Thursday, April 3, 2014

STEMing the educational tide? Aldo Leopold on professoring

Aldo Leopold was a naturalist and conservationist who wrote many things for pubic consumption as well as being a leader in academic conservation research. His writings, especially perhaps in A Sand County Almanac and Sketches Here and There (orig. 1949, repub. 1987, Oxford), are widely admired for their poetic depiction of wilderness and living nature, and his lament about what we are doing to it.

We often write about the role of science in current society. One issue is the way science and technology don't just contribute to society but in a sense tyrannize it, as predators working with the commercial sector to popularize technological solutions to every problem. The largely government-funded university research system is a common target of our criticism because of the way it perpetuates and feeds itself, advocating myths of its effectiveness far beyond what we think is the reality (and we write of the media who are willful participants in this system), and abnegating performance standards for the students on whose tuition universities also rely.
Aldo Leopold, 1887-1948

But perhaps this, while rampant if not out of control, is less new than we have thought. Here is what Leopold had to say, back in 1949, 65 years ago:
"There are men charged with the duty of examining the construction of the plants, animals, and soils which are the instruments of the great orchestra.  These men are called professors.  Each selects one instrument and spends his life taking it apart and describing its strings and sounding boards. This process of dismemberment is called research. The place for dismemberment is called a university.

A professor may pluck the strings of his own instrument, but never that of another. And if he listens for music he must never admit it to his fellows or to his students. For all are restrained by an ironbound taboo which decrees that the construction of instruments is the domain of science, while the detection of harmony is the domain of poets.
Professors serve science and science serves progress. It serves progress so well that many of the more intricate instruments are stepped upon and broken in the rush to spread progress to all backward lands.  One by one the parts are thus stricken from the song of songs.  If the professor is able to classify each instrument before it is broken, he is well content.
Science contributes moral as well as material blessings to the world.  Its great moral contribution is objectivity, or the scientific point of view.  This means doubting everything except facts; it means hewing to the facts, let the chips fall where they may.  One of the facts hewn to by science is that every river needs more people, and all people need more inventions, and hence more science; the good life depends on the indefinite extension of this chain of logic.  That the good life on any river may likewise depend on the perception of its music, and the preservation of some music to perceive, is a form of doubt not yet entertained by science. " ( pp 153-4.)

Today, we are moving more rapidly away from integrated thinking than the Colorado rapids move through the Grand Canyon. Our romance with the brand-named STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) sounds so knowing, but is really a brand-name for universities going headlong after tuition and research money by essentially asserting that what brings in money is what education is all about.

Rafting the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon: Wikipedia

For what are largely fiscal rather than intellectual or academic reasons, we're moving headlong away from the arts, humanities, and social sciences towards every impersonal, stainless-steel subject that can bring in the green and churn out the technocrats.

We are not here mooning for some mushy idea of elite intellectualism. But life is more than money and machinery, and these edifying subjects are more than just ways to spend dull, soporific evenings at concerts. Much of science is certainly driven or even enabled by technology, and much that we want as citizens is produced by technology. But some of the best, most transformative science comes from synthesis of ideas across thought-areas, even including non-technical ones. That's at least in part because a well-balanced life can expose one to diverse ideas and in a sense sow the seeds for creative innovation.

But universities, in their short-sighted and often self-interested ways, are rushing away from departments and disciplines that don't 'pay', towards the STEM subjects that spin dollar signs in front of deans' and provosts' eyes. Course distribution and degree requirements are being watered down, given fancy 'integrative' names that don't really seriously integrate broad knowledge (still, sometimes, known as 'liberal arts' education), and through-puting students the way a factory through-puts boxes of soap (except, perhaps, that a factory upholds some quality standards, rejecting substandard boxes). We are not making up this dissolution of standards, but do stress the thin and venal rationale that typically underlies it.

This is stifling. Society should wake up to the wholeness not just of Nature but of life generally, because one might say that people do not live by cellphones alone. The liberal arts taken seriously is a serious way for people in a privileged society such as ours to have a more deeply satisfying life. We as a society should reinforce the idea of a broad, general education, and stem the venal aspects of the STEM tide that will overtake us if we're not diligent, if it hasn't already irrevocably done so in ways Leopold was bemoaning before most of us were even born.


Manoj Samanta said...

> perhaps this, while rampant if not out of control, is less new than we have
> thought. Here is what Leopold had to say, back in 1949, 65 years ago:

In fact, if you read the books written by Mencken on US society in 1920s and 30s, you would think they were written yesterday.

However, there is one big difference between 1930s and now, and that is the US debt. In 1930s, USA was mostly a creditor country and could come back strong after going through a big adjustment. Today USA is a debt-stuffed country and the government is adding more and more debt everywhere. Since 2008 crash, they increased student loans greatly and made it bigger than all credit card loans combined.

When you take that factor (and its follow up adjustment) into account, you will see that there is no way to go back to the idyllic world. The US university system, as it exists today, is 'dead man walking'.

Ken Weiss said...

Well, could be, but pronouncing a system dead is probably the first step its revival (as happened to those who said we'd reached the end of history, or science was finished because all problems were solved). Famous last words!

Ken Weiss said...

I would also add that over 30 years here at Penn State, the substantial majority of the very best undergraduates I taught or interacted with were dual majors (with science and some non-science major), or were at least minoring in such non-science subjects. But they were not soft or short on STEM knowledge, as their subsequent lives have typically shown. So one can have both, and in balance. They were also some of the most interestingly thoughtful students I've known.

Manoj Samanta said...

"So one can have both, and in balance."

I have absolutely no disagreement with your main point. What I was trying to say is that this STEM movement is similar to the other movement of skipping all basic research to focus on curing human diseases. They are both extremely short-term measures to achieve miracles, because a debt-burdened society has little room to think long term.

Ken Weiss said...

I agree and would go further. It's to learn today's technology in some professor's lab as soon as possible, and to be given as little systematic training, viewed as a distraction, as possible. And heavens, don't bother learning the history of thought in your field!

Ken Weiss said...

We just returned from seeing the play Don Juan in Hell by George Bernard Shaw. Even a century ago, it was clear what the role of science in society, at the expense of what Shaw characterized as 'philosophy', was.