Entertainment U
October 1, 2004 11:41 PM   Subscribe

Easy grades, light reading loads, and above all a professor you can enjoy. Today’s university culture is one of all entertainment all the time.. an essay by Mark Edmunson based on his new book Why Read? about the the "crisis in the humanities", called the most provocative look since Allan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind. (via Arts and Letters Daily)
posted by stbalbach (54 comments total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Why Intellectuals Oppose Capitalism, by Robert Nozick
posted by Kwantsar at 11:55 PM on October 1, 2004

Easy grades, light reading loads, and above all a professor you can enjoy.

Well, there's the alternative, the system could go all Mazer Rackham on the students, and decide the only teacher is an enemy. The EE department at my school had some arrogant faculty along with a glut of applicant students, and if you struggled with a concept or course, you didn't get encouragement, you got a lecture on how maybe the program wasn't for you and you should change your major to something inferior like computer science. This probably had one of the biggest roles in me jumping to a math degree -- some of my Math profs *were* all interested in trying to make the material accesible and interesting (and darned if they didn't suck me in).

You can blame the culture and even to some extent the educational institution/system, the instructor is responsible for setting the culture of the class -- especially at a University level. I can think of several excellent professors I had who bucked the typical experience of other classrooms on campus and made *magic* happen in theirs, life-changing, mind-shaping stuff.
posted by weston at 12:21 AM on October 2, 2004

I think that all good teachers really do want their students to enjoy the class, and to enjoy reading, but not in the sense of being entertained. Rather, they hope the students will understand the fun of figuring something out. Maybe that's because most teachers (and all but truely freakish professors) are nerdy people who think that what they teach/study is the beesknees, regardless of what anyone else thinks. Yes, this is a pot-kettle moment - I'm only a teaching assistant, but it's been so exciting so far, sharing this stuff that I study with other people, and hoping they like it too.

weston is right - you can't teach as an enemy. Then you are just instructing, and seeing who teaches themselves. But there are students who do expect that learning is about being entertained - I was really aware of this as an undergrad, when the lecturer rated most highly in a joint lecture class were not the most clear or profound, but the one who walked up and down the aisle gesticulating. I couldn't make head nor tails of the notes from his lecture, but everyone preferred him to the ones who struck me as making the most sense.

Solution? I don't know if there is one. As the article points out, we live in a consumer society. And those kids are paying to be in that classroom - $1000/course for my undergrad university, and that was a Canadian public university. So long as they see that they are paying great amounts, they will be looking for their money's worth. Education for pure edification cannot exist in that kind of environment. The professors want to say that they are students, not customers - but the more the students pay, the more and more they will feel like customers (and big ones at that). Short of eliminating tuition (which in a public system would mean greatly restricting the places at university), I don't think there is anything you can do to change this attitude completely. In the meantime, all individuals can do is to try to explain to the students that their investment will pay off best if they look to grow intellectually rather than to be entertained.
posted by jb at 12:40 AM on October 2, 2004

I had a tutor (professor) in college that reminded me very much of John Houseman's character in "Paper Chase". He was elderly, had taught at the college for forty years or so. He could be very grouchy.

I loved him.

But I arrived for class one morning to find some fellow students—the class had about twelve students, but this was two or three people that formed the "core group" of four of us that had all our classes together—and one young woman was crying. She was just terrified of going into class. This was a math course, and usually, on a good day, about half the class was, individually, asked to work through a (pre-prepared problem) in front of the rest of the class. It was hard enough for those that had stage fright; but being pushed by an insistent and, often, visibly frustrated teacher made it more difficult.

All the profs where I went to college expected a great deal from students, but this teacher was particularly demanding. And, you know, having been to several universities, and of course public school, I had previously been accustomed to teachers that hardly knew you were there, much less expected anything from you. If they did know you werer there, they often were forced to pander to the lowest common-denominator. Class was almost always a total waste of my time. At this school, it wasn't.

But I was particularly thrilled to have a teacher who demanded excellence from everyone and allowed for few excuses. What I tried to say to my friend/classmate was that it really was an honor that he respected each of us so much to expect us to do well enough that it was possible to disapoint and frustrate him.

A cherished memory I have is an afternoon spent with him at his home to discuss a paper of mine. He didn't agree with my thesis, but he thought it was interesting.

This man passed away a few years ago. He's a minor legend at St. John's College.

Really learning, really thinking, really being productive is fun. Teachers don't need to entertain students to get them interested—treating a classroom like it's a television program is insulting to everyone involved. If you're not the sort of person to enjoy hard intellectual work, then you shouldn't be in college. If you are, then you should, and it'll be fun.

On Preview: for pay can't be the problem. You don't even want to know how much tution costs at SJC. Well, it's just about what it is at all the top-tier liberal arts colleges these days. Another problem with your theory, though, is that a lot of these students aren't paying for it. Their parents are.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 12:47 AM on October 2, 2004

Young people were different in the old days. They were respectful to their teachers, and spend their days composing Attic hexameters in the few minutes they spared from their studies. And they never drank at all. Not like today's piss-addled rabble.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 2:22 AM on October 2, 2004

> If you're not the sort of person to enjoy hard intellectual work, then you
> shouldn't be in college.

Ethereal is hired as Principal of a high school. Ethereal meets with parents.
I am sorry to have to report that little Aethelburt does not have an inferiority complex, as you have always assumed. He is just inferior. He will never get into Yale. He is not actually even bright enough to pass his final high school examinations. With proper training, however, he might become an adequate bellhop or waiter. I suggest therefore that you remove him at once from high school, thus saving a great deal of the taxpayers' money and your own, and enroll him in the Hotel Employees Institute.
Ethereal's career as Principal lasts eleven minutes, four seconds.
posted by jfuller at 4:43 AM on October 2, 2004

The decay in the quality of the American Inner Life... Interesting topic. And he may be right about "cool" v. uncool and the effects of pop culture immersion. [aside: In McCluhanesque terms, though, isn't TV "hot"?] But that's a battle that can't be won, per se. We can, however, treat a symptom: a radical decline in literacy.

I'm not talking about being well-read or even being able to read. I'm talking about mastery of language. I entered college as a full-time undergraduate twice: Once in 1981, at a very academically selective state U (SUNY-Binghamton), and once in 1991, at the U of Rochester -- also said to be very selective, and certainly a hell of a lot more expensive. (I got grants.)

At Bingo, even the slackers could compose complete sentences and understood what should be in one paragraph and what should be in the next. At the U of R, ten years later, hardly any of the American non-engineering students were capable of composing complete sentences, much less a paragraph. Heaven forbid they should be expected to compose an argument.

EB's description reminds me of one of my anthro profs at U of R: A woman who'd been teaching there for...mmm... probably 30 years. I know it was her first post. I had two seminars and a regular class with her. "Austere" is the word I'd have used to describe her. The only thing that really shook her composure was when she had to coach undergrads on basic English composition. She knew the standards had slipped.

Much as I hate to sound traditionalist, if you don't know how to use the language, you are barred from the rest of the discipline. Back in the early '90s at U of R, I dealt on a daily basis with a population of help-desk consultants -- mostly undergrads in technical fields like EE, Physics, and Math. There were over 100 of us (short shifts), and we managed everything by email and logs. And these kids could communicate. They could formulate sentences and paragraphs and define words from context. Stepping from work into class often meant not only a shift in subject matter, but (frankly) a decrease in communications skills.

