Thursday, April 02, 2015

Zakaria: Why America's Obsession With STEM Education Is Dangerous

   No time to mess with this right now, but a few thoughts to throw on the table. I heard FZ on public radio the other day while I was cleaning $#@%*$%$ bat guano out of the attic. I was practically yelling at the radio... The pro-humanities circle-jerk was revving up to dangerous RPMs, when FZ himself made what I thought was the crucial point:
   The glorification of STEM is largely, but not entirely misguided. The other half of all of this is the denigration of the humanities and many of the social sciences, which are currently seen as (a) bullshit and (b) (consequently) easy. (All the guests were vehemently denying that this was so...) But the humanities and the more humanities-like social sciences have become easier and more filled with bullshit over the last 30 years or so. (I've complained about that so much that I can't believe I hadn't previously seen it as the other half of this particular problem...) FZ did not point out, but I will: this bullshittification of the humanities and social sciences coincided with--and was largely the result of--these disciplines falling in love with a mish-mash of recent continental (mostly French...) philosophical and literary theories: postmodernism, poststructuralism, deconstruction, critical theory, etc. Many of the humanities social sciences are eaten up with that stuff. The mish-mash that has been adopted may or may not be true to the original views...I won't speak to that. But it's certainly lowered the intellectual/scholarly standards of the disciplines afflicted. Instead of serious reasoning and analysis, the mish-mash in question relentlessly pushes an even more confused mish-mash of relativism, nihilism and skepticism, combined with an equally pernicious commitment to extreme leftist politics. These disciplines have a reputation for being easy and full of shit largely because they are (largely) easy and full of shit. (Remember: I'm adding that to what FZ said. He didn't say anything about recent continental philosophy.) FZ pointed out, rightly, that there is nothing inherently easy nor bullshitty about the humanities and social sciences. Rather, all this is a fairly recent development.
   Anyway, there are some thoughts.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

One point that FZ ignores, which you slightly touch on, is the distinction between a liberal education and an education in the humanities. In the American university today, a humanities major is no guarantee of receiving a liberal education. On the contrary, I think most departments, at least the "research" ones, offer the humanities major what amounts to a pre-professional degree in being an academic in the humanities. Such an education is actually very narrowly focused. For example, at my undergraduate institution, philosophy majors were required to pick a specialization - history, ethics, M&E - as undergraduate juniors. A humanities education tends to be very "technical" too, in the sense that professional knowhow is emphasized. Courses beyond the distribution requirement level tend to focus on the skills needed of an academic: research methods, a proper academic prose style (detachment! jargon!), and commitment to the values of the field.

If undergraduate humanities education is more production of half-formed professors than fully formed, liberally educated adults, then the philistines have a point. We really don't need more anthropologists, philosophers, or historians. The recipients of this kind of education are either fuel for the TA-to-adjunct pyramid scheme, or end up in civilian life little better than a computer engineer in liberal education but with technical skills of greatly lesser practical use. May as well have more computer engineers, or locksmiths for that matter.

The rigid professionalization of humanities education I think is part of the reason the PoMo ideology has taken hold in humanities departments to the degree it has. Many of the features of the PoMo style of thought support the humanities professors' institutional interests, regardless of content: Initial recruitment into the feild is simplified by the ease of the initial arguments, and the amount of reading it spares the student with its everything-is-bunk epistemology. The endless jargon and opaque writing serves as a quick badge of insider status. The relativism/nihilism increases the power of established authorities in the field. (Ironic for an outlook so focused on "liberation", but, insofar as PoMo writers attempt to establish premises, they do it with a name check.) The picture of the world outside the cadre as irredeemably corrupt is a great encouragement to commitment to the field. The lack of substantial content supports a practically endless research program.

Pretty much every professional field requires a background theory that does not, at least contradict its continued institutional success, but the PoMo theories and the contemporary, all-education-is-for-jobs university system are such a good match that I don't see PoMo being dislodged without the professionalization problem being solved.

11:54 AM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

My God, A, those are great points. Thanks for this comment. I find this extremely enlightening/helpful/important.

All I have to add is to:

> The lack of substantial content supports a practically endless research program.

And what I'd add, on a similar note, is:

Views according to which all interpretations are equal are a godsend to people in fields that are running out of things to say...

Cripes, were you really required to choose an undergraduate specialization???? Would you mind telling me which institution that was, just out of curiosity (e-mail would be fine if you don't want that info loose in the Library of Babel...) That's madness...

