Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Education reforms

In his classic 1974 Caltech commencement speech about the scientific integrity, Feynman starts with some funny stories about the Cargo Cult Sciences, especially with his own experience from the institutes for paranormal sciences where the scientific rules are superficially followed but something must be wrong because the whole "science" doesn't work.

Then he looks into the life of more sane, educated people for examples of similarly unscientific beliefs. The science "how to educate" is his first example of a commonly believed pseudoscience that is used to intimidate people with common-sense ideas how to teach. It is a pseudoscience because it doesn't evaluate the results of their policies. In fact, the reading skills are not getting better at all. Still, the society keeps on employing the same people who try to make all these self-described improvements.

I have seen quite a few education reforms in my life, and I know many more from reading about the history. An overwhelming majority of them seem to be bureaucratic masturbations designed to make an official feel important, masturbations that are subsequently undone by another group of bureaucrats who feel equally important as the previous group if not more so. Even though some of them may be more right than others, the long-term result is, of course, zero.

So I kind of thought that the Curricular Review at Harvard was another example of such an activity. It requires to print millions of pages of paper that not only leads to the death of many trees but, perhaps more importantly, it also wastes a lot of time of thousands of people. It seemed that the only results would be, among thousands of similar examples, to rename "Core" to something that doesn't even have a name, rename "ethical values" to "moral values" or the other way around, move some subfields from one place to another, try to make some minor changes in the requirements that would surely be undone by chaotic amendments, to confuse everyone, and to allow some deans to pretend that they have done a lot of useful work.

Nevertheless, I also had a feeling that the people behind this particular reform were united by some dream. I had no clear idea what this dream was and why it was a good thing and I think that no discussion about this dream - and whether it was good or not - has ever occurred. Maybe, it was even a heresy to ask whether the dream was good or not. However, a new illuminating albeit controversial editorial in

has changed that. The undergraduate editors have concluded that the kind of education reform they dream about is impossible and they became disillusioned about it. They complain about the "sectarian" amendments that were added to defend individual fields, for example the amendment that has eventually restored some history requirements. Let me copy one typical paragraph of the editorial:

The proposal promised not to produce “introductions to disciplines,” but rather a preparation for “civic engagement,” an understanding of “traditions of art, ideas, and values,” an ability to “respond critically and constructively to change,” and a concern for “ethical dimensions.” But when faced with examination by the Faculty, the proposal could not sustain a uniting philosophy broad enough to satisfy the parochial concerns of each department without becoming so vague as to be effectively meaningless.
Well, it seems that the philosophy above was really the point of the reform and I think that I disagree with this point. Which institutions in the world should introduce people to disciplines if not universities such as those in the Ivy League? Let me say a few more details why I think that this whole ideology is rather pernicious.

Preparation for "civic engagement"

Well, I think that the phrase "preparation for civic engagement" is more or less equivalent to indoctrination. In a democratic society, citizens can be spontaneously engaged in the public issues. On the other hand, they don't have to. But if someone else "prepares" them i.e. tells them how their engagement should look like or even what it should try to achieve, we can talk about organized manipulation with people.

Moreover, the ideologically skewed composition of universities' faculties leads me to believe that the students would be brainwashed in a bad direction, in regard to both methods as well as goals of this "civic engagement." The same comments of mine apply to "concerns about ethical dimensions."

Understanding of "traditions of arts, ideas, and values"

Because of the word "traditions", this ambitiously sounding cliché looks like a kind of history of the civilization, its achievements, and its thinking. Except that the editors have told us that they don't like any history. I don't follow how someone can understand traditions of arts without learning the actual history of arts. I don't see how someone can understand the traditions of ideas without learning what these ideas actually have been. I am scared by people who like ambitious clichés even though they actually don't know anything.

I don't understand how someone can comprehend traditions of values if she doesn't learn the actual history filled with examples of values confronting other values. Finally, I don't know what the students would be supposed to do for four years if the content were replaced by a few universal philosophical clichés that can be written in one paragraph.