If we're not adequately teaching kids language use, we're not really teaching them. I've often heard it proposed, and in my more cynical moments I sweat that it might be true, that the decline in reading standards is a plot to keep us passive and controllable: The more we communicate through images and sub-linguistic signs, the less precisely, the less well, we communicate.
posted by lodurr at 5:17 AM on October 2, 2004

The defining point of my undergraduate degree was in a third year data structures course, when the prof asked us to do a proof on some lower bound or other, and a student started complaining that they shouldn't be expected to have to do proofs for this class 'since it wasn't part of the material', despite the fact that we had all gone through two courses before that almost entirely concerned with doing proofs. The only thing the professor said was "this is not a technical school." If the kid was smart, he'd have shut up, but he started mouthing off about how this was 'unacceptable'. It seemed to me at that point that everyone else was quiet because they were counting on the prof relenting and not asking us to do the work, and I really lost a lot of respect for my classmates that day.
posted by Space Coyote at 5:54 AM on October 2, 2004

Isn't he saying students today lack passion and sense of wonder and awe at new things and therefore no real drive or purpose other than remaining comfortable and entertained, like an old retired person. That students are so over-stimulated from so many sources from such a young age they enter college like aristocrats of old "show me something new". That the real work and effort goes into cataloging and indexing and not actually experiencing the works studied? That remaining detached and "cool" and not risking emotional involvement is the unspoken tyranny? I agree with all those things because I was, and am, guilty of it myself, at times. And I wonder why.
posted by stbalbach at 6:03 AM on October 2, 2004

Well, take your best guess. Why do you think it is? (I've already said what I'm afraid of.) This isn't a technical school <g />
posted by lodurr at 7:03 AM on October 2, 2004

Edmundson has been for some time been writing articles bitching about the state of education of late--thi.ngs are not what theyused to be--and the icecream no longzer tates the way it used to. But gosh! the university is also a part of a consumer life? wow! who would have thought that.... Questions to ask: a. how many undergrad courses does M.E. teach? how many does the Univ of Virginia have tuahgt by grad students rather than the top tenured faculty? What is the flunk-out rate? Why does the school bother with handout tests on teachers if in fact the teacher has tenure--what dilff will an evaluation make?

M.E.'s school is highly ranked. And is also filled with very conservative students (I have friends) who have taught there). Harvard has of late given nearly all As to all students--much easier than grading and causing problems.

The world of U. of V. is not going down the spectic tank.At least they have Jefferson's architecture to make the campus cute. And some nice babes there too
posted by Postroad at 7:13 AM on October 2, 2004

We have here one of the many instances in which a gifted academic takes their analytic lens, trains it directly on a serious problem, and then manufactures a bunch of nostalgia-laden crap, spills it on the lens, sees the problem in this light, and sits back satisfied with their critical assessment.

Three issues. First, as an academic, let me agree with Edmundson: there is nothing more detrimental to the state of American education that its continued reimagining as a consumer-based enterprise. With rising tuititons and dwindling state contributions to land-grant institutions on the one hand, and the rising expectations for research and the increasing number of students who require teaching on the other, the stress on the current college structure is becoming so pronounced that colleges barely function along the lines that made them famous. This is less notable though, since it is a structural and system-wide problem, which means that while colleges continue to do well in the USNWR listings, the value of those listings do not correspond to the values such a list has held diachronically.

This is not to say that the education today is lacking by comparison, but rather to say that education is pursued in a fundamentally different manner. Students today go in wanting to be business majors, and their other classes play the role of supplement to their eventual financial objectives. This is not in and of itself a bad agenda, but colleges, which are increasingly governed by folks with more training in economics and less in the humanities, have made the disastrous decision to cater and promote this particular mentality. In other words, students are encouraged to choose the courses that best fit their consumption needs - in the same way that Hilfiger consumers pick Hilfiger to meet their alleged aesthetic needs - rather than encouraging students to learn first, and then cherry-pick thereafter - the much more common and conventional liberal arts model. (Liberal arts means relatively little these days as an index of one's program of study.) And as with Hilfiger, the encouragement makes all the difference; consumption needs are every bit as artificial as aesthetic branding, but the University now compliments this mentality rather than acts as a balwark against it.

Second, education does suffer by not having high-emphasis on research longevity and teaching excellence. Grad students are fine teachers - some of them are better than tenured faculty - but they have not yet begun to refine their classroom persona, nor do they possess the sort of knowledge that one gets through years of in depth study and course preparation. And education does suffer by grade deflation, in that the more emphasis placed on grades means more emphasis placed meeting the requirements for the grades themselves and not for paying attention to those processes that are being graded. To put it differently, one learns what to do to get the grade, one doesn't get the grade for what one learns. This is a somewhat specious antithesis, but it works for the point we're making here. What is less explicit than it might be in the source piece here is that information technology has merged with the consumer mentality to force these two drags - grad students and grade inflation - into concert. Graduate students, who are often loosely monitored if at all, are primarily measured by quantitative and qualitative student evaluations, and the way to do that is to bump the grades, or in a somewhat less Machiavellian approach, to just avoid having as many grade disputes as they can, which means that, given the relatively lower ethos afforded to graduate assistants when compared to actual faculty, graduate students are forced to make the conditions for particular grades as clearly detailed as possible, thus reboubling the problem of meeting expectations rather than learning. In addition, many institutions now have something called "the key" which takes the grades assigned by instructors for a given class in any given semester and maps the averages, so that students when choosing classes will know from whom they will receive the best grade. Again, given the idea that classes are supplements to an eventual financial agenda, the grade matters more than the information, and so it's a perfectly reasonable approach for the students to take. The question here is what individual profs and departments want to do about it, because unlike the first issue, here they have more influence. One can bemoan the rise of information technologies and wish that such information be suppressed, or one can accept that the information is out there and then figure out how to educate despite the students' best intentions to avoid being educated. That this latter approach requires an embrace of enjoyment is hardly surprising.

Third, and here's where the collective crap detectors needed to be most acutely trained, the contention that any of this is related to the rise of computers and that this rise of computers should be derided as an impediment to the intelligence garnered from the world of classics and print and literature is just absurd. As important as the consumerist impulse is in determining the present state of the educational institution, the social ecologies produced by different media also influence learning expectations. Let's draw on McLuhan here, since he predicted 50 years ago that television had become the new standard in learning apparatuses. Television is a cool medium, not a hot one. The difference is a bit counterintuitive, but is worth thinking through: hot media are higher definition, typically concentrating on one sense, and require little of the viewer. Radio overwhelms the ear, provides pantloads of aural data, and is hot, hot, hot. Television is partial, constantly hemorrhaging between the primacy of the aural and the visual, constantly changing, constantly under threat of the remote control. It requires that a viewer choose to pay attention to it. It is a cool medium that requires a certain interpellative pretense, that it reports and you decide, or that it entertains and you choose to be entertained (those two - reporting and entertaining - being actually identical). That generations raised on television would then ask that they find a class enjoyable, no matter how tense its material, is not a surprise; it is as unavoidable as the rising sun. Is it any surprise that, when faced with the absence of clear choice between Gore and Bush and no pressing domestic or international crises, the television generation chose to pick a man who proudly doesn't read the news, who has a famously short attention span, and who looks affable, comfortable, and "cool" on television, when his opponent is, by contrast, bookishly smart and awkward on TV? Hell no.

That Edmundson can quote McLuhan with such ease, while infusing that quotation with the very nostalgia for a lost social order that McLuhan very adamantly rejected (there was no "should" for McLuhan in assessing the impact of dominant media), is either disingenuine or obtuse. And then comes the deneoumont: this rant against computers:
Instead of spending class time wondering what the poem means, and what application it has to present-day experience, students compile information about it. They set the poem in its historical and critical context, showing first how the poem is the product and the property of the past—and, implicitly, how it really has nothing to do with the present except as an artful curiosity; and second how, given the number of ideas about it already available, adding more thought would be superfluous.

By putting a world of facts at the end of a key-stroke, computers have made facts, their command, their manipulation, their ordering, central to what now can qualify as humanistic education. The result is to suspend reflection about the differences among wisdom, knowledge, and information. Everything that can be accessed online can seem equal to everything else, no datum more important or more profound than any other. Thus the possibility presents itself that there really is no more wisdom; there is no more knowledge; there is only information. No thought is a challenge or an affront to what one currently believes.

Am I wrong to think that the kind of education on offer in the humanities now is in some measure an education for empire? The people who administer an empire need certain very precise capacities. They need to be adept technocrats. They need the kind of training that will allow them to take up an abstract and unfelt relation to the world and its peoples—a cool relation, as it were. Otherwise, they won’t be able to squeeze forth the world’s wealth without suffering debilitating pains of conscience. And the denizen of the empire needs to be able to consume the kinds of pleasures that will augment his feeling of rightful rulership. Those pleasures must be self-inflating and not challenging; they need to confirm the current empowered state of the self and not challenge it. The easy pleasures of this nascent American empire, akin to the pleasures to be had in first-century Rome, reaffirm the right to mastery—and, correspondingly, the existence of a world teeming with potential vassals and exploitable wealth.

