Proponents of the liberal arts education make a lot of lofty promises about what they teach. “Critical thinking” is one such claim. Actually, “critical thinking” is a specific course in philosophy where one learns specific logical fallacies and pitfalls. But I feel it’s very dubious to claim that one learns critical thinking by taking classes where you read Shakespeare. In literature classes, the teachers can put any spin on the subject they want, and it’s very hard to disagree with them and do well.
At the school I went to, there was a special core of the humanities curriculum, of which we were required to take one year, whose stated goal was to make sure we knew how to write a decent essay. Another feature is they make sure you can read at least a certain quantity of material in a given time. These are laudable goals.
But what about technological literacy? Most of the population finishes their education without ever having been taught any technology (as distinct from math and science). A lot of universities have a science core that everybody must take, but these don’t teach how anything works.
I had a friend who got a degree in mechanical engineering from the University of California, and she hadn’t been taught how an internal combustion engine works. I taught her myself. The university taught her heat transfer and fluid dynamics, and lots and lots of math. But her professors assumed that, given her major, she would have picked up the fun stuff on her own. Even within engineering degrees, too much of the effort can be on science and math, and too little on how things work.
Our educational system is failing to prepare people to live in a society that must become, if our standard of living is to be maintained and improved without catastrophic environmental harm, increasingly technological.
Most people, when they discuss technical education, think that the purpose of technical education is to produce teachers, scientists, mathematicians, and engineers. This is wrong. We are in a society where everybody gets to vote, everybody makes daily decisions as a consumer, many people make important technical decisions as investors, and most people aren’t well informed enough to make good decisions in these spheres.
Most people deal with technology by delegating decisions to specialists. But by law they have the right to ignore the specialists.
- Some people, when told that western medicine offers them a dire diagnosis, will opt for flaky alternatives. Steve Jobs is an example of this, and it probably cost him his life.
- Global warming is a critical issue: according to some, a failure to address it will have catastrophic consequences. According to others, it is absolutely nothing to worry about. Right now, most people decide on that issue along strictly political, rather than technical, lines.
- There is a major movement in the US (and many other countries) to retard the teaching of high school biology to make it more consistent with religious scripture. This movement hasn’t won any court cases in the US (yet), but it has succeeded in harassing and intimidating a lot of teachers, not to mention getting the teaching of evolution in biology textbooks watered down. We can’t expect the courts to hold out against an ignorant public indefinitely – we are, ultimately, a democracy, and people will ultimately elect representatives who will appoint judges sympathetic to their sentiments.
A lot of academics feel that whoever has the most advanced and relevant degree should be the party that decides the issue, and the rest of society should just follow their lead without question. Expecting people to accept anything without question is a lot to ask, not to mention completely in conflict with the ideals of democracy and a free society.
Furthermore, there is always disagreement among experts. Even when there is overwhelming consensus on an issue among the scientific community, there is always some tenured goofball in a university somewhere who will disagree, giving the illusion of an absence of consensus, thus empowering the uninformed to take any position they fancy.
I am an engineer, and the educational system suited my interests well. But I could see how it was turning off most people.
Technical education in elementary school consisted mostly of arithmetic. Not math, arithmetic. It was boring and repetitive and lifeless and dull. It only got fun when we started having competitions at it around 4th grade and I found out I was good at it. I didn’t get good at it because I liked it, I got to like it because I was good at it. Where does this leave the 50% of the students who were below average?
There wasn’t a lot of science in elementary school. There was some, but not much. I think the feeling was that that would have to wait until we had the math for it.
Science really came in full force in high school. For the most part, engineering did not. They now have computer classes in high school, which weren’t there when I was around, so I can’t comment on them.
This was fine for me, because I was an honors student. I spent a tremendous amount of my spare time reading books on science, books on technology, and science fiction when I was growing up. I was also building flying model planes and flying model rockets and all sorts of contraptions. Furthermore, it was clear from a very young age that I wanted to be a technical person. On top of that, my father was an engineer and would talk to me about what he did.
But when I look at this education and ask myself, what would it have done for me without all this supplemental activity of mine on the side, and had I not been planning for a technical future? Would I have seen any relevance in the math I was learning? Or the science for that matter? The answer is plainly no. And that is the answer I see reflected in the faces of most of the population when someone talks about technology.
The pervasive idea is that you have to know arithmetic to be able to handle math, you have to know math to be able to handle science, and you have to know science to be able to handle technology. And this idea is false. Yes, to do groundbreaking research in technology you need to be good and science and math, but most people can learn a lot about technology with neither, just using common sense.
And for someone who has no plans to do groundbreaking research of any kind, that is, most of the population, learning how things work is, unlike pure math or science, let alone arithmetic, potentially quite interesting.
Imagine if we taught gym the way we teach technical subjects. In K-12, students would do nothing but the basic movements, as calisthenics. Nothing would be done as coordinated teams and there would be no sports, on the belief that you weren’t ready for sports until you had all the basic movements down. The focus of the system would be on producing a few professional athletes. Everyone else would be made to feel they had failed out of gym. I would predict that with such a program, most students would hate gym, and in fact hardly anyone would watch professional sports as adults. And that’s what our current technical education program is doing to most people.
So we come to the million dollar puzzle: I think most people would be interested to know how the technology around them works, it is in society’s overwhelming interest to have voters, consumers, and investors who know how things work, so why isn’t K-12 teaching it to everybody, instead of nobody?
Another thing that wasn’t present in either of the universities I was at was the concept of a technical minor. It might be perfectly appropriate for someone majoring in, say, business or economics or law to want to get a minor in some technical discipline, or even in technology in general. This might already be done at teaching colleges (both the schools I went to were research institutions).
Looking at the core curriculum of Harvard, and the non-humanities core classes they have to take are “Quantitative Reasoning”, “Science A”, and “Science B”. (There are a bunch of “Science A” classes and “Science B” classes, so I guess you just have to take one of each). Science is all very well and good, but wouldn’t technology be better and more relevant? Furthermore, while students are required to take 8 humanities core classes, they have to take only these 3 non-humanities core classes. Is that really an appropriate balance?
The educational system, both in K-12 and at the bachelor level, needs to be changed to provide more of a focus on engineering, both to prepare students for citizenhood, and to help motivate learning in math and science.