Learning to think and to act

I found William Deresiewicz’ book in a roundabout way. After reading an article in The Nation he had written, I read The Disadvantages of an Elite Education also by Deresiewicz and this led me to his book  Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life.

The book is written empathetically, with a soul in plain sight. Whether you are applauding or arguing, you are engaged. During this personal conversation with the book, that turned into an email back and forth with the author, I decided to write something in response.

I also decided that I will now have all my students read this book. You might wonder why. After all Washington State University is not an elite university. Though we do have students who are brilliant and professors that are as creative and as interesting as those at any university, our university is not top ranked and is unlikely to be so anytime soon. It is true that those dedicated to innovative research and a deep, thorough education, can find agreeable environments here and there at this university. But that is by no means an across-the-board phenomena.

So why should I require my students to read William’s book? After all, it is aimed at students at, or thinking about being at, the most exclusive universities in the world.

The reason is very simple.

The elite universities that Excellent Sheep takes apart have a hold over the imaginations of just about everybody involved in higher education. Why? Because, even if you are not at one of these universities, you are strongly inclined to using those universities as a standard, a measuring stick. As a result, the elite universities end up infecting everybody else.

Tragically, the infection has been chosen by those lower ranked schools … it is a self-inflicted ailment, inflicted because of a lack of imagination and courage.

The freedom and breathing room that the lower ranked schools have — nobody is fighting them for their lower status — could be used to innovate and set a new standard of excellence. There are so many defects with what is considered elite that a faculty with imagination and vision and a disregard for status and tradition, could create something that would actually out-rank the elites by any natural, organic measure focused on real quality.


A Vivid Diagnosis

Excellent Sheep begins with 4 chapters in which the problems with elite education are outlined with frankness and clarity. The mad rush for students to become super-students, driven by parents that believe the Ivy League hype and encouraged by universities that have sold their souls to money, status and the illusion of greatness, has created a class of elite students that are maxed out,  stressed out, with little capacity for truly independent thought and little moral fiber. The vast majority of them have no real idea of who they are or what their own passions are. They console themselves with high paying jobs which in the end have little capacity for supplying them with purpose and the satisfaction that comes with following your own muse.

And they make terrible leaders: visionless, risk averse, conceited, and entitled. They are ill equipped to the jobs to which they aspire, that the world hands to them because they are “the best and the brightest”, a term that the author reminds us was invented to describe the technocrats who led us into the quagmire in Viet Nam.

After his rousing diagnosis and illumination of the multitude of problems with the elite schools, he transitions to his vision of what college should do for you and how he sees the humanities playing a big role in the re-imagination, the re-vitalization of education. These 6 chapters in parts 2 and 3 provoked the most thought on my part.

One part of his prescription for education centers around the idea that the humanities, taught correctly, teach students how to think, how to be skeptical and doubt the ideas and opinions they have accepted without critique. He explains how great books, with greatness defined organically and broadly, prompt thought and discovery and exploration leading to deeper self-discovery.  While he is not in any way claiming that this is new, his message that this is not happening at the Ivy league schools is something that is not well known.

It is here that I occasionally diverge, but not because I disagree with the general outlines of what he is saying. Rather it is in a few of the details and the extent to which he caries things. He simply does not go far enough sometimes. (Though I dare say that he goes further than almost anyone seems willing to take things.)


The Heart of the Matter

As will become clear in my own story, told later on, I believe in God.

Of course, exactly what that means is a long discussion. In fact it seems that saying you believe in God or don’t believe in God is almost a statement without information, at least if you think about what you believe.

Where this becomes important to this essay is in Deresiewicz’s acceptance of Gould’s idea that the arts and humanities on the one hand, and the sciences on the other, are separate magisteria. I believe this is wrong, that in fact the spiritual realm ties everything together and a God that creates is the beginning of wisdom in the search for an explanation of the ultimate unity of everything.

Of course enormous damage has been done to the conversation that should happen here, both by the believers and the unbelievers. In fact, it is hard to overstate the extent of this damage.

