Sunday, June 23, 2013

What we are losing

Dr. Harley A. Rotbart recalls his father's reaction to his graduating:
Crying loudly, Dad fell to his knees in what can only be described as a total emotional breakdown. He shook and shivered and sobbed. People all around turned to stare, but he didn’t notice or didn’t care. The usual self-consciousness was gone. As I dropped to my knees to face him, he held me like never before. Everyone backed away to give us space; a few applauded. Strangers took pictures. Dad and I stayed on our knees, crying and hugging for a long time, until we both had the strength to stand up. Then, holding onto each other and to my Mom and brother, we made our way out of the auditorium. We didn’t stop at the reception for cookies or punch. We just kept walking until we felt the rain on our faces.
Only later did I fully realize what had happened. On that day, and again in a similar scene at my brother’s journalism school ceremony the next year, Dad was liberated from Auschwitz. He was no longer “142178,” a Nazi victim. My father could now stand face to face with doctors, journalists and other accomplished Americans. Although uneducated himself, he had educated his kids, and that was plenty good enough. Better than good enough: it was great. No longer bound by the restraints life had forced on him, he reveled in what this new country had given him. He reveled in his family and in his fruit truck. He reveled in personally defeating Hitler. At his sons’ graduations, he graduated to freedom.
Who knows what was really going on in Mr. Rotbart's heart and head at that moment. But graduation from college seems to be less to do with freedom than it once was. Consider this comment and others to this post:
While I would agree that more scientists is NOT what we need, having more of the population educated about science and specifically the scientific method, critical thinking, and skepticism is certainly what we need.
The relevant background is this:
Whipping and driving people into science careers doesn't seem like a very good way to produce good scientists. In fact, it seems like an excellent way to produce a larger cohort of indifferent ones, which is exactly what we don't need. Or does that depend on the definition of "we"?
And this:
But the main backing for government intervention in STEM education has come from the business lobby. If I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard a businessman stand up and bemoan the alleged failure of the education system to produce the science and technology ‘skills’ that his company requires, I’d be a very rich man.
I have always struggled to recognize the picture these detractors paint. I find most recent science graduates to be positively bursting with both technical knowledge and enthusiasm.
If business people want to harness that enthusiasm, all they have to do is put their hands in their pockets and pay and train newly graduated scientists and engineers properly. It is much easier, of course, for the US National Association of Manufacturers and the British Confederation of British Industry to keep bleating that the state-run school- and university-education systems are ‘failing’.
In short, education is being, or has already been, sold out to business. I think this is related to what I think Gary Gutting means when he says:
The fruits of college teaching should be measured not by tests but by the popularity of museums, classical concerts, art film houses, book discussion groups, and publications like Scientific American, the New York Review of Books, The Economist, and The Atlantic, to cite just a few. These are the places where our students reap the benefits of their education. 
I don't agree with him when he says that, "We should judge teaching not by the amount of knowledge it passes on, but by the enduring excitement it generates." Passing on knowledge matters more than generating excitement.  But it may well be that enduring excitement requires knowledge. Faith in culture seems to be dead, or at least dying. And I'm not sure that culture can survive without this faith, or that we can survive without culture.  

A father might cry when his son graduated with a purely vocational degree, but there would be something absurd about this. "Yes! My boy has grown to be a tool of the Association of Manufacturers!" might be said, or even exclaimed, but surely not while openly weeping. Or perhaps it could be. But if that's what graduation means, or comes to mean, it will never be a graduation to freedom.


  1. I think that much of this could be sorted out by better understandings between schools and potential students (and parents or other investors/bill-payers) about what is being sold in those course catalogs, what a degree is a measure of. Some may want to pay for something like being cultured others may just want technical skills and it should be spelled out in plain language from the beginning.

    1. That sounds like a good idea. I'm all for choice. One problem, though, is with coercion. Students might not be forced to major in STEM fields, but they can be strongly encouraged to do so, even when it really isn't in their best interests. Another problem has to do with prestige. The university/polytechnic distinction in Britain used to be roughly the culture/technique distinction (at least in the sense that culture was meant to be part of universities but was not really meant to be the point of polytechnics), but then enough people wanted polytechnics to become universities that they did so.

      So even if the choices are spelled out clearly (and my guess is that will not always be done, either from sheer dishonesty or from a genuine belief that studying culture really does provide real-world skills) students might well not choose as they should. Some will choose technical skills in the mistaken belief that doing so will increase their earnings (I don't mean that this belief is mistaken in everyone's case), some will choose culture for the sake of prestige but end up getting little or nothing out of it.

      And there's a real danger, it seems to me, that culture will become the preserve of a wealthy elite. Although maybe there's a way I'm not seeing that this would not be so bad.

    2. has "culture" ever been the preserve of the elite and how would people be deprived of access to culture by taking up a trade? Not that you are heading this way but there is a haunting element of finishing schools for gentlemen in many of these discussions of the high life. No school can predict life after school but they could be a lot more transparent about what will be offered to those buying in...

    3. It's the finishing school for gentlemen model that I want to avoid, but perhaps it's actually (subconsciously) an ideal of mine despite myself. (I'm not being sarcastic.) Everyone should have access to culture, I think, and not just "low" or "pop" culture but the kind of thing that it takes education to be able to appreciate. Perhaps high school is enough for that (if not in practice then at least if schools were adequately funded). If not, perhaps a few gen. ed. courses are enough. How to be transparent about them and still succeed in selling them though? Part of the problem is that too few people seem to want to buy culture. But maybe that's the culture's problem, not education's.