Saturday, July 08, 2006

Types of Answers In Education - Part Two

Part One may be found here.

Modern study in much of the Liberal Arts and Humanities rewards students for a certain type of answer. I hear conservatives shouting in the background "Liberal answer! It rewards a liberal answer!" That may be one common effect, but I think the liberalism comes late in the process. Before it rewards any political leanings, it rewards a leaning to abstraction, even at the expense of accuracy.

I don't think this occurs of necessity in the humanities, but the temptation is always there. The student is rewarded for making connections between ideas, e.g. s similarity of values of the Renaissance and the Reformation, or of seeing behind the traditional facts to deeper forces. Students are trained to look for economic issues behind cultural conflicts, or cultural issues behind economic conflicts. The author's upbringing or sexual preferences are fair game for understanding both fiction and nonfiction writing. Issues of social class or personal pathology are believed to drive issues of politics.

These skills of seeing behind and making associations between superficially unrelated ideas are much prized in the liberal arts, as well they should be. They are also prized in the sciences, but with one major, and crucial difference: in science (and a few disciplines in the humanities), these skills are regarded as tools for finding useful answers. In the humanities, they are regarded as ends in themselves. The sciences start with the simpler information and seek to learn if more complex interrelations are valid. The Sociology major is taught to leap immediately to the complex and try his wings at seeing what others may have missed.

Looking for truth is not the same thing as actually finding it.

I write this as a long-past Theatre & Speech major (at William and Mary, we preferred the pompous spelling) who nearly switched to Medieval Lit at the end. Since then I have read much of history, psychology, and culture, somewhat less of philosophy, economics, and anthropology. The little I have encountered indirected from sociology or women's studies suggest that the phenomenon is even pronounced there. I am fairly confident in my assertion that in these disciplines as currently constituted, there are few natural checks on great-sounding theories that have little basis in fact. Getting it right is a secondary, or even tertiary issue for many. It is considered much more enlightened to note the phallic nature of weapons in literature and write endlessly on their psychosexual meaning than it is to note that a sword is a pretty effective weapon, and those tribes which adopted breast-inspired weapons seem to have been eliminated from the gene pool. Rather rapidly, I would guess.

The humanities student is rewarded for statements that are plausible, well-constructed, observant, interesting, adventurous, and creative. Seeing things in a new light, and making due obeisance to prevailing values of the academy, showing that you have read the proper authorities and are familiar with their concepts goes a long way to being considered a Smart Person - which is the reward you're looking for. None of these things is bad. They are simply not in their proportionate place. They are tools to learning, they are not learning itself.

In translation, there is a bottom line: does this result in improved communication and understanding? In technology there is a bottom line: does the thing do what it's supposed to. Economics has a more avoidable bottom line, but ultimately someone can always push the question: did more people eat, or have jobs, or buy microwaves? In history, the bottom line which reasonable people think should be there has in fact vanished in some circles. Does this give us a clearer understanding of what actually happened is no longer the point, as "what actually happened" is regarded as an invalid concept, so dependent on the class, politics, and power of the speaker as to be of little interest. Of more interest are the values of the speaker, and how he imposes his interpretation on society.

Decide for yourselves. What political views will this reward system for a certain class of young adults do to their politics?

10 comments:

David said...

This is closely related to the smart-talk trap, as it has been observed in business environments.

Bilgeman said...

AVI:

"Decide for yourselves. What political views will this reward system for a certain class of young adults do to their politics?"

Ladies and Gentlemen, I present to you...Deborah Frisch:

http://www.blackfive.net/main/2006/07/a_new_low.html

Kinda answers your question, huh AVI?

OTOH, it has renewed my faith in humanity that I find decent human beings with Liberal politics standing shoulder to shoulder with me in condemning this woman's actions.

Regards;

David said...

re the "leaning to abstraction"...more than 50 years ago, C S Lewis wrote the following about his sociologist progagonist in the novel That Hideous Strength:

"..his education had had the curious effect of making things that he read and wrote more real to him than the things he saw. Statistics about agricultural laboureres were the substance: any real ditcher, ploughman, or farmer's boy, was the shadow...he had a great reluctance, in his work, to ever use such words as "man" or "woman." He preferred to write about "vocational groups," "elements," "classes," and "populations": for, in his own way, he believed as firmly as any mystic in the superior reality of the things that are not seen."

See my post The Dictatorship of Theory.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

david, exceptional link. I just bookmarked you. I am seldom out C.S. Lewis'd by anyone, but I find it invigorating. Lewis's Abolition of Man is also very much to the point here, and I should reread it soon.

Bilgeman said...

david:

"..his education had had the curious effect of making things that he read and wrote more real to him than the things he saw. Statistics about agricultural laboureres were the substance: any real ditcher, ploughman, or farmer's boy, was the shadow...he had a great reluctance, in his work, to ever use such words as "man" or "woman." He preferred to write about "vocational groups," "elements," "classes," and "populations": for, in his own way, he believed as firmly as any mystic in the superior reality of the things that are not seen."

For a prime example of that,see this link:

http://www.socp.org/mariner/recruitment/index.html

The only person on this working group who actually sailed for a living in an unlicensed capacity aboard a ship at sea last did so in the 1970's...he's been ashore since then.

But these thugs, drones, dweebs and "double-dippers" think that they can recruit people to a maritime career...without LISTENING to real seamen.
And I've told 'em as much.

Actually, I reckon that this whole thing is a federally subsidized scam...a "day-camp" for upper mid-level "maritime" bureaucrats.

Being as that is what I suspect to be the case, the last thing in the world they would want to do is actually accomplish anything of substance, for then, the subsidy, and the "chowder and marching society" it is funding, endeth.

Kinda like the education industry or big government, come to think of it...the prescribed cure for the overdose is doubling the dosage.

Regards;

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Don't hold back, Bilgeman. Tell us how you really feel.

Wyman said...

It sort of boggles the imagination to try and figure out what a breast-inspired weapon would look like, or how it would be used.

It boggles mine, at least.

Bilgeman said...

AVI:

"Don't hold back, Bilgeman. Tell us how you really feel."

Yeah, it's a problem of mine. I couldn't keep a low-profile if I was lying down in black pajamas at the bottom of a coal mine...at midnight.

The example I gave pisses me off no end, since I've watched the industry suck more and more with each passing year, and the very people on this group are a very big part in making it suck.

If Uncle Sammy wanted to know how to make it better, he could have found out by standing the lads a round in any number of waterfront bars where he'd get the skinny raw and unedited.

It would be cheaper, too.

Regards;

Erin said...

This is the very reason I avoided Literary Criticism in college. It's wriggled its way into even the most conservative of institutions.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Bilgeman, I think that is the way of the world in many places. When we had our new hospital built, there were many meetings baout how to design patient safety into the environment. In my innocence, I must have suggested a dozen times that a walk-through with a few experienced psych nurses and MHW's would reveal more than a dozen meetings.

Did they do that? What do you think?