Tag Archives: philosophy

What Should We Learn in College? (Part II)

by Wade Maki

In my last post I discussed comments made by our Governor on what sorts of things we should, and shouldn’t, be learning in college. This is a conversation going on across higher education. Of course we should learn everything in college, but this goal is not practical as our time and funds are limited. We are left then to prioritize what things to require of our students, what things will be electives, and what things not to offer at all.

One area we do this prioritization in is “general education” (GE), which is the largest issue in determining what we learn in college. Some institutions have a very broad model for GE that covers classic literature, history, philosophy, and the “things an educated person should know.” Exactly what appears on this list will vary by institution with some being more focused on the arts, some on the humanities, and others on social sciences. The point being that the institution decides a very small core for GE.

The drawback to a conscribed model for GE is that it doesn’t allow for as much student choice. The desire for more choice led to another very common GE system often referred to as “the cafeteria model” whereby many courses are offered as satisfying GE requirements and each student picks preferences for a category. This system is good for student choice of what to learn, but it isn’t good if you want a connected “core” of courses.

In recent years there has been a move to have a “common core” in which all universities within a state would have the same GE requirements. This makes transfers easier since all schools have the same core. However, it also tends to limit the amount of choice by reducing the options to only those courses offered at every school. In addition, it eliminates the local character of an institution’s GE (by making them all the same), which also reduces improvements from having competing systems (when everyone does it their own way, good ideas tend to be replicated). If we don’t try different GE systems on campuses then innovation slows.

Image

No matter which direction we move GE, we still have to address the central question of “what should we learn?” For example, should students learn a foreign language? Of course they should in an ideal world, but consider that foreign language requirements are two years.  We must compare the opportunity costs of that four course requirement (what else could we have learned from four other courses in say economics, psychology, science, or communications?). This is just one example of how complicated GE decisions can be. Every course we require is a limitation on choice and makes it less likely that other (non-required) subjects will be learned.

As many states look at a “common core” model there is an additional consideration which is often overlooked.  Suppose we move to a common core of general education in which most students learn the same sorts of things.  Now imagine your business or work environment where most of your coworkers learned the same types of things but other areas of knowledge were not learned by any of them. Is this preferable to an organization where its already employed educated members learned very little in common but have more diverse educational backgrounds? I suspect an organization with more diverse education employees will be more adaptable than one where there are a few things everyone knows and a lot of things no one knows.

Image

This is my worry about the way we are looking to answer the question of what we should learn in college. In the search for an efficient, easy to transfer, common core we may end up:

  1. Having graduates with more similar educations and the same gaps in their educations.
  2. Losing the unique educational cultures of our institutions.
  3. Missing out on the long term advantage of experimentation across our institutions by imposing one model for everyone.

Not having a common core doesn’t solve the all of the problems, but promoting experiments through diverse and unique educational requirements is worth keeping. There is another problem with GE that I can’t resolve, which is how most of us in college answer the question this way: “Everyone should learn what I did or what I’m teaching.” But that is a problem to be addressed in another posting. So, what should we learn in college?

What Should we Learn in College? (Part I)

by Wade Maki

Recently Governor McCrory made some comments on William Bennett’s radio show about higher education. These comments got a lot of people’s attention and not necessarily the good kind. Before reading any comments on what someone else has said it is best to check out the original source. To that end, I suggest listening to the entire segment of the Governor on the show (which you can download as an MP3 here).

Governor Pat McCrory

Governor Pat McCrory

Several comments were made regarding higher education including the importance an education has in getting a job, the shortage of certain kinds of training (welding), and the surplus of workers in other kinds of education (including gender studies, philosophy, and Swahili). While there are a lot of things worth responding to in the radio segment, I will address only one issue: Why disciplinary training in philosophy is valuable. Philosophy is, after all, my field and it is wise to restrict one’s public claims to what one knows.

What does philosophy teach us? Common answers include increased critical thinking, argumentation skills, and clarity of communication. In practice this includes a bundle of skills such as: seeing the logical implications of proposed ideas or courses of action; the ability to identify the relevant issue under discussion and separate out the “red herrings”, unsupported arguments, or fallacious reasoning; being able to break down complex ideas, issues, or communications and explain them in a logically organized fashion, etc. I could go on, but these are a sampling of the real skills learned from an education in philosophy.

