The dark ages: Modern anti-intellectualism and failure of the thinking man

In the happenstance world of the modern University system and the massive shift to large scale educational institutions are we truly getting smarter? In the megalithic creations of superior seats of education where is the radical advancements promised by a history of creation and creativity? Can the undergraduate education really be better in a lecture hall of 300 rather than a classroom of 25?

We do not want to bury Caesar but to praise Caesar and as such do unto the American University system what it has done unto us.

Where is the modern age renaissance man? A little over 100 years ago there were two degrees in the undergraduate curriculum. The Bachelor of Science, and the Bachelor of Arts were regarded as the pinnacle of education. Then specialization began a long swing into the collective consciousness of academia. The business world looked to academia to solve the middling problems of commerce. A government swath of intervention cut through the academic ranks of research. All of this resulted in further specialization. In the short term likely it resulted in gains in the intellectual output of a generation of scientists.

So, from a system where knowledge was gathered from many sources and a pyramid of knowledge and facts represented the intellectual catalog of an individual we have now the reverse. Broad based programs that widened in scope to a point where a person of the highest rank could discuss a variety of topics is no longer. Specialization has resulted in a trend to specious specialization where the pinnacle academic achievement is hyper-specialization. This has driven a coterie of programs into inter-disciplinary prima-facie collaborations but we know that the simple human interactions degrade the efforts.

There is substantial and worthy scholarship that has been done as collaborations. We know from academic scholarship into software programming that there is a finite level of teaming (Mongolian horde effect) that is possible. We know from the scholarship that teams the gel usually do so because of personal not professional relationships. From the scholarship it can be surmised that there is no silver bullet for software development and that teams of developers will often fail. The specialization of the programming discipline means that these authors of software have a common lexicon and substantial community culture. If these highly trained and specialized individuals cannot work together why would we expect even more specialized and single threaded individuals to work in inter-disciplinary groups? There is no realistic assumption that outside of personal relationships scientists can be expected to work together.

Perhaps the issue is thinking strategies. The fact remains that the common scientist is woefully deficient in thinking and intellectual strategies. Within their discipline they may be exposed to specifics that they may need but I rather doubt most PhD candidates for chemistry are being exposed to Dewey or Kant at the doctoral course work level. Specialization has eroded the human aspects of educations. The Renaissance man is dead and the University killed him. I have seen the response of several science faculty at the senior level who have realized this fact about themselves. They may be an international expert and have a great reputation but upon reaching full professor they reach out and start taking liberal arts and humanities courses. I have met many junior faculty and professionals who have a master’s degree in a liberal art and another masters degree in a science or engineering discipline. These are the hope of Lazarus rising and the rebirth of the Renaissance man. Yet in academia they are pushed aside as not having focus or depth. This would be the true anti-intellectualism and the sordid despotic nature of academia taken over by the Huns.

Science, technology, engineering and math are the body and anatomy of society. Art, literature, history, and education are the soul of society. One without the other is a tottering Gollum or a ghost without substance. Yet this is how we have built our University systems. The highly vocational nature of the community college driven by last year’s business needs. The rapidly evolving specialized nature of the University with industry boards, and consortiums who detail plans for what they needed. Where is the leadership to say we need to look to the future? Has academia truly squandered nearly five decades of scientific endeavor and abrogated the role of thinking organization totally to the industrial complex and shortsighted capitalist machine?

The University has segmented into a triumvirate of silo missions to further denigrate the shift of societal needs. The under graduate education system where the balance of learning will take place is taught extensively by teaching assistants and research assistants as the ivory tower academian fights for funding in his office. The search for grant funding leaves the hollow taste of targeted research and restrains intellectualism. The second leg of the trinity of failure is the restraint on academic endeavor created by a silo of regimented learning plans, conscripted plans of study, and subservience of the Institution to accreditation standards based on (you guessed it) last year’s or even decades old business requirements. The final leg of this trinity in failed cognitive processing is fundamental nature and shift to politically correct speech. Utilizing the mechanisms of administrative and human resources the lecture hall is a feast for abeyance in discourse. There is no ability to shock or create dismay with the wayward lecture of the day. The lecture must be on-point with suitable metrics to include aptitude and learning objectives.