But if one can find quiet spaces in which to discuss and examine these questions, the questions can begin to be seen as an attempt to draw out an understanding that allows both the believer in a God that creates, and a believer in a universe without God, to benefit from each other’s insights.

The quietness and respect and time to think and observe that this enterprise takes, is founded on emotional health. This is where the real problems often lay. Because of the enormous damage that dogmatic ideologies and religions have done or threaten to do to us, we often find it very hard or even impossible to enter discussions with the patience and quietness necessary for such conversations to deepen and enlighten.

But where those conversations can happen, the effect is very powerful.

And it is precisely this environment that we should find in college — an environment where true diversity is respected and encouraged and challenged and supported. Free and thoughtful discussions that illuminate the mind and soul do not need, and in fact are damaged by, the force of dogma, ridicule, combative attitudes and the inability to listen because you have found the truth. Trusting this and boldly engaging in such an enterprise enables us to learn from each other, not just shout at each other. The blunt instrument that science and scholarship devolves into in an adversarial environment, would show itself to be a subtle revealer of mysteries in the environment characterized by love and respect. For love is the only thing that truly moves us to a place of progress.

Love does not imply agreement — our experiences in our families can teach us this. And it is not something that gets in the way of freedom, though twisted conceptions of love could tempt you to believe otherwise.

The freedom that such an environment gives and inspires, begs to be filled up with a rich curriculum covering thought and action in a broad way. In addition to classes and seminars, there would be maker spaces in every subject, jobs for students that range over a widest possible directions and a culture that made working and serving, alongside rather than from above, the norm.

Making and maker spaces, though they are in vogue in some corners of many universities, predominately in engineering departments, have yet to become truly integral anywhere, and that includes engineering departments. Yet, turning thought into tangible action is very valuable for students, if for no other reason than the intellectual and spiritual benefits of the manual crafts, as pointed out in Matthew Crawford’s book Shop Class as Soul Craft.

There are many reasons for teaching all students both academic expertise and a manual trade. To begin with, their way in the world would be much more sustainable, much less fraught with economic peril. Yet even this immediate effect would give them a sense of freedom in their academic pursuit since they would never need to compromise with a job that was nominally aligned with their expertise while actually being a betrayal of their muse or their morals or both.

Yet there are deeper reasons for pursuing manual training in parallel with the more apparently intellectual pursuits. Exercising a creative manual skill is the perfect counterpoint to intellectual pursuits even if only for the rest and deep satisfaction of producing tangible, visible results that are also useful. Yet there is more. The exercise of the faculties used to do practical work also broadens the mind and strengthens key abilities which in turn give us a much more robust approach to problem solving in the more overtly intellectual arenas. In my own experience, that I cover in a bit more detail below, building and tinkering played a significant in teaching me how to solve problems that cross disciplinary boundaries, as most real problems do.

Of course, the variety of things that one can do along the lines of skilled trades is very large and certainly not confined to things one does in a shop. But all of them give you an ability to be less dependent on others for your economic security, both in terms of what you can do for money and what you can do without so much money. If this is combined with a choice to live simply, on less rather than more, to avoid student loans (or in the very least refuse loans that cannot be nullified with a bankruptcy), students gain even more freedom. In not surrendering their own freedom, they are equipped to encourage others to live an equally simple, inspired life.

Along the lines of simplicity and inspiration, there is the matter of having and taking the time to think, as well as the related issue of the overloads that colleges encourage.

I consistently advise my early doctoral students to take at most two classes per semester and fill the rest of the required hours with research credits which are designed to deepen the studies in the classes they are taking. I do that because I can do that. But undergraduates often take 4-6 courses of which 3-4 might each be worthy of their full attention during the semester, and there is little I can do about that. Needless to say, they skim the surface and do not begin to master the subject. Of course, sometimes a whirlwind tour is sufficient, but whenever real thought and effort are merited, the overload takes it toll and mastery or even a touch of depth eludes them.

If this were to be addressed in a meaningful way, in parallel with real efforts to help the students find their muse, we would need to reduce the number of courses significantly and deepen the courses they did take by a significant amount. The result would be revolutionary.

