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Additional thoughts on the state of the university

2009/04/29

A few days ago, a column from the New York Times was making the rounds on the interwebs, even making an appearance here. In it, the author laid out a case for radically changing the structure and purpose of higher education. Essentially, universities are churning out PhDs but, because of the shift towards adjunct professors and other issues related to tenure and the economy, are not able to provide employment to those grads. We’re all being trained to be a tenured professor with almost no way of becoming a tenured professor. That’s just one of the issues facing our system today. A post over at Bioephemera hit upon another — the idea that a good scientist is one who pushes their specialty a little further up a hill (hill-climbers) rather than one who is able to integrate across the boundaries of different fields (valley crossers). To quote from her quote:

To be most effective, Smolin argues, science needs a mix of hill climbers and valley crossers. Too many hill climbers doing normal science, and you end up sooner or later with lots of them stuck on the tops of local hills, each defending their own territory. Science then suffers from a lack of enough valley crossers able to strike out from those intellectually tidy positions to explore further away and find higher peaks.

It’s a shame, really. I’m wondering if all first-year STEM majors, all of them, should take a full year of History of Science classes. Not just the basic Aristotle + Copernicus + Galileo + Einstein = Astronomy Today kind of deal, which is important (and I have taken that type of class), but more of the kind of story-telling that you find in the Science section at the bookstore. The sort of books that focus on absolute zero and the progress of our knowledge or one of the biographies of Feynman or Buckminster Fuller (and now you know some of what’s in my library). Heck, it could even be a seminar where current scientists talk about their process (I’m thinking of a program on PBS a few years back that was about women researchers, maybe a NOVA or NOVA Science Now). Forget the charts and the bullet points and focus on what it means to be a scientist, in a university setting or not. Of course, first we’d have to work on the bias that you get from ‘real’ scientists or computer science folks or whoever towards people who came from a different background. I still get those dismissive looks and comments after 6+ years in my current field once they learn about my background. It’s frustrating and counter-productive. That’s what collaboration is about — you do the hydrology, I do the visualization and maybe we get a much better product. Cultivating that openness is very important to really making the big leaps forward that we probably need to be making to solve the environmental and social problems we’re facing. King of the mountain is a pretty destructive, and lonely, game.

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