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Educating Professionals

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Universities around the country have, in the last century, shifted their focus from a traditional liberal arts curriculum to an increasingly “practical” or vocational form of education. There is a popular conception that the purpose of higher education is some form of job-training. A cursory Google search will produce a number of articles asking whether college is a “sound investment,” or whether college graduates make more money than their peers who elect to forego college for work. Virtually every one of these articles defines the worth of a college degree in purely economic terms. There is little room to deny that, in our modern liberal democracy, making money is a practical necessity. Yet, I think there is something deeply confused about the attempt to reduce the value of education generally — and higher education specifically — to the economic gains that come from education. I have argued elsewhere that conflating the so-called “practicality” of education with the “vocationality” of education is a conceptual mistake, so I will not rehearse those arguments here.

Instead, I intend to discuss a related problem present in the ways we conceive of the nature, purpose, and value of higher education. Following the 2008 recession, there was a marked shift in students’ and educators’ priorities toward STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields. People seem to see STEM fields as a means to a professional end — scientists, engineers, and folks in tech tend to make money, and that’s something people in a precarious economic environment want. We can see the need for economic stability reflected in every aspect of the university, including many college and university mission and vision statements.

It is not difficult to see the ways in which gaining technical proficiency in biology or engineering, for example, will prepare students for a career. However, what some students and educators fail to recognize is that even areas within sciences that most directly correlate to in-demand jobs need the humanities. In preparing a guest lecture on engineering ethics, I looked into the nature of professional ethics generally. This led me to think about the nature of a profession and why it is important that certain professions have ethical guidelines by which practitioners must abide. The word “profession” is derived from the late Latin professus, which roughly means “to profess one’s vows.” One might wonder what a profession of one’s vows has to do with a “profession” as we consider it today. The answer is surprisingly straightforward — in the monastic tradition, monks were asked to make a public declaration of their commitment to living a more just, ethical life in light of their training. Accordingly, they would profess their commitment to living according to this higher standard. Such dedications bled over into highly skilled and highly specialized trades — as jobs require increasingly specific training, it becomes increasingly important that the people who take on these skilled positions profess to self-govern according to higher standards, if only because the number of people who have the knowledge to provide a check on them has become vanishingly small. There can be little doubt that technicians at every level need to behave ethically, but with a larger peer group, there are more individuals, and more opportunities to recognize and correct potential abuse. As William F. May powerfully states, “if knowledge is power, then ignorance is powerlessness. Although it is possible to devise structures that limit the opportunities for abuse of specialized knowledge, ultimately one needs to cultivate virtue in those who wield that relatively inaccessible power.”

It is not difficult to see how we can take this idea of professionalism as tied with virtue and apply it to higher education today. Let’s take the example of our engineering students. Within the field of engineering, there are different fields of sub-specialization, the result of which is a (relatively) small number of professional peers — those with the specialized knowledge to recognize and correct potential problems before they become catastrophic. The fact that students in a senior-level engineering class already have narrowly defined expertise that differs from peers in the same class highlights the need for a curriculum that instills ethics early on.

This problem becomes more acute as students graduate and enter the profession. As the number of engineers who have the specific knowledge necessary to evaluate the choices made by any given engineer is so small, we must rely on the engineers themselves to abide by a higher standard — especially in light of the public-facing nature of the work engineers undertake. Engineering is a profession, and as such we need engineers who profess to, and actually do, live and work according to a higher standard. Such a profession requires more than mere compliance with a code of conduct. As Michael Pritchard notes, “professional codes of ethics are not static documents. But even if a code is relatively unchanging, it is not simply an algorithm for decision making. It must be applied – which calls for independent judgment on the part of the professional.” In light of this understanding of the nature and demands of professionalism, I propose that universities insist upon an increased emphasis on humanities — those fields whose value is less directly connected to vocational outcomes and are more easily connected to the development of character, person, and civic responsibility. Humanistic fields are just as valuable as more vocationally-directed fields, even to those vocational-directed fields themselves.