In my opinion, the students can only properly learn how the world actually works in the broad scheme of things and what are the right and wrong approaches to various situations if they actually learn details at least about some parts of the world.

Ability to "respond critically and constructively to change"

The first strange detail of this phrase is that they say that one should only learn how to respond critically and constructively to change. Well, shouldn't one also learn how to respond critically and constructively to the status quo?

More importantly, I don't see how someone can respond critically and constructively if she doesn't learn any "introductions to disciplines". Without this actual meat, she can only learn how to respond in ways that look critical, sensible, and constructive to people who are equally uneducated as she is. But that's something completely different from their being critical, sensible, and constructive.

Without the actual material, the intent to teach "how to respond critically and constructively" is a classic example of a cargo cult science - an activity that may superficially look similar to a serious enterprise but something must be wrong because the verified content is completely missing. How do they know that their approach is constructive?

I know too many examples of people who seem to have been educated by this "learning how to respond critically" without learning anything about the actual content. Take a notorious critic of physics from Manhattan. He also produces a lot of stuff that people who are even more ignorant than he is find sensible or critical. He repetitively adds a lot of general philosophical junk - a kind of dumb empiricist, anti-theoretical religion - that the students might learn in the first lecture of "101 Traditions of arts, ideas, and values" and that is apparently enough to impress many people. Except that everyone who has also understood some "introduction to the discipline" knows that his writing is complete nonsense and junk. Theoretical physics has never worked, doesn't work, and cannot work in the way he suggests.

Theoretical physics is about an ever more abstract application of careful mathematical steps to our empirical knowledge about the world, most of which has been known for decades, centuries, or longer. Of course that a person who has no idea about the numerous important details of the framework may imagine that theoretical physics should be just like cooking of potatoes and equally or more ignorant people can even praise him for this insight.

What he's doing is analogous to the native tribes with wooden headphones who wait for the new airplanes with cargo in the South Seas. Superficially, it may look fine - he has the headphones (fanatical empirical commandments) - except that it will never lead to anything that makes any sense because something essential is missing.

Needless to say, this description wouldn't apply just to Peter Woit. It would also apply to thousands of journalists, thousands of activists, and many politicians and bureaucrats all over the world who positively have no microscopic idea whatsoever about the topics they write about or the goals they fight for but who feel self-confident because they have learned how to "engage" in a public debate, how to look as if they understood "traditions of arts, ideas, and values", and how to make their responses look "critical and constructive" even though the content is complete garbage because they have no clue about the correct ways and methods to answer the relevant questions.

Because they don't know any of these methods to find the right answers, their only choice is to uncritically rely on the opinions of other "critical thinkers" who must surely know better even though it is often obvious that they have to rely on others again, and so on. The number of people who only know the form but not the meat and who must rely on some form of groupthink is increasing rapidly. This fact makes the society much more vulnerable to pandemics of breathtaking stupidity such as the idea of a dangerous global warming.

These people - also known as active morons - are contributing negatively to the society and universities should certainly not try to produce them deliberately. So I recommend all other universities: please keep the "introductions to disciplines" even if they can often be boring. Instead of trying to make cheap junk look impressive, try to make serious material look attractive.

And that's the memo.


  1. Cheers to that!

    That's a major reason I didn't pursue a higher degree (though the one field a really wanted to had me caught in a catch-22 type situation, I needed 3 years experience to get into a good FE program, but could only get a relevant job with a higher degree [if my communication skills were exceptional, perhaps I could get around that, but I interview poorly, especially back then, and I graduated after the Tech bubble burst and all the returning MBAs got first dibs on I-banking jobs and my fall back of consulting evaporated.]

    I had an interest in environmental science, but found the quality of people it attracted lacking.

    I basically ended up in my undergrad field of IOE by process of elimination (coincidentally it was ranked in the top two of the country). It seemed less degenerate than most other programs.

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