bookmark_borderThe Attack on Higher Education

This post is a bit off topic, but I think people interested in higher education (which include many followers of SO) need to know that higher education is presently under strident, well-funded, ideological attack here in Texas. Be warned. If it succeeds here this campaign will be coming soon to a neighborhood near you:

Presently there are some who claim to value education, but think that public higher education needs drastic reform. These individuals think that the taxpayers would be getting a much better deal if higher education were reformed in terms of a “business” or “free market” model. According to this model, students are customers and higher education should be in the business of satisfying its customers. These “free-market” advocates think that professors do not teach enough. Instead, they charge, academics spend far too much time on research of dubious value. Research should be radically deemphasized, they hold, and professors should teach more and bigger classes. For instance, in a given term I will teach three classes that average out to 20-25 students per class. If, instead, I taught five classes of 30 -35 students, I could save the taxpayers a lot of money. If we greatly increase the teaching load of faculty, we would need a lot fewer of them, and could cut costs and tuition significantly if we had less than half the faculty we have now.

The people who make these criticisms are the kind of people that playwright and wit Oscar Wilde was talking about when he mentioned “those who know the price of everything and the value of nothing.” Producing knowledge is not like producing widgets. Assembly-line methods work poorly at any level of education, but especially in higher education. Higher education, in particular, is more than pouring information into a passively receptive brain. Teaching is mostly about engaging minds, not stuffing them. Further, all education, and especially its upper levels, is ultimately self-education; all any teacher can do is to lead the proverbial horse to water. Students will only drink at the fountain of knowledge if they want to, and my job is to inspire, belabor, challenge, encourage, frustrate, or whatever it takes to do to motivate them to want to know. This is a process that is complex and nuanced; it requires give-and-take, flexibility, and improvisation. Learning is something you can only help to happen. It cannot be forced. You maybe can hammer a widget into shape, but not a mind. In short, teaching is a creative art, and it cannot be produced on an assembly line basis.

As for research, it is hard to escape the impression that the opposition of the “free market” zealots to academic research is at bottom ideological and not economic. The denizens of the far right do not like academic research because its results tend not to line up behind their favored dogmas. Academic research, for instance, supports evolution and human-caused global warming and tends to debunk “trickle-down” economic theories and abstinence-only sex education. Right-wing critics of higher education often promulgate a stereotype of the college professor as a tweedy elitist who does little work but spends his time sipping Chablis in the faculty club while making condescending remarks about God, patriotism, and NASCAR. Of course, all those who perpetuate such stereotypes thereby only succeed in revealing their own biases and ignorance.

Further, far from being detrimental to instruction, research and teaching go hand-in hand. Teaching at any level is enhanced if the instructor knows what the best and the brightest are doing in his or her field. Academic fields change constantly, and one who does no research can only teach a course that is frozen in time, static in ideas, and increasingly irrelevant. Also, advanced students are directly involved in research, and guiding such students—the researchers of tomorrow—is one of a professor’s most important teaching responsibilities.

The criticisms of the “free market” zealots are therefore specious, arising chiefly from ideologically motivated antipathy and baseless stereotypes. The recommendations of these critics would ravage higher education, driving good students and good professors elsewhere and would wind up giving the taxpayers a much worse deal than they have now.

But if higher education is not to be conducted on a “business” model, what is the model? What is higher education like if it is not like making widgets? A better model of the relationship between student and professor might be the relationship between patient and doctor, or, at least, the way that relationship has been portrayed since Hippocrates. The salesman gives his customer what the customer wants; the good doctor gives patients what they need. We often do not want what the doctor prescribes, e.g., to quit drinking or smoking or to lose weight and exercise more. Again, though, if the doctor is a doctor and not a quack, what the patient wants is not what matters, only what is good for the patient. Likewise I have to want what is good for my student even if that means giving them grades and feedback they do not want. Students generally want good grades with little work, but this is not good for them and it is my job not to let them have it.

Herding students en masse through a curriculum of large, impersonal surveys and online junk courses and then giving them a piece of paper at the end also is harming them and harming society, though it would certainly be cost efficient. So, sure, we could make education more cost efficient. The only downside is that we would no longer be educating but only manufacturing lots of dopes with diplomas. A high school diploma from many public school systems currently signifies little. Its possessor may not be able to read or write. With only a little effort we can make a college diploma equally meaningless. Will this be a good bargain for the taxpayers of Texas?

A concluding reflection: There was a time—n0t that long ago—indeed, within the living memory of many of us today, when everyone at all levels of society, rich and poor, liberal and conservative, agreed that there was more to value than a bottom line. Those days now seem as distant as a quasar. In the current zeitgeist the only re
cognized value is the kind with a dollar sign in front of it. If that is what we have become, then philosophy and the other humanities can have no value because our humanity has been lost. In that case, it is not education that has failed us; rather, we have become unworthy of it. However, I think that there is hope for us and we might still recover the great truth, known to sages, poets, philosophers, and great religious leaders throughout history, that value and price are two very different things. The true importance of the humanities is to remind us again and again and again that the true values are those of truth, beauty, and goodness—not acquisition and aggrandizement.

bookmark_borderNatural miracles?

