Sunday, January 17, 2016

Teach your children well. To code. And they'll love you!

My first day at university where I now teach, I met my fellow-newbie faculty colleagues.  One of them was a physicist, with what seemed like an intense New York way of speaking.  When talking with him, I found out that he was the physics department--there was no other physics faculty at the university.  I was shocked, of course, especially when that was my first ever love.

At small universities like ours, physics is not one that we care to educate students about.  As with many aspects of higher education, this too is something that disappoints and depresses me.  In a related context, I recently wrote in an email to a couple of colleagues, "Whatever happened to the old-fashioned notion of exploration of ideas in a liberal education setting?"

We have moved far, far away from exploration.  As this young commentator puts it, "exploration for its own sake is under siege" while writing about the assault on exploration whether it is the arts, or philosophy, or outer space:
The problem is that both space exploration (as well as all other undirected scientific inquiry) and the humanities are in danger, and the conceptual line we draw between them is obscuring the fact that it’s the same danger, and that it comes from the same source: a cleaving to market-determined value and a desire for immediate return on investment.
We could argue about whether that desire is a consequence of the instant-news environment, the Great Recession and the economic pressures of globalization, or the myopia resulting from the need for political wins.
If there seemingly is no answer to "what job can you get with that, and how much will that pay?" then apparently it is not worth for society to fund it?  After all, we could be exploring the universe for ever, and could hunt for extra-terrestrial intelligence until we are all dead, and not being able to monetize the investment within a few years means that those are not worth exploring!  This approach is rapidly filtering down to the high school level where, for instance, even learning a foreign language is now considered to be wasteful compared to learning a programming language!  Should we wonder then that right from when they are kids, there is a push to teach them how to code!

Such a contemporary approach to education and knowing, and the push for specialization in order to "grow the economy," cannot possibly help us in the long-run.    Buckminster Fuller said it best:
Specialization has bred feelings of isolation, futility, and confusion in individuals. It has also resulted in the individual’s leaving responsibility for thinking and social action to others. Specialization breeds biases that ultimately aggregate as international and ideological discord, which in turn leads to war.
We need to understand how we relate to other humans, to other life forms, to the rocks and the rivers, and to outer space.  But, we cannot expect all these to miraculously happen if we take away exploration from education.  All we will end up with, as a former colleague used to say, is a society of automatons!


Mike Hoth said...

It's ironic that we seek to crush our curious nature and individuality in American business to become more efficient and scientifically skilled workers, while the Japanese are trying to teach their workers the same skills. Japan has pushed homogony for decades and it has creates a workforce that does not innovate. Now some corporations are hiring people (mostly from places like America) to teach their workers to innovate. What kind of trouble will we be in as a species when none of us can innovate because we abandoned it?

Sriram Khé said...

Yes, and China and India are now slowly beginning to introduce our "traditional" liberal education in their countries because they understand that there is something magical about it--the irony is that we are rapidly abandoning liberal education in order to compete against China and India. Go figure! Haven't we learned from the Japanese competing against the US? ;)

Fuller worried that such narrow specialization will be the doom of humans. He also used the language that was hot then--"spaceship earth." It is an usage that I try to avoid not because I don't value that phrase and the meaning behind it, but because to those opposed, "spaceship earth" becomes a convenient punching bag, which is why I tend to avoid "isms" and such phrases. But, here in the comment section, I can include that from Fuller ;)

"Only a comprehensive switch from the narrowing specialization and toward an ever more inclusive and reining comprehension by all humanity — regarding all the factors covering omnicontinuing life aboard our spaceship Earth — can bring about reorientation from the self-extinction-bound human trending, and do so with the critical time remaining before we have passed the point of chemical process irretrievability."

Anne in Salem said...

In Oregon high schools, coding is not considered a foreign language, and Oregon public universities will not accept it as such. I'm not used to Oregon education doing something good.

You have joked about tl,dr. I can't say that about this post, but about Fuller I will say to,du. That translates to too obtuse, didn't understand. "Passed the point of chemical process irretrievability"? What does that even mean? Reading the link didn't help, unfortunately.

There is room for both specialization and generalization. As with most things, moderation matters.

Sriram Khé said...

Yes, if only we understood--and then conveyed in education--that there is a place for specialization and that we need a broad understanding as well. Instead, we push kids for specialization right from they are young. I have heard from a few students that in middle school they were asked to think and write about what they wanted to be and, therefore, what they wanted to do in college. How awful! My nightmarish India experiences now being forced on the young in the US :(

Ramesh said...

You are going too far. Yes, the neglect of liberal arts, or the physical sciences is not great in the long run. But stop rubbishing the coders. If not for them, you wouldn't be able to send all those inane tweets or write this insightful blog. And economic return on investment is not a bad concept , in case you missed it :)

Sriram Khé said...

hmmm ... if you begin to look at the world in terms of ROI, I am not sure what returns people in Delhi or Beijing are getting when they breathe in the smog and wonder why the diffused sunlight looks eerie ...
I recognize that your ROI comment is a tad tongue in cheek ... but, it is the ROI idea that is also pushing coding and programming all the way down to middle school and lower--and reduces the human to be nothing but a worker bee.

Oh, yes, all thanks to the coders for providing us blogs, emails, Twitter, Facebook, podcasts, everything that I use ... ;)

Most read this past month