TITLE: Science, Education, and Independent Thought AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford DATE: July 04, 2008 8:37 AM DESC: ----- BODY: I wrote about a recent CS curricular discussion, which started with a blog posting by Mark Guzdial. Reading the comments to Guzdial's post is worth the time, as you'll find a couple of lengthy remarks by Alan Kay. As always, Kay challenges even computer science faculty to think beyond the boundaries of our discipline to the role what our students learn from us plays in a democratic world. One of Kay's comments caught my attention for connections to a couple of things I've written about in recent years. First, consider this:
I posit that this is still the main issue in America. "Skilled children" is too low a threshold for our system of government: we need "educated adults". ... I think the principle is clear and simple: there are thresholds that have to be achieved before one can enter various conversations and processes. "Air guitar and attitude" won't do. Science is a pretty good model (and it was used by the framers of the US). It is a two level system. The first level has to admit any and all ideas for consideration (to avoid dogma and becoming just another belief system). But the dues for "free and open" are that science has built the strongest system of critical thinking in human history to make the next level threshold for "worthy ideas" as high as possible. This really works.
This echoes the split mind of a scientist: willing to experiment with the widest set of ideas we can imagine, then setting the highest standard we can imagine for accepting the idea as true. As Kay goes on to say, this approach is embedded in the fabric of the American mentality for free society and government. This is yet another good reason for all students to learn and appreciate modern science; it's not just about science. Next, consider this passage that follows soon after:
"Air guitar" is a metaphor for choosing too tiny a subset of a process and fooling oneself that it is the whole thing. ... You say "needs" and I agree, but you are using it to mean the same as "wants", and it is simply not the case that education should necessarily adapt to the "wants" of students. This is where the confusion of education and marketing enters. The marketeers are trying to understand "wants" (and even inject more) and cater to them for a price; real educators are interested in "needs" and are trying to fulfill these needs. Marketeers are not trying to change but to achieve fit; educators are trying to change those they work with. Introducing marketing ideas into educational processes is a disaster in the making.
I've written occasionally about ideas from marketing, from the value of telling the right story to the creating of new programs. I believe those things and think that we in academia can learn a lot from marketers with the right ideas. Further, I don't think that any of this is in conflict with what Kay says here. He and I agree that we should not change our curriculum to cater solely to the perceptions and base desires of our clientele, whether students, industry, or even government. My appeal to marketing for inspiration lies in finding better ways to communicate what we do and offer and in making sure that what we do and offer are in alignment with the long-term viability of the culture. The best companies are in business for the long haul and must stay aligned with the changing needs of the world. Further, as I am certain Kay will agree based on many of the things he has said about Apple of the 1980s, the very best companies create and sell products that their customers didn't even know they wanted. We in academia might learn something from the Apples of our world about how to provide the liberal and professional education that our students need but don't realize they need. The same goes for convincing state legislatures and industry when they view too short a horizon for what we do. Like Kay, I want to give my students "real computing" and "real education". I think it is fitting and proper to talk about these issues on Independence Day in the United States. We depend on education to preserve the democratic system in which we live and the values by which we live. But there's more. Education -- including, perhaps especially, science -- creates freedom in the student. The mind becomes free to think greater thoughts and accomplish greater deeds when it has been empowered with our best ideas. Science is one. -----