The problem appears to me as a lack of appreciation of learning, and the anti-intellectual vibe that our society has had recently. Hopefully we are turning the corner on that, as this wasn't always the case.
When are you thinking this wasn't the case? I am not asking that to be snide, but going over American History I can't really think of any particular period when intellectuality was revered. Emotionalism and mindless entertainment seem to always have been the order of the day and the lovers of learning existing always at the fringe.
Of course you can always take a pessmistic view of the masses. But many of our "founding fathers" were thoughtful intellectuals by today's standards. Even 50 years ago science was somewhat revered in comparison to the attitudes towards science today by the media and general population.
Of course those times had very different political climates and were at different points in the history of the U.S. I just don't think it is correct to say that it has always been the same as it is now. How many famous people currently would you call an intellectual today? ...and by famous I mean that most people walking down the street would know? Are any of them Thomas Jeffersons? Einsteins? Mark Twains? Sagans?
I don't want to give the impression that I have some romanticized view of history... I realize that intellectualism was never really a mainstream perspective in the past. Its just that there were famous and widely respected people that were known primarily for reasons intellectual. It appears that very recently the term has become more derogatory, and the term is now (especially in politics) something that people do not want themselves associated with. In fact it appears that there are more pundits and people in politics that almost brag about how ignorant they are.ReplyDelete
Well there was a time right after the launch of Sputnik that science came into vogue and lasted throughout the Apollo Program, but you have to remember that the McCarthy Era, and the era when they put God in the pledge and on our money was right before that. I have been out to Richland Washington where a lot of the Manhattan Project stuff took place and you can still see the now decrepit stores with remnants of nuclear symbology. That era and it's commitment to knowledge has passed. 'Intellectual' is now an epithet, dedication to belief without evidence (faith) is a requirement to hold public office and pundits shouting jingoistic sound bites rule the day. The news is just fluff and rage. I can't even watch it any more. I see no reason at all for hope in this environment. Call it pessimism or realism as you choose.ReplyDelete
I don't really know if having a charismatic spokesperson for science and reason would really make a difference in this climate, but obviously there is no one presently bearing that mantle. It's like being on the Titanic where the other passengers won't even admit that they are sinking.
The founding fathers were exceptions rather than examples of the common man of the period and while there have certainly have been famous intellectuals (Albert Einstein being the best example) how many people celebrated their celebrity without ever having an understanding of what they did or trying to better themselves through education? They were just a different kind of rock star.
Thought provoking article - but you are really quick to jump to the 'students don't know any better, I know it all' conclusion. When you say that "our lives nothing but slavery to the marketplace" - you are saying that our lives will be slaves to the free exchange between individuals. You need to demonstrate that taking that away is much higher than the cost of taking it away.ReplyDelete
With your brain surgeon analogy - how does the patient possibly know that the brain surgeon is any good? They are trusting their life to this person. They know from signals... education, certification, history of practice, etc. They should not tell the surgeon what to do - but they should be able to know that the surgeon is qualified and capable.
What you have not answered is why students have moved away from humanities. It is that the perceived benefits are higher than humanities? Perhaps business, engineering and laws market themselves as providing practical benefits.
Why can't humanities simply market itself better to prospective students? If the importance of critical thinking is so obvious, Massimo, is it so hard to market this to students? If its not (quite possibly its not), then there's a justification there for a centrally planned university course - but you need to demonstrate this first I think.
Similarly with plagiarism. It is in the university's best interest to assess for plagiarism. Surely the teacher is also then in the best position to assess for plagiarism? If we make it illegal to plagiarize - or for people to provide a 'plagiarism service' - are other authorities going to be able to account for plagiarism any better?
Dr. Massimo Pigliucci,ReplyDelete
I am currently enrolled in SUNY Adirondack in the Writing about the Sciences class that showcases your book "Nonsense on stilts". I have remained relatively impartial to your logic and reasons toward several of the areas and persons in your book that you lambaste in a cavalier way, after all you do need to turn a profit. That aside I recently searched your archives to try and locate an article on education that would assist me in either agreeing with or debating your views in a class paper and have been taken aback by your simplistic view presented in "The sorry state of Higher Education", I will not take for granted that you have looked at the causes of adolescents cheating in Higher Education situations, because you clearly have resided from your throne of Professor at CUNY to forget not only what it took to get there but that aside from determination and application of will, that no longer applies. The modern student at a higher institution of education is "forced" to make decisions that will effect their entire life not simple a test grade or a class assignment. You attack "Ed Dante" for his facilitating cheating, but leave your industry institutions unscathed, if students are incapable of critical thinking and introspection on other ways to achieve, can it be said that its Dante's fault? I argue that they have arrived at your door step for several reasons; enrollment need, financial motivation for your institution and themselves and job requirements without the necessary skills to become then next Plato, Socrates or Pigluicci, due to a weak primary education. Oh sure they took plenty of tests that recorded their ability to memorize and retain for short periods so the US could appear competitive with other countries and boy are they good at that, but they were pumped through a system that has to "Rinse and repeat" that has to fill a demand for these so called adults that apparently frequent your class in abundance to make it to the outer industries to wage competetive war on their fellow peers for a larger pay check. Maybe you became a professor because you have a thirst for knowledge and get a warm and fuzzy when a student truly evolves in front of you, I don't know you, so I can not say. I simply know that to expect something from someone that hasn't acquired the necessary skills yet is simply higher education heresy. The need to educate at 'pace' is simply derailing our educational system and country, I think that we can agree on the value of education. It is truly one of the highest pursuits, for it allows people to better people as opposed to individuals to better themselves at the expense of others. When every credit costs a penny pinching student body, one can not expect them to think rationally, merely survivalist.
Critical thinking creates adults. Your article has stimulated my emotion, I can only hope that in the face of a former teacher's profoundly valuable life lesson to, "When angry, wait on the next appointment", I hope i have presented something worth presenting. I will simply give in a quote what I believe sums up my point of view of our current educational system in a better package. Much education today is monumentally ineffective.
All too often we are giving young people cut flowers when we should be teaching them to grow their own plants. ~John W. Gardner