What the governor and Dr. Bennett (who holds a Ph.D. in Philosophy) said gives the impression that a philosophy education doesn’t help students get jobs. This has been a takeaway message in the media. Since, others have made the case that a job isn’t the goal of an education, I leave it to the reader to examine that argument. There are two points about the discussion that should be noted. First, Dr. Bennett was suggesting that we have too many Ph.D.’s in philosophy, which is a separate claim than philosophy lacks educational value. It may be true that we have an oversupply of Ph.D.’s in many disciplines (and a shortage in others). The causes of this are many and include the free choice of students as to what to study, the impetus for universities to create graduate programs to enhance their reputations, and the ability to reduce teaching costs by putting graduate students in the classroom. Again, I leave it to others to examine these causes. Nothing Dr. Bennett said indicated that undergraduates shouldn’t learn philosophy.

Dr. William "Bill" Bennett

Dr. William “Bill” Bennett

This leads me to the second point—Dr. Bennett is himself an example of the value philosophy adds to education. What do you do with a philosophy education? Dr. Bennett parlayed his philosophical training, in addition to legal training (a common set of skills), to become Secretary of Education, a political commentator, an author, and a talk radio host. His logical argumentation skills, knowledge of Aristotle and virtue ethics are seen throughout his work. The very skills described above as benefits of a philosophical education are the skills his career represents.

There are very good reasons to include philosophy as part of our higher education curricula. Unfortunately, philosophy becomes an easy target in public discourse disparaging what we learn in this discipline for at least two reasons. First, most people don’t have an understanding of what philosophy is and how it develops numerous valuable skills. Second, philosophy teaches transferable skills that enhance many careers without having a single career associated solely with it (besides teaching). In other words, the value of studying nursing may be to become a nurse in a way that studying philosophy isn’t to become a philosopher. The value of philosophy is found in the skills it develops which can be applied to all sorts of jobs. I suspect Dr. Bennett would agree and I hope Governor McCrory will as well.

Actually, We Can All Just Get Along…And Do Most Of the Time.

by Wade Maki

Who’s out to destroy America? If you believed everything you hear over the next few weeks the answer is just about everyone. Greedy capitalists, lazy moochers, and every candidate running in a competitive race are just some of dangers. Of course if you watch the news you’d also conclude that we’re all about to die from the weather (hurricanes, earthquakes, tornadoes, snow oh my), can’t swim in the oceans (sharks), can’t fly (crashes), and we will be the victims of terrorism, swine flu, computer hacking, identity theft, or sudden onset obesity any minute now.

Similar to how the news exaggerates the risks of daily living, campaigns exaggerate the evil intent of every “other” in society. Luckily, when disasters really do occur most of us get along pretty well (and days without disasters too).

Image

Are the presidential candidates really villains from Batman?

Our predisposition towards cooperation became especially clear to me this summer during a trip to visit family in the hills of northwest Arkansas. On the surface this is a unique region, as you learn when flying into what appears to be nowhere. You land at a very large and modern airport (thanks to Wal-Mart headquarters being in the area). The many small communities contain people from all over the country—most notably retirees seeking warm weather, affordable living, low taxes and a large supply of golf courses.

We stayed with relatives up winding roads in the hills filled with middle class houses and large trees. During the second night of our stay we experienced a very fast and violent storm. The power went out after dark and we experienced the “what do we do without electricity” quandary faced by those too used to technology. Luckily, I had an iPad to light the way until we found a flashlight and got candles lit. As there wasn’t much to do, we grabbed a flashlight took a midnight stroll to see what had happened.

Quickly we realized that this was not a unique idea as there were people roaming all over the neighborhood (in the dark the bouncing flashlights were visible for blocks). Trees were down everywhere. Not just small Imageones but massive trees lay across yards, power lines, and on top of homes as well. It was bad and everyone was making sure everyone else was okay. We hadn’t made it a block before running into a man with a flashlight strapped atop his head by his shirt and his long wet hair hanging down his bare shoulders looking for the chainsaw he had set down along the street. This was the first, but not last person, who in the middle of the night was already getting to work helping neighbors get massive trees removed from damaged homes.

All night and most of the next day we heard the roar of chainsaws as the cleanup continued. People from outside the neighborhood were driving around offering their services to those needing tree removals (some were professionals, others just a guy with a saw trying to make a buck). It is at a time like this you realize that the “greedy capitalist” you hear during campaign season is a good thing to have around when an 8’ wide oak tree is crushing your roof.

For most of the next day power was out (the company workers were doing their best) as a mixture of Imagevolunteers and for profit professionals assisted those in need. One elderly couple had a very large tree crash right into their bedroom. Luckily they weren’t home. Rather than wait to contact them, or wait for an insurance assessor, that same mix of neighbors and professionals got together, removed the tree from the house and put a tarp on the roof to protect this couples’ home from further rain.

