Four For Friday (37)

Stanford University announced its new President this week. Marc Tessier-Lavigne is a “pioneering neuroscientist, former Stanford faculty member and outspoken advocate for higher education”. More importantly, in keeping with Stanford’s reputation as a crucible for entrepreneurial creativity, he has been executive vice president for research and chief scientific officer at Genentech, leading work on disease research and drug discovery for cancer, immune disorders, infectious diseases and neurodegenerative diseases.

In a conversation with Ruth Porat, a member of Stanford’s board of trustees, Tessier-Lavigne he talks about how, as a Rhodes Scholar, he chose philosophy and sharpened his critical thinking, and learnt to appreciate the importance of a broad-based education encompassing both liberal arts and the sciences. He talks at length about his research philosophy and interdisciplinarity. “Greatest advances are often made at the interfaces of disciplines,” he says, thus underscoring a crucial aspect of innovation for human betterment.

This week’s links are all about the role of liberal arts in education, research, and scholarship.

India is stereotyped in the west as a country of maths and engineering nerds. Creating a broad base of technocrats was what India needed after it gained independence from British rule. But this has created lopsided development. In a recent essay on the importance — and timeliness — of creating a liberal arts university in India, the founders review the history of higher education in India and ask crucial questions while outlining the form liberal arts education is taking in India under their watchful gaze.

Today, liberal education in India is not just blindly aping the western model. It incorporates the best of content, courses and knowledge that India has to offer and marries it with the best in contemporary pedagogy in terms of experiential learning, use of technology, grass-roots immersion and mentorship. It ensures that the best minds in India are capable of engaging with the toughest challenges we face as a society. This way we ensure that the Indian liberal education aspires to be not just the best in the world but the best for the world. As America worries about its overdependence on liberal education and its rising costs and relevance, India and its Asian neighbours are showing how a rejuvenated model of liberal education is not just an imperative but can be delivered in a high-quality and affordable model at a large scale. As a country we have the opportunity to change the course of higher education not just for India but for the world.

This impassioned essay reproduced in the Washington Post suggests kids need to learn philosophy. The entire essay is worth your time — especially though not only if you have or are in charge of children, in any form. For today’s children are tomorrow’s men and women, and we all have a stake in the matter. An excerpt:

I think most of us realize that society is a necessary compromise, and at least pay lip service to the idea that critical thinking and effective communication are virtues essential for its success. As we get older  many of us tend to be less open to new information, evidence, and arguments — but we can and should instill the requisite virtues in our children via K-12 education.

“It’s easier to build strong children than to repair broken men,” as Frederick Douglass once said in a different context. In that spirit, then, it’s imperative that our kids become philosophers.

As both the founders of Ashoka University in India and Steve Neumann, the author of the essay in WaPo note, liberal arts and philosophy seem to have a poor reputation as something of little “use” to society. To balance that, uh, feeling, here is a utilitarian argument about why digital companies need liberal arts majors. The piece is longer than it needs to be, but it can be skim-read for the main points.

But there will be a limit to how far computers can replace human capabilities, at least in the near long term. What can’t be replaced in any organization imaginable in the future is precisely what seems overlooked today: liberal arts skills, such as creativity, empathy, listening, and vision. These skills, not digital or technological ones, will hold the keys to a company’s future success. And yet companies aren’t hiring for them. This is a problem for today’s digital companies, and it’s only going to get worse.

Vinod Khosla, a leading light in the Silicon Valley, however holds a slightly different opinion. He argues that we need to teach critical thinking and the scientific method first, and humanities later.

To me, the fundamental tools of learning stem (no pun intended) from science, technology, engineering, and math. This updated curriculum should eclipse the archaic view of liberal education still favored by institutions like Harvard and Yale based on a worldview from the 1800s. Critical subject matter should include economics, statistics, mathematics, logic and systems modeling, current (not historical) cultural evolution, psychology, and computer programming. Furthermore, certain humanities disciplines such as literature and history should become optional subjects, in much the same way as physics is today (and, of course, I advocate mandatory physics study).

Finally, English and social studies should be replaced with the scientific process, critical thinking, rhetoric, and analysis of current news—imagine a required course each semester where every student is asked to analyze and debate topics from every issue of a broad publication such as The Economist, Scientific American, orTechnology Review. Such a curriculum would not only provide a platform for understanding in a more relevant context how the physical, political, cultural and technical worlds function, but would also impart instincts for interpreting the world, and prepare students to become active participants in the economy. After all, what is the job of education?

While I don’t fully agree with the “how” of Mr Khosla’s line of thinking, in my own life, I have made choices that have followed a similar path in educating myself as I have written elsewhere.

Studying numerate, “right answer” things followed by studying humanities – Engineering is a good first degree (although I think Physics is better but problem formulation skills acquired in engineering are second to none); but to situate the problem solving in the real world needs an understanding of how resources are allocated and how decisions are made. Studying the “there is no right answer” disciplines helped me become less linear and more able in life in general. It has worked well for my career too (I am now teaching Society & Technology to engineering undergraduates as a choice, and this was a subject I wish we had studied when we were in engineering school).

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