Are the professors there to please the students or tell them the truth?

August 12, 2011 at 7:24 am 3 comments

Alan Kay sent me the (below) linked article by Al Gore from Rolling Stone.  While the article is about climate change, it’s using climate change as a backdrop for considering the role of news media in science reporting today.  Is the role of the news media entertainment, where getting people to watch the show the goal?  Or is the goal of the news media fairness, about getting a story out that the journalist believes is true and considers all reasonable positions?  The article talks a good bit about the pervasiveness of television as a news source today (yeah, some people get news from the Internet, but many of the major Internet news sites are just the web-side of television media), and how big business directly manipulates television media.  I didn’t know that Big Tobacco had paid actors to dress as doctors, to create ads contradicting the Surgeon General on smoking back in the 60’s.

There are critiques of  this piece, based on the gap between Gore’s science (which is robust) and his policy recommendations (which have been less successful).  But here’s why (I suspect) Alan sent me this piece.  What’s our role as professors?  Just as media are supposed to play a watchdog role in society, we as professors have a particular role to play in society.  In fact, our role is similar to journalists (or so it’s been, historically), and runs into similar tensions. Is our goal to please the students-as-customers, to keep them happy, and give them what (they think) they want?  Or maybe our goal is to please the industrial employer-as-customer, to teach their tools, and to give the what (they think) they want?  Or is our goal to speak truth (as we see it), to teach what we believe is most fundamental, and thus, to give students and employers a new perspective?  Is it more important to get seats in chairs, or to get educated students out of those chairs?

The answer isn’t simple.   The new media need viewers to be economically sustainable, but they also need to be the truth-seekers in our society.We need more graduates, and we know that engaging them is the best way to get them to continue.  So yes, we need kids in seats, and we need to them to be happy.  But we also have a responsibility to educate, to teach students what we truly believe that they need, and to provide a deeper and more powerful perspective to industry.

The referee — in this analogy, the news media — seems confused about whether he is in the news business or the entertainment business. Is he responsible for ensuring a fair match? Or is he part of the show, selling tickets and building the audience? The referee certainly seems distracted: by Donald Trump, Charlie Sheen, the latest reality show — the list of serial obsessions is too long to enumerate here.

via Al Gore: Climate of Denial | Rolling Stone Politics.

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Google dumps App Inventor Mark’s Trip Report on ICER 2011: Students’ experience of CS classes, and making compilers more friendly

3 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Alan Kay  |  August 12, 2011 at 8:55 am

    The Mead blog that Mark pointed to uses many hundreds of redundant sentences to claim it is silly to call for something that could actually help the emissions problem but which is not politically probable. He’s complaining because Al Gore is more like a technical person than a politician, and Al would be the first to agree.

    It is not a new idea to point out that human beings often are able to rationalize destructive behavior based on desires and common sense beliefs even in the face of evidence that it will be ultimately harmful, and even when other parts of their belief system concur.

    Just a few examples include tobacco, Type II diabetes, and an ultimate horror story, the hundreds of thousands of yearly hospital deaths arising from physicians — trained in the germ theory of disease and sanitation — failing to wash their hands and take other elementary precautions.

    The relatively new field of Behavioral Economics studies how humans generally assign value in ways that have little to do with rational thought (see “Predictably Irrational” by Dan Ariely, etc.)

    And, it is not a new speculation to wonder how much of the human built-in “rationalize desired actions regardless of ultimate cost” can be modified through education. Bringing the fruits of engineering and science to humanity without big changes is essentially providing atomic weapons to the Pleistocene. Our innate problems are unfortunate without high technology, but disastrous with it.

    The problems of computing are small compared to these. But Mark is quite right to ask whether professors at universities are mainly “in business” or is this a higher calling that requires a lot more moral strength and purpose?

    Marketing is trying to service what people *want* — and to raise the perceived value of those wants. Education is trying to provide people with what they *need*, and to find ways to do so even when people don’t want what they need.

    Real education is thus fraught with issues of ethics and morality, freedom, choice, privacy, society, etc., most of which ironically require real education to help think about.

    Best wishes,


  • 2. Kieran Mathieson (@CoreDogs)  |  August 12, 2011 at 10:31 am

    Tough issues. Thoughts on Mark’s question about the role of profs.

    Would it help organize thinking to recognize different levels of abstraction? E.g., students say, “I want financial security.” Leave it up to profs to figure out how. This means implementation details that some students won’t like, e. g., that @#$&! data structures course, or learning to work in teams.

    What if we viewed our engagement with industry as a means to helping students? That could mean doing things that companies like (e. g., teaching tool X), and don’t like (e. g., helping students stay marketable, so they can job-hop).

    Figuring out what students need so they can achieve their higher order goals is (1) difficult, and (2) unrewarded. T&P rewards aren’t there. Social rewards? In a few select communities, but not in most schools. Staying focused on these issues requires more moral strength (Alan’s term) than is reasonable for most people.

    Academic leaders could try to build long-term faculty communities that work on these things. Create social rewards for deep student service. Never seen anyhuman do that, but maybe there are such people.


  • 3. Alfred Thompson  |  August 13, 2011 at 10:40 pm

    The media is all about two things a) making money and b) pushing a political/social agenda. I think it has been that way since the invention of the printing press. The idea of the media as “truth” seeker and teller is largely a myth. Yes, I am somewhat cynical about the media. For sure there are idealists in the media. Those are the people who care more about the agenda than the money. Seeking the truth is the rationalization that keeps them going because they see a specific truth in various events. We all have our filters because we are human.
    Faculty I see as more idealistic than the media and often they truely seek an objective truth. But not always. Still a view that is less motivated by money than industry is a good thing. Perhaps it helps create some sort of balance in the world. But public universities should always be asking if their faculty is biased too much in any one direction. Private universities often exist to serve one side or the other and that is not necessarily bad but it is not necessarily good either. But public universities exist in large part because democracy needs people who see more than one side. That can be created or lost at the university.


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