Monday, October 18, 2010

Liberal Arts 2.0! New! Improved! Unbiased and free of any knowledge of Liberal Arts 1.0!

Permit me a little grumpiness and snark.  Pieces like this recent one in Wired, 7 Essential Skills You Didn't Learn In College (look, now with list-power, and SEO-bait!) drive me a little crazy.  They are part of a recent trend in some corners of the smart set to suppose that college needs a complete reinvention.  Look, the New Liberal Arts.  These starry-eyed future watchers operate under the very old assumption that higher education is outdated, outmoded and not preparing our students for their lives in the future.   I am a big fan of, one of the seed beds of this idea, and I am generally sympathetic to the idea that higher education needs to take the modern world into account, but journalistic forays into telling higher education how to do its job don't sit well with me.  
Rather than provocative prognosticating about jobs or skills of the future, this strikes me as a few journalists and social media mavens looking at the world of education (actually, introspecting at their memory of life as a student) and supposing that they have a better idea of how to organize it.  Many academics give a lot of thought to what a liberal arts education means in the modern world, and most try to design their classes to be interesting and applicable to their students lives.  There are arguments within the academic community (for example, around Mark Taylor's provocative proposal to "End the University as We Know It" and Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus' book review) that are worth having, and many informed voices weigh in.  Simply ignoring those and saying "It's the 21st Century, knowing how to read a novel, craft an essay, or calculate the slope of a tangent isn't enough anymore," doesn't serve anybody.  I'll outline what in particular bothers me about this article below, but these concerns also apply to some of the other recent criticisms of higher education curricula.

First, the "skills" offered by these "out-of-the-box" thinkers achieve their apparent novelty by simply being overly broad or overly narrow conceptions of current skills and knowledge.  It would no doubt be totally awesome to be skilled at "Finding" (an actual chapter in this book) just as it would be awesome to be the hitchhiking fingersmith from Roald Dahl's Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar and Six more.  Unfortunately, in the real world, magicians have to learn every trick that they do independently, musicians have to learn each instrument, and I can beat the best squash player in the world in ping pong (or at least I could in college).  Because even the skill of "hitting a small ball with a racquet" is too general.

However, just because magicians have to learn each trick separately, does not mean that there aren't some general rules and principles (Like Penn and Teller's Principles of Sleight of Hand).  For example, in any given  introductory composition class, or in most writing classes across the curriculum, one learns rules of expressing oneself clearly and directly... or ... Writing classes teach you how to write.  You don't need a separate class on "Brevity" or "Writing for New Forms" (Wired Skill #6).  Take a non-fiction writing class, take a creative writing class, take a poetry class, they will put you on your way to making your tweets and your blog posts clear, direct, and interesting.

Second, all of the wonder at the networked world can make us lose sight of the fact that most knowledge has a structure.  Knowledge is not a stream to be poured into a waiting mind, but rather, a building to be constructed.  To teach my students about how the eye works, I need to first teach them a little bit about the nature of light.  And how neural transmission works, and how the two lenses of the eye bend light.  To understand how the brain works, it helps to know what the amygdala, hippocampus, cingulate gyrus, basal ganglia, etc are.   We have prerequisites in the college curriculum not just to limit class size, but because it is the nature of certain knowledge to be dependent on other knowledge.   We might desire to jump right into "Applied Cognition," or an interdisciplinary program about "Water" (one suggestion from Taylor's op-ed), but it makes little sense to talk about water systems engineering without some knowledge of basic principles of physics and engineering.  It makes little sense to talk about Applied Cognition without any knowledge of how and why psychology is a science, and some background facts of cognitive psychology.

