Thursday, October 30, 2014

The purpose of college versus how to achieve it

I'm now about halfway through Excellent Sheep.  I found myself arguing with it in the last several chapters I read.  That is not surprising.  I tend to argue with books like this.  For example, after reading Mindset I wrote a long letter to its author, Carol Dweck, in which I contrasted my way of thinking about the issue she raises, most of which I had given considerable attention via my own introspection, with how she depicts them in her book.  I did get a response from her - we should have a conversation about it.  We'll see if that ever happens.  In the meantime I have some regret about making the points I did in a letter, because I'm not sure it is appropriate now to publish that prior to such a conversation taking place.  So for Excellent Sheep I will forgo the letter to the author and post below some of my bigger issues with the middle third of the book.

Some of this might be a parochial argument, nothing more.  I was a math major and that mattered a lot in my own development, as I will try to indicate below.  Deresiewicz, the author of Excellent Sheep, was an English major.  This math major finds the English major too imperial in conception and too ignoring of rather important matters, in some cases because he is so immersed in those matters he simply has lost sight of them, in other cases because he can't see the world of a student for whom humanism is only a part and not the whole.  I hope it's not all parochial, however, and that it is worth raising these issues here.

Let me begin with where I agree with Deresiewicz.  College is first and foremost about self-discovery, about learning to be skeptical of authority and received wisdom, of finding some way to develop one's own world view.

Deresiewicz is adamant about college not primarily being about preparing the student for the world of work, especially if doing that means the student forsakes the primary purpose.  I think that blocks him from considering subsidiary, but to me extremely important, goals that are part and parcel of what self-discovery is about.

Finding flow/self-actualizing/getting lost in thought

Deresiewicz seems most comfortable talking about philosophy and social theory.  He does not talk about psychology at all.  At least he hasn't done so in what I've read so far.  In my view, he therefore misses something quite important.  At an intellectual level, when does joy occur?  Does the student learn that he or she is capable of producing such joy on occasion and that it is not purely a matter of serendipity?  In other words, does the student ever experience life of the mind as reward in itself?

It is tempting to draw an analogy here to falling in love.  Most of us, elite students and otherwise, want to find true love.  We may not know what love is till we experience it, but we sense a need to discover it in advance of the experience.  There is a similar sensing of need with life of the mind.  It provides motivation, before curiosity has done its thing, to position oneself in a way where an investigation driven by curiosity takes place.

In my view of this there is a feedback loop between intellectual experience and intellectual sensing of further such experiences.  Earlier experiences that produce flow generate a hunger for more that is qualitatively similar.  The generation of those early experiences matters - a lot. Therefore, more than a little attention should be paid to how such experiences might be provided.

When stuff is too hard/getting bothered/learning to dig in one's heels

I don't know if this happens with an English major - where he reads something that seems opaque to him and over his head yet he feels he should understand the work and be able to penetrate it deeply because others in the field talk about it a lot.  This happened to me my first semester as a sophomore while still at MIT, when taking Abstract Algebra and Real Analysis.  I needed to raise my game but I didn't know how to do that at the time.  I transferred to Cornell after that semester.  Looking back, my not working hard enough to raise my game was tied up with non-math things that had gotten me depressed about being at MIT.

As a junior I took a Topology course where I found I could raise my game and, tying this to the first point, I believe I found flow when working on the homework for that class, lying on my bed thinking through proofs in my head, where it sometimes took hours to generate an appropriate argument.  I found I could concentrate till I had satisfied my own sense of understanding and that I wouldn't let go of the problem until that point was achieved.  (We had a take home final and when it was done, I could go home for winter break.  That temptation was too great and I didn't do all the problems on it in the way I had done the homework, where the time pressure issue didn't come up.)  So it isn't that I always drove myself to complete understanding of the problem, but in that course I learned that I had the capability of doing so intellectually if I wanted to.

Deresiewicz is so bothered himself about elite education at the college level that he is blind to the fact that being bothered is something learned.  And it is learned simultaneously with developing a sense of things that we care about.  Indeed, and this I got from reading On Not Being Able to Paint, it is the fusion between subjective and objective which is the source of our creativity.  And that often comes out of a very strong emotion - anger.  Being bothered and getting angry about an intellectual issue are two sides of the same coin.

It may be that being bothered by getting stuck on a math problem that you feel you should be able to solve is not the same as being bothered by something of important social consequence.  You might be able to let go of the former.  You should be unable to do so with the latter, unless there is something dead inside you that allows you to stop caring.  But, actually, what I've learned as I've gotten older and my intellectual habits have hardened, is that the difference between the two has vanished, once I get bothered in the first place.  I can't let go of even trivial problems, like seeing a familiar face and then trying to place it.  Once I'm grabbed I'm all consumed.  I don't know if it is that way for college students, broadly speaking, or if it should be that way all the time.  But I am convinced it should be that way at least some of the time and that it is one of the more important things to learn while in college.