In retrospect at the point of the most important learning task we inject the most junior of scholars, when creating learning plans the institution cares more about the industry advisory board than the students, and then the education the student receives instead of being intellectually honest it is hampered by the filters that reject rather than inform. Perish the intolerant thought that a faculty member might make a rude joke, use a sexual innuendo, curse in the zeal of a lecture, or engage a majority of the students in a thinking and intellectual exercise. There is no room for intellectualism as one, or some, or most of the students might have their most fundamental ideas shaken. To engage in truly deep learning sometimes the fundamental nature of the student needs to be challenged but if you do that society and the real powers behind academia will swat the recalcitrant academic. Thus the nails in the coffin of the Renaissance man are driven deeper.

The proverbial ivory tower has not existed for a long time. The image of Socrates standing around bestowing knowledge upon addled students hanging on each word is as inept as the sophistry that created the image. As I sat in a DARPA workshop listening to the contract manager discuss how if the responding industry groups wanted they could have academics build a widget, gadget or something. Academics the thought leaders of science and technology relegated, in the language and thought patterns of the lead agency for far thinking research, to the abyss of gadget and widget builders.

The same disciplines that gave us the atom bomb now denigrated in open contempt. I think most would be disheartened and I have been told that you just have to play the game. It is not idealism or fanciful immaturity that leads me to conclude I should not be worried about playing a game. If political punditry is the relative role that results in funded research then the game of ideas, creativity, science, and peer review have failed. The American University system is officially a dying entity.

There is an answer to many of the woes that have befallen us and we need to fix them quickly. Not that the super- liberal political objectivism of the University has ever been known to apply those same progressive views to itself. Goal one would be to stop creating graduate courses where the real education begins. Goal two would be to stop berating a new generation because they don’t have the “attention span of a gnat”, and realize it is our jobs to educate them. Not berate them. If math and writing skills are not to our expectation then provide the opportunity for growth and fix the problem. If students do not have enough reasoning ability then give it to them. If they do not respond well fail them out of your classes they are not ready for the future. Somewhere the empowered generation of baby-boomer managed to forget failure is always an option. The generation X’rs and Y’rs know all about failure baby boomers provide many adequate examples.

The school and college system within the larger University was an excellent way to stove pipe the disciplines and create involuntary servitude to traditions. The Ivy League universities with smaller classes are some of the worst offenders of the implied gap between disciplines. The petty rivalries are genuinely apocalyptic in nature. Are we truly talking about education or are we talking about publication and grants? Do the railroad tracks of academic career ever allow for the vagaries of inter-disciplinary renaissance? Do the well beaten paths of the current crop of student result in the highly educated, creative, leader of the future that we need for intellectual elitism in the next century? Is it more or less likely that the DARPA project manager was right and that academia has become widget and gadget builders to the torrential capability of industry that is always asking for yesterdays needs? There is no future in the past but we can learn from it today.

2 comments for “The dark ages: Modern anti-intellectualism and failure of the thinking man

  1. August 31, 2008 at 10:48 am

    Just wanted to cross-post my comment:

    I have met many junior faculty and professionals who have a master’s degree in a liberal art and another masters degree in a science or engineering discipline. These are the hope of Lazarus rising and the rebirth of the Renaissance man. Yet in academia they are pushed aside as not having focus or depth.

    You basically described me. Though I don’t think specialization is what has killed the education system, I do think there is a lack of interdisciplinary work done (and I don’t mean there should be more “Interdisciplinary Studies” courses for undergrads).

  2. sam
    August 31, 2008 at 11:38 am

    As well as myself with a BA, and BS, and my spouse with a MA, MS. There is so much that can be done, and woefully little that has been done. My hope is that authors such as yourself and others create a memetic event horizon to push this idea as a grass roots change since leadership seems woefully incompetent.

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