Here are a few point-by-point take-downs

Wired Skill #1: Statistical Literacy
(Quotes from the original Wired article are indented)
Why take this course?  We are misled by numbers and our misunderstanding of probability.
What will you learn?  How to parse polls, play the odds, and embrace uncertainty.  
Hey, guess what, we've got that.  You may have missed it, because it is called Statistics.  Statistics literacy is also offered in the Psychology Department and called Research Methods and Statistics.  It is also offered in the Sociology, Political Science, and Economics departments, where it can be called Research Methods.  Make no mistake, it is offering statistical literacy, albeit for that discipline.  Many of these courses use Darrell Huff's How to Lie with Statistics, or one of the other books mentioned.  But actually, one of the best ways to get statistics knowledge and skills is to have a teacher skilled in statistics, design assignments and activities for students with your background knowledge, and goals.  Sometimes an experienced teacher will combine their expertise in the subject matter and their experience with how students learn the topics, and write a textbook (how terribly 20th century of them!  Why don't they just do a wiki?).  Some of these textbooks are fantastic ways to learn about the subject (yes, some of them suck, but that is mostly because it is really hard to write a textbook, not because it is made of paper, and ruled by evil publishing companies)
We use only 10 percent of our brain! That familiar statement is false—there’s no evidence to support it. Still, something about it just sounds right, so we internalize it and repeat it. Such is the power—and danger—of statistics.
Agreed.  This statistic is false.  However, the reason it is false is not based on statistics, but on knowledge of the brain, the relationship between the white matter and the gray matter, etc.  There is an excellent discussion of this in 50 Myths of Popular Psychology, a book my students read in General Psychology.
Our world is shaped by widespread statistical illiteracy.  We fear things that probably won’t kill us (terrorist attacks) and ignore things that probably will (texting while driving)
No.  The reason that we fear terrorist attacks and not texting drivers is a well-known cognitive bias called the availability heuristic.  It has little to do with statistical illiteracy, and more to do with our natural mental tendencies and how we make decisions with emotions.  The natural resistance of our brains to making decisions based on statistics rather than emotions could be taught in a statistics course along with the difference between a mean, a median, and a mode, but cognitive biases are not the same as statistical illiteracy.
Also in this department: Personal Data: The self may be unknowable, but it is not untrackable.  It is now easier than ever to tap into a wealth of data - heart rate, caloric input and output, foot speed, sleep patterns, even your own genetic code - to glean new insights and make better decisions about your health and behavior.
This is on the surface, a wonderful idea, but silly.  Unfortunately, we no longer live in the age of the citizen scientist.  Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson could go into their backyards, observe the animals in the creek, and actually contribute to science.  But now, to "glean insight" into any single variable above, you need graduate education in that topic.  This is obviously true for the genetic code, but as someone who collected heart rate data for my dissertation, I can attest to the fact that it is not interpretable without significant training and guidance.  

Wired Skill # 4: Applied Cognition : How the Mind Works and How to Make it Work for You
In just about any college catalog I can find, there is a course (and I have taught it) called "Cognitive Psychology."  This course teachers how the mind works, and how to apply this knowledge to your own life, like using the science of memory to make your studying more effective.  This course often assigns books such as Barry Schwartz's Paradox of Choice (look, he teaches Introduction to Psychology) and Jonah Leher's  How We Decide.  But often, to delve into the experiments themselves, and look at the data (this is science, after all) you need an experienced guide, and yes, sometimes a textbook, with questions, assignments, terms to know, etc.

So, what would I suggest to the authors of this article (hailing from planet Snarkmarket)?  Rather than arguing that the liberal arts are outdated, why not take a look at current liberal arts classes and curricula, and realize that you are actually arguing for their continued vitality in the modern world?  Read some of the academics who are struggling with keeping the liberal arts, rigorous and relevant, without turning them into vocational training programs.  Finally, consider that if we keep hyping the inadequacy of liberal arts 1.0 (are we really only at 1.0, after at least 100 years?) we may not end up with 2.0, but rather, just a lot less of 1.0.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

The Scientific Case for a Liberal Arts Education

Those in academe have no doubt heard that in the face of a tight budget, SUNY-Albany has cut several departments and the tenured professors in them.  French, Italian, classics, Russian and theater will no longer be programs at the flagship state college in New York.  Stanley Fish has an interesting column describing this development, noting that "The Crisis of the Humanities Officially Arrives."  I agree that there is a crisis, but I think it will soon be broader than just the humanities, this action reflects an attitude of thinly-veiled contempt for the liberal arts and for the life of the mind.  While first they have come for the humanities, the arguments used against these particular departments could apply to much of the traditional college curriculum.  For me, it is a good moment to argue for the vitality and utility of the liberal arts, using some arguments for the science of psychology and cognitive neuroscience, as well as some of the humility demanded in studying these fields.  

