May 1, 2008

What's an education for, anyways

A good question. It seems to me that the purpose of an education is not to confirm the student's pre-existing habits and prejudices, but to help them to explore new ways of doing things. In higher education, part of that is going to be to expand their horizons from the stuff they learned in high school, to learn how to use new tools for self-expression (ie. for someone who has never created a web page, that would be a good thing to learn), to learn how to use old tools for self-expression (ie. for someone who has never written a literature review paper, that would be a good thing to learn) and even to learn how the scholarly landscape operates in the discipline they are studying.

Let's see what some other people have had to say on this recently.

First up, sociologist Eszter Hargittai, in an interview at Wired Campus talks about how web savvy students really are as opposed to how savvy everyone assumes they are. Or hopes that they are.

Q. What are the challenges for colleges that hope to better educate students about Web use?

A. How do you fit this into the curriculum? Is it supposed to be an academic department, or through libraries? How can you legitimately stand in front of a classroom when the students have an assumption that they know more about technology than you? At the beginning of my classes, I tell my students, “I know you don’t think I know as much as you because I’m older. I assure you, I know way more than you guys about this.” And they sort of smile, but by the end of the class they realize I’m right.

That's really one of the great challenges of libraries going forward: convincing students that we have something to offer to them, that we know something that they don't, that old fogies can be web savvy.

As far as learning to be a scholar, Wayne Bivens-Tatum points out that the way the humanities are studied really hasn't changed. Our obsession with being "innovative" in the way we deliver collections and services to humanities scholars is, beyond a certain point, kind of delusional:
The humanities are about reading and thinking through language and texts. We can’t assume that they inhabit a “visual culture” and there’s an end on it. There’s almost no visual culture in the humanities outside of art or film criticism. Humanistic scholars read, write, discuss, argue. They don’t make collages or Youtube videos, at least not as a central part of their scholarship. They might record a lecture, but that’s usually much more boring than reading an essay. I don’t know why we sometimes assume that the newest generation is somehow too slow or shallow to be able to adapt themselves to this scholarly tradition. They play video games, and they read books. They make videos, and they write essays. The liberal arts, the studies proper to free and rational human beings, are alive and well. That they aren’t the stuff of reality TV or celebrity websites means nothing, because they have always been the domain of the relative few who seek to question or reflect upon the world around them. Higher education in America gives us the opportunity to expand the benefits of the humanities, not assume that such study is irrelevant to the desires of today’s youth while we desperately flail around trying to seem relevant.

Now, I don't think what Wayne is saying applies to the sciences in quite the same way. After all, the escience computational revolution is radically changing the way that scientific data, information and knowledge themselves are being generated. And the way science is being communicated. But on the other hand, it really does help to know where you've been to be able to figure out where you're going. In that sense, new scientists can truly benefit from diving into all those old books and journals mouldering on the shelves and understanding how science was generated and communicated in the past.

The next bit is from an actually rather distasteful little article whose main point seems to be, "I'm a visual arts scholar, so the art I like is intrinsically better than the art you like." As someone who appreciates both Black Sabbath and Miles Davis, I find it rather condescending. But, if you change the the phrases around the word "taste" for "intellectual habits" or "searching skills" or "confidence with technology" I think there's something valid:
Freshmen arrive on campus with their own taste in everything from music to clothes, food, and electronic equipment. Consciously or not, they also have developed certain tastes in art. Taste being what it is, and young people being what they are, freshmen usually arrive with either no taste or very bad taste — not just in art, but in everything — but in either case, they’re very comfortable with their tastes. They don’t expect or want to change them. The paradox is that it just so happens that their taste, which they consider to be something that’s very particular and individual, is, in most important respects, exactly the same as that of most other college freshmen.

So, what's an education for? It seems to me that it's about changing the way you see things, not confirming or pandering to easy habits or ideas.


Wayne BT said...

Interesting you should find any relevance for the sciences in my post. When I was writing it I had in mind your apt criticism of my "boxy but good" post on how the library was much less central to library research in the sciences than in the humanities. One reason I was being very specific about what hasn't changed much.

I don't find the chronicle article quite as distasteful as you do, but I see your point. In the classroom at least, there's no arguing about "taste," as in "mine is better than yours," even if you might in fact believe yours is better. But one purpose of education is definitely to challenge and broaden your tastes, because some tastes one has to be educated in a particular way to appreciate. This seems to me to be what people mean by better taste. It's relatively easy for teenagers to appreciate the thumping beats of rock or hiphop, but it requires more education and preparation, perhaps, to appreciate Miles Davis or Haydn. It's relatively easy to enjoy the latest thriller novel, but it definitely takes a certain kind of literary education to appreciate the beauties of Alexander Pope. "Better" taste might just entail appreciating more aesthetic experiences than someone else as well as being able to articulate why those experiences are enjoyable. Liberal education challenges one to appreciate more types of art or music or literature while also giving you the vocabulary to articulate why.


John Dupuis said...

Thanks for the comment, Wayne.

Believe it or not, science faculty too bemoan that "students just don't read books anymore."

As for taste, well, I think I was just hoping that the writer would use another word implying that the thing that needed to be encouraged was breadth and a variety of experience in enjoying artistic expression rather than excluding certain kinds of expression from the artistic canon. Or perhaps I'm just reading too much into it.

After all, my favourite newly discovered blog these days is Pulp of the Day.

Wayne BT said...

I think you're just too sensitive. Of course I'd be sensitive too if I had tastes like yours!

John Dupuis said...

Hey, I resemble that remark!

Anonymous said...

Anyway not "Anyways"