Immersed in preprofessionalism, swimming in entertainment, my students have been sealed off from the chance to call everything they’ve valued into question, to look at new forms of life, and to risk everything. For them, education is knowing and lordly spectatorship, never the Socratic dialogue about how one ought to live one’s life.
Before we even thinking about the banal pining for some lost distinction between wisdom and information, let's think about the absurdity of ending here with a shout-out to the Socratic dialogue, a Platonic argument that required an emphasis on oral discourse in a culture that had only recently become literate enough to invent the need for such a distinction. Yep, the Greeks, parental units of philosophy, and the Romans, who followed their philosophical life in pursuit of civic virtue with folks like Cicero and Quintillian and Marcus Aurelius. And what did these intellectual giants from a now sadly lost intellectual age do? Oh yeah, that's right, they went around and fucking waged war against everyone within walking distance, enslaved a bunch of them, and eventually collapsed into fire and orgies. If one is going to pine, at least don't be so high and mighty about it. And besides, after two and a half millennia, can't we come up with an argument slightly better than paraphraising Plato's rant in the Phaedrus?

Besides, the computer is not a producer of empire, it is a conduit of imeprialist thought, and imperialism has always, from the Romans to the Nazis to the United States been built on the intellectual work of community formation, a work that finds its highest expression in the concern that the present moment is forgetting the lessons and greatness of the past. But we'll ignore that for now.

Instead, let's offer a counter-hypothesis, one that if explored might offer a wake-up call to how education can break through the motifs of consumption and the commonplace meeting of expectations. What if computers, like the television before them, or the novel before that, or print before the novel, or writing before whatever - what if these new media show light on the old? What if the lost distinction between information and wisdom is in fact evidence, thanks to new media, that this distinction was always a fly away from pure, unadulturated horse manure. And then we could spend some time thinking about the costs and benefits of maintaining that distinction or accepting its happy demise.

Maybe education has to - gasp - change with the times.

And in the meantime, having read it, I can say unequivocally, Bleak House sucked.
posted by hank_14 at 8:24 AM on October 2, 2004

What is the flunk-out rate?

97% of UVA's freshmen come back, and 92% graduate.

"That young man lacks in inexperience." It’s a precious possession, inexperience; my students have had it stolen from them.

There's some truth in this. Having been around a variety of liberal arts colleges lately, I've noticed that the ones with the most "qualified" students aren't necessarily the ones most succeeding with their mission to give the best liberal arts education. In short, students who at 17 years old have put together a long resumé full of inane extracurricular activities ([A] are invariably parent-programmed rich kids, and [B]) have other things on their mind than knowledge and ideas—they will definitely go on to be (corporate, etc.) "leaders," and I guess that's what they were chosen for.

That said, I think that while consumerism is a huge problem in American college education generally, it's not so bad in these places. The problem is in institutions where the standards have slipped so low that students feel entitled to brainlessly entertaining lectures, easy exams with the answers given out the day before, a good grade, etc., all on the way to a fat paycheck. I did my graduate work at a big public university (Berkeley) that really did have engaged students—nothing could be more inspiring. But when I taught at a Big Ten university, I had (in the big lecture courses—of course there were many remarkable individual students) a bunch of kids hoping to leave as ill-educated as they came, who'd been brought up with no desire for a humanistic education, and who basically saw college as a chance to get drunk frequently, waste time but be rewarded with a better job at the end of it, and meanwhile try to find classes that wouldn't kill their buzz. It depressed the heck out of me that the tone of a public university had been set by shiny-SUV-driving, Burberry-wearing yahoos. (These, by the way, are the people who vote Republican and have contempt for those who aren't "hardworking and determined" enough to become well-paid yuppies. Sometimes I felt guilty that I was helping mint them as superior in ways they weren't.) I've never seen people who care more about their appearance, crass consumerism about everything. While this university could occasionally fulfill its function of offering a real education to the kid of humble origins, it was a rare treat to find it doing so.

On preview: nostalgia-laden crap

Oh, and yes, students were just as drunk in the Middle Ages! And we've been hearing about the need to soften & sweeten the rigors of philosophy for even longer. When American universities were for the time-wasting rich, that wasn't great, either. Now that students no longer come to college knowing how to write at all, the need for a college education is very great. I'm just disappointed with the places that don't really give it, because I believe in my heart of hearts that it can be given to students from any kind of background if that's really what the institution decides resolutely to make its #1 goal (usually not popular with the State Legislature). Even though the fancy college I went to was mostly rubber-stamping its awesome credential on the brows of people very unlike me (they, too, were in a hurry for high-paid jobs, and 95% didn't get Pell Grant money & come from schools who'd never sent anyone there, like I did), you dammit had to learn something while there. I still think that our (pseudo-)"meritocratic" big and little schools are a better compromise than the travesty I've described.
posted by Zurishaddai at 8:46 AM on October 2, 2004

Why only old, senior teachers seem to be the demanding ones is for a simple reason that was explained to me by a professor of pedagogy (teaching): "You will almost never hear of a teacher being fired for passing students."

A basic problem of our entire educational system is that it needs a revolution in methods. A high tech revolution, but *not* the way it's being done today. The entire system needs a re-write.

If done properly, *average* students could have the equivalent of a high-school degree by 6th grade, and a well earned college degree out of high school. Universities would become research facilities, educating only in crossover studies and niche programs--specialties.

At the elementary school level, "classes" would exist mostly for administrative needs. Each student would get a 'directed' multimedia education, paced to their individual needs and skills. Their computer would guide them, evaluate them, review them, direct them, monitor and motivate their pacing, and cover a much wider gamut of subjects than a teacher possibly could.

The curriculum would have to be strongly enlarged. Typing and computer use, along with multi-lingualism would be begun as soon as possible. Detailed medical evaluations for eyesight, hearing, dyslexia, speech, attention span, coordination, and other essential abilities would be integrated in the learning process. Mental skills would have to be integrated, likewise, such as memorization "tricks", and higher-level knowledge skills, like analysis of information and synthesis "creativity" of new material.

Teachers would be just as busy or busier doing many of the same functions, such as maintaining discipline, troubleshooting, identifying and counseling personal problems, assisting lagging students and authorizing additional resources for leading students. If a student was able, they could advance years beyond their peers--if even in a single subject. And more than anything else, teachers would help students just *relax* when it was time for relaxation, and enjoy themselves--no mean feat.

As to the curriculum itself. Core subjects would have the highest priority for proficiency and would be standardized at a State level. However, since these would only take a fraction of the time they currently do, there would be tremendous flexibility of additional subjects for the students. Much of this would have to be determined by the students and their parents. Think of a great, long checklist of elective subjects.

There would still be many subjects that would need to be taught in a traditional manner. Group projects, physical education, artistry, etc.

One of the best sides to this programme is that students would be *certified* by computer of knowing certain subjects. And certified expertise has no time limit, so even if a student is ill for a year, or takes an extra year or two, they do not lose out for good.
posted by kablam at 9:02 AM on October 2, 2004

Zurishaddai -- I wouldn't be so hard on your Big Ten students, or admiring of your Berkeley students.

When I went to Berkeley, the typical Cal undergrad believed (incorrectly, but nevertheless) that we were sufficiently elite that our post-graduate success (including money, if that was on our agenda) was assured.

Michigan and Northwestern excepted, people don't show up to Big Ten schools with that kind of certainty regarding their ascent to the elite. They're naturally going to be more focused on the nuts and bolts of success, and less interested in anything other than having a good time on the side.
posted by MattD at 9:22 AM on October 2, 2004

And so we live in a "cool", "consumerist", "entertained" culture, where people are engaged in the sense that they're intererested and diverted, not in the sense that they're being made to confront certain aspects of themselves or the world they live in. What I'm wondering is - what is the shadow side of this? Could it be finding expression in the subcultural worlds of anorexics, "cutters", drug addicts and people who are indulging in self-destructive behavior? Isn't "cool" a form of self-repression and don't repressed thoughts and actions often exhibit themselves in perverse and destructive ways? Are some people so starved for experience in today's world that they have to hurt themselves to feel something?

All the information about chimney sweepers in the world isn't going to answer the basic question William Blake is asking - do the horrors of the world some of us are subjected to offer us transcendence and grace if we meekly submit to them? Is it true that if we do our duty, we need not fear the harm that may result from it?

And how would a generation that's been removed from such experiences expect to know? And if they need to know, and they're deprived of that knowledge, will some of them create circumstances for themselves that will forcibly teach them?

There's a lot more at stake here than higher education.
posted by pyramid termite at 10:06 AM on October 2, 2004

from the article:
“We like economics majors,” an investment banking recruiter reportedly said, “because they’re people who’re willing to sacrifice their educations to the interest of their careers.”