There were no bad guys that day. Despite the different political yard signs around, no one viewed anyone else as out to destroy America. When something really bad happened it was amazing how everyone (volunteers, for profit professional, neighbors, etc.) just did what needed doing. As a microcosm of society it is a good reminder of just how well most things work (which is the real magic given how many things could go wrong).Image

Sure there are problems, differences, and our decisions about what policy or person to support can make things better or worse. For the most part though, society is full of pretty good people trying their best, in their own way, to get what needs doing done. Something to remember as you experience the drumbeat of doom from political ads and “news” outlets—We can and do get along just fine…most of the time.

Who is on First: Ambiguous and Loaded Language

By Wade Maki

“Who is on first? Yes, he is.” The classic comedy bit plays on ambiguity in language.  In this case the ambiguity is just the unfortunate result of the situation (people named “Who” and “What” are difficult to talk about).  A great many problems are caused by ambiguous language in which two or more meanings may be found in the same wording. Vast amounts of philosophical disputes revolve around language disputes. What exactly did you mean by X?

Do you believe in God? This seems a simple question, but what does it mean to “believe” in something? Does belief entail: that it is true, that it is likely true, that it is possibly true, that I just hope it true, or even that I just want to be true? The word is unclear and any question involving it invites answers aimed at one of these standards leaving great possibility for confusion between questioner and answerer.

Sometimes ambiguous language is just the unintended result of vague expression. In other cases it results from careless expression. As evidence, here is how a team of students recently reported on a conflict between two companies:

“Throughout the process, this firm created monetary problems for their company explaining why they decided not to provide their services to them.”

While the team knew to what the words “this, their, they, and them,” applied, there was no way for the reader to decipher this meaning given that there were at least two subjects that each word could refer to.

In other cases ambiguous language is a deliberate tool to deceive. Examples from politics and advertising are numerous where, by design, language is selected because it has dual meanings one, which is technically true, and the other which isn’t true but the speaker hopes the listener will accept as true. President Clinton’s famous legal defense about perjury included the curious claim “it depends upon what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is”. You know language is in trouble when “is” becomes ambiguous.

Rather than focus on political ambiguity in language, a subject deserving of its own post, consider how advertisers utilize it. Below are two labels from the same product line called “ecosense” (in two shades of green). When you see this what do you think of? Once you’ve answered the question read the small print at the bottom. Then look at the second version, which represents the updated advertising language. Notice how they changed the small print to be even more ambiguous than the first.

What is going on with these ads is called “greenwashing” whereby an attempt is made to convey an environmental product when, in fact, it is not an environmental product. In the examples above the advertiser plays on both the ambiguity of the phrase “ecosense” and of the color green. The eco in ecosense could mean ecological and/or economical just as the green could mean environmentally friendly and/or affordable. As the small print indicates in the first ad (which was the original label) only the economical portions are true.  However, since the product would sell better if people thought it was environmental this original small print was altered to be more ambiguous. Now it tells you that ecosense means economical sense it leaves an open question as to the environmental impact of the product. People who don’t read the small print (a significant number) would reasonably conclude that the product was environmentally friendly and even those who read the second label may reach that same conclusion.

Thus far the examples have involved language which could have two or more meanings. There is another form of ambiguity in language where meanings are smuggled into language without actually being said.  What comes to mind when I tell you Jones is an environmentalist? For many people the word itself brings with it images of hippies, tree huggers, people diving atop whales to save them from harpoons, Prius owners, or a host of other behaviors. As a result a lot of people say “I’m not an environmentalist” before adding, “but I care about the environment.” This is as logical as the woman who says: “I believe in equal rights, but I’m not a feminist.”

Confusions in such cases come not from the words themselves, but from outside ideas the listener associates with the words. Thus, most conservatives don’t call themselves “environmentalists” as that says SUV burning, un-showered,  neo-hippie. Instead, conservatives are more likely to use the term “conservationist”.  What is the difference? Not a whole lot if you only look at the words and know that both seek to protect parks, air, water, and nature.  Of course the term conservationist also carries additional connotations to some listeners such as, in full Teddy Roosevelt tradition, enjoying nature by using an elephant gun to blow away every creature in the natural world for the trophy wall.

A lot of conflict, confusion, and deception occurs because of ambiguity in either the meaning of language or the smuggling in of additional notions. What one person says can be innocent to one listener but racist/homophobic/offensive to others. The solution isn’t easy. Being aware of ambiguity and smuggled notions goes a long way, but not far enough. If you were running for president and want to protect parks, air, water, and nature what word do you use? If environmentalist and conservationist each scare a third of America what word do you use? This helps explain the tortured use of language in politics.

