Category Archives: Models

Examples we can productively study

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Cherishing Study in the Humanities

The pendemic, and now the bean counters, are coming for the humanities. 

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Recent news reports have asserted that students in the fields of language, the arts, the social sciences and history have come through the pandemic with less enthusiasm for their studies, at least in relation to those in STEM sciences and vocational majors like accounting. But can there be any surprise that the pandemic’s disruption of learning communities would take a big toll on learning that is usually collective, intimate, and interactive?  The humanities thrive on direct engagement. Now it appears that the inadvertent theft of these forms by COVID has been devastating.  As with a recent piece in the Washington Post, bean counters seem to be taking particular pleasure in seeing American universities become trade schools.

But surely it will take time for the wounds of COVID isolation to heal. We have been missing what was once the vast array of classroom discussions, plays, concerts, and travel that survived, if at all, mostly in the truncated form of video facsimiles. Of course, the first task through this pandemic was to save lives and keep individuals healthy. But for those Americans who were on track to delve into deeper understandings–through live performance, the discussion of history and ideas and personal mentoring–the inadvertent loss of direct engagement has predictably yielded greater caution. It has lowered the horizons of students to “focus on courses that are practical.”

The humanities—fields of inquiry ranging from history to languages to literature and the arts—thrive when open and eager minds can share the same space. It’s our birthright to be with others. For students this means being in the presence of a wonderful instructor in any field that creates insight about what is possible and what’s at stake within human communities. The humanities remind us where we have been and where aspirations made visible can still take us.

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Living among a community of scholars offers the gift of shared experience with perhaps 10 or 15 students, all beginning the voyage of a semester-long conversation about the work of groundbreaking creators of ideas.  We may never get a better chance to be connected to big ideas that that matter than participating as student with a writer or thinker with revelatory insights. There may be ways to electronically simulate a meeting of minds. But most of these efforts are more performative than enlightening. Communication works better when folks share the same space and time, and when small things like momentary non-fluency or uncombed hair doesn’t matter.

Disturbingly, stretched parents are having second thoughts about spending money on any undergraduate curriculum that offers a palette of experiences larger than is required to do a single job. Their concerns are abetted by nearsighted reporting in our media, with headlines like “College Majors With The Lowest Unemployment” or “College Majors With The Worst Return On Investment,” and the Post’s recent “The most Regretted College Majors.” So we have the pandemic-hastened conversion of higher education into vocational training.  It is sad to see universities close programs in writing, philosophy, performance studies, history, foreign languages,  music, dance, theater, journalism and rhetoric. Never mind that they have missed the more subtle point that a degree in history or philosophy may cultivate wonderful skills needed for innovative work. Writer Julie Schumacher reminds us what her English students can accomplish: “Be reassured: the literature student has learned to inquire, to question, to interpret, to critique, to compare, to research, to argue, to sift, to analyze, to shape, to express.”

In these times, we should worry when electoral losers brood over dark ways to return to power.  Weakening the humanities is akin to disarming voters who need to put up a full defense of democratic values.  Among many other things, they would benefit by knowing why Plato and his great student Aristotle parted ways on the usefulness of public opinion. We can’t afford to not have the humanities, which collectively help us understand why we should want to be part of a great and ethical society.

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Comfortable with Not Knowing

The logic of willful ignorance outlined in this brief 2016 piece still seems valid today.  It fits our age of like a comfortable bad habit.

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In his sobering and seminal study, Democracy Without Citizens, Robert Entman dwells on the irony of living in an information-rich age among uninformed citizens.  There is a rich paradox to a culture where most have a virtual library available on any digital device, and yet would struggle to pass a third-grade civics test.  According to the Annenberg Policy Center completed a while ago only one in three Americans can name our three branches of government. And only the same lone third could identify the party that controls each of the two houses of Congress.  Fully a fifth of their sample thought that close decisions in the Supreme Court were sent to Congress to be settled.

Add in the dismal results of map literacy tests of high school and college students (“Where is Africa?,”  “Identify your city on this map”), and we have just a few markers of a failed information society.

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As Entman noted, “computer and communication technology has enhanced the ability to obtain and transmit information rapidly and accurately,” but “the public’s knowledge of facts or reality have actually deteriorated.”  The result is “more political fantasy and myth transmitted by the very same news media.” We seem to live comfortably without even elementary understandings of the complex world we live in.  The simpler the explanations of complex events, the better.

This condition is sometimes identified as a feature of the Dunning-Kruger effect, a peculiarly distressing form of functional ignorance observed by two Cornell psychologists.  Many of us seem not to be bothered by what we don’t know, overestimating our knowledge.  Dunning and Kruger found that “incompetent” individuals (those falling into the lowest quarter of knowledge on a subject) often failed to recognize their own lack of skill, failed to recognize the extent to which they were misinformed, and did not to accurately gauge the skills of others.  If you have an Aunt Betty who is certain that our former President is a victim of the “deep state” or Hilary Clinton, you have an idea of the willful ignorance this represents.

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                                            Borders of the Unknown

Think of this pattern in an inverted sense: from the perspective of individuals who truly know what they are talking about.  For even the well-informed, the more they know about a subject, the larger the circumference of the borderlands that delineate the unknown.  That’s why those who have mastered a subject area are often the most humble about their expertise: their expanded understanding of a field gives them a sense of what they still don’t know.

The key factor here is our distraction by all forms of media—everything from texting to empty-headed social media rants—that leaves us with little available time to be contributing members of the community.  When the norm is checking our phones over 200 times a day, we have perhaps reached a tipping point where we have no interest in noticing the vast expanses of our own informational black holes.  A familiar fantasy may be enough.

With regard to the basics of membership in a society, the idea of citizenship should mean more.  In the coming election cycle it’s worth remembering that perhaps half of eligible voters will not bother to vote.  And even more will have no interest in learning about the candidates who want to represent them in Congress or their local legislatures.  Worst still, this is all happening at a time when candidates have been captured by a reality-show logic that substitutes melodrama for more sober discussions of how they intend to govern.  Put It altogether, and too many of us don’t notice that we are engrossed with a sideshow of fantasies rather than the main event.

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