Current Reading

This blog is primarily for me to blog my responses to books that I'm reading. Sometimes I blog about other stuff too, though.

I'm currently reading Notes on the Death of Culture: Essays on Spectacle and Society by Mario Vargas Llosa.

Word cloud

Word cloud

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Why so special, education?

Having noted the problem with under-funding of the fundamentals while the special projects get special treatment, I should note that it is not a priori a bad thing to pursue special projects in education.  There should always be some innovative experiments in your portfolio alongside the fundamentals.  The problem comes when the academic system assigns higher prestige (at least in the teaching-focused non-elite state schools) to the special projects rather than the fundamentals.  The system gives incentives for participation in the special project du jour but not for excellence in the fundamentals.

The annoying psychology around special education projects is just the cherry on the sundae.  The kool-aid, the quasi-religious language, the dogmatism, it's all annoying, but it's only a problem when resources preferentially get allocated to that stuff.

At this point, it sometimes feels like the university consists of two worlds operating in parallel:  A world that is responsible for making classes run, conducting some (but not all) of the research done with students, advising most students, etc., and then a world dedicated to adoption of new techniques, running special class sections, supervising research projects with special grants attached, advising students enrolled in special programs, etc.  There are personal perks from participating in the second world (reduced teaching loads, stipends, sometimes supply money for research) and also professional perks (visibility, career advancement opportunities).  Unfortunately, while there are certainly ways in which "special projects" can help improve how we do the fundamentals, they can also divert people and time and other resources, while also leading to cultural rifts.  A department that configures its operations around special projects may not be optimally configured for the fundamentals.

I don't entirely blame people for this.  Certainly the special projects help satisfy a certain kind of restlessness (for lack of a better term).  People are craving something different, and not just because they are flighty and easily distracted by fads.  Education requires us to confront some timeless problems of people, motivation, ability, inequality, and (above all) the high sweat cost of new knowledge.  These are very, very hard problems, and nobody can be blamed for hoping that maybe there's a better solution around the corner.  However, that hope should not divert too many resources away from the fundamentals.  If we spend so much time getting reduced loads to solve the problem of teaching the masses, who will teach the masses in the interim while we wait for the magic solution to arrive?  The answer had better not be "The people with the least security, status, support, and compensation."

Also, I don't entirely blame legislators and others for hoping that there are scalable solutions.  Technology has changed many industries.  Unfortunately, though, shaping metal or growing wheat or moving dry goods turns out to be much easier than shaping character, cultivating scholars, and moving people from ignorance to mastery.

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