If we moved away from grades to evaluations and portfolios, so that someone wanting to know something about a student would have to look at the students work, not just some set of grades or even worse, a single measurement like the GPA, we would encourage real depth and mastery.  There would be real incentives to think about what they were doing and act on the inspiration that followed.

An example of the kind of problem we are up against can be illustrated by the case of the elementary undergraduate linear algebra course at WSU. The course is a 2 hour course because the engineers did not want to waste precious credit hours, precious thanks to the accreditation requirements to which they are beholden. But the organic reality is that for anybody doing anything computational, linear algebra is arguably the most important mathematics class they will take. To do it justice, in line with what advantage mastery of the subject will give them, they should be taking a 6 to 8 hour course. Almost every applied calculation ends up requiring some linear algebra, with many problems requiring a lot of linear algebra. Yet politics between mathematics and engineering combined with the shackles imposed by accreditation generated a 2 hour class.   And as a result, most of the students that have taken linear algebra have little to no mastery of what may be the most important mathematics they take.

This is not unusual. Instead of doing what makes sense, we do what some set of people have decided is important, even though they are far from the facts and realities.

Of course, some of this is simply in the air — it is the spirit of the age to give yourself no time to think, to fill all your space with sound and action and tweets and email and messaging with facebook or instagram. Because of the way this swallows up personal, quiet spaces, it should be the first task in college to teach the students to repossess their own minds and souls. They have to take back time to think and see, and hear what the quiet has to say to them. If their could be one thing that you would ask your students to give up, it would probably be their mobile devices. As unrealistic as this might seem, an honest assessment of the situation would make it clear that these devices are robbing many students of the ability to think and focus deeply.

What I have described above boils down to a gentle, bare-handed exploration of ourselves and the universe, unmediated by electronic devices, unnarrated by our culture, unaccompanied by music through our earbuds, in an environment rich in quietness and time to think, broadened and deepened by experience with skilled trades and frequent, face to face interactions with other human beings who know how to listen. Such an environment would produce educational results of a very different nature than the ones we currently see.


Inspired Learning

If colleges understood research and teaching to be something that is far broader than is now imagined and practiced, then it would be discovered that research and teaching are not at odds, that each can enrich the other and that the stranglehold federal funds have on academia need not continue.

Currently what is valued is papers and external funding and if you had to choose one on which to bank your hopes of getting tenure, it would be external funding. At schools where teaching is the focus, this is not the case. But those schools usually look to research universities with admiration, so that to the extent there is change at those schools, the small steps here and there that can be seen reflect this misplaced admiration.

What would a balanced, sustainable attitude towards teaching and research be like?

To begin with, exposition of well known results and new research results would be highly valued. Ideally, every result would be accompanied by three expositions. There would be one which was a careful, well written record that other researchers could read and understand. Then there would be something that advanced undergraduates and graduate students could read and gain most or all of the picture from. Finally there would be something that was designed for the complete non-expert who is nonetheless inquisitive and motivated to know something about the area.

Right now we often have only the most inaccessible of the three expositions, the research paper. And that is often poorly written and primarily intended stake out territory and give the authors credit for having written a paper. Another goal is to have others cite the paper, to give the authors work “impact”. Supposedly the impact that everyone wants is about dissemination and scholarly, or even societal, benefit.

Yet, if real dissemination and wide benefit were the goal, careful, highly accessible expositions would be considered critical.

Some would argue that talks at conferences serve the purpose of part or all of the exposition I am advocating. But anyone acquainted with conferences and conference talks would know that these talks rarely transmit knowledge to anyone that doesn’t already know almost everything in the talk!

An example of the power of taking the time to explain can be seen in the blog, started by graduate students in astrophysics, focused on explaining the papers that appear in the astrophysics section of the archive at Cornell, arXiv.org. The blog, astrobites.org is a beautiful example that deserves to be imitated in all areas of scholarship.

It is widely understood that research in the widest sense (forget now about publishing or impact) is part of what makes a teacher a truly inspiring teacher. The attitude that explores, that innovates and creates playfully, that asks questions and tries to answer them is critical for the best teaching. Valuing this broader definition of exploration and research would go a long way towards bringing truly high quality teaching and research together.

