college advice, pretentious posturing included

William Deresiewicz would like to lift up the humanities by tearing down STEM, with a little casual racism and xenophobia on top for good measure.

pretentious man
Illustration by Sebastien Vereille

Quite a few science and academic blogs are abuzz with links and quotes from an article by a former English professor and current essayist William Deresiewicz lamenting the state of higher education. It’s nothing you probably haven’t read already and it rotates around the three central failings of our colleges: the avoidance to help their graduates find gainful employment, the use of grade students as a pliant workforce, and turning research into a business-like process measured by risk-averse quants. All right, it sounds reasonable until towards the end of his column Deresiewicz hurls insults at STEM education similar to those thrown out by a number of his counterparts in academia, casting science majors in the role of mentally deficient drones as well as taking a swipe at the Chinese for good measure because nothing says “open-minded academic” like a mild touch of xenophobia and denigrating an entire branch of academic research and disciplines…

A system of higher education that ignores liberal arts, as Jonathan Cole points out in The Great American University, is what they have in China, where they don’t want people to think about other ways to arrange society or other meanings than the authorized ones. Scientific education creates technologists. A liberal arts education creates citizens: people who can think broadly and critically about themselves and the world.

Pardon me Mr. Deresiewicz, can I help you and your colleagues off your self-erected pedestal? Really, what’s with this sudden surge of pretentious nonsense by humanities scholars deriding those of us who actually do want to study the sciences as being dimwitted techies incapable of critical thought? Have any of them tried to do an experiment or work on system architecture without applying critical thought and taking note of what they need to learn or relearn to perform the task at hand? Have they ever sat in a graduate classroom and heard a professor say that the state of the subject they were going to study that term was akin to Medieval cathedrals, where we’re still inventing reliable methods to accomplish complicated things and everything to be done will be just a big exercise in trial and error? I know, I know, it’s a little more involved than reading Shakespeare so they can ruminate on an esoteric aspect of the emotional state of one of his minor character for one particular scene in a dissertation, but maybe they’ll indulge this mindless technocrat?

Here’s a hint to humanities professors and students. Watch a little less TV for your idea of how scientists and engineers behave and interact with the outside world. Sure we’re a little scatterbrained and can suddenly dive into a stream of nigh incomprehensible jargon, but we don’t function on autopilot and our entire lives are very often spent trying to find new ways to do things and build new tools for new societies. To think that our studies are just route memorization is to show that you have no idea what it is we actually do and if the self-appointed guardians of all critical thought and democracy were to spend a few classes with us, they’d find that after our professors run us through a few basic terms and exercises, they expect us to turn what we just learned into a building block of a solution for an abstract and challenging problem. There may already be an easy way to do the assignment but that’s not the point. The point is for us to reverse engineer our tools and current concepts and implement them from the ground up so we can find new approaches. To think that a student in such an environment won’t develop critical thinking skills is both offensive and ridiculous.

# education // academia / college / college education

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