Yeah, because clearly nobody would ever actually find a subject like econ interesting or fascinating or challenging.

Vacuous, toffy-nosed, malodorous pervert.

Questions to answer:

how many undergrad courses does M.E. teach?

2 this semester, both upper-division.

how many does the Univ of Virginia have tuahgt by grad students rather than the top tenured faculty?

When I was there (CLAS 1992), essentially all English classes at the introductory and sophomore-seminar levels were taught by graduate students (100 and 200 course numbers).

What is the flunk-out rate?


what dilff will an evaluation make[to a tenured prof]?

Depends on the school. Might help determine raises.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 10:12 AM on October 2, 2004

EB: I went to a large public university (35,000 undergraduates) - The percentage of those just there to get their degree and get out was likely higher than at SJC, which is a very unique place (and attracts students with a very different focus in life). Although we did actually pay for our own tuition - most of the people I knew in undergrad were working full-time every summer and part-time during the winter; almost all lived at home to save money, and paid all their fees themselves (as I did). Maybe that gave them a very different apprieciation of the costs of university - I was basing my thoughts on the number of times I had heard fellow students complain about the cost of a course (we were also charge per course).

kablam: Do you really think senior professors are the most difficult markers? It has also been my experience that the opposite is true - younger professors, and especially graduate students, are more demanding. Partly because they are more idealistic, but also because they want to be perceived by their fellow teachers as holding up standards.
posted by jb at 11:31 AM on October 2, 2004

In short, students who at 17 years old have put together a long resumé full of inane extracurricular activities[A] are invariably parent-programmed rich kids, and [B]) have other things on their mind than knowledge and ideas—they will definitely go on to be (corporate, etc.) "leaders," and I guess that's what they were chosen for.

I haven't had a chance to finish reading (I want to give everyone's points the careful consideration they deserve), but I did want to note that the above is simply not true.

I was one of those kids (and 16 to boot), and I am pretty damn far from rich or parent-programmed. I did those things *because* I wanted to go to a magical world of ideas and *that's how you did it.* My mother sacrificed a lot to send me to private school, and I spent inordinate amounts of time applying for scholarships and taking part in loads of extracurriculars because I wanted to go to a respected school where ideas were taken seriously.

I know that there are plenty of kids who weren't that way, but there were legions who were too. And it's rude and insulting to wipe away our work with the actions of others.
posted by dame at 11:45 AM on October 2, 2004

Edmundson has been for some time been writing articles bitching about the state of education

He certainly has, Postroad; or more to the point, he keeps publishing the same essay over and over. I recognized this immediately from when it originally appeared in Harper's all the way back in 1997.

I remember it so well because I saved this issue, but not for this essay, which I thought managed the icky rhetorical feat of celebrating the author's own skill at pandering to his students while insulting them for their embrace of a shallow, showy education. I kept the issue for this piece by Earl Shorris, which he later developed into a book. When I was a teacher, this essay was a source of optimism and hope that I sorely needed, and I strongly encourage others interested in this subject to read it. We've become a very cynical and despairing country when it comes to education, especially for the poor, and Shorris writes an eloquent story of the possibilities and power good education can inspire.

(And hank_14, your post exceeds the source by far in its thoughtfulness, clarity, and persuasiveness, and I was glad to read it.)
posted by melissa may at 12:09 PM on October 2, 2004

Oh, apologies for the incorrect link; here's the original Edmundson piece. The linked article at the top of the thread is much shorter than this Harper's piece, but the language and examples are consistent to both, with relatively little updating for an essay that purports to be descriptive of a current problem.
posted by melissa may at 12:18 PM on October 2, 2004

I was one of those kids (and 16 to boot), and I am pretty damn far from rich or parent-programmed. I did those things *because* I wanted to go to a magical world of ideas and *that's how you did it.*

Well, it's not the only way.

I was a A student up until about 5th grade, even though I had some behavioral problems. But by the time I got to high school , the whole study-grind extra-curricular thing didn't appeal and I wasn't exactly ambitious in the traditional sense, but I hung out in the library and read anything and everything that interested me and hung around and tried to meet people and bugged them to hear their stories.

Granted, this didn't help my grades much or push me towards a rewarding career, but I did develop a love for thinking about stuff. So there's more than one road to the life of the mind.
posted by jonmc at 12:18 PM on October 2, 2004

MattD — it's all relative degrees of toxic misanthropy (on my part, I mean!). If your expectations are inflated, then the whole world is populated by grubbing yahoos. I had negative experiences with Berkeley students, too, but it's all relative, and I think there was a critical mass of expectation in a Berkeley class that success = learning = the serious standards of an academic discipline. Unfortunately, there's a nasty paradox whereby students whose ambitions are limited to becoming garden-variety professionals & making payments on a big, ugly house/car are, in a sense, more closed-mindedly smug about their entitlement to a place in that "superior order."

There's a weird irony here. By participating in an academically demanding program, you are forced to act as if you give a crap about liberal arts rigor, etc. Ultimately, this has the salutary effect that (even at the lower end of the scale) state legislatures and their materialistic middle-class students who would love to pull the plug on a bunch of overeducated commies doing literary criticism, have to accept that, in our world, you can't have one ($$$) without the other. Rue the day this equation (fake as it is) stops holding.

dame - I hope you won't take offense; God knows I have nothing but admiration for anyone who wants to breathe the air of ideas. If, as you say, your various "correct-looking" extracurriculars were more instrumental than essential to you, then the fault lies with the system that couldn't discern your real qualifications (= you cared to explore ideas in a serious environment). Even tiny liberal arts colleges have to field so many athletic teams that everyone knows the ideal (of a bunch of students who really want to discuss Rabelais, thermodynamics, Buxtehude, and Sophocles) is being sold down the river. My somewhat cynical ranting can be traced to the disappointment of seeing how many places in our elite schools are taken by supercilious shits whose parents decided they should learn classical Chinese in their $$$$ prep school, when in reality there are more kids like you out there who should look better to the admissions ctee. That's why I wouldn't want to be too negative about my Big Ten experience — God knows, a giant state school always has more than its share of supersmart geniuses who ended up there because their background just didn't lead to the thought that they "belonged" somewhere "better." (And, from what I've heard, there is nowhere more stultifying than the sort of private college that gets only the rich kids who couldn't get into the more rigorous places. My experience is divided between state schools, elite colleges/universities, and down-to-earth regional private colleges that have a strong campus liberal arts identity & are anomalously free of the country-club problem. But my general impression is that everywhere's wooing more and more intensively the "rich ZIP code" kids that Edmundson mentions; I say, advertise that your dorm rooms and dining halls are shittier but that your professors and students are better — that's where I'd rather be.)

P.S. It's not just me — have y'all noticed how the average poster to this thread has far too great a facility for sitting down and typing a logorrheic post of umpteen-hundred words? Overeducated wankers.
posted by Zurishaddai at 12:43 PM on October 2, 2004

Oh, old Nozick - he may look like Robert Kilroy-Silk but he's not as dim; not by a long way.
posted by ed\26h at 12:59 PM on October 2, 2004

Well, Zurishaddai, the thing is, those supercilious shits paid for me to go to school. So I don't quite resent them. They went to their econ classes, while I studied lit crit with people who gave a shit and ignored them (except when I did their homework for extra cash). So I can see how it's frustrating for teachers to have kids who don't care in their classes, but from this student's point of view they were instrumental. My school let in the dumb rich ones so we could go too. I suppose it would be preferable to have better external grants and no dumb, rich kids, but it doesn't work that way just now.

As for the extras, I did enjoy them. Without school-sponsored extracurriculars, I would have spent *all* my time reading, and being forced to interact with my peers was, in the end, good for me. And when I went to the summer schools in foreign places that serve mostly as resume enhancers, I still learned because I cared. I didn't have to. But it wasn't inherently useless—you had to make it so.

In the end, what turned me away from academe was the internal grubbing, the way people used the study of ideas as a career. Those who intended to become profs didn't seem so different from those who intended to be CEOs (at least to me, back then). I suppose I found I was happiest being an amateur—which brings me to you, Jonmc.

I suspect both of us are amateurs in ideas; you found out before I did. I thought loving ideas meant I belonged at a "great" school, so I did the things to get myself there. You found ideas without doing those things. Neither is inherently better, though I do suspect I managed to avoid some of the frustrations you experienced being an idea guy sans sheepskin (people not taking you seriously, etc.). I got a pretty degree that makes people give me a chance and some respect, got a job that lets me think but pays crap, and keep learning and writing as an avocation.