A Window onto a Confucian Society

By Claude Tate

Movies are great tools for those of us who tell the stories of humanity’s past and present. Consequently, throughout my career I have constantly been on the prowl for movies I could use in my classes. I first became acquainted with “Raise the Red Lantern” in a MALS class I took here at UNC-G under Professor Tony Fragola. Besides being an excellent movie in and of itself, I’ve found it to be a valuable addition to units I’ve taught on both China and on Confucianism.  When I taught World History, I used it on numerous occasions to introduce my unit on China. I do not use it in any of my BLS classes.  But when we do our lesson on the Confucian approach to organizing the state in my “Self, Society, and Salvation” course, students sometimes want to know what a society built on Confucian principles would actually look like in practice.  I haven’t hesitated to recommend this movie.  I can think of no other resource that bring those age old principles to life to the degree that this movie can.   Zhang Yimou portrays not only the force and oppressiveness of the culture that evolved in China in which everyone has a clearly defined role, but also how people cope within this highly structured society, and what happens to those who rebel.

One note…Many people avoid movies that are subtitled, but Zhang Yimou is so effective in telling his story with the lens of his camera that one can understand the movie completely without reading a single subtitle.

Click here to read a 1996 review of this movie by James Berardinelli, and the trailer is below:

One more thing…I love this movie. It is well worth your time even if you are not viewing it for academic purposes.

Is the Future of Racing a Thing of the Past?

By Jay Parr

NASCAR

As anyone who has made the mistake of taking I-85 past Concord on a race day knows, NASCAR is one of the largest professional sporting organizations in the country. Major events draw more than a hundred thousand spectators to the stands, and sometimes millions of viewers watching from home or their favorite sports bar. Total revenues are in the billions of dollars, and the revenues of the top teams are in the tens of millions of dollars apiece. It’s a huge business.

We tend to think of auto racing as being at the forefront of high-performance technology, but that’s not actually the case in NASCAR. The regulations in that organization dictate that the cars must be front engine and rear wheel drive, despite the fact that the street versions of those cars are almost all front-wheel drive. But it doesn’t stop there. The engines must have carburetors, not the fuel injection of most cars on the road today. They must be naturally aspirated, so they can’t have the turbochargers that are becoming so common in passenger cars today. They must have pushrod-operated valves, so they can’t even have the overhead cams found in a twenty-year-old Saturn. Far from being at the leading edge of engine technology, NASCAR engines use hundred-year-old technology that is arguably fifty years out of date.

Tour de France

Auto racing is not the only racing sport where the rules place big restrictions on the technology used. If you’ve ever watched the Tour de France or any other major bicycle race, you may have noticed that all the bikes look almost identical. That is not a coincidence, and it is not because the bike you see is the best configuration for performance. Nearly a century ago, shortly after the familiar diamond-framed “safety bicycle” took over popularity from the dangerous old high-wheeled “ordinary bicycle,” a Frenchman by the name of Charles Mochet designed the first commercially-produced recumbent bicycle. The rider sat back as if on a chaise lounge, with his feet stretched out in front of him and the rear wheel behind his back. It won several major races, and in 1934 it broke the one-hour world record when his rider covered 28 miles—and the wins and the record were all piloted by second-tier cyclists. At their very next meeting, the International Cyclist’s Union (UCI) decided that recumbent bicycles could not compete against diamond-framed bicycles in any major bicycle race. That is why you never see a recumbent bicycle in the Tour de France—despite the fact that they’re faster, more aerodynamic, more comfortable to race, and much safer in an accident.

Recumbent bicycles

In both of these racing venues—motorized and human-powered—political decisions have kept the sport from evolving toward superior technologies. The philosophy in both cases is to put the emphasis on human competition, but the technological ramifications reach far beyond the racetrack. In the past, the highly-funded and competitive environment of racing has led to major advances in both efficiency and safety. Your brake lights, rear-view mirrors, seat belts, and radial tires were all pioneered in race cars, as were many other features you take for granted, like the side-impact bars in your doors, the fuel injection that has doubled your gas mileage, and the variable timing advance that allows your engine to run efficiently at a wide variety of RPMs. Even on a dime-store bicycle, the gearing and brake technology were perfected in the racing world before trickling down to the kids’ beater bikes.

