How will you know that American universities have collapsed?

August 19, 2009 at 10:43 am 12 comments

In Jared Dimond’s book Collapse, he responds to a student’s question, “How could the person who cut down the last tree on Easter Island do that?  How could he finish the deforestation of his island?” Dimond responds that the cutter really didn’t know that that was what he was doing.  Deforestation had to be going on for years, and the economy and society had to adapt to the lack of trees.  By the time the last three was cut down, it was probably just a sapling that was being cleared for some other purpose, like growing something else.  His point is that collapse comes gradually and is hard to identify when it’s happening.

I thought of that today watching TED video podcasts.  I watched Alan Kay’s and Dan Dennet’s in the same morning workout.  Alan points out what is missing from our educational system, and how they have brought in some of that discovery and scientific insight in the LA schools where he’s been working.  Alan mentions in passing how the video the day before, on how molecules combine, was flawed in that it doesn’t show the seething mass of molecular movement that makes the combination occur. Dan’s talk starts out by describing how Charles Darwin reasoned upside-down, that Darwin saw that the Absolute Wisdom of the world’s design emerged from Absolute Ignorance — just a seething mass of organisms.

Which got me to wondering if maybe our education system isn’t broken at all.  Maybe the seeting mass of different people trying different things, with teachers flying in all kinds of directions, with experimental curricula and variations on standardized curricula, with many more failures than successes is actually exactly what you want to create a diversity of people with the few geniuses we need to keep things going.  But being a critical kind of guy, I also got to wondering, “How would I know if that’s wrong?”

What would it look like if things really were collapsing in our educational system, and wasn’t just a creative, chaotic mess? Niall Ferguson in his book Empire recommends that the new American Empire (us) should look to the last great Empire (British) to learn from their lessons.  He says that it doesn’t matter whether we really have ambitions of Empire — we basically have one, and other nations treat us like an imperial power.  Therefore, we should heed the lessons.  What were the signs that the British Empire was fading? What would we look for as signs that the American Empire is fading?  And in a smaller version of that, what would be the sign that the American education system is failing, and isn’t just a seething mass where the right thing does emerge from anarchy?  The analogy isn’t as strong, since the British education system didn’t collapse, and may be much better than the American one.  It is the case that more foreigners flood into American universities than British ones (last numbers I saw), so maybe that’s the sign that we are not failing.  How would we know?  Maybe we won’t, even after the last tree is cut down.

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12 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Alan Kay  |  August 19, 2009 at 12:17 pm

    This is a good argument for deep understanding in Biology as a central plank of our education system!

    The analogies to Darwinian processes don’t help your hopes very much. These processes don’t optimize, but only fit to the environment, and may not remotely be the best ones that could. To do this artificially, and get some form of improvement wrt outside goals, the environment has to be able to accept or reject random experiments.

    So, the reason science has worked so well is that the environment that science set up for itself has been quite good at policing theories, dissuading fads (such as the N-Ray craze), and grudgingly but rapidly enough admitting radically new ideas.

    In contrast, a pop culture that is very poor at discernment and perspective is much more of a mirror of unsophisticated human thinking, and often rejects good and better things just because they are unfamiliar or difficult.

    So, as in any area that is trying for improvement, openness to new ideas and methods is critical, but it has to look more strongly at science to see how to generate enough discernment to help clear weeds rather than throw away the flowers.



  • 2. Mark Miller  |  August 20, 2009 at 2:28 am

    Expanding on Alan Kay’s point, the Darwinian perspective says that we are in a biosphere that is constantly interacting with itself and the Earth’s processes, and that by a lot of experiments taking place via. these interactions (introducing some new combination of traits into the system) some will succeed as adaptations that can reproduce and sustain themselves. Some of those adaptations result in systems that are capable of influencing their environment to a certain extent to their own benefit, or mutual benefit. A lot of people would make a deterministic conclusion that such a system is successful in its own right–it’s successful because it works, it propagates. As Alan Kay says, however, it is only qualitative in the sense that it promotes survival of certain traits. It says nothing about whether those adaptations are actually better than other adaptations that came before them, or ones that are possible and which haven’t been expressed yet.

    The city states of ancient Greece had the world’s first democratic systems, which lasted for about 200 years. What followed were various forms of semi-democratic or republican government that tended towards stronger and stronger authoritarian rule. This was a trend that lasted for a couple thousand years. Authoritarian rule nearly returned to dominance in the first half of the 20th century after a respite of 150 years. Does this record show that authoritarian rule is the norm, rather than the exception, and is therefor the most successful and desirable system? I don’t think so.