According to a recent report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, many institutions were ill-prepared to handle the influx of people looking for STEM degrees following the 2008 recession. The BLS additionally cautions that the pandemic is likely to cause another STEM surge, offering us another opportunity to shape industries and mold the next wave of future professionals. In considering how to do this, and how to do it well, it should be clear from what I’ve said that we need to emphasize the connections between the humanities and STEM fields. While we often like to think of science as purely descriptive and divorced from considerations of value (moral, aesthetic, or otherwise), that is simply not an accurate, or at any rate a complete picture. The ultimate aims of science are, I suggest, intrinsically value-laden. I don’t have room here to defend this claim, but for a careful discussion, see Heather Douglas’ Science, Policy, and the Value-Free Ideal (especially chapters 4, 5, and 8). For now, let’s return to our example of engineering students. In my discussions with students, many report that they went into engineering with high-minded goals about improving the quality of life for those around them. They see the end for the sake of which they pursue STEM not as mere financial stability, but for the betterment of human lives; yet most report that they have had little or no formal education in ethics or value theory. The narrow scope of their education illustrates that colleges and universities are not doing enough to truly prepare students for the non-technical aspects of their chosen profession. The solution, I propose, is to return to a more well-rounded form of education; one that emphasizes humanities and integrates humanistic education with STEM fields.

We do not need technically proficient but ethically unimaginative or inflexible workers to fill the needs of our consumer economy; rather, we need professionals understood in the broad sense I’ve described. We need to cultivate and encourage our students to commit to living according to the highest standards of moral virtue. As Rena Beatrice Goldstein argues,

“Virtue enables a person to navigate challenging human encounters in many spheres, and virtue curricula can help students learn to navigate well by practicing virtue in different environments. It takes time to develop virtues like open-mindedness. Indeed, being open-minded with strangers in the civic domain may require different motivations than being open-minded with one’s peers, family, or friends. Practicing virtues in a variety of domains can help students develop the right motivations, which may be different in different domains.”

I propose that we see the next STEM push as an opportunity to re-emphasize our commitment to all of the core values of higher education: personal growth, civic responsibility, and professional excellence. When we consider “professional excellence,” we must build into that concept a healthy understanding of, and respect for, the stable virtues cultivated through sustained humanistic study.

The Morality of the Arts vs. Science Distinction

image of child architect with hard hat standing in front of sketch of city skyline

If one pursues post-secondary education, is it better to study the arts or focus on the sciences? Given the career opportunities and prestige, it has become a common source of mockery that someone would choose to pursue the arts rather than the sciences. But what makes the arts different from the sciences? Do how and why we make such distinctions have ethical ramifications?

What is the difference between the liberal arts and the sciences? The concept of “the arts” stretches back to antiquity where ‘art’ designated a human skill. These skills were used to make things that are artificial (human made), an artifact. Later, the concept of the liberal arts was used to designate the kind of education required for a free citizen (the term “liberal” designating freedom rather than a political ideology) to take part in civil life. Today, the arts may refer to fine arts (like painting or music) as well as liberal arts such as various humanities (philosophy, history, literature, linguistics, etc.) and social sciences (like sociology, economics, or political science). These are now held in contrast to the STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics).

The distinction made between the arts and the sciences takes on a moral character when the conversion drifts towards what kinds of education we think is important for meeting the needs of modern society. The distinction goes beyond merely what governments or universities claim the difference is, for is also a distinction that is made by potential students, parents, taxpayers, employers, and society at large. How does society make that distinction? A quick internet search for the relevant distinctions suggests a tendency to emphasize the objective nature of science and the subjective nature of the arts. Science is about finding truth about the world, whereas the arts focus on finding subjective representations according to cultural and historical influences. The sciences are technical, precise, and quantitative. The arts are qualitative, vague, and focus less on right or wrong answers, and thus are thought to lack the rigor of the sciences.

These kinds of sharp distinctions reinforce the idea that liberal arts are not really worth pursuing, that higher education should be about gaining the skills needed for the workforce and securing high-paying jobs. To add to this, the distinction has been a flashpoint of an ongoing culture war as the large number of liberal arts memes and critical comments on the internet will testify to. The result has been severe cuts in liberal arts education, the elimination of staff and services, and even the elimination of majors. To some this may be progress. If the liberal arts and humanities are subjective, if there is little objective truth to be discovered, then they may not be worth saving.

Justin Stover of the University of Edinburgh, for example, believes that there is no case to be made for the humanities. While defenders of the humanities may argue that they are means of improving and expressing our ideas, that they provide skills that are relevant and transferable to other fields and pursuits, or that they are a search for values, Stover believes that these benefits are hollow. He points out that study in the humanities isn’t necessary for actual artistic expression. While studies in obscure languages or cultures may foster useful skills for careers outside of the academy, these are mere by-products of study and not something that makes a strong case for their study.