Some professors are very good at mentoring whole crowds of students, others are very good at explaining very subtle, advanced ideas in classes, yet others are good at running hands on explorations of known and new ideas and environments. And there are many other ways in which professors contribute deep value, if value is measured in a natural, common sense fashion. But the current reward system rewards very little diversity, instead trying to force everything into narrowly defined research or teaching boxes. The result is that the system we have is biased against teaching and towards an insular, largely irrelevant, industry of research. And when it is not irrelevant, it is often beholden to some corporate or defense funded interest.

The low status that teaching has at many schools can also be seen in the way adjuncts are treated. The pay is criminally low, with little to no job security. As many others have noted, this reality makes a mockery of the claim that teaching is a top priority.

Approaching the integrated teaching and research mission more imaginatively, we might consider a system in which all of the teaching staff were tenured faculty, but where the roles they played were as varied as the individuals that made up the faculty. This would be easier with an administrative structure that was grass roots and not top down, but that would be an advantage and not a drawback. If adminstration were tasked with support, and not supervision, this would go a long ways towards eliminating the unhealthy feedback that has strengthened the current damaging definitions of research and teaching. Such a reconfigured support system could easily be directed by an inspired faculty to support a rich, new vision for integrated research and teaching.

And that would be something to get excited about.


Courage to Innovate

And, coming back to the pernicious influence of the elite schools on everybody else, if schools cared little for reputation or accreditation or status that depended on them bowing down and abdicating their own ability to innovate and imagine an effective path to education, we would have a huge diversity and richness in choice when deciding how and where to pursue the education that fits us. For every style of thinking and learning and doing, there would be a place where we could go to learn to think and act, a place where we could become more rather than less.

When I returned to a university setting full time after ten years at a national lab, I was surprised to find how little imagination many professors were willing to exercise to improve their situation and the situation of their students. I also found professors that actively promoted the idea that their university was inferior and that good students should go elsewhere.

I now realize that much of this is the result of a fatalistic acceptance of an environment in which innovation and common sense changes that are within reach, are obstructed by completely visionless, top-down administrative structures. Such systems are presided over by administrators that get to where they are not through the exercise of vision, but through risk aversion accompanied by a conservative point of view that stifles creativity and innovation.

(Are there administrators who do not fit this unflattering characterization? Of course. But they are a very small minority and are effectively neutralized by the effect of the rest of the system.)

As mentioned above, I think a part of the solution is a complete revision of the role of administration, from supervision and direction, to simple support with no supervision. The faculty, thus empowered could innovate and make the changes needed to reward the naturally occurring diversity that would keep things thoroughly inspiring and alive.

One could imagine a structure that was lean enough in non-teaching, non-research expenses that a tuition of 15-20K$ per year, if supplemented with donations that simply supported the infrastructure and equipment, would be sufficient to fund the operation of the school. Such a school would depend on the community for housing and small industries to capitalize in students learning trades, as well as student labor to keep the college running.To keep things focused on the right priorities, federal funds would not be allowed and students would not be allowed to use loans whose repayment was immune to bankruptcy. Instead, private donations for infrastructure and equipment and supplies would be sought, and innovative strategies for student funding would be pursued and supported. Choosing the moral high ground, some avenues of research would be avoided, but the freedom that this brought would be worth the price. (Such a funding model would also eliminate some of the mostly costly areas of research. This would be an acceptable price, especially since much of the most costly research is of questionable societal value anyway.)

By reducing the number of classes the students took, deepening the ones that remained and offering a rich profusion of enrichment experiences giving students exposure to ideas and activities outside their areas, students would experience depth and breadth in healthy balance. The enrichment activities could range from talks by visiting scholars and faculty to hands on activities that brought students into intimate contact with skilled trades. Using graduate students to help teach and mentor, one could have an environment that encouraged teaching and research that were integral, even inseparable.