I've heard that we are supposed to encourage kids applying to grad school to pick a specialty...but I hadn't heard about pressure to specialize as an undergrad.

2:05 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Something about this dislodged from my memory a bit of dialogue from the Mad Magazine Star Wars parody:

Luke - "Hi, I'm Luke Skywalker. I'm a rising senior at Tattoine Tech, where I major in Incredible Space Heroics."
C3PO - "Goodness, there can't be many jobs in that!"
Luke - "Don't worry, I have a minor in Space Accounting."

Ah, Mad, borscht belt conduit for generations. RIP. But anyway... I went to a big state university, co-flagship for its state, in a state with a mid-tier system. All the humanities departments were "research" departments. The ones I was aware of had definitely had a grad school prep focus, especially the ones whose departmental reputation in their field was greater than the university's reputation overall. I don't want to be overly glib in describing my university's requirements as "declaring a specialization", so I'll spell them out to the best of my recollection: The philosophy major required 30 credits in the department, so 10 courses for the major. In principle, you could petition the chair to accept something from, say, the Religious Studies department to count toward that, but I never heard of that being done successfully. Of the 10 required courses, 5 had to be in one of the three usual types: History, Ethics/Political, M&E. You had to have at least 2 of each, so you basically had to have 5/3/2. In practice, since Philosophy is so much taught using classical (small c) works, about 75% of the classes could be History or _____, which gave you some flexibility. Now, if you made up the 5 from History, additional distribution requirements kicked in, so that you had to have a certain number in ancient and modern. If you made up your 5 from M&E, then you had to take the advanced logic class in addition to the symbolic logic that every major had to take. That was the system, and the undergraduate advisor made it clear that the point was to turn out majors who would fit into a grad program. Philosophy minors could get their 4 courses however they liked. Like proles and animals, they were free.

10:17 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Now, about that advanced logic class: it was a straight line march to Godel’s Incompleteness theorem, and the motivation for it was clearly that the University didn’t want for M&E focused students showing up in grad programs unfamiliar with a result that carries so much weight in analytic philosophy. Fair enough, if that’s the goal, and I really did like the class. (The professor was very well liked by the students for his talent at making difficult logic topics clear. He was basically a pure logician, even though he was in the Philosophy department, and unfortunately I heard he was denied tenure after I graduated for having insufficient publications in the Field, though he published much in the math newsletters. That is a whole other, somewhat related problem.) The Math department had courses that covered Godel, as well as logic more generally, but you couldn’t use any of those for the requirement. Part of the reason, aside from keeping the in house logician busy, was that the Math department – also a department whose reputation was much greater than the university overall – was known for its habit of suborning any students who showed math talent into switching their majors. The “problem” had gotten so bad that the Physics department actually taught all of their undergraduate mathematics requirements inside the Physics department, just to keep their more talented students out of mathematician clutches. Looking back on it, even though I liked the course, my understanding of Godel is really pretty shallow for precisely the narrow focus that was placed on getting to the finish line of THE PROOF in one course, without more background in number theory, etc. That course was an example of the way in which the professional skills emphasis – being minimally conversant with Incompleteness to better “pass” in the field – got in the way of education.

Regarded as a pre-professional program, my philosophy major succeeded admirably. I got into grad school in the field and felt pretty confortable there right away. As a liberal education however, it didn’t do so well. If I count as having a liberal education today, it’s more to do with a longtime addiction to used book stores than to my undergraduate class load. My point though isn’t to complain though. At the time I was a full participant in seeing my undergraduate education as just prep school. A big part of the reason was that I was a fairly clever kid who had dicked around in high school and couldn’t get into better than a mid-tier state university. It didn’t take me long to figure out that, while my BA, qua BA, was always going to earn offers of conversation about football, my BA in Philosophy, in the eyes of professional philosophers alone, was something respectable, precisely because it was known for turning out good future academics. From the faculty’s point of view, the same kind of thinking held: decades of effort in improving the liberal education at mid-tier state might never improve its overall reputation, but sending well-prepared students to the same 50 graduate programs from which they came would improve the department’s reputation. And that it is the point I’ve been sort of circling around: the PoMo problem is fueled by the undergraduate professionalization problem, but that problem has a lot to do with the steep, centralized hierarchy of schools in which the professors themselves are educated.

10:18 PM  

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