The Great Connections Seminar

The Great Connections Seminar
Discussing ethics

Monday, March 30, 2009

Shaky finances catch up with colleges

"In Shifting Era of Admissions, Colleges Struggle," writes the New York Times.

After decades of rising admissions made possible by the free flow of federal money, shaky U.S. financials finally catch up with colleges.

(Hat tip to Don Hauptman)

Friday, March 27, 2009

How education can foster creativity

We cannot change what nature gives students in terms of basic intelligence. However, we can use methods of education that nurture the abilities and habits of mind known to foster creativity and productivity such as:

- Objective reasoning skills, not just in science and math, but all domains of knowledge, including such areas as art, history, and literature.

- Connecting information and ideas from one domain of knowledge to another (the way highly creative people do) by:

  • Studying works that are cross-domain, such as Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations, a work of moral philosophy that founded the study of economics
  • Raising awareness of cross-disciplinary connections by pointing out the relationships between material from different domains, for example, how the development of banking influenced the development of art during the Renaissance in Florence.

- Modeling careful observation of the facts and encouraging student's careful, first-hand observations 

- Modeling enthusiasm and curiosity in what is being studied and encouraging student's questions

- Modeling the search for the relationship of any idea to the facts on which it rests, for example in discussing climate change, ask students to think about questions such as "is climate change bad or good? On what facts and ideas are you determining that it is good or bad?" 

- Studying works infused with deep questions about meaning and purpose, which connects knowledge to living by:

  • Always asking what any given fact or idea means to human life
  • Asking of any knowledge: to whom is this information valuable and how will it be used?

- Presenting a broad array of information, ancient and modern, as Matthew Arnold put it, "the best that has been thought or said," in the works of the classics and extraordinary works of contemporary times. 

Through these works, students wrestle with timeless ideas, useful in any era or place. They engage their minds with those of the best thinkers in civilization, and with ideas that are extremely influential even today. The classics include works from philosophy to economics, mathematics to literature, history to science and are often cross-disciplinary within themselves. Simultaneously, the skill of their authors serves as examples of the highest in creative thinking.

Properly schooled to think deeply about these works, a person economically recognizes the patterns, trends, and influences of these ideas everywhere in our culture, from art to business, from job trends to medical discoveries. 

Studying the classics, students can come to an appreciation for the creative individuals who made our great civilization possible. Further, reflecting on concepts that we take for granted will raise students’ analytic thinking skills. 

One small example: Did you know that there was a time when people were confused about how something could be one thing now and another thing in the future? How could something be an acorn now and yet the very same thing is an oak tree later? They could not figure out how that worked. I’m sure you all take for granted the idea that something can actually be one thing yet potentially another—like a baby is potentially an adult human.

However, it took the genius of ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle to resolve this problem with the identification of the concepts of “actual” and “potential.” Try to imagine our world without these ideas—it would be hard enough to think about the growth of a plant, how could we think about science and technology or civilizations? 


Monday, March 23, 2009

College reading ability and comprehension

"But people with average reading ability do not understand much of the text in the assigned readings. They take away a mishmash of half-understood information and outright misunderstandings that probably leave them under the illusion they know something they do not."

The consequence of which I think we see every day.

From Charles Murray's latest book Real Education, a book filled, by turns, with excellent insights and questionable reasoning.

Innovation in Education

Socratic Practice master, Michael Strong, on innovation in education. (See his video link on this blog, for a wonderful discussion of Socratic Practice).

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Characteristics of Creativity

Here, I posted creativity researcher Ken Robinson's views on traditional school and creativity, and here, I linked to a video about a remarkable artist who overcame bad schooling.

What kind of mind enables the creative? 

Integration of knowledge across broad ranges of subjects is a characteristic of creativity - and versatility.  Research consistently finds that highly creative people tend to have very broad, as well as deep, interests and knowledge.  They apply unconventional information and ideas to problems, integrating information in unusual ways across conventional subject areas.

Famed physicist Richard Feynman and his simple demonstration of the space shuttle Challenger's O-Ring disaster is a case in point. By dropping an O-ring into an ordinary glass of ice water, he simply and directly proved it could not stand up to low temperatures. His demonstration integrated an esoteric, bedeviling engineering problem with the mundane.