In considering how to respond, Fish points out several old argument that won't work. 

Well, it won’t do to invoke the pieties [that] ... the humanities enhance our culture; the humanities make our society better — because those pieties have a 19th century air about them and are not even believed in by some who rehearse them. 
And it won’t do to argue that the humanities contribute to economic health of the state — by producing more well-rounded workers or attracting corporations or delivering some other attenuated benefit — because nobody really buys that argument, not even the university administrators who make it.

I think Fish is correct in saying that these arguments won't work, and he resigns himself to the possibility of politics, or of a limited few powerful people pushing some important buttons since they have a personal value of French, or theater.  But I think the rest of us should not breathe a sigh of relief, but attack the assumption that these programs are less necessary than ours.  This logic will quickly lead to our own doorstep, because most of us do not have a firmer foothold than theater, or french, or russian when it comes to direct economic utility, or contribution to society or culture.  When you consider where these arguments take us, you quickly come to the conclusion that people should be in professional training programs as soon as humanly possible.  Why waste time studying y if you know that you are going to do x?  

But, as the title to this post declares, I think there is a strong case for studying many things, including theater, French, and classics.  I believe this case is first made by several studies which I will outline below.  But further, these studies (and many others) should urge us to be humble in the face of our increasing drive towards narrow training at the cost of education, and towards applied pursuits in the search of a specific goal at the cost of basic intellectual inquiry in pursuit of the pleasure of knowing.  This trend of more training and less education is pervasive in our current educational system, and can be seen in K-12 reforms like NCLB and RTT  (which evade politically controversial curriculum changes, but end up coercing teachers to become reading "trainers" rather than seeking to instill a love of reading and knowledge) to other accountability measures, coming soon to a college near you (paywalled Chronicle of Higher Ed piece, but you get the idea).

So, what is the scientific case for French or Italian or Russian?  First, there are diverse cognitive benefits for bilingualism.  Ellen Bialystock's work has documented that bilinguals have beginning troubles with the competing languages, but that this leads to very long term and general benefits for what is called executive functioning (brief Washington Post summarywhich generally concerns distributing one's mental resources.  Bilinguals are therefore more able to ignore distracting information, even in some basic, non-language tasks.  Her recent research suggests that bilingualism can delay the onset of dementia, by an average of 5 years (any economist want to calculate the cost to society on 5 years of dementia?).  Further, it seems that learning two (or more) languages can enhance our concept formation and cognitive flexibility (when we understand how words can have subtly different meanings in different languages, it illuminates the flexible nature of language itself) (short blurb here). 

Second, there are social, cultural and ethical advantages to studying a foreign language (especially study abroad).  Yes, the students love it (but they also seem to drink and party more, so that is no surprise.  But study abroad programs also enhance creativity (this link to the original article in a psych journal probably won't work).  Study abroad also enhances cross-cultural tolerance and a global awareness.  This tends to be a goal of a college education, but it can't be done by tolerance seminars, or even hundreds of generic exhortations.  You can't just learn to be generically tolerant, you have to learn a particular culture.

Finally, I think a take-home message we should all get from the science of why there is value in the humanities (and the liberal arts in general) is that we should be humble in our drive to tie education to specific and direct goals.  This approach is short-sighted, not just because bilingualism improves creativity and prevents cognitive aging, but because most of the effects of any sort of education are very very hard to measure.  We psychologists can assail education research for not providing clear answers on anything, but at some point we have to conclude that the kind of clear answers we want just don't exist.  Assessing the independent value of a good kindergarten experience (for example) is incredibly difficult, if not impossible.  But in our striving for accountability (such a reasonable sounding goal), we are increasingly narrowing our educational goals  to those that are easier to measure.  This first drives out the humanities (theater!  how do you measure outcomes of that?) but eventually it will drive the mind out of the academy and make trainers of us all.  And ironically, I think we'll find that the job training and all those 21st century skills didn't turn out to be "trainable" skills at all, but depended on the broad body of knowledge that we have been working on for over 200 years.