Friday, July 28, 2017

Higher education is all about employment readiness

Over the years, I have written op-eds in plenty in my attempts to convince people about the importance of educating the youth in the humanities and the social sciences.  The logic is a no-brainer for me: The concerns and worries that we have are not always problems for science and technology to solve, nor can science and technology ever solve them.

Scientific and technological advancements will happen, and countries will grow and prosper, yes, but, we will face an increasing number of fuzzy issues for which decisions will have to be made by people, as individuals and as societies.  However, if people are not sufficiently educated on those, and if people do not have the skills to think through fuzzy and complex issues for which there are no cut-and-dried answers, then we are screwed.

But, hey, you know well that nobody listens to me.

Consider CRISPR.  Yes, I have blogged about CRISPR before, which you old-time readers know about.  I will refer the newbies to, maybe, this post.

I read the news, oh boy, and I immediately tweeted it.  (I don't care if anybody reads my tweet--I am fully prepared that nobody cares a shit about what I have to say.)

What was that news about?  Shoukhrat Mitalipov of Oregon Health & Science University successfully targeted a gene associated with a human disease.
Mitalipov's team worked with human embryos produced by sperm from men with a genetic mutation, the report said, noting they were of "clinical quality." They then modified the mutation using a gene-editing technique, CRISPR.
So what, you ask?
The work offers the possibility that one day science will be able to modify genes in human embryos to prevent disease. Critics worry, however, that gene-editing in embryos opens the floodgates to the creation of "designer babies" in which parents specify traits they want their children to have.
Of course, we are long, long ways from "designer babies."  But, I don't think it is hyperbole to suggest that we are on the path towards it.  Which is why we need to start thinking about and discussing this fuzzy and complex issue.  "we do need to decide when and how we should use this technique."
Should there be limits on the types of things you can edit in an embryo? If so, what should they entail? These questions also involve deciding who gets to set the limits and control access to the technology.
We may also be concerned about who gets to control the subsequent research using this technology. Should there be state or federal oversight? Keep in mind that we cannot control what happens in other countries. Even in this country it can be difficult to craft guidelines that restrict only the research someone finds objectionable, while allowing other important research to continue. Additionally, the use of assisted reproductive technologies (IVF, for example) is largely unregulated in the U.S., and the decision to put in place restrictions will certainly raise objections from both potential parents and IVF providers.
And those are merely the beginnings, with a gazillion other questions, like:
Moreover, there are important questions about cost and access. Right now most assisted reproductive technologies are available only to higher-income individuals. A handful of states mandate infertility treatment coverage, but it is very limited. How should we regulate access to embryo editing for serious diseases? We are in the midst of a widespread debate about health care, access and cost. If it becomes established and safe, should this technique be part of a basic package of health care services when used to help create a child who does not suffer from a specific genetic problem? What about editing for nonhealth issues or less serious problems – are there fairness concerns if only people with sufficient wealth can access?
"Now is the time to figure out how we want to see this gene-editing path unfold."  Yep!

There is no way I want to leave these questions to some "wise men" (almost always men!) to decide on behalf of humanity.  But, if I want healthier deliberations amongst us all, then it gets back to the fundamental question of the purpose of education.  Should we invest in educating the youth so that they can think about such fuzzy and complex issues, and help a democratic society decide? Or should we let the prevailing forces channel higher education to be about workforce preparation, and just fuck the philosophy departments!

I know where I stand on this.  And, unlike the current president and his minions with their ackamarackus, mine is a principled and consistent stand.


Ramesh said...

A theme that you have consistently returned to in your blog and a very valid one.

Want to debate two areas.

The first is that the US also bemoans that STEM is a declining field in education. I know of a few initiatives to improve the attractiveness of STEM amongst the youth. If arts and humanities are also declining, then WHAT is growing ? Is it just business and law ? I find that difficult to believe.

Secondly, is it just education in humanities and arts that is important or is it the practice of critical thinking that is key here. Yes, of course to exposure to arts and humanities, but the harder part is to get everybody to read and think for themselves critically and not follow some rubbish lazily. In its absence, questions like you pose are going to be suboptimally decided. Today, you see the same tendency in matters like nuclear power, GMO, even climate change. You may have heard of Neal Degrasse Tyson's campaign to "Make America Smart Again".

Sriram Khé said...

Yes, business and criminal justice are two huge undergraduate majors in the US. Even in my university--they are the two majors with the largest number of students. I have often joked--with sarcasm, of course--that this itself is an evidence of the prison-industrial business in the US!

Yes, the real challenge is how to make people think for themselves. Socrates went around bugging people essentially to compel them to think for themselves. We have fantastic progress over the two thousand years. But, it does seem like the progress is stalling and--even more worrisome--the rise of fake news is making us regress.

And, finally, yes, on critical issues like climate change, GMO, gene editing, the sheer ideological framework that people bring to the discussion makes everything more complicated. But, the cure is not in solidifying the ideology but promoting more of "thinking for themselves"--even though it seems like a "yuge" struggle.

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