Restricting the natural advance of racing technology has a negative impact, not only on racing sports, but on the society as a whole. Consumer technology tends to mimic high-performance technology, and to benefit from high-tech advances in a trickle-down effect. Imagine how the world might look if the UCI had forbidden the chain-driven safety bicycle. Would the serious cyclists be teetering around on top of huge 54-inch wheels? Would we be afraid to teach our children to ride bikes for fear they might take a header and break their necks? Now, imagine it the other way, if the UCI had not forbidden the recumbent. Would most of us be cruising around on comfy lawn chairs? Would we stare in amusement when we saw one of those old dangerous head-first relics? Would our kids be more likely to land on a nice soft buttock instead of a fragile face or wrist when they dumped their bikes?

What if NASCAR technology had been allowed to develop unchecked? Pit stops happen on the clock, so it’s entirely conceivable that racing engineers would have poured a lot of attention into increasing fuel efficiency to minimize those stops. If they had been allowed to experiment unchecked, would we have race cars that could complete a 600-mile race on ten gallons of fuel? Imagine how that technology would trickle down to a little Nissan on the highway. Think about that next time you’re fueling up for that trip down I-85.

Cyclist Sam Whittingham exceeds 82 mph in a streamlined recumbent bicycle.

The Big Questions

By Marc Williams

After reading about and discussing ideas pertaining to education for the past few weeks, UNCG’s BLS Program Manager Jay Parr sent me this article.  It is several years old and was inspired in part by Randy Pausch, who died in 2008 of pancreatic cancer.

Randy Pausch

Randy Pausch

Even before receiving his fatal diagnosis, Professor Pausch had been slated to deliver a “last lecture” on his campus—that is, to pretend to be giving a final presentation, presumably one that would distill the wisdom of an entire life as a scholar and teacher. The lecture that Pausch in fact gave—when there was no need to pretend—made him a celebrity and focused attention on his pearls of wisdom.

The article focuses not on Pausch himself but rather the “big questions” he asked in his “Last Lecture” about life.  Author Rod Kessler, inspired by Pausch, asks his own students a series of “biq questions”: Why are we here?  What makes us happy?  What makes relationships work?  Kessler demonstrates concern for teachers and students who aren’t curious about big questions like these.

Is curiosity alive in the classroom?  Or are Kessler’s concerns justified?

You can view Pausch’s now-famous “Last Lecture” here:

What are “liberal studies” anyway?

By Marc Williams

This entry begins the official blog life of UNCG’s Bachelor of Arts in Liberal Studies program.  We’ve begun our Facebook life with some discussions on education.  Perhaps it would be worthwhile to begin our blog with the term “Liberal Studies.”  What exactly does that mean?

Image from "Education in Ancient Greece," Michael Lahanas

The phrase derives from artes liberales (“liberal arts”), which describes the kinds of knowledge (“arts”) that free citizens (“liberated”) should possess. This definition of liberal arts can be traced from Ancient Greece all the way through the Middle Ages.   Artes liberales can be contrasted with artes illiberales, which refers to a kind of education intended specifically for economic gain (such as vocational training).    The branches of knowledge that comprise the liberal arts include mathematics, music, literature, logic, rhetoric, grammar, and oratory.  In this regard, a “liberal studies” education is intended to be broad in focus and inclusive of a variety of disciplines.

Most universities today offer degree programs with a liberal arts structure. First-year university students are often surprised by how many courses are required outside of their intended field of study.  “How will a philosophy course help me if I want to work in advertising?”

One answer to this question comes from a recent Carnegie Foundation study, recently outlined on Businessweek.com by William M. Sullivan:

More than ever, American business needs leaders who are creative and flexible enough to innovate in a complex, competitive, global economy. The recent near-collapse of the world economy underscores the importance of business professionals who can act with foresight and integrity, aware of the public impact of their decisions. [...].

The Carnegie Foundation study found that undergraduate business programs are too often narrow in scope. They rarely challenge students to question their assumptions, think creatively, or understand the place of business in larger institutional contexts. […] .

The study, soon to appear as Rethinking Undergraduate Business Education: Liberal Learning for the Profession (Jossey-Bass/Wiley), went in search of business programs that set out to provide students with more than tools for advancing their careers, as important as those tools are. [...].

Not surprisingly, this report suggests business programs include a healthy dose of liberal arts courses—courses that specifically develop the analytical and critical thinking skills required to deal with ambiguous and complex questions, as well as courses that manage to connect to the business curriculum.  These critical thinking, analytical, and creative skills are precisely the focus of the Bachelor of Arts in Liberal Studies program at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.  To learn more, please visit http://www.uncg.edu/aas/bls.