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!

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