Of course, the idea that one could operate a college with a much smaller overhead than is usually the case depends on greatly reduced services that have little or nothing to do with education. While there would be no reason why physical activities would need to curtailed, traditional sports would be absent. The legal structure of the school might be one of a cooperative that was supervised by the faculty and supported by a very small set of support staff and a larger contingent of students. But there would be many other options for the organization.

Graduate students, given free tuition and a small stipend to live on, would be expected to be full participants in the integrated teaching and research mission of the university. The suggested undergraduate tuition levels above would support two to four graduate student positions per professor which would be about right in that, this would translate into about one graduate student graduating every year or two for every professor, assuming an average time to graduate of 4 years.

A truly novel feature would be the presence of students in the skilled trades who would be full members of the community, along with those that were teaching those crafts. This would lead to opportunities and advantages that would enrich the university in many ways.

Where would the faculty to staff such a place come from? How would those who had been trained by such a dysfunctional system be able to guide and power such a unconventional approach to education? While it is true that many professors have let themselves be stunted by the system and robbed of their vision and idealism, most have small sparks that could be nurtured back into the enthusiasm that once motivated them. And there are always professors in the system who have never surrendered their vision, who would welcome the chance to be a part of something creatively alive and imaginative. Even if there are only 1% of the professors that are out there that would opt to be a part of something like this, that would be more than enough to get a movement going. If you count the graduates who have left academia because they cannot abide the state of academia, you have many more qualified candidates for something new and different.

Likewise, how would we find students interested in committing to a small, unconventional university? Where would you find these individuals that did not care about accreditation or reputation or status, who had the maturity to recognize that those concerns are separate, and often diametrically opposed to, real excellence and depth? I believe the answer is the same; There would be a large absolute number of students willing to make the commitment even though the relative proportion of all students might be very small.

This minimalistic description gives an idea of the kind of thing that could be created if there were a small group of people that shared the vision. Of course how it all worked out would be a function of exactly who the founders were, but letting go of the dysfunctional form that academia has evolved into and embracing a revitalized, integrated vision for teaching and research, it is certain that the students and faculty of the resulting organization would not lack a sense of purpose and accomplishment. Happiness would follow, as it always does when basic human needs for face-to-face connection and creative productivity are met.

 


Ready For College?

If everyone took 2-3 years to work and travel after high school, doing work that was useful to someone and travel that taught them independence and benefited others as well, students would arrive at college with a maturity level that enabled them to get a far greater amount out of the experience. This would also go far in counteracting the enormous waste of time and money that happens when students come to college to party and get a job certificate.

When my son graduated from high school we strongly supported his decision to take a break and it is something that I recommend to everyone that will listen.

My experience with returning students is that overall, they are all better off for the break. They return with a sense of purpose and determination to spend their time and money well, to get maximum value from their college experience. They are also much more inclined to heed advice or at least listen carefully before finding their own version of the right thing to do.


Making it personal

My own story is one of extensive meanderings that I now recognize were critical pieces of my education. It began with homeschool and music and parents with very broad interests and experience, combined with the southern New Mexico environment filled with eccentrics, who, contrary to apparent belief today, did not actually encourage me to believe in perpetual motion or the hollow earth theory (both of which were believed by people I knew). Instead, that environment gave me freedom to explore and theorize in my attempts to understand the universe, God and how everything operates. Even though he was a vocal artist and teacher, my father was also able to do almost anything with his hands and because of this my brother and I grew up building and tinkering, which both of us have continued to do in our own substantial shops.

Pausing for a moment on this point, it is important to note that in addition to choosing not to have television, my parents provided all the resources for us to create and invent and fabricate things that we imagined. Eventually we learned trades — I learned piano tuning and my brother learned automotive technology. Though it has been 35 years since I tuned a piano, the habit of working with my hands, of creating things in my shop, has stayed with me to this day. The same goes for my brother who now has other people work on his cars, and instead spends his spare time creating impressive works of art from wood and metal in his shop.