Friends/Housemates with whom one doesn't take classes

When I was a freshman at MIT I took several of my classes with my two roommates.  To one instructor in particular, A.P. Mattuck, we became known as the three amigos (though not by that term).  In particular, when writing the evaluations we'd receive at mid semester and end of term, Mattuck would make comparisons across the three of us, but not with any other student in the class.  I don't actually remember ever discussing Mattuck's math homework with Alex, and with Neil it happened only a couple of times.  We did hang out together and had lots of conversations, but mostly this was not about what we were studying in our classes, whether Mattuck's or other courses we took in common. 

After I transferred to Cornell I took fewer classes together with people I lived with and by my junior year the two worlds were essentially separate.  I loved my time living at 509 Wyckoff Road (junior and senior years) and had many wonderful discussions with friends who lived there, but on the topics we discussed, national politics for example - Watergate was the year before, we came at the subject as amateurs.  We were interested in the topics and had passionate arguments about things, but we weren't studying these same things in our classes.  It allowed us to come at these discussions as equals even though some were graduate students and others, like me, were undergrads.  And it allowed us to be open on subjects where we might not be perfectly well informed.

I learned to embrace collegiality that way, a lesson that stood me in very good stead 20+ years later when I became an administrator for learning technology at Illinois and interacted with faculty from around campus, in what I believe was a very productive manner.  We had a common interest, teaching and the use of technology to promote that, which we were passionate about.  But we didn't share disciplinary expertise, so of necessity we had to take a generalist's approach to the subject where the common interest occurred.

That learning from professors in formal courses and what Deresiewicz calls "bull sessions" among students could exist in separate parallel universes rather than cohabit one and the same world doesn't seem to occur to him.  I'm not sure why.  This difference matters to me.  It matters a lot.  We are comfortable with our own kind.  Once I became an Assistant Professor I hung out with other economists and we formed a cabal of sorts; one where each of us was an insider.  This preference started earlier, in graduate school.  There is comfort in being an insider with other insiders.

But the true life skill is to be a reasonably good generalist, to hold up your end of the conversation and ask interesting questions on subjects that you haven't spent much of your adult life investigating.  The guide here is not the subject matter itself, but rather your own curiosity and the ways and procedures of a generalist making an inquiry into any subject matter whatsoever.

For most of us, a Liberal Arts education should be approached as a generalist would, as our expertise will eventually develop elsewhere.  For an English major, however, he is well on his way to becoming an insider in the field and will treat it like an insider would, all the while leveraging the generalist's need to be passionate about the humanities, when discussing the field with people who major in something else.  The generalist's approach is best learned from other generalists or generalist wannabes.

Teen anxiety and coming to conclusions too soon

Deresiewicz discusses an interesting conundrum.  The addiction to being credentialed can become so severe that students over commit to activities and juggle way too many balls in the air.  They therefore don't spend sufficient time on any one activity and are apt to only do surface learning.  In economics jargon, they err by overdoing on the extensive margin by ignoring the intensive margin.  They make this error at their own peril.

Rationally, such behavior can make sense only under the belief that they can learn things very fast, so don't need to put in the time to learn in a deep way.  That will happen by the snap of their fingers, given how talented these students are.  Alas, reality will eventually catch up to the student when this mistaken belief takes things to a breaking point.  At that time the likely initial reaction is for the student to feel completely incompetent - the Jack of all trades, master of none gets morphed into ain't got Jack.  This happens through a combination of greed and ignorance, greed in that the longer the list of credentials the better and ignorance in not recognizing the time requirements to establish even minimal competence in something.  The real issue is not the initial reaction.  It's with what happens after that.  Before getting to what's next, let's simply note that teens are apt to have anxieties about many things, no matter how comfortable with themselves they appear externally.  Indeed, this is one of Deresiewicz's core points.  Here we note it because it feeds into the student's reaction at this moment of reckoning.  One should anticipate overreaction, not a carefully considered and balanced response.

Given that, there seem to be three possible ways for the student to take the next step:

1) Sensible reform where the student learns that mastery of a subject is possible with adequate preparation, that such mastery is desirable at least some of the time, and therefore that the impossibly long list of credentialing activities gets trimmed substantially in favor of a few key areas where the student devotes the bulk of the student's attention.

2)  The student becomes increasing cynical about life. starts to see hedonism as an acceptable end goal in light of this cynicism, instead of as an occasional blowing off of steam, and stops pushing as hard on the credentialing because its artificial nature has become way too obvious.

3)  The student goes into a funk that marks the onset of a serious depression.  The prior two routes appear either impossible, because the student is not nearly as talented as was perceived to be the case prior to the time of reckoning or because the student finds hedonism unseemly and not itself rewarding.  It is this alternative I had in mind when writing the section title about coming to conclusions too fast.  The funk and subsequent depression happen too fast and thus block alternative (1) from becoming a realistic possibility.

In a recent post entitled, I was not a sheep. Were you?, I briefly discussed my own "crisis" in 10th grade and some of the consequences in its aftermath.  Viewed this way, for me (3) happened while I was in high school and I was able to revert to (1) instead of (2) for a time thereafter.  I will add here that after I had been at MIT for a while, having been through the experience in 10th grade helped around the time when I transferred to Cornell.  I was not happy at that time, but I didn't feel at risk of going off the deep end.  It does seem to me that is a real risk to be concerned with for those who haven't experienced depression previously.