    We don’t have to think of things only in an evolutionary context of adaptation. We make choices. I think to evaluate whether a human-created system is in decline we have to not only look at what is succeeding, but look at the goals of those systems. Do they promote qualitative improvement to expand benefits to society, or do they only seek to benefit themselves? Do they have goals that expand horizons, or shrink them? Are they being proactive–leading–to enhance beneficial change, or are they only reacting to forces they are powerless to influence? In a system that is constantly changing–never in stasis–there are only two directions you can go: You are either improving, or declining; growing, or dying (and in terms of human institutions “dying” doesn’t have to be terminal. It can just be a state of transition towards a new “growth”). Even making a decision to stand still risks decline because change is always happening around you.

  • 3. Mark Miller  |  August 20, 2009 at 3:02 am

    Adding to my previous comment…

    Having said that systems either tend towards growth or tends towards death, healthy systems have some constraints placed on their achieved growth (as opposed to growth they aspire to). This occurs through predation and competition, and/or the limits of resources. In terms of human systems this can be translated into takeovers, sell-offs, economic/financial competition, and finite resources (money, “price of money” (interest rates, inflation), workers, students, teachers, etc.).

    • 4. Mark Miller  |  August 22, 2009 at 7:45 am

      Hi Mark.

      I know this is beating a dead horse, but it provides a sense of an example. Vint Cerf posted this on the Rebooting Computing list back in December, “Arithmetic instruction over the decades”. IMO this is more satire than farce:

      1. Teaching Math In 1970

      A logger sells a truck load of timber for $1000. His cost of production is 4/5 of the selling price. What is his profit?

      2. Teaching Math In 1980

      A logger sells a truck load of timber for $1000. His cost of production is 4/5 of the selling price, or $800. What is his profit?

      3. Teaching Math In 1990

      A logger sells a truck load of timber for $1000. His cost of production is $800. Did he make a profit?

      4. Teaching Math In 2000

      A logger sells a truck load of timber for $1000. His cost of production is $800 and his profit is $200. Your assignment: Underline the number 200.

      5. Teaching Math In 2008

      A logger cuts down a beautiful forest because he is totally selfish and inconsiderate and cares nothing for the habitat of animals or the preservation of our woodlands. He does this so he can make a profit of $200. What do you think of this way of making a living? Topic now for class participation after answering the question: How did the birds and squirrels feel as the logger cut down their homes? (There are no wrong answers. If you are upset about the plight of the animals in question, counselling will be available.)

  • 5. Mark Guzdial  |  August 20, 2009 at 7:57 am

    Clearly, I didn’t make myself clear in my blog post yesterday. Alan and Mark, agreed — the education-in-an-evolutionary-setting argument doesn’t work. My point though was, “How would you know?” Mark,you may be right that: “In a system that is constantly changing–never in stasis–there are only two directions you can go: You are either improving, or declining.” But what would be the sign? That’s true at a global perspective, but at the moment-by-moment perspective (where we live) how can you tell? It’s a research question. In an earlier blog post, I argued that teacher quality matters, but it’s hard to argue. This blog post is simply going up a level — how would you KNOW that the American Education system is failing?

    • 6. Alan Kay  |  August 20, 2009 at 10:47 am

      What are our goals?

      From the standpoint of Jefferson, US education today is not up to what is required to have the “ultimate powers of the society rest in the hands of the people”.

      I like Jefferson’s notion that the discretion of the public has to be well enough informed by education to solve the problem of how to both have a republic and that tries to be as equitable and thriving and open as possible.

      I believe that a further task of education is to help each generation of children grow up thinking much better that their parents learned how to do. From this standpoint, US education seems essentially blank.

      I like H.G. Wells’ observation that “Humanity is in a race between catastrophe and education”. If this is valid, then just what is US education doing about it?

      And so forth.

      But a different set of goals (to me much more mundane and of minuscule range and focus) would exactly show how successful and non-faltering US education is (hint: just take your goals each year from whatever is being done and declare success).



    • 7. Mark Miller  |  August 22, 2009 at 7:29 am

      I get the sense from your question that you lack criteria for what you’d call an “educated individual”. Broadly speaking I would detect failure in university education as any or all of the following at graduation: an inability of students to think rationally, deeply, and critically on a subject (and of their own thoughts of it); an inability to reason about abstractions; an inability to express themselves at a sophisticated level in a literal and/or abstract fashion; an inability to place themselves in a context, whether it’s of a society, a subject of study, or of a history; an inability to create anything at a higher level of sophistication than when they came in, and thereby an inability to contribute anything of value to the discipline they’ve studied (even if they wanted to). Perhaps my own conception of an educated individual is skewed/limited and I’ve missed important aspects. I’m not claiming this is a complete list. If anyone else wants to criticize this or add to it, feel free.

    • 8. Mark Miller  |  August 22, 2009 at 7:30 am

      I forgot to make this clear. Referring to my previous comment, I was addressing it to Mark.

