Monday, May 05, 2014

A Cynical Argument for the Liberal Arts, Part Zero

In the Winter 2014 edition of Carnegie Reporter, "The Big Picture / Assessing the Future of Higher Education," Vartan Gregorian opens with:
In recent years, there has been a debate raging among policymakers, students, educators, concerned parents, and many others about the purpose of higher education. Is it meant to develop an inquiring mind and a deep appreciation for the value of how knowledge enriches one's lifelong personal and professional achievements or should it be simply focused on gaining the skills to pursue a well-paying career? [source]
This roughly divides education benefits into an internal and an external domain. Over the next several articles, I will explore the richness of this approach from the point of view of classical Cynicism. Given the topic, it seems appropriate to begin with a prose poem about the stakes.

Cogwheel Progress

The second millennium's concluding chorus was the whir and gnash of teeth, chewing up their tens of millions when the gears ground instead of meshing. Jugashvili got it half right: a million makes a statistic, but one is too small a sample for useful inference. The N was large enough by 1918 to circumscribe The Enlightenment with some confidence, but how many standard deviations does it take to be sure? Dada danced to no tune while the machines improved their minds and sharpened the null hypotheses for new trials. And yet more, until the theories' demands exceeded the number of actual people on Earth, and imaginary ones had to be invented to do the overkill accounting. By the time the curtain fell on the Three-Naught Opera, the teeth were wikid steel heat-treated-ferritic-martensitic-microstructure, whirring too fast to see and too numerous to compute.

H0: Machines cannot be enlightened

is written on the wall of a bathroom stall in the hand of  Leibniz, annotated by Hilbert, who also drew his cat, and Turing's clever limerick that rhymes with Gödel. In black marker underneath: "FOR A GOOD TIME CALL HAL."

Advancing, we have grown gears instead of ears, festooning heads with mech-punk, meshing ourselves, grinding into cadence, spinning to whir along with the new chorus. High-pitched doctors, greased with silicon to stand the heat, variable-ratio lawyers to adjust the foot-pounds of honest discourse to minimum drag, banks and forests of cogskulls to sell the truth / but sell it slant, and all the rest of the head-buzzers too, too many to catalog. They all whine on their spindles, but don't know what the noise is all about because angular momentum is all they have energy for. The null hypothesis unshaken, we endarken ourselves, and the crude mud-scratching past becomes ever more quaint. Washington's gears were made of wood, did you know? The Romans had the first detachable ones, by the way.

But statisticians did some calculations and proved that we cannot prove the null hypothesis, a Nobel-worthy triumph in double negativity. This hopeful doubt reduces friction and solves 95% of latency issues, according to Headgear Magazine's 2014 swimsuit edition. Intellectuals find this silly, but they have a better sop, because after all this time philosophers are finally in agreement. They inspected closely and found that we are nothing but gears all the way down.

The teeth and  mesh and flash of metal are friction to the eye, anyway. Better to switch off the light and be soothed by the machine's purr: white noise with a chance of ultrared.

Next: Part One

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