We moved to Eastern Washington to attend Walla Walla University, a high quality parochial school, filled with students and professors that could have been at places with higher reputations. After college, in an attempt to deal with the trauma of losing both parents, there was more wandering that led through graduate schools, divorce, oceanography research, life in a little cabin in the hills above the Santiam River, a research seed farm, construction, consulting, 7th and 8th grade teaching, research in a medical school, remarriage and graduate school in Portland, Oregon.  This led to Los Alamos where I started my career as a mathematician, in an environment that was ideally suited to someone with ability and energy who had, so to speak, come out of the woodwork. (This is the biggest tragedy in the decline of the national labs — they were places where good ideas and ability got you somewhere independently of where you were from. They were also places with an almost unique ability to nurture very high quality, inter-disciplinary work.)

Between the wandering and the graduate school in Portland, there was a conversation with a cousin. I had just remarried and was running a small research lab in the medical school in Portland. We visited his small farm in Oregon and he noticed that I was emotionally out of sorts, not peaceful about something. He remarked that when I had lived down in his area (that little cabin above the river) he had noticed that every time I went on walkabouts in the hills and mountains, I could leave in a state of anxiety or under some emotional cloud, but I would return with peace and clarity. He said, “You should do this every day!”

I took his advice to heart and upon returning to Portland started taking long walks in the woods and forests where I lived. On those walks I discovered who I was and what my passion was. I had found my muse. In conversations with God (my atheist friends have alternate, though sympathetic descriptions for what I experienced), I began to see things in a different light, finding that there was a living path into whatever you wanted to do, one that was as different from the usual career trajectory as a rich, living garden was from a herbarium with its dried and described plants.

I returned to graduate school with an entirely new perspective (and a new baby son).

Since then there has been evolution in thought and perspectives, but the experience in the woods and forests remains pivotal. I believe that the experience explains why I have often approached situations with a different viewpoint, believing that there are many ways to solve problems, that there is usually something good to be preserved and yet that is no reason to insist on keeping the bathwater with the baby.

The experience is also the reason that I view my job as a professor and mentor very broadly. i see it as my duty to encourage students to find their own muse, to listen to talks like David Levy’s No Time to Think, to read books like David Shenk’s The Genius in all of us and Buscaglia’s Love,  to get some of their news from places like Truthdig and the Real News Network, to publish open access papers and think carefully before giving up copyright and think deeply about what it implies before you accept money from places like the defense industry or the security industry. In addition to teaching geometric measure theory  and nonlinear analysis and other fascinating subjects, in addition to guiding dissertations and projects and interactions with industry, it is my duty to prompt them to think, to live examined lives and settle for nothing less than wholeness and emotional health. In that way, and only in that way, will I have helped set them free to travel and thrive on a sustainable, living path.

The conclusions they arrive at may be very different from mine, but then, thinking in unison is never a good goal. What I do know is that they will have the tools, not only to adapt and thrive, but also to correct and restore and recover from the mistakes that they will inevitably make.


Inspired and Provocative

I found a variety of reviews of Excellent Sheep when I was reading the book and not surprisingly, some people loved the book, other hated it. One that I enjoyed quite a bit was James McWilliams’ review, Why Did ‘Excellent Sheep’ Alienate So Many Readers?, which appeared in the October 2014 Pacific Standard. Like James, I believe that it is probable that those who disliked the book are those for whom the book hits too close to home. Though a thoughtful reading of the book will often inspire vigorous discussion, it seems to me that such a reading will also recognize that the book is long overdue, that the author has the experience to make the book worth reading and that attacks on the book reveal more about the attackers than the book.

But even those attacks on the book are useful, for they remind us that the emotions, acknowledged or not, can easily overwhelm everything else, irregardless of how much sophistication and skill one uses to try to disguise the fear or pain that drives our responses. And if we read those other reviews sympathetically, they will remind us that we are all susceptible to these reactions and complicit in a society that lets fear rob us of deeper insight and deeper lives.

To rob fear of its prey, to turn around the slide into the illusions of our modern age, we must first understand the guiding delusions and then direct our energies towards inspired, counteracting  goals. As an antidote to the current delusions and an inspiration for change in higher education, I know of no better book to begin with than this book by William Deresiewicz.