Monday, April 16, 2007

Intellectuals and Technicians

There are few questions that raise instructors' hackles like the deplorable duo, "Is this going to be on the test?" and "Why do I need to know this?". On our end, we take these questions as insults intimating that having dedicated ourselves to these questions, we are irrelevant wastes of time. Further the asking of such questions serve as an indicator that the students just don't get how intensely interesting and beautiful this subject is. It is the mark, in our minds, of the shallowness of the student's character to need to know the cash value of what we are teaching and not instinctively identify the intrinsic worth of the knowledge we are giving them privilege to glimpse. If they were true intellectuals like us, they would not ask such foolish, material-driven questions. You'll be a mindless middle manager soon enough, young grasshopper, for this moment try to open your mind to the glory I present.

This arrogance is based on a distinction we draw between the over-educated and the under-educated. Over-education requires an extended boot camp/hazing period called grad school wherein those who were sufficiently nerdy as undergrads are trained for admittance to the next level in the hierarchy. This is not to say that the training is not valuable -- grad school is a hyper-intense period of work and learning unlike any other, but all too often it leads us to exactly the place we ridicule the students for being in, it takes us away from being intellectuals. The Academy has become so specialized that like the student who asks, "What do I need to know this for?" we too only learn what we need for our sub-sub-sub speciality. And this has problematic consequences; we see ourselves as technicians in the business of training the next generation to work on the assembly lines of knowledge production rather than considering ourselves to be intellectuals whose job it is to open minds to wide ranges of ideas and methodologies that are designed to conflict and augment each other in interesting novel ways creating insight.

One of my sharpest memories of my undergrad education is the last day of my junior level quantum mechanics class. On that day, the prof finished up what he was doing a little early and then did something he never did before -- he asked if there were any questions. Knowing that there was one period left which would be a review for the final and that we had just finished the course material, I raised my hand. I asked him about the Bell inequalities.

We had just finished a second semester studying how to set up and solve Schrodinger's equation for various sorts of potentials -- free particles, particles in an infinite well, the harmonic oscillator,... -- we had learned that when the equation looked like this, we should use this coordinate transformation to allow us to integrate by parts, or that coordinate transformation to allow us to complete the square... We were trained, but we weren't taught. Frankly, I didn't understand very much at all about quantum mechanics, even though I did fine in the class.

But I read. I read lots of pop books about quantum mechanics. I read about something called the measurement problem and hidden variables and the EPR paradox and the Bell inequalities. It all seemed incredible. It made me jazzed to learn quantum mechanics. Yet, here I was supposedly learning about this magical theory and I knew nothing about it. If someone else, a student who did want to become exactly the sort of intellectual faculty members say they want, took it upon him or herself to read the same book and wanted to understand it, a sensible move would be to come to me figuring, "Hey, Steve's a physics major, he'll be able to explain it to me," sadly, that person would have been (and was) wrong.

The prof that day hemmed and hawed and wrote some things on the board that he never really explained. The gist of it was that we didn't know enough to really discuss it, so he wasn't really going to tell us what it meant or even why smart people would be interested in such a thing.

Looking back on the value of lab kerfuffle from a few weeks back, the comment that sticks with me comes from Chad Orzel, a physicist who writes the blog Uncertain Principles.

Mostly, though, this bugs me because it buys into the pernicious idea that what we really need to do is to re-shape science to make it more palatable to non-scientists. We're already expected to offer special classes with little or no math, lest we scare the humanities types away, and this just piles on an additional requirement that we make those classes convenient for non-science majors.

I have approximately zero sympathy for this mode of thinking. When the English department starts offering "Poetry for Physicists," in which science majors get to read literature without dealing with difficult critical approaches, then we can talk.

When you come down to it, students don't take more than the minimum required number of science classes because they don't want to take science classes. The minor inconvenience posed by scheduling lab classes is just a convenient excuse-- if you got rid of labs, there would be another reason why they just couldn't manage to fit in another science class.

The real problem is that it's become acceptable for people who are ostensibly highly educated to be largely ignorant of science and math. I've heard people with Ph.D.'s say "I just can't handle math" with a laugh, and that passes totally without comment, but if a science student were to say "Oh, I just can't deal with literature," that would be a major crisis. If students aren't interested in science, we go out of our way to accommodate that, which just reinforces the message that science is only for nerds and geeks, and that normal people can approach it only in a dumbed-down form.

What strikes me as deeply problematic here is this idea that there are two modes of teaching: A) there is real training which is hard core rigorous work that prepares you to be able to take the next step in the ladder towards being able to work in the field, and B) baby physics which is dumbed down training for those morons who will never be able to climb the ladder because they simply refuse to work hard enough to climb like those of us who have the upstanding moral character to have done it well. This is the mindset that leads to intro level science classes that are seen as "weed-out" sections. Need to get rid of that dead wood and narrow it down to those who are properly disposed to rigorous scientific training (after which, of course, we'll have a couple of beers with colleagues and alternate bitching about the fact that most people are scientifically illiterate and that we are being pressured to "re-shape science to make it more palatable to non-scientists").

This, of course, is an exercise in false dilemma. There is a third option, teaching that isn't training. A class about quantum mechanics that did explain the measurement problem and the EPR paradox and the Bell inequalities would be something that could be taught. It would not require much math and it would capture the imagination of science and non-science students alike. Students want to know about science, very much, but do not take the classes for the same reason they ask "What do I need to know this for?" The way we teach fosters that question. We are not focused on creating intellectuals who can discuss science or literature or current events smartly and intricately, we are training technicians. Yes, they get it from a culture that values monetary success more than intellectual achievement or well-roundedness, but we are reinforcing it.

Why? Because we are trained to be technicians and not intellectuals. I have a friend whose significant other is training to be a chemist. She teaches for the first couple years -- before she's had a chance to really be educated in grad school -- and then she is shut up in the lab. She gets a minor amount of coursework in areas of chemistry other than her specialization, but her qualifying exams and all of her work is narrowly tailored. If you are not even well-versed in your field as a whole, how can we expect that you will be capable of seeing the larger intellectual forest? Of course, folks will be reticent to try to speak in a way that piques the interest of the masses, the great unwashed, those who are not going to be pursuing additional training in our field of study, or (gasp) any field of study.

And it's not only the training. The entire reward structure of higher education is based around technical success in our intellectual community. To give public lectures is to waste your time, sell out, or stroke your ego. To work hard at developing a course for non-majors is to take time away from your "real work," what you should be doing. Grants, awards, promotions don't go to intellectuals, they go to technicians.

And it isn't only in the sciences. I have a dear colleague in the Spanish department who was telling me that she was loving this semester because she was teaching a course in literature from the Spanish revolution, she confided that she's only teaching it because of a sabbatical situation -- she's a medievalist, she sheepishly admitted, so really, it's not her field, she shouldn't be teaching it. OF COURSE SHE SHOULD BE TEACHING IT!!!! Not only is she a great teacher, but there is life in that classroom, a sense that there is real grappling with interesting questions, not a mere recitation by someone bored with the first steps of their specialty. It is stunningly pathetic when we in the Academy feel shamed for stretching ourselves, for being the intellectuals we want the students to be. We resist modeling the thing we claim to embody.

A modest proposal. Before giving an exam, a major paper, or any other sort of significant assessment, every instructor should have to answer to the satisfaction of the class, the question, "Why do they need to know this?" If you cannot explain in terms that they understand and can convey to friends and parents what is interesting, important, helpful, elegant, essential for living, and simply wonderful about what is in the study they are about to be assessed on, you have failed as a teacher and lost the right to judge them on whether they know it or not.