Feynman was famous for his wide-ranging interests, which included samba bands and experiments on ants. He put no limits on his curiosity about the world. 

His measured IQ was in the high range - 124 - but not what IQ test-makers consider genius (135+). Contrary to traditional thought, but consistent with research findings, most people recognized as geniuses through their work do not have IQ's in the 135+ range. No one knows how past geniuses such as DaVinci or Newton would have scored on the IQ test. Given the current findings on IQ creativity, we might be surprised! Research findings show that geniuses need an IQ of at least 116 or better, but after that, all bets are off. (see the research of Csikszentmihalyi on creativity).

Unfortunately, these tests - and most tests - cannot measure working creativity and intelligence. In other words, they don't adequately measure how intelligence is put into life's service by creatively solving problems.

The number of highly creative and successful business people who score average to low on SAT tests, for example, in indicative of the test's inadequacy in measuring working intelligence.

Besides IQ and natural interest across domains, other conditions seem to be equally important to the development of creativity, conditions which we can create in educational settings, thereby enabling education to make a significant difference.

For example, the tendency to amass information from close, first-hand observation is very important. Michael Faraday, pictured at left, exhibited this tendency par excellence. As a young man, he had no formal education and kne only arithmetic, but discovered the laws of electromagnetism through fascinated observation of and experiments on nature.

In a future post, I'll examine how schools can nurture this, and other characteristics of creativity.


Thursday, March 12, 2009

The Great Books Online

Inside Higher Ed's article "The Information Super-Library" looks at an online Great Books program at Monterey Peninsula Community College, which got its start due to student enthusiasm.

"I just keep running into students who are hungry for something they feel is substantial," says program coordinator David Clemens.

The article discusses the pros and cons of teaching the Great Books online as well as their value for gaining employment.

(Hat tip to RJO)

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Why ban the classics?

The British upper class kept the knowledge of the Classics from the lower classes, to control them.

American slave owners banned slave education, especially in reading, to control them.

Many contemporary professors, under the guise of modern, multi-culturalist and feminist ideology, keep the Classics out of university control their students? 

Proof that the classics speak to everyone

RJO's comment reminded me about this article, "Proof That the Classics Speak to Everyone." 

"In the 1500s, English law barred common people from reading even the Bible. England's rigid class system was grounded in the conviction that commoners were incompetent to think for themselves. The upper classes maintained a closely guarded monopoly on the knowledge required to interpret law, politics and religion for the lower orders...But as literacy grew, many working people began to yearn for intellectual independence. To guide their quest, they chose the very books that the elite had appropriated as their own: Homer, Virgil, Plutarch and Bacon.

"In the 1800s, weavers often read Shakespeare as they worked at their looms...shepherds "maintained a kind of circulating library, leaving books they had read in designated crannies in boundary walls." In mines and factory towns, informal discussion groups sprang up....

"What did England's common people find in the classics? ...the tools they needed to begin to's most basic question: "What is it that's going on here?"

"Less-than-great books can't perform this function. Ordinary works of fiction, for example, tend to follow stereotyped formulas that limit their value. But the classics... "offer a hundred ways of understanding the world, and a hundred plans for changing it." Over time, British workers who read Milton and Locke began to grasp that they deserved educational and political equality. Eventually, they demanded -- and got -- both. "

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Professionalization and the Liberal Arts

I frequently listen to Chicago classical music station WFMT. And frequently I hear ads for the Masters of Liberal Arts at the University of Chicago. It must make them beaucoup bucks - especially because these classes are filled with wealthy, retired or professional people.

The rush to professionalize in college leaves many wealthy, but dissatisfied at middle age. Others quit their profession in disgust, distraught that they had wasted so many years on work they disliked.  

Instead - why not take the time to learn about your possibilities when young, with your whole life ahead of you, and no debt or responsibilities? Study the liberal arts in college!

The End of the Humanities?