Well, I've wandered pretty far off the point—okay, fine, there wasn't any. None but this: universities aren't for everyone and they can't be. I was in many ways a dream student, Jonmc could have been. We're not involved with the formal land of thought for various reasons. But they aren't those reasons bemoaned by the bemoaners.
posted by dame at 1:25 PM on October 2, 2004

Begs forgiveness for repetitions & errors; running out the door, but thinks this is fascinating.
posted by dame at 1:33 PM on October 2, 2004

They went to their econ classes, while I studied lit crit with people who gave a shit and ignored them

Isn't this a bit too "Holden Caufield?" Seriously, are all economics students rich playboy 'phonies' who'd rather ride around in daddy's Benz convertible than study? Is the merit of a field of study inversely related to the jobs prospects it offers those who choose to pursue it?

The typical econ student probably has a socio-economic background that is indistinguishable from the general student body.
posted by crank at 4:10 PM on October 2, 2004

What if computers, like the television before them, or the novel before that, or print before the novel, or writing before whatever - what if these new media show light on the old? What if the lost distinction between information and wisdom is in fact evidence, thanks to new media, that this distinction was always a fly away from pure, unadulturated horse manure. And then we could spend some time thinking about the costs and benefits of maintaining that distinction or accepting its happy demise. --hank_14

Interesting thought.

I would say that the medium does in fact influence how one thinks, and thus the wisdom. This article goes into the topic in depth, the typical Internet user "is likely to be significantly different from that of the typical reader of printed works, or of writing, or of the typical member of purely oral cultures. These differences include deep assumptions about time and space, authority, property, gender, causality and community." So, I would say the mediums we use do in fact change how we think.
posted by stbalbach at 4:39 PM on October 2, 2004

Isn't this a bit too "Holden Caufield?"

That was my objection as well.

You'd think that people who have actually graduated from college would recognize that economics != business.

That's as simply ignorant as thinking that everyone taking poli-sci classes is planning to run for office.

Is the merit of a field of study inversely related to the jobs prospects it offers those who choose to pursue it?

People with English and history and other liberal-arts degrees have just fine job prospects, thank you.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 4:58 PM on October 2, 2004

What does "!=" mean?
posted by ed\26h at 6:51 PM on October 2, 2004

it means "does not equal"
posted by jonmc at 6:53 PM on October 2, 2004

OK, thanks jonmc.
posted by ed\26h at 6:54 PM on October 2, 2004

ain't no thing but a chicken wing on a string from burger king, ed/26h.

posted by jonmc at 7:13 PM on October 2, 2004

Those supercilious shits, studying indifference curves and elasticities, grinding their asses off with their stochastic models, Markov processes, and Poisson approximations.

I hope you were edified by studying gender and race issues in Shakespeare or whatever else the giant circle-jerk of literary criticism (and its first-cousin, postmodernism) entails.

You wistfully boast that your job "lets (you) think." If you believe for a second that people who took the Econ classes at which you scoff aren't "thinking" as they perform their jobs (scrubbing data and building multivariate models), then your worldview has tragically betrayed you.

Last, if you could do homework (for money, no less!) for anything other than the most rudimentary of Econ classes without having taken an Econ class, then, dame, you are a fucking genius, whose wide-ranging talents would easily qualify you for a job where you both get to think and make fat, fat piles of cash.
posted by Kwantsar at 8:27 PM on October 2, 2004

Those supercilious shits, studying indifference curves and elasticities, grinding their asses off with their stochastic models, Markov processes, and Poisson approximations

Not as undergrads, unless maybe they're at CalTech. You can satisfy an econ major without much more than graphical analysis of indiff curves (ie, if you can draw it, it is true) and a few derivatives.

I hope you were edified by studying gender and race issues in Shakespeare

You're being a dingbat. Doing well at English is hard too, even if it's a different sort of hard than doing well at econ, and there are gender and race issues in Shakespeare that might be illuminating to current mores and problems, and are certainly of interest to intellectually curious people.

If you believe for a second that people who took the Econ classes at which you scoff aren't "thinking" as they perform their jobs (scrubbing data and building multivariate models), then your worldview has tragically betrayed you.

People who took econ courses do all kinds of things. Only a few will do anything connected to economics coursework at all, much less work in data centers.

Last, if you could do homework (for money, no less!) for anything other than the most rudimentary of Econ classes without having taken an Econ class, then, dame, you are a fucking genius

Or has a moderate talent for math. It's just optimization problems, for the most part, and the skills for that are fairly general.

What cheezed me was the implication that nobody "real" could find economics interesting or challenging, not some perception that it's easy. Different people will find different areas fascinating. For some, it will be literary criticism, and for others, it might be Bayesian statistics or EE or microeconomics. To pretend that some of these are "real" intellectual pursuits for "real" people while others are just pre-something qualifiers for budding brainless do-nothings is insulting.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 9:01 PM on October 2, 2004

Oh, Jeebus, look what happens from an offhand remark as I run out the door. Yes, there are plenty of people who study econ because they like it, and I didn't mean to denigrate all people who study econ. Rather, I had in my mind a particular sort of pre-MBA white hat who was invariably econ or IR. Maybe it was just my school. And I was defending the "supercilious shits" (not my phrase).

Further, you will notice that I didn't find all humanities folk inspiring either. So, while I'm genuinely sorry I touched a nerve in my carelessness, there is clearly some defensive-ass stuff going on that I really don't feel responsible for.

One must admit, however, that people who choose the humanites over other disciplines value certain kinds of ideas over others. I didn't choose my concentration because I was more capable at theory; I chose it because I thought it was more important. You disagree and that's totally fair. It doesn't make either of us bad people. Again, I'm sorry to make it seem as though it did.

Kwanstar: The "lets me think" comment was in regard to corporate-land.* There are lots of jobs where thinking isn't preferred. I had one once. It sucked. But I didn't want to be in a university, where one can play with ideas (even economic ones!) for a living. So I found a middle path; it was hard and I'm enjoying it now, so I'm absurdly proud.

Anyway, did I mention I was in a rush & that I'm sorry I hurt everyone's feelings with my carelessness?

*That's why it was really far from the offhand econ remark and near the one that said that business-minded & academic career–minded people appeared pretty similar in my thinking back then. I realize I said econ in the first para. there and then CEO, so yeah it could have been done better.
posted by dame at 9:52 PM on October 2, 2004

Well, ROU_Xenophobe, you may have a point. I neglected those Econ Majors who are pursuing BAs. However, the BS student at The University of Minnesota Twin Cities, (chosen as an example because it is (or recently was) the largest undergrad institution in the US) must take Calculus I and II, Linear Algebra and Differential Equations, Multivariable Calculus, Theory of Statistics I and II, and other quant courses. Do you honestly believe that someone who has not taken such courses and possesses only a "moderate talent for math" could charge students enrolled in these classes a fee for doing their homework?
posted by Kwantsar at 9:57 PM on October 2, 2004

I get where you're coming from, dame. Sorry to jump on you; I just hear similar things to that from time to time from people who seem to mean it in the direct, nasty sense.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 11:14 PM on October 2, 2004

Can I give hank_14 a medal, or something? At least someone needs to get that man on the sidebar.
posted by leotrotsky at 11:32 PM on October 2, 2004

No, dame is often supercilious. She's contemptuous of quite a few things and people, yet continues to be surprised when offense is taken. The surprise arises from the rarely questioned assumption that she is correct, and that any equally intelligent and sane person must necessarily have the same worldview as she. She thinks she is being generous by continuing to assume that we agree with her and are unlikely to take offense at things that are, to her, self-evident.

But allow me to validate her point, to a degree. I attended several state universities before finding my way to SJC. At one of them, I enrolled in the general honors program and attended (one semester) a general honors seminar. I figured, well, there's almost 30K students at this mediocre university, but the general honors students should be (a variety of of) the creme de la creme. At the first class, students were asked to describe themselves, their majors, and why they were in general honors. Almost without exception, they were business majors or the like, and they unabashedly said they were in general honors for notation that would appear on their degree (and resume).

I think dame knows little about econ and assumed that econ majors are equivalent to business majors. They are not. Even undergrad econ is a reasonably difficult subject, relative to the business degrees dame has in mind. Let us agree that there's a variety of majors at the contemporary USAian university that are relatively without content or rigor, or, honestly, much work. They're usually the generic degrees for people that just sort of default to something.

