Saturday, March 28, 2015

On science, Yale, and linear pragmatism in higher ed

Having yesterday complained about somebody waxing macro and pretentious, I'm gonna turn around and do it myself.  So shoot me. It's my blog.

There was an interesting article in the most recent Yale Alumni Magazine about science coming to Yale, starting from 1802 forward.  It's hard to fathom, but before that there was literally no science.  Zero.  Then Ben Silliman went out and collected some curios, self-educated about chemistry, and became a one-man science faculty.  OK.

It's astonishing to see the progress of universities generally over the last couple of centuries.  I'm reading Meena Webb's Julian Carr, right now, about Carr, who grew up in Chapel Hill, later was one of the drivers of the growth of tobacco in Durham (and of Durham in general), and, presumably, will have something to do with the founding of Carrboro before all is said and done.  Apparently UNC had student bodies of something like 40, 50, 70 throughout the 19th century, and was almost done for when the Reconstruction government basically defunded it after the Civil War (admittedly, nobody had any money), and the faculty worked for free.

Things are better now for sure.  And, as the article on science at Yale continued, it moved towards the present, when President Rick Levin made efforts to raise the profile of the sciences at the university, in response to a perceived lack.  Which brings us back to recent uproars in New Haven about the university's underinvestment in science and computer science specifically, which Yale has in recent days addressed by funding an expansion of the CS department.

Whew!  That's a lot of prefatory rambling.  Here's my main point: society overall and universities in general have gone overwhelmingly over towards focusing on the practical in education, at the expense of pure enquiry into values, upon which the humanities and social sciences have historically focused, and in which they have excelled.  And yes, to create economic value you have to be able to do pragmatic stuff, we know that.

And yet the fundamental questions we struggle with most are not how to do things, but what to do, and how to get people to do them.  Overwhelmingly the world struggles from a lack of alignment on core values and leadership to create that alignment.  The world needs universities and other institutions of mind and spirit that focus on the big questions and developing people who can bring others together around approaches if not answers to those questions.  Hence the huge interest in TED talks.  We're like lost puppies.  And the genuine excitement when a skinny kid with a funny name struts across the stage, or a new pope changes the focus of the Catholic church.  Yale, and UNC too, should stay strong around their core missions and not kowtow to narrow-minded pragmatists.  But that's much more easily said than done.

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