In addressing the matter of value, Stover notes,

“’values’ is a hard thing to put in a long diachronic frame because it is not clear that there is any analogous notion in any culture besides our own. Values can hardly be a necessary component of the humanities — much less the central core — if there was no notion of them for most of the humanities’ history […] values might have a lot to do with Golden Age Spanish literature; but what have they to do with historical linguistics?”

Stover suggests alternatively that studies in the humanities fulfills a social function by creating a prestigious class of people who share certain tastes and manners of judgment but that ultimately there is no non question-begging justification for the humanities. He notes, “The humanities do not need to make a case within the university because the humanities are the heart of the university.” One cannot justify the importance of the humanities from outside of the perspective of the humanities.

The moral concern on this issue is less about the morality of defending a liberal arts education compared to a science education, but rather about how we are making the distinction itself. Are we talking about methods? Disciplinary norms? The texts? The teaching? Stover’s argument relies on understanding the humanities as an essentially different thing from the sciences. But are there actually good reasons to make these distinctions? Anyone who has studied logic, linguistics, or economics knows how technical those fields can be. By the same token, several studies of the sciences reveal the importance that aesthetic taste can have not only on individual scientists, but on whole scientific communities. The response of scientific communities to the COVID-19 pandemic — disagreements about treatment protocols, publication concerns about observations of the disease, and so on — reveals that the notion that science is a purely objective affair while the arts are purely more subjective is more of a slogan than a reality.

Values are not a mere “notion” of university professors and academics. While Stover doesn’t clarify what he means by values, I would suggest that values are at the heart of the liberal arts and humanities — a ‘value’ at its core simply denotes what people take to be important and worth pursuing. My morning coffee is important to me, I pursue it, I prize it, it has value. The humanities have always been a matter of addressing the issues that humans consider important. So, the answer to the question of what do values have to do with historical linguistics is “a lot.” Languages change over time to reflect the problems, interests, and desires that humans have; linguistic change is a reflection of what is important, what is valued by a society and why.

But if this is the case, then science and the many STEM fields are not immune from this either. What we choose to focus on in science, technology, and engineering reveals what we care about, what we value (knowledge of climate change, for example, has changed how we value the environment). The notion that the humanities can only aspire to the subjective with only secondary benefits in other areas is a moral failure in thinking. Science is not isolated from society, nor should it be. By the same token, a method and style that focuses on empirical verification and experimentation over subjective elements can improve what the humanities can produce and help us focus on what is important.

In addressing the cross section of human interest and scientific method, philosopher John Dewey notes,

“Science through its physical technological consequences is now determining the relations which human beings, severally and in groups, sustain to one another. If it is incapable of developing moral techniques which will also determine these relations, the split in modern culture goes so deep that not only democracy but all civilized values are doomed.”

The distinction between the arts and the sciences is not essential or absolute, but one of our own creation that reflects our own limited thinking. Any art, just like science, can aspire towards critical, experimental, objectivity of some degree just like any scientific and engineering pursuit should be understood in terms of its role in the larger human project. The more we try to separate them, the more detrimental it will be to both. The problem regarding whether there is a case to be made for the arts disappears once we drop the notion that there is complete separation — the more important and interesting moral problem becomes how we might best improve our methods of inquiry that are vital for both.

The Value of Socialization in College

photograph of college students in class

What initiatives enacted as an emergency response to the pandemic will be permanent and become the new norm? Among the many possible legacies is a change in the perceived value of traditional college learning. Colleges and universities whose campuses are now closed will have a responsibility to execute the transition to distance learning effectively so that they can ensure there is not a substantial dip in the quality of education. But by doing so, will they inadvertently degrade the value of in-person learning?

If these colleges fail to execute the transition online well–and some teachers from the even most prestigious schools are ill-equipped for distance learningthey may reveal the value of face-to-face learning. They may show what is lost when students and professors are not interacting together in a classroom and on a campus. But if the colleges do execute the transition well, they reveal that the value of face-to-face learning may be overrated. Some college students have begun asking themselves, if what is accomplished in the classroom can be accomplished online, why incur high tuition and housing costs to go to school?

A 2015 survey found that nearly half of online college students cited affordability as the reason for enrolling in their program. A surprising 78% of respondents indicated that the academic quality of their online learning experiences were comparable to or better than their classroom experiences. Suppose that the quality of education is comparableeven though there are innumerable benefits to in-person learning, what then can traditional colleges offer that learning from one’s laptop cannot?