It's always unfair and rude to generalize about things that are close to people's identity. Their education is one of these. And even something that most of us could agree is the most typically watered-down, contentless degree in the USA has both students and isolated programs of excellence. Also, two of the most accomplished scientists I know got the undergrad degrees at a third-rate state university. (One did a great deal of good science at a national laboratory and had eight pubs under his belt as an undergrad; the other was the kind of person to get an "A" in p-chem and then take it again because she felt she didn't understand it well enough.) As bad as higher education (undergrad, at least) in the US might be, as bad as many degrees are, as bad as many or most schools are, and as bad as many or most students are, there are pockets of excellence to found in each and they deserve respect. Really, it always comes down to the individual.

Having said that, of course as a johnnie I think that American undergrad higher education is very badly broken. I think the modern undergrad education is a nearly useless alloy of a liberal arts and a technical education; trying to be both, it's not quite either. If I were dictator and could restructure it, I'd reform secondary ed in the US to be a couple of years of introductory liberal arts, then a two-tracked system of either a two-to-four year technical education or a four year classic liberal arts education followed by another three to six year advanced, technical education for those wish/qualify.

I'm in the camp of johnnies that believe that the pedagogy there is more important than the material, so I have very strong positive feelings about very active, dialectical, non-authoritarian pedagogy. But unlike many johnnies, while I think this approach is valuable anywhere, I'm well aware that its effectiveness is directly proportional to how much the students have self-selected themselves for such motivation and work. The typical undergrad, sadly, is not really like that and cannot be expected to be much like that. There is not a one-size-fits-all solution to this problem.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 1:10 PM on October 3, 2004

There is are a few possible flaws with your plan, EB: where do the social science people fit in? Does it allow for people to specialise in a discipline like history or psychology, or do they have to wait until graduate school (which is very late)? I am one of those people who thinks the liberal arts can be a wonderful curriculum, and yet I think I might have dropped out of university if I had been made to go through one of these "great books" programs. I'm not really a humanist (some historians are, some aren't) - I'm interested in different ways of thinking.

Truth is that, at high school and university age, some people are ready to specialise, and some want the freedom to explore. Sure, we should aim to have a certain literacy and numeracy among all students, but beyond that, I have always thought choice was the best pedagogical method. My friend knew at the end of highschool that he wanted to write a PhD on naval history - so why not let him take all history (and maybe related international relations and polisci)? It sound very narrow, but life is short. I did a few breadth courses, but in the end to concentrate on history (even as a double major, I did 10 history out of 20 year long courses), which has served me well in my current graduate degree. But others who wished to be more broadbased could choose to do only 7 courses in their major, and the rest were electives.

Your idea of moving the basic liberal education to highschool is a good one - but what do you mean exactly by a liberal education? I was thinking that for most people literacy, numeracy and critical thinking are the skills that would be most important skills to graduate highschool with. It may be that a liberal arts education can teach these skills (notably the critical thinking), but sometimes the connections need to be drawn more explicitly.

The last thing (sorry this is so rambling) - there are skills that may not be taught by all liberal arts programs. Recently, I've been learning more about how Cambridge and Oxford history students are taught - they do much more reading and writing than we did at my Canadian university, but they don't, for instance, find their own readings for their papers. It makes for more fluid writers, but may mean that they have much less library and research experience than I did, learning how to find books, and how to gauge how reliable it was as a secondary source. The American system is different yet again - the students read more primary sources, which is very good, but they don't get the same experience talking about how history is written, or how historical debates are conducted.

Yeah - so lots of off topic ramblings - but the thread was dying down anyways. Feel free to respond (or not) to anything that is interesting and/or makes sense.
posted by jb at 2:52 PM on October 3, 2004

My UVa lit class (some 100 # course) was taught by Karl Precoda, guitarist for the Dream Syndicate. However, other than discussion section meetings for large lecture classes, my lower-level English courses were the only ones at the school ever taught by a grad student instead of a professor.
posted by LionIndex at 5:43 PM on October 3, 2004

jb: I was thinking about some of your points earlier today. Before I even read them! :) First thing, my (and the SJC) version of a liberal arts education is very strong on math and science (eight semesters and six semesters, respectively). So it's not exactly what everyone thinks of when they think "liberal arts". In general I couldn't imagine a good education without a lot of math and science, but certainly not in today's world. Second thing is about people knowing what they want to do earlier in their life when it's more than a votech type of thing. Conversely, I'm not completely comfortable with people being irrevocably tracked into a votech ed if they want a liberal arts and eventually an advanced ed. That this lock-in thing happens in the countries that have this sort of division in secondary school is something I don't like and wouldn't want. And also your point—some people know early on what they want, and it may be something like a graduate education but they may not necessarily want a bunch of years of a liberal arts.

Well, hmm, I think that latter group is not very large. They'll think they're pretty numerous, of course, but that's because young people are in a big hurry. I would want it to be possible, but difficult, for someone to do something like that.

In the other direction, I'd very much want people to be able to switch tracks in either direction as they wish. I think there should be some sort of entry requirements, but something that shows aptitude, desire, or hard work (not necessarily all three, maybe just one and part of another).

Overall, though, I think the typical undergraduate education is very badly served by the aim to be both something like a traditional liberal arts education and a vocational education. I really do believe this is the biggest underlying problem, aside from pedagogy (large classes, etc.). Much of the liberal arts core that people are forced to take really is wasting their time. I think there's very little there. And then they have to squeeze their vocational education into the rest of the eight semesters or whatever, and pretty much everyone that actually employs contemporary college graduates (outside of science, but even there too often grad school makes up for a lot of lost work) thinks very poorly of the preperation they've had. I've heard over and oer again that employers are a lot more comofortable with people with votech, two-year degrees in specialized programs. They know more stuff they need to work, and they're more up-to-date.

People will say that the contemporary American university education, even when very vocational, is still supposed to be liberal arts-ish, and teaching general skills rather than specific ones. That may be the intent, but I don't think it's really working out for the best. Most students that get most four-year degrees expect something like a vocational education, and they're not getting that.

Really, in the contemporary advanced economies, fairly technical, high-skill white-collar and similar jobs should not require four years of training. As we all know, people change careers many times in the their lives, modern economies require it. There should be a bunch of resources that allow relatively quick retraining into new fields that are, now, thought to be "go to college and then a career in it" fields.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 7:37 PM on October 3, 2004

Well, no EB, at my school there was no general business degree, so like I said, people interested in general business often did econ or IR. So maybe I do know a little bit more about my own life than you. Beyond that, I made an offhand remark in haste about a particular sort of econ student that offended a bunch of people. Then, I apologized when I realized the mistake I made by not thinking something through. As far as crimes go, it's pretty minor & jumping on me after I aplogized is pretty lame. Not that I expect any better from you.

The one instance in which you are correct, is that of course I think I'm right. Why would I hold to beliefs I think are wrong? If someone came up with another conclusion that I thought correct, then I would agree with them. So while I think that holding a different opinion makes someone wrong, I do realize it just makes them wrong to me. And I'm okay with that. In fact, I hope other people feel that way about their beliefs. It makes for wonderful arguments instead of the tortured self-examination you seem so drawn to.

On topic: If I were education dictator, I'd just make critical thought the central thrust of education. I disagree with you, EB, that science and math are more important these days. With most discoveries/movements forward in those fields being made at the higher levels, even years of work won't leave the uninterested at a stage to appreciate them in their technical glories. Rather I would prefer people who knew how to ask the right questions about the ramifications of such developments when they touch quotidian life. That is, with a surfeit of specialized information "these days," I wouuld think it's more important that people learn to sort and question information rather than attempt to give them the tools to assimililate it all.

Then again, maybe the notion of more math and science just gives me horrors because while I found myself more than capable of understanding the subject matter, I just found it so incredibly dull (except number theory; that was pretty cool).
posted by dame at 8:18 PM on October 3, 2004

[Note: because this thread is almost dormant and, hopefully, the only people following along are those interested, I'm going to be both verbose and personal. And, a note to Dame with a more general response.]

Dame, you've expressed a lot of contempt for an ever increasing laundry list of things and people. You think the state of the current world is shit. What makes it that way other than the rest of us? I suggest you look into your heart and be honest with yourself about the contempt you feel for most of your fellow humans. And not be astonished when you hear that they take offense at your contempt. That you assume that, while talking to the rest of us, that we're surely not among the contemptable, and then you express your contempt, is an dual-layered insult of sorts.