  • 9. Mark Guzdial  |  August 22, 2009 at 8:08 am

    Hi Mark! What you offer is a starting point to an operational definition of an “educated individual.” That is an important sign of success, at the micro level. My question was about the system, sort of the macro-economic level. Just as it’s impossible to tell that we are in a recession at the macro-economic level until well after it’s started, perhaps we similarly can’t tell that our American education system, or even just the American Universities (to use the title of this blog post) is failing until it’s past obvious that it is. Are our American Universities failing if not *everyone* graduates as an “educated individual”?

    I used to get into these arguments about Media Computation. Should I only accept a 0% failure rate? That is probably impossible to reach, without simply giving away passing grades. Some students won’t care and won’t make effort. You’re not going to reach everyone. So what’s our standard?

    Alan has argued that science is about going beyond our senses. We should not rely on our own sense of what it means (for example) “to reason about abstractions” particularly at the macro level. I’ve walked away from classes thinking, “Wow! That was a great class!” only to be disappointed when I saw the overall class performance on a test. We need to be able to come up with ways of measuring “success” in education that will work across our system, and then, to be able to identify what it means for our system to be succeeding — or failing.

    • 10. Mark Miller  |  August 22, 2009 at 4:37 pm

      I just had the thought that I should’ve added to my list, “Is not inspired to keep learning after college.”

      Okay. I get the sense that you’re asking a really big question, one that some enterprising individual could write a Ph.D. thesis and/or a book on (maybe it’s too much for one person). I’m doubtful that anyone at this point could give anything better than “starter answers”, since as you’ve said before education is not a science yet. I’m sure there are people who would be capable of starting to research this question.

      I met a lady several years ago who had spent years researching how to improve primary school education. She showed me a technique that she was using to isolate deficiencies in understanding of arithmetic so that educators could see things more clearly than “John got the question ‘What is 5 x 7?’ wrong”. It looked well done. This indicates to me that there is some scientific understanding of education going on.

      To answer your other question, “are our universities failing if not everyone graduates as an ‘educated individual?'”, what I set out above was what I see as a minimum, not a maximum. I think some people would quibble about “an inability to express themselves at a sophisticated level in … [an] abstract fashion” (I was alluding to art there), but I stand by the rest of it. I understand that there’s a sliding scale in our system for what it means to understand a subject. I’m not challenging that. When I said “inability” I meant “total lack of ability”. So anything above that would qualify as “passing”. I specifically tried to focus on a person’s faculties instead of knowledge, since that’s something that varies. What’s harder to come by, but is very valuable is the ability to think and perceive well. Having said that I have met people who I believe are college educated and who have an inability to do some of the things I outlined above. While they display a knowledge of some things, they strike me as rather ignorant people. People pay a lot of money for tuition to get a degree. I think a degree should mean something more to the outside world than “I passed a set of classes”, or “I know a lot about X (or I know how to do X) but I’m ignorant when it comes to anything else”.

      Looking at the landscape now I’d say there are some colleges within universities that are doing their job well, and there are others that are doing an abysmal job, and which are even poisoning the academic atmosphere on university campuses.

      Something I’ve wondered about, and perhaps this is more in line with your question, is what happened to the humanities? I haven’t done much research on it, but I remember hearing about a book that was written some 25 years ago called “The Closing of the American Mind”, by Allan Bloom. It’s been criticized in some respects, but I’ve seen it referenced quite a bit. It sounds like a book that should be taken with some grains of salt, but is difficult to ignore all the same. It’s a critique on what Bloom saw as a developing culture of academic intolerance on university campuses–a lack of free thinking–fostered by faculties and administrations. That is surely a sign of decay, if nothing else.

  • 11. Mark Guzdial  |  August 24, 2009 at 4:03 pm

    Exactly, Mark — it’s a hard problem to measure individual learning, and an even harder problem to measure the success or failure of an educational system.

    I have been referencing C.P. Snow’s “The Two Cultures” in my talks lately. Snow raised similar concerns about humanities vs. STEM education. Snow is relevant in my talks because he explicitly argued that everyone should learn more about computing, because if you don’t know about computing, you’re at the mercy of those who do: “A handful of people, having no relation to the will of society, having no communication with the rest of society, will be taking decisions in secret which are going to affect our lives in the deepest sense.” (From “Computers and the World of the Future,” 1962.)

    • 12. Mark Miller  |  August 27, 2009 at 2:05 am

      What Snow says works the other way as well. I’ve been seeing a disconcerting trend of some “humanists” (using Snow’s term, I believe) trying to weigh in and influence the work of scientists in a particular field of research. This is dangerous to science because they do have power to wield, but they’re getting into a category they don’t understand. It furthers the trend you talked about a little while ago, where science becomes less about pure research and becomes “directed research”. This has the potential to shut out important discoveries and instead focus attention on small results, or even false leads which are based on weak premises.


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