Tuesday, November 15, 2016

The Election And Modern Education Priorities

Like so many people, I am still reeling from the election. As an American living in Canada, my emotions take on a particular complexity: while I feel so lucky to be here, I also feel weird being "away from home" at this moment, if you know what I mean. I don't really have anything original to contribute in an overall way, beyond OMFG, but it seemed wrong to ignore the election all together, as if it hadn't happened at all. So I'll just try to say something particular to my tiny corner of experience.

Not surprisingly, a lot of people here in Canada have expressed shock and horror at Trump's success, for all the reasons: his association with white supremacist and racist people and organizations, the likelihood of policies that will trample long-protected rights in the name of law-and-order and so on, his disbelief in climate change and commitment to undermining environmental efforts. All of this is mostly straightforward.

What's interesting to me, though, is to think about these expected sentiments in light of something else I sometimes hear in Canada, which is a particular take on priorities in Canadian higher education. Those priorities value STEM and business savvy, sometimes at the expense of humanities and social science. We hear a lot here about the importance of innovation and tech industries, sometimes with the implication that the humanities and social science are kind of luxury add-ons -- "nice" things you can do, if you can afford it, but not essential in tough times.

To which I'd just like to register a gentle reminder: if you disagree with the incoming approach to US-problem-solving, you really need to support humanities and social sciences in education at all levels.

For one thing, as we've discussed on this blog before, most of the difficult problems of modern life are not science and tech problems at all, but are actually problems of social coordination and values. Meaningful solutions to the refugee crisis, to global war and violence, to providing health care in a rational way -- these are all problems of how to live together, problems you can't solve without studying history, sociology, economics, politics, and so on.

Even problems like global hunger and climate change, while they are often treated as science problems, are also primarily social problems. The world produces enough food to feed everyone. You don't need new biotechnologies: you need new ways of organizing how food moves around. Sure, we need green energy, but we also need to think differently about how environmental action comes from social changes.

For another thing, if you're worried about keeping alive the flames of democracy and liberty, you have to be able to think for yourself and express your own ideas. As we've discussed on this blog before, if you can't think for yourself and assess the evidence, you're a pawn of someone else's interests. Sure, that requires some scientific knowledge and numeracy skills, but it also crucially involves developing the habit of actual thinking -- a habit we all know is easily lost.

Getting the citizens out of the habit serves some political interests. It should give people pause that getting rid of philosophy and literature departments is a goal both of ISIS and of some US politicians.

Finally, you can't even talk about what is wrong with the kinds of policies the incoming administration is likely to pursue without getting immediately in to social and ethical matters. When does protecting the citizens become trampling over liberty rights? How much should we spend or sacrifice to ameliorate climate change, and who pays? When does free speech become threats and harassment?

In the rush of think-pieces about the election, one thing I've read again and again from Trump supporters is "He's a businessman; he'll know how to run things."


Maybe you agree with me that being a businessman is not the right preparation for dealing with massively complex social problems where "making money" is not the main goal. Maybe you also think that understanding human motivation and culture and expression and rights and values are all essential to solving these kinds of problems.

If you do, don't forget to keep a dose of skepticism handy next time someone seems too excited about innovation, tech, and STEM, and how they're all going to save the world.

6 comments:

Patricia Marino said...

Thanks to all the people who pointed out that instead of "It should give people pause that philosophy and literature departments is a goal both of ISIS and of some US politicians" it should have said:

"It should give people pause that getting rid of philosophy and literature departments is a goal both of ISIS and of some US politicians." Fixed now. Thanks again!

sandra lapointe said...

Those who liked this post might be interested in the following initiative: http://www.humanities.mcmaster.ca/~lapointe/website/Engagement.html.

Deborah Kuo said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Deborah Kuo said...

YES!! critical thinking (or thinking in general) seems to be something that people leave at home these days. are people aware that the basis of science, politics, innovation and all that jazz originate from philosophical grounds? many early thinkers were also scientists and politicians...

but, i also worry about non-tech/science people who don't seem to know a darned thing about basic nutrition/health or even how the world works. it's difficult to sit there listening to someone go on and on about (e.g.) why they don't need to continue the prescribed course of antibiotics or how vaccines cause autism so they won't vaccinate their kids.

there needs to be a balance in having a holistic understanding of the world and all its interesting aspects in a variety of perspectives.

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Janet Vickers said...

Just read this. That business is taught without context to our humanity is a prime example of abusive power which we support when we just want to be trained to get a job.