You probably don't realize or understand this at all, but I have a sort of love/hate feeling about you. You infuriate me, but somehow I feel that you're someone that I'd very much like to understand and be friends with. To give you the courtesy of honesty, and because I just drank a glass of wine, I'll say that I mostly just think you're young. I'd like to see you engage with the world instead of being so bitterly disappointed with it (and us).

I spent a lot of years being disappointed that the world and other people weren't what I wanted them to be (and I wanted them to be much better than me). Now, I'm forty, my body has already been long failing me, and what peculiar intellectual genius I have amounts to an occasional "oh, wow, now it makes sense to me" moment for some other people reading some things I've written, and, much more so, an influence I've had on the people closest to me. How much is that? Not that much.

But I'm me, I exist, and I've been given the opportunity to experience this life. This life which is so much more, so much more rich, than I can even begin to comprehend. What I've seen and who I've known would take a thousand lifetimes to plumb the depths of. It may not be all I could ever have wanted (or even what I was taught to expect), but it's so much more than I ever had a right to ask for.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 10:24 PM on October 3, 2004

To dame's point:

Every johnnie leaves St. John's with a reasonably solid understanding of, for example, special relativity (not general, though, which is much harder and not in the curriculum. I have that Wald text, though I don't have some of the math to work through it. But many authorities I trust recommend it). You liked number (and probably set) theory. Johnnies study Cantor and others. There's usually a Godel preceptorial for those interested.

A very interesting thing happens at St. John's. Being a "Great Books" and a "liberal arts" school, there's a whole bunch of people that find their way there for the philosophy and literature. And they usually don't expect all the math and science they find. But, anyway, the interesting thing is that there's a very definite minority of people that thought they were "humanities" types that either leave SJC to major in math elsewhere, or go on to grad school in math. The fact that you liked number theory inclines me to believe that you might be one of those types of people or at least understand them.

As someone who was on the math/sciences side of things before SJC and after, I understand very well how important and essential the technical, almost engineering-handbook-like techniques that are taught to people majoring in science. Johnnies in grad school usually struggle to catch up with their peers in learning techniques that the other people learned as undergrads. On the other hand, contemporary math and science education is in such a hurry to teach the most current and efficient techniques, that the forest is lost for the trees. For those of us who love the forest and are not particularly interested in the trees, that's drearily dull. (And, to defend my fellow johnnies who are in grad school, it's a double-edged sword: there's a lot of stuff that grad students do that the typical undergrad is ill-prepared for but that to a johnnie is old hat. Grad schools, in even very difficult and technical subjects, are suprisingly friendly to johnnies. If I had to estimate, I'd guess that it's about 50% stuff that's harder for them and 50% stuff that's easier.)

Anyway, my point is that I firmly believe that it is wrong to think of math and science as highly technical subjects that are, for the most part, useful and fascinating and intellectually stimulating only when they have particular utility to working at whatever is the current state-of-the-art. I don't want to slight engineering, but math and science are not, in their essence, merely a form of engineering. They are not merely pragma. They are beautiful, and it is a deep shame that a great many people that have the intellectual temperment to appreciate that beauty are alienated from it by an inappropriate pedagogy. I know for a fact—I've watched it happen—that people with sensibilities like yours fall in love with science, but particularly math, when it is presented to them in an felicitious fashion.

An aside. My ex-girlfriend, the one whose brother was killed in the WTC on 9/11, at the age of 31 decided to attend SJC after having been immersed in the local johnnie culture of me and my best friend and others. Her experience was that of a world she hadn't realized had existed opened up, and that was where she wanted to go. And she did. Nothing transfers into SJC, everyone starts as a frehsman. So she did at 31 years old. (With mostly 19 year olds. I, myself, attended as a married 26 year old.)

She's a senior this year. Junior year, which was last year for her, is the most rigorous. Chronologically, it's the Enlightenment, and probably 75% of the workload is math and laboratory. They work through Newton's Principia Mathematica, which is harder than you might expect because Newton actually used algebraic methods to do his work and then went back and found geometrical methods to validate it. (Don't get me started on SJC's neglect of the foundations of algebra—which is non-western. If you haven't figured it out yet, I'm solidly in the camp of johnnies that sees the Program as being, in its ideal, a human enterprise, not an expression of Western cultural chauvinism. I talked to Erin [my ex] just tonight and went off into a rant about the institutional cultural hostility to anything that smacks of a feminist critical viewpoint. She doesn't think it's that bad. I think it's not badly intentioned, but endemic and it exists. This came up because she's working on her senior thesis, and she's chosen the Bacchae as the subect. An example she used of what she wanted to say was Mary wiping the shit from Jesus's ass. The vital stuff, the organic muck of stuff of life, we ignore at our peril.) Anyway, Newton's PM is actually pretty hard for these reasons, even for those who have had a lot of calculus. Last year, she emailed my best friend and asked: "Before you went to SJC, you were a drama nerd, right? But you became a math/science nerd. When did that happen?"

He wrote back, "it happened freshman year." Her response was, "Oh. Then I suppose that if if hasn't happened by junior year, maybe it's not going to happen to me?"

It's not really her thing. I can tell you without a doubt that she's glad she's relatively fluent in these topics now. And she did see, no question, a beauty she hadn't realized was there before.

When I think about, for example, postmodern literary criticism, I can't help but think that there's a sort of parallel there to non-euclidean mathematics. Well, of course there is, as the intellecual movement of postmodernism has its roots in the revolutions that shook math and science at the turn of the twentieth century.

Anyway, my point is that naive geometry assumes some things as axiomatic that a more sophisticated viewpoint does not. Some of the essential problems that people grapple with in contemporary litcrit are not, in their essence, different from the problems mathematicians or even physicisists have been grappling with. It's a lie—a lie I tell you—that there is an opposition there.

The opposition is, if anywhere, in the temperment of practictioners, not the essence. What is a straight line? What is "now" and "here"? What is "the narrative"?

The wonder of it is that you grab small pieces of it that glitter in your hand and pique your interest, while the thing itself, if there is a thing itself, never stops, is always a blur, and is never where it was yesterday.

If you're a curious being, what more could one ask for?
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 10:47 PM on October 3, 2004

Why on earth are they teaching Principia? As you say, Newton had such a lack of faith in the philosophical foundations of calculus he went back and re-derived all his proofs using geometrical means - impressive for sure, and of interest historically, but doesn't just learning how to read the book eat up a lot teaching time that could be used elsewhere?
Teaching Leibnitz I could understand, especially since he invented many of the formalisms still in use. Also, Leibnitz is perhaps of more interest today (I've seen him quoted approvingly in modern books on cosmology).
To paraphrase an oldish biography of Newton, he was really the last of the magicians, Leibnitz was among the first scientists.
posted by thatwhichfalls at 11:04 PM on October 3, 2004

EB: I guess by social science types I meant those who neither fit into the math/science nor the philosophy/literature ways of thinking, but rather the historical, political science, sociological, geographical ways of thinking. (Yes, none of these are alike, but they are neighbours). SJC sounds like a fascinating place, but I think I would have rather studied medieval peasants than Aquinas. (Oh wait, I did study medieval peasants instead of Aquinas, and enclosure instead of Newton ;) Is there a place at SJC for people who have no aptitude for maths or philosophy? Or is the curriculum set very strongly on the great works of philosophy (natural or otherwise)?

About the heirarchy of educational needs: I think critical thinking is the most important part of any non-technical education, but you need a certain amount of numeracy (as with literacy) to be able to understand issues well enough to think critically about them. Statistics would be a very good example - when you understand even just the basics of sample size, statistical significance, etc, you are a better judge of how statistics are used.

I really wish that education, secondary and post=secondary would start focussing in on critical thinking, rather than worrying about just facts. Facts can be gotten anywhere, after you've learned how to learn. Who cares if you know the dates of history (I certainly don't) if you understand the whys? Unfortunately, I see more and more school systems going for standardization of knowledge that just gets in the way of teaching skills, fussing about how the kids have to learn the same subjects, whether they are appropriate to their needs or not.