On March 1st, I commented on Stanley Fish's review of The Last Professor. In his review, Fish remarked that philosophy, literature, art and the other subjects of the humanities are not generally perceived as having practical use. Fish and others argue that they shouldn't.

But I think the view that study of the humanities is uplifting, but impractical, contains a false dichotomy between the spiritual and the practical.

Most students are not wealthy enough to go to college without a concern for a consequent career. This has been true in the U.S. since its inception. Before the G.I. bill and more recent, massive federal loans and grants, in the main, only the wealthy could afford to spend four adult years studying and not working.

Consequently, most college students need to learn knowledge and skills that will enable them to find lucrative work. They need to learn knowledge and skills that are immediately applicable in the workforce. 

But they also need to learn knowledge and skills (cognitive, emotional and social) that will enable them to make effective and excellent professional and personal decisions.

What those who push quick professionalization in college miss is the power of the humanities to affect professional life. 

Philosophy and art, to take two of the humanities, are of immense importance in human life -every life. Everyone lives with some kind of philosophy, whether they've identified it to themselves or not. And art, through literature, music, and the visual arts, embodies many different ways of approaching life. As such, art can be a powerful influence in shaping a person's approach. As Aristotle argued, music can teach the young the habit of how to feel.  The visual arts can embody ways of carrying oneself, and of looking at the world. Literature can show ways of living, and what men of different characters do.

An education including these studies makes the student more aware and knowledgeable about what choices and values are open to them. It provides a much higher level of consciousness about oneself, one's culture, and human possibilities.  It empowers the student to make better decisions in the long run. Better personal and professional decisions.

Thus, the spiritual and the practical integrate.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

"A Week of Revelation"

Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson hits the nail on the head about the Obama agenda:

"But governments do not "invest," they spend. Such spending can be justified or unjustified. It is wealthy individuals, however, who actually invest their capital in job creation. Most have much less capital than they used to. Under the Obama budget, they would have less still. This does not seem to matter in the economic worldview of the Obama budget. Equality is the goal instead of opportunity or economic mobility. And government, in this approach, is more capable of investing national wealth than America's discredited plutocrats -- meaning successful two-income families, entrepreneurs and professionals.

"This is not merely the rejection of "trickle-down economics," it is a weaening of the theoretical basis for capitalism -- that free individuals are generally more rational and efficient in making investment decisions than are government planners." (Emphasis added)

The putsch of egalitarianism.
Hat tip to John Enright.)

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Eliminating Political Science

Scott Jaschik of Inside Higher Ed reports that Wisconsin Lutheran College is eliminating political science as a major due to budgetary constraints. Wisconsin Lutheran has been ranked a top liberal arts college by U.S. News & World Reports for six years.

A spokeswoman says: "the college determined it wasn't necessary to its liberal arts mission to offer political science. 'We have interdisciplinary majors and other majors that can get you where you are going with your career aspirations...""

Richard Ekman, president of the Council of Independent Colleges remarked that "programs based on a core curriculum or interdisciplinary offerings designed to cover various disciplines require careful planning. 'If this period of cutting is going to continue for a while, there will need to be fresh thought on how to do that...'"

Great Books program, which is naturally interdisciplinary, can educate students extensively and intensively in political science without requiring a separate department.  And studying the Great Books can be a breath of fresh air, given the often-slanted and politicized approach in academe today.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

The Last Professor

Stanley Fish, brash post-modernist and self-proclaimed "anti-foundationalist," now dean at Florida International University, recently wrote in his NY Times blog about the death of the humanities. 

The blog entry was a partial review of a new book, The Last Professor, by one of his former students, Frank Donoghue.

Fish and Donoghue, like so many, claim the humanities' downfall is a function of the free market. They argue that with increased pressure to produce students who can graduate into a profession - be "useful" - and financial difficulties, universities are pulling resources from the humanities.

Never mind that:
1. In recent years universities have been "under increasing financial pressure" due to their competition for the large number of college students available as a result of the massive federal grant and loan programs.
2. Most humanities departments - e.g. philosophy, literature, art - have made themselves increasingly irrelevant to students' personal, long-term goals and of expanding the reaches of the mind, by politicizing most everything they teach.

The problem is the free market?