Colleges are currently struggling to answer that question. Beyond the growing challenge of the online alternative, many “brick and mortar” institutions were already facing severe financial concerns before the pandemic caused them to close their campuses. An analysis by Forbes last Fall found that the financial well-being of private not-for-profit colleges “has deteriorated and many are in danger of closing or merging.” The pandemic and the resulting transition to distance learning has only made the threat more pronounced and immediate, and less dismissable and abstract.

The transition is a threat to the existence of small liberal arts colleges in particular. “Schools are facing unexpected costs as they try to switch their entire classroom instruction apparatus to online-only,” David Jesse reports in USA Today. “That’s a particular challenge for small liberal arts colleges, whose calling cards are face-to-face relationships between faculty and students.”

To stay afloat, institutions without the luxury of deep pockets and long-standing reputations may need to stress the value of the social component of going to school and living on a campus, i.e. experiences that cannot be had through online learning. Indeed, the challenge for residential and liberal arts colleges will be to quantify the rather intangible and ineffable value of socialization in education.

K-12 education is a primary vehicle of socialization. According to the Department of Education, children in the U.S. spend approximately seven hours a day, 180 days a year in the classroom. There students learn socially-desirable behaviors such as teamwork, following schedules, and engaging with others in a respectful manner. They learn how to participate in society.

The same could be said of the college experience, which typically occurs at a formative time in a student’s life. Young people go to college, where they live in a community of similarly-aged individuals and participate in Greek life, sports, student government, and many other social groups. Some extra- and co-curricular activities, such as Ethics Bowl, provide intellectual stimulation alongside opportunities to socialize.

In the unique setting of a college campus, students are exposed to, live with, and befriend people from different regions, with different customs and worldviews. Ideally, this experience teaches them how to interact with other members of society after graduation. Former Ivy League professor Louis Menand argues that college “takes people with disparate backgrounds and beliefs and brings them into line with mainstream norms of reason and taste.” In short, it transforms these very different individuals into a unique class.

Going to college also thrusts most students into a new world of independence, characterized by a constant flurry of adult decisions and responsibilities. For the first time in many of their lives, students must set their own schedules, manage their own finances, and learn how to navigate relationships without the comfort of being under their parents’ roof. They are given a test run of their adult life. As Anne Rondeau, president of College of DuPage, writes, “students are in an environment that challenges them to make important decisions every day.” And those decisions and challenges are not confined solely to their academic pursuits.

Residential and liberal arts colleges are as much an academic experience as they are a social one. While the process of socialization could be achieved elsewherein one’s job or active participation in one’s communityit certainly could not occur via distance learning. The nature of distance learning hampers the students’ ability to socialize, limiting everything from spontaneous, casual conversation with professors to opportunities to forge lasting relationships with other students. And in order to succeed, those struggling traditional institutions may need to highlight just that. They need to be equipped to answer the questions that many prospective students and their parents are asking right now: What is the value of your institution’s social experience? And is it worth the cost you are asking?

If those institutions fail to effectively convince families of the value of their social experience and justify the tuition and housing cost, their end may be near. Without residential colleges, prospective students lose one of the most important and successful means of learning how to be members of society.  Of course, that assumes those students will still feel comfortable sharing close spaces on a campus after months of social distancing.

Opinion: To Face Climate Change We Need the Arts and Humanities

"Not only our island nation that is sinking" by Nattu licensed under CC BY 2.0

On October 11, 2018 Kate Marvel, a climate scientist at Columbia University and NASA, published a fairy tale in Scientific American titled “Slaying the Climate Dragon.”  The fairy tale is a warning about climate change “whose ending, still unwritten, is by no means guaranteed to be happy.” The tale describes a magic elixir responsible for “the source of all the kingdom’s power and wealth” that also has a dangerous side-effect of waking slumbering dragons. When dragons awake, readers witness a metaphorical political turmoil evocative of the current climate crisis play out in a few lines. The dragons are first ignored, then recognized but said to be harmless. Dragon-fire consumes more of the villages, but the King and his counselors decide “the high walls of their castle could withstand any dragon attack, and if a few peasants were eaten or incinerated, what was it to them?” The fairy tale concludes with three possible endings, some better than others, but all are plausible and may yet be written.

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