(I think we should just turn this thread into the all out educational theory/ranting one)
posted by jb at 11:25 PM on October 3, 2004

And that which falls - what's wrong with magicians? Don't you believe in magic? :)

(But that is an interesting description of the way Newton seems to exist on a border - they say the English civil war killed all the fairies, but the alchemists continued on for a but longer.)
posted by jb at 11:28 PM on October 3, 2004

Oh, thought about vocational education in universities -

Yes, many students are expecting more and more vocational training - and so do companies. Which, in a country like Canada, which has mostly public universities, those companies are actually trying to download the cost of training their workers onto the tax payer. The government supported this, because it made them look practical and business minded, but it was really just becoming a form or corporate welfare. They should be paying for their own training.

I think that the goal of a BA (for those not looking towards specialist tracks like academics, law, med, teaching) is that hopefully in the course of learning to think and debate (whether it be Philosophy or Economics) you have picked up skills of reading and/or numeracy, some research skills (History pays off big time on this, at least the way it is taught in Canada - I can now find my way around most libraries, archives or databases very quickly) - but most of all, the organisation skills of designing a project and carrying it out independently. Certainly nothing I learned in university would have prepared me to be something like an administrative assistant, but I feel like I could have done that after university, but not before. (That said, it's ridiculous to suggest that those without degrees, but with experience should not be able to work in that kind of job - my mother, without a HS diploma, is a much better adminstrator than I would ever be. But for those of us who aren't self-teachers, university does act as ---- damn, what's the name of that thingy that you would reduce/fire/temper something in? starts with a C?

anyways - that's what I think a BA is about, and I think that time spent learning other things - like how to create spread sheets - is important, but university is not the place for it.

An almost completely unrelated anecdote, about silly governments. So the government starting saying they had to increase the numbers of Computer Science and related fields majors, or else loose funding (this despite the fact that the dot-com bust was happening at the time, and I know too many out of work tech people). BUT there is a ceiling on the number of qualified applicants (at least at my university, which was not a known CS school). So they created the IT major - "Information Technology" - CS for people who didn't have the math skills you need to do CS. I don't know eactly what they did study in this degree, but I feel like there are probably hundreds of students who were gypped out of a decent education (doing something they were qualified for) all in the name of promoting "technology". Certainly, they were not trained as programmers. I wonder what their employment prospects are like?
posted by jb at 11:46 PM on October 3, 2004

thatwhichfalls: SJC does Leibniz, too. A lot of mathematicians and physicists smarter than you and me have gone back to studying Newton's PM as something well worth the effort.

There is a very important organic relationship between how science and math evolved in western culture and what it is. Contempory education gives very short shrift to this, typically presenting state-of-the-art. I'm of the opinion that for something like 95% of the actual math and science that is done in the real world it's completely correct to dispense with it. But for 5%—of the people or research—it's indispensable. I really don't think that many people realize what they're missing. On the other hand, I'm acutely aware of the technical facilities I don't have. :)
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 12:20 AM on October 4, 2004

jb: well, CS and IT is something I have professional experience with. It's a nice example for the kinds of problems we're discussing.

Please allow me to talk about this in a roundabout way.

Firstly, if anyone want to follow the thread of my thoughts on these sorts of matters, it's perhaps best to try to understand that I'm not what I seem. Oddly, I described myself to my ex today as a "magician"—everything for me is at core intuitive, even visceral. Yet for most of my life I've found myself on the math/science—the formalist—side of the cultural divide, and that's how people usually see me. I don't how that happened to be, it just is.

Anyway, a good portion of both my education outside of SJC and my experience, even, is CS. Knuth took pride of place on my bookshelf here behind my computer desk until I packed some things up in preperation for my move. One part of me says, the CS folks are right.

But then, I've been oddly fascinated with Perl for five or six years. I hope to meet and spend some time with Larry Wall sometime in the coming year—I can't really make explicit my tenuous connection with him for privacy reasons. But we've corresponded a few times in the past.

I'm fascinated by the pragmatism which is the foundational philosophy of Perl. And I'm fascinated by the fact that the language's designer is...a linguist.

I don't think this is even remotely an accident.

Here we see quite clearly the tension between science and pragma, between logos and technos. I'm fascinated by it. What does it mean to get things done or to comprehend?

Of course, I'm of the strong opinion that in the real world today, in terms of software "engineering", we're metaphorically carving 747s from balsa wood, one at a time, one idiosyncratic craftsman at a time. So you know where I stand in that context.

But I'm fasinated by the gap that's arisen between the two viewpoints. What you describe is an academic division that has existed in the US since forever: it typically is the difference between a "Computer Science" degree and a "Managment/Business Information Systems" degree. I think it's very unfortunate that many people follow one path expecting to end up at the other destination. I'm not, however, willing to say that one is intrinsically inferior to the other.

I do wonder, though, why it is that here as almost everywhere in western culture, we find a dichotomy. Is this how people are built? How they live? I wonder why I (supposedly) cannot deeply comprehend Knuth's algorithms while being very pragmatic in their expression. Why am I asked to declare allegience to one worldview or the other?

Oh: "Is there a place at SJC for people who have no aptitude for maths or philosophy? Or is the curriculum set very strongly on the great works of philosophy (natural or otherwise)?" It's a set curriculum, there are no electives with the exceptions of a preceptorial in each of the final two years. People who can't cut the math and lab, usually don't make it through junior year. Often earlier, but definitely by then. They see all this stuff—correctly, in my view—as part of a whole, Einstein is as important as Shakespeare. This is why, of course, it's a very small school and will always be a small school. :)

I'm talking a lot about SJC, so I want to make something clear: I love the school, and I think it's worthwhile and a very good education, but please believe me when I say that I don't think it is any more than it is. How much is that? Well, it's something. But it's not a lot of other things. The Program's approach is ahistorical. The contemporary argument would be that such a thing is nonsense—how can anything be understood outside its context?

But I don't approve or accept these sorts of rhetorical structures. There is something to be learned in the context of the "canon", and there is something to be learned in the context of history. And, without a doubt, many other contexts.

When Erin was talking to me today about her senior thesis—this idea of Bacchanal, or of Mary tending to the bodily reality of Jesus—I asked her: are you so sure that all these writers were so ignorant of the visceral? Perhaps it is we who are alienated from the visceral, not them. When Newton walked down the cobblestone street, how could he not be quite aware of the smell and the sound of people emptying their chamber pots from the windows above? Maybe, for them, and not for us, this edifice of the abstract, the dryly intellectual, was a refuge? So she asked, "maybe so, but what of the good parts, fucking and eating and laughing...were they seeking refuge from those, too?" My response was, maybe they weren't. Maybe they just took those things for granted, they did not need to be discussed. Or maybe not. I don't know.

Plato doesn't take them for granted. The Symposium is a drunken dinner-party, with much flirting, where people discuss the nature of love.

One has to ask: what is education for? One may perhaps need an education to perform a job...does one need an education to live? Hmm. But then, what if the answer is "yes"?

Critical, agile thinking is a useful skill, there is no question of that. But should our schools be teaching that skill because it is useful, or because it just is? People can't really agree what we're asking our schools to do. How can we expect them, then, to do it?
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 1:10 AM on October 4, 2004

jb: of course I agree with you about the teaching of critical thinking versus "facts". But it's so much easier to teach—and quantify the teaching of—facts than critical thinking. So that's what's taught.

However, I'm fairly certain that a great many people have temperments that are better suited to learning and utilizing "facts" than they are for critical thinking. Why, exactly, is that wrong and why should they not be catered to?
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 1:21 AM on October 4, 2004

You got me there, EB (after all my talking about letting people do what they're best at). I have a brain that is good at facts (which is an asset in history), but it's critical thinking that makes facts worth while - that make facts worth something.

Yes, it is sometimes easier to teach facts than critical skills - and I doubt that many secondary teachers are trained to teach critical skills (some even lack them).

But I think we need to change this for the sake of the students themselves - in order to function in society, they need to be able to solve problems, do research, understand bias and take apart arguments for their inconsistences, understand scientific arguments - all this translates into real life. To be able to work, to find out things they need to know (like finding which government office you need), to listen to media intelligently and recognise faulty propositions, to be informed about something like global warming or social mobility (not just scientific literacy, but also social scientific). I guess all your basic citizenship things, which is why we need to do this at the secondary (and near universal) level. Also, being able to think critically helps on a personal level - I think mastery of these skills (problem solving, logic, how to research, etc) are essential to personal success.

I don't think everyone will have the same skill - but I hope that everyone of average intelligence will be able to gain the kind of critical skills to be able to listen and participate as active, informed citizens and community members. Maybe I am being too optimistic/naive.
posted by jb at 1:53 AM on October 4, 2004

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