Tuesday, January 20, 2009

The Younging of Higher Education

It was in some book on evolutionary biology--probably Stephen J. Gould--that I came across the interesting idea that the descent of man (in Darwin's sense) was accompanied or even caused by the delayed onset of maturation. In other words, humans are curious and not as aggressive as "wild" animals because we experience an extended childhood, in which we learn the ways of the world. As explained in Human Evolution Through Developmental Change by Nancy Minugh-Purvis and Ken McNamara:
The essential link between human life history and the human way of life has been the suggestion that a prolonged period of infant and childhood dependency upon caretaking adults allows humans a prolonged period of behavioral plasticity and leads to a reliance on learning and learned behavior as hallmarks of human existence. [source]
This idea has been around for a while. It has been hypothesized that dogs are "slowed down" wolves--bred to stay in a puppy-like state and hence friendly and inquisitive. Aldus Huxley used this idea in Crome Yellow as a plot device.

I'd like to call this idea "younging." Over the years, Mickey Mouse has younged. And I would like to present the idea for consideration that our culture and particularly educational system are younging. In this case, it's not a good thing. Children remain malleable and learn new things rapidly. But this is of no use unless someone is instructing them in language, practical skills, and so forth. Growing up slowly is not an evolutionary advantage unless you have parents around to take care of you. The culture as a whole has no parents, if I can push the metaphor. As it youngs, rather than advancing in sophistication, it might just sit on the couch and watch Spongebob. The genesis for this idea was "The Last Professor" by Stanley Fish in the New York Times today--a reflection on recent trends in higher education. Professor Fish is a guy I usually disagree with, but he always has interesting things to say. This piece is about the evaporation of the liberal arts in higher education, particularly the soft humanities (history, literature, ...). He argues that these disciplines are seeing full time tenured professorships being replaced by adjuncts, and that in the competition between traditional and for-profit schools, liberal arts has no chance to survive. From the article:

What is happening in traditional universities where the ethos of the liberal arts is still given lip service is the forthright policy of for-profit universities, which make no pretense of valuing what used to be called the “higher learning.” John Sperling, founder of the group that gave us Phoenix University, is refreshingly blunt: “Coming here is not a rite of passage. We are not trying to develop value systems or go in for that ‘expand their minds’” nonsense.

The for-profit university is the logical end of a shift from a model of education centered in an individual professor who delivers insight and inspiration to a model that begins and ends with the imperative to deliver the information and skills necessary to gain employment.

This is arguably the younging of education in the following sense: the market favors instant gratification over development of long-term advantages. In the long term, philosophy majors will do better than advertising majors (reference: WSJ), but in a younged generation, short term goals are more attractive. This is related to my recent post on viewing vs. reading, I believe--those who read more may become the last bastion of the liberal-arts demographic (and end up ruling the world, one is tempted to add).

Seneca was a successful guy. I can forgive him for writing off mathematics as a mere trade; he didn't know about abstract algebra. His advice in his letter on liberal arts still makes good reading, despite the antiquity.
Thus, whatever phase of things human and divine you have apprehended, you will be wearied by the vast number of things to be answered and things to be learned. And in order that these manifold and mighty subjects may have free entertainment in your soul, you must remove therefrom all superfluous things. Virtue will not surrender herself to these narrow bounds of ours; a great subject needs wide space in which to move.
Notice that "superfluous things" would include skills we would consider the practical parts of learning--that which is immediately useful. Despite his immense wealth, or because of it, he can write "I respect no study, and deem no study good, which results in money-making."

Like a child learning to read, the payoff comes later. A picture book provides immediate gratification, and learning vocabulary and pronunciation is hard work. Contrary to what Mr. Sperling advertises, there is worth in learning broadly and encountering varied modes of thought. Although market forces may young the academy, I predict that it's those who think like Seneca who will be making the rules in the next generation.

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