Say you run into a conservative Christian church that advertises that next Sunday, the minister is going to call on the power of Jesus and resurrect a dead member of the congregation.

You stop by, thinking the attempt might be amusing. As you walk into the service, it looks more crazy than fun. They really have brought up a stinking corpse to the altar; one that should have been buried a week ago. As you start thinking about all the health code violations, the event begins. The minister kicks up a storm of prayer to Jesus and laying on of hands. But then, you can’t believe your eyes: the corpse seems to reverse its already advanced decay. It then sits up with a jolt, and some in the congregation, who appear to be the children of the resurrected person, rush up to her and enjoy a tearful reunion. The whole church erupts in praise of their Lord. You get swept out into the open air with the crowd, bewildered.

You then decide to check on things, and find that yes, indeed, there was this person who was locally known to have been dead, that the usual hospital procedures were followed, and that she was the same person you witnessed as revived. The locals are actually a bit more casual about the whole thing than you’d expect, and you find that in the past decade, two more especially devout persons have been resurrected the same way. Everything that you can check indicates that this is no hoax; a small number of dead Christians have indeed come back to life after a service where the Lord was petitioned particularly fervently.

Well, you had always been saying that your disbelief in religion was due to the lack of evidence, but now that has changed. You talk to a theistic philosopher, and she points out that your intellectual integrity demands that you now convert. After all, at the very least, what you have witnessed is a gross violation of what you’d expect from a naturalistic world. Moreover, the miracle was not from out of the blue: it was expected and cultivated within this particular Christian tradition. That should count pretty strongly toward that tradition having a better handle on reality than the scientific skeptics who were caught completely by surprise. You have witnessed something supernatural, therefore you should at least admit that some supernatural religion is likely to be true.

But then you talk to a secular philosopher. She remains dubious. Yes, she will grant that our current understanding of science has been violated. But that is not enough to suspect something supernatural. Indeed, there are naturalistic alternatives. For example, it may be true that people enjoy psychic powers—as a natural capability. Especially fervent belief in some church services may have caused a major psychokinetic event that had nothing to do with Jesus or any other god. Or maybe the natural cause behind the resurrection is technologically super-advanced aliens. Their technology looks miraculous to us, but it is still manipulating particles and forces. Some of these aliens may be intrigued by quaint human supernaturalism, and they are amused to manipulate our beliefs by enabling a few minor miracles. Now, all such naturalistic alternatives invoke only finite powers adequate to performing the miracle. Would it not be more parsimonious to rely only on finite powers within nature—the sort of thing we already know exists—than extravagantly claiming something beyond nature, such as an infinitely powerful Jesus?

You’re confused. What do you think? Should you convert, or should you suspect some hidden but still natural cause behind the alleged miracle?

(This is related to a question that comes up in a paper I’m writing. So I’m curious about what intuitions you may have about how such a question should be approached. Please comment.)

bookmark_borderBooks on Islam

I occasionally get asked for recommendations about books to read on Islam, particularly if lately I’ve been grumbling about superficial descriptions of the religion.

Usually I pull out some intro-to-Islam undergraduate textbooks. There are many good examples. But I wonder if they are really not to the point. After all, especially for skeptics, there may be little useful in learning about ritual details, the history of the Sunni-Shia split, Muslim legal doctrines, specifically Islamic theological notions about God etc. etc. And what I want to get across is that, stereotypes aside, Muslims are mostly boring and usually harmless, much like any other religious population. (Not always. Mostly.)

Now, one of these days I may well start writing The Skeptic’s Guide to Islam. Meanwhile, here are some suggestions.

First, to get a view of some varieties of Islam from an ordinary believer’s point of view, it’s best to read books written by such people. I suggest two, both by women: Suzanne Haneef’s What Everyone Should Know About Islam and Muslims, and Sumbul Ali-Karamali’s The Muslim Next Door: The Qur’an, the Media, and That Veil Thing.

Haneef is a convert from Christianity, and she represents a more rigorous, conservative form of Islam. If you’re interested in The Rules, and a constant stream of apologetics from a conservative point of view, it’s a pretty good book. Don’t expect a lot of intellectual depth, but it gives a decent idea about how some Muslims think.

Ali-Karamali is a liberal Western Muslim. If you’re interested in finding out how many Muslims perceive no conflict between their faith and the modern world, it’s pretty good. You’ll get a constant stream of apologetics from a liberal point of view. It probably won’t be any more convincing than conservative versions, but the point is that this is how many Muslims think.

I’ll also throw in a couple of recent books by academics specializing in Islam: John Esposito’s The Future of Islam, and Bernard Lewis and Buntzie Ellis Churchill’s Islam: The Religion and the People.

Esposito has been accused to be an apologist for Islamic movements, and to a certain extent this comes across in the book. But it’s an interesting look at some very current political Islamic thinking, and Esposito represents a positive spin on it. If anyone is interested in criticizing Islam, this is a good sample of what is out there to criticize.

Lewis is known to be more critical of Islam. His and Churchill’s book is a nice introductory survey which doesn’t look like it’s been put together just for an undergraduate course.