Sunday, April 29, 2012

Crit Quant

Frank Bruni addresses an issue in his New York Times column this morning that colleges and universities across the country are confronting: how to adapt to a world in which technological skills are in greater demand while hanging on to as much of their traditional mission as possible.  Let’s put it starkly: higher ed needs to turn out more engineers and number crunchers, and it also needs to keep the fires (embers?) of critical consciousness burning.

In my state of Washington, and maybe yours, this takes the form of increasing political pressure for universities to crank out “high demand” majors.  This doesn’t refer to student demand—quite the opposite—but demand from the state’s largest and most politically connected employers.  This includes STEM, of course, but also nursing.  (Beleaguered and underpaid nurses abandon their profession en masse each year, and this is seen as a reason to train ever more of them.)  But let’s talk about STEM.

The pushback from defenders of the liberal arts is that education is not just about filling job slots, but about citizenship.  The future of our country, nay the human race, depends on the cultivation of new generations who can see past the shiny surfaces to the deep questions of life, who are habituated to critique, whose perceptions are heightened by aesthetic acuity, etc.  The call for STEM is really an effort to eviscerate society’s main sanctuary for critical consciousness.

I think this is not an either/or question, but both/and.  We need to think deeply and also be productive.  Critical consciousness has to pay its way.  To get from platitude to program, however, we have to consider what this means in practice.

The obvious answer, and the one most of the attention is now focused on, is rebalancing.  We need somewhat more STEM students and somewhat less in the other fields.  To the extent that there is intellectual fat in a university’s catalog, it can be cut without harm to the liberal arts bone, so to speak.  Hire a few more STEM PhD’s a few less of the other sort.  Adjust and carry on.

To my way of thinking, this approach evades the real issue.  Engineers need to be critical thinkers, and critical thinkers need to be quantitative.  Not each and every one (reject corner solutions!), but lots of them.  The democratic and transformative agenda of higher education has to pervade its economic agenda, and also, to a large extent, vice versa.

This translates to increased traffic between the technical fields and the rest of the liberal arts.  Engineering curricula should include industrial design to develop aesthetic appreciation for objects, along with historical and social approaches to technology to promote a critical, questioning spirit.  (Engineers may also benefit  personally in their future careers from studying labor history.)  Meanwhile, philosophers should be learning game theory and historians more rigorous methods of quantitative data analysis.  Ideally these would be bottom-up reforms, arising voluntary, even enthusiastically, from the faculty themselves.  In practice, they will have to be elicited and nurtured, with strategic reallocation of funds and pressure on new hiring.

Perhaps this is the easy part.  To make it all work there also needs to be a fundamental change in the place of quantitative reasoning in our culture—in the schools, the media and daily life.  The faculty and students who, in my dreams, will meld critical thinking and quantitative adeptness will not materialize spontaneously because a new course offering has been inserted into the catalog.  Somehow we have to challenge the view that the ability to do math is confined to a small subset of our species, and that it’s OK for the rest to just opt out.  Math classes have to do a lot more teaching and a lot less sorting; would we accept writing classes that allowed the great majority of students to come to terms with their inability to write by believing that they don’t have that special writing gene?

But this is another rant for another day.


FuzzyFace said...

It might be useful to look at the current incentives college students face, that drives them away from science and engineering.

First, there is the general attitude promoted by universities that a degree - any degree - is the goal. I'm not aware of anything on campuses or school literature that suggests that some majors are significantly better than others for career prospects. As a result, when students look at majors that appear to be too much work or too hard, naturally they see no reason not to switch to an easier one. All that matters is graduating with something, right?

Then there is financial aid - I've never seen any attempt to provide more help for STEM majors than for liberal arts, so why not major in business?

And of course, all of the proposals to ease the student debt burden by shifting it to taxpayers just makes things worse. Maybe we need to do something radical - like cut off future subsidized student loans, and let businesses subsidize the education of promising STEM grads. Let wealthy parents (or ambitious, hardworking students) pay for aspiring English majors and area studies majors.

Shag from Brookline said...

I'm old enough (81) to recall a time past when the need for higher education to produce more engineers was deemed necessary for America's vitality and economy. The result was that higher education did produce more engineers, in fact too many engineers to be absorbed by the economy.

Howard Johnson said...

I agree with your (and Shag's) premise for curricular and pedagogical reform; instead of shifting students to disciplines that would subsequently become overloaded. I would also add interaction skills (communication, debate, demonstrating leadership) as important parts of cognition are social interactional. It would also be nice to have a validity frame of mind. Don't allow institutions to depend on tradition as a basis for practice, show me that the pedagogical hypothesis that underly your practices does have merit.