Around the time when I was at MIT, there was a lot of quite open discussion about suicide.  MIT "led" the country in its suicide rate.  It was the primary reason for abandoning letter grades during the freshman year and going to a system of written evaluations instead.  I mention this just to note that there are real and quite serious risks about the mental health of highly charged students, once they've reached that moment of reckoning and gotten past the initial shock.

Therefore, it seems to me learning how not to go off the deep end is fundamental to all of the above categories.  But how does one do this without getting close to the edge?  Thus, while I can understand why Deresiewicz is so angry at the way things seem to be going at elite universities, I can't understand how he can be willing to potentially jeopardize the mental health of some of the student readers of his book.  Wile E. Coyote doesn't fall though over the edge, until he looks down.  Excellent Sheep, at its outset, is all about looking down.  The middle of the book is about identifying where terra firma actually is.

Perhaps his response to this sort of criticism is that since these students are exceptionally bright, they will come to this moment of reckoning sooner or later.  It can't be avoided.  All he is doing is serving as the messenger about this inevitable consequence.  And it is better to deal with the problem sooner than later.  Perhaps that is true, but I'd rather hear it as the consensus view from mental health professionals than be told it by a former English professor who can't claim expertise on this matter.   In the meantime, I can see a counter argument to the effect that students confront this issue when they are ready to do so.  Forcing them to confront it before they are ready can do more harm than good.

Learning to be comfortable with being wrong from time to time

I didn't want to conclude this piece with the previous section, because much of it is a downer, while most of what students do who are in the process of learning about themselves is really quite elevating.  So I chose to include this section, in addition, as a better place to begin to wrap up things.

The reader might prefer a different title to this section - The student coming to trust the student's own line of thought.  I chose the title I did because part and parcel with that is to develop a real recognition of fallibility.  Having such recognition, and also possessing a strong sense of risk aversion that many college students have, it is quite possible to imagine that such students never venture their own opinion when doing so would have them stray from the herd.  Not seeing a way to abandon that risk aversion aspect so readily, the only other possibility that makes sense to me is that the person comes to see being wrong once in a while as of no terrible consequence.  Then, nothing ventured nothing gained can be taken as a call to action.  In this case, the venturing amounts to forming a world view that the student has built based on the student's own thinking and prior experience.

This also means that the student has got to learn to not be rigid in maintained beliefs and that when proven wrong the beliefs should get modified accordingly. But there is quite a difference between taking an unpopular position, not itself a reason to change one's views, and confronting evidence that is inconsistent with one's views, necessitating some modification in belief.  The student must not confound the one for the other.   My sense is that extroverts will have a harder time with this than introverts, because they stand to lose more of their friends from taking an unpopular position.  The introvert will have a much shorter list of friends to begin with and they are more likely to tolerate the personal idiosyncrasy of the introvert. 

For me, this is still a work in progress, and I graduated from college almost 39 years ago.  I'm pretty comfortable articulating opinions with peers, irrespective of whether they are likely to agree or not, but when I'm outside my own element, I'm much less comfortable being forthcoming with my views. This is both when talking to power (as a campus administrator, this meant with the Provost, my boss' boss) and with non-academics, especially people I haven't interacted with before, who might not see the world in the way academics do.  My point is that the student won't be a finished product in this dimension at the time of graduation.  But it is necessary for the student to try on this hat while in college and it needs to fit well enough that the student will wear it again after graduation.

Wrap Up

The driving force behind this post is my feeling that while I was in college I devoted all my academic time to pursuit of my own interests and none whatsoever as preparation for a later career.  For that I should get high marks from Deresiewicz.  Yet I went about doing things in quite a different manner than he prescribes.  Indeed, I didn't take an English course or a History course in college.  And while I did take several Philosophy courses, including one on Kant's Critique of Pure Reason, with the exception of a course on the Philosophy of Law I got next to nothing out of these courses, mainly because I lacked the proper prior knowledge so couldn't make sense of what I was reading and could make only a little sense of what was discussed in class.  I got much more out of those arguments I had with housemates at 509 Wyckoff Road, and by seeing the various foreign films I saw at Old Rusty (e.g., Closely Watched Trains or Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion.)  Academically, I was more interested in political science than the humanities.  I took many courses there, and though parts of a course on American Political Thought were also above my head (particularly Heimert's book on Evangelical causes of the American Revolution), much of the rest penetrated in some way.

Yet in none of this academic experience did I have friends to discuss the subject matter.  I was a transfer student.  I took advanced courses in the subject without taking the pre-requisite introductory courses.  It was all done by the seat of my pants.  There was a plus side to this.  I learned to live with my choices and to trust my judgment, when I felt capable of thinking things through.  And since my major was math, I felt I was getting more than enough "rounding."  I still feel that now, all these years later.  So while I concur with Deresiewicz on college not being mainly about job preparation, beyond that I felt he was overly prescriptive and possibly plain wrong.  General Education, is not the humanities major lite. 

Tomorrow I will try to read the rest of Excellent Sheep.  Perhaps after that I'll have still more to say about it.

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