You Are the Company You Keep: Intellectual Circles, Herd Mentality, and American Education

This post is in reference to what I perceive as the failings of the modern education system to produce a future generation of free thinking problem solvers. 

I need to find a location— a city or neighborhood or institution or some central hub— where I can devote my time exclusively to reading, reflecting, and writing my thoughts— full time, every day. In sum, I want to dedicate myself to exploring my curiosities and passions and cultivating my understanding. I just can’t get enough. Attending the University is great but I’m thoroughly disenchanted with its cold methods of inculcation. My attitude may not be too charitable towards what it does offer, which you could argue is quite a bit, such as a free “top-notch” education, plenty of free time, a spectrum of diverse courses, access to libraries and research databases, and even close contact with great minds like the professors and peers I interact with daily. And many would be quick to point out how fortunate I am, and I would agree. But these seem to be superficial attributes of the advertised variety you’d find at just about any academic institution, not just the best, so what makes my academic institution better than all the rest? Why is it considered one of the best Universities? And why does that mean so little to me? Allow me to digress momentarily and explain.

First, the best universities are ranked incredibly high. Why are they ranked so high? Looking at a few of the major aspects contributing to ranking methodology, say for US News and World Report, we find seven seven broad categories:

“peer assessment; graduation and retention rates; faculty resources (for example, class size); student selectivity (for example, average admissions test scores of incoming students); financial resources; alumni giving; and, only for national universities and national liberal arts colleges, graduation rate performance and high school counselor undergraduate academic reputation ratings.” [USNWR]

Essentially these criteria “reflect the quality of students, faculty, and other resources used in education, and outcome measures.”

Without going into all the details, let me tell you what this all boils down to: location, perceived prestige and/or authority, and money. Most important, I posit, is money. Location is typically dictated by proximity to a city which provides access to agglomeration economies and human capital, both factors of wealth production, rather than any specific geographic concern (Silicon Valley?). In sum, they’re located in information hubs.

The latter two features—prestige and money— maintain a reciprocal relationship. Why? Because the more money an institution has, the better resources and funding, and this means better faculty and students. Faculty are attracted to the pay, research funding, expensive technology, and nice facilities. A higher concentration of quality faculty with access to quality resources  means a higher quantity and/or quality of research output. This, of course, translates into more federal and private research grants for the academic institution, adding to research output, which in turn improves rankings, i.e. prestige and authority. This in turn attracts more talented faculty and so on and so forth.

In any society, cultural capital is the currency of opportunity, and institutions are the manufacturers of that currency. The scarcity and quality of that cultural capital determines the perceived prestige and authority of the institution and ergo the cultural capital it produces.

Students, particularly the highest achievers, are attracted to the institution’s prestige for obvious career and academic reasons. They are fully aware of the benefits of going to a top ranked school: good for the resume, top notch professors, and high achieving peers. They’re also drawn for more base reasons, such as a pretty campus, nice facilities, and convenient comfortable amenities.

The result of this reciprocal relationship is an emergent complexity that produces increasing returns, and it’s a product of self-reinforcing feedback mechanisms. The genesis of these mechanisms? Wealth. More precisely, the scarcity of a perceived value. And the very best universities possess the very best rankings in proportion to their wealth, first and foremost, followed by their prestige and authority (The Cost of Excellence).

So, without going off on a tangent and getting into too many of the details, my complaint is this: nowadays, at its heart, the university isn’t what it’s all cracked up to be. The students of these universities are considered the best, but only because, in the vast majority of cases, they excelled at standardized testing. And standardized testing breeds conformity, undermines creativity, and deters independent thinking. (See Contradictions in School Reform). Furthermore, standardized testing is directly correlated with family income (College Board 2009; NYT for summary). It would seem that, rather than an indicator of a students intrinsic zeal for problem solving and enthusiasm for understanding, standardized testing is merely a reflection of the opportunities provided ad hoc by a students socioeconomic class. This immediately raises the issue of utility granted to education as a great equalizer, showing itself instead as a mechanism that functionally breeds inequality.

The by and large result? A homogeneous group of wealthy students devoid of creative critical thinking skills who are proficient at spitting out answers to pre-formulated questions. This is a generalization, of course, but I maintain the conclusion speaks for itself, reflecting the research data as well as my personal experience. In many regards this is a good thing. After all, these students are the best at regurgitating valuable cultural capital, all the answers to all the questions already coined by society. It is the role of education institutions to disseminate this cultural capital, this social knowledge. I argue they do it very, very well.  Too well.

My discontents lie in the way the system is set up. There is no balance. Yes, you need to have excellent technical knowledge of existing subjects before you can begin discussing ways of solving the problems they produce. But I want to reference a powerful quote by the iconic Einstein: “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.”

Upon reading this quote I can’t help but relate to the issues undertaken by the philosophy of science. Specifically those delineated by Thomas Kuhn in his book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions as well as the notable debates between Irme Lakatos and Paul Feyerabend. Similar to Kuhn’s theory of paradigms, Lakatos also considered the nature of prevailing thought encompassing a discipline, which he reffered to as research programs. He argued that the paradigms or research programs dominating a current discipline are established as a result of the novel contributions of genius, like Galileo and Newton and Einstein, which offer a revised framework for solving problems. Each research program possesses a unique set of puzzles, or problems and questions, that can only be solved with the premises established exclusively by the language context of that research program.

For example, Newton’s paradigmatic theory of physics is a research program that could solve puzzles dealing with macro-mechanical phenomenon, but it broke down and failed at explaining phenomenon on the quantum level. Solving these problems required the creative breakthrough of Einstein’s theory of relativity and mass-energy equivalence. Other examples include Ptolemy’s geocentric theory of the solar system  being replaced by Galileo’s heliocentric theory, or alchemy being replaced by chemistry, or spontaneous generated disease theory being replaced by germ theory, and the list goes on.

Because each research program exists as a self-contained framework with unique premises, there are seemingly endless combinations and re-combinations of these premises that literally create new problems or puzzles. Solving these problems fleshes out the theory’s soundness by establishing its scope and legitimizing its explanatory power.

In his book on the philosophy of science, Against Method, Paul Feyerabend, a professed radical of convention, an anarchist of sorts, stated that “The only principle that does not inhibit progress is: anything goes.” In this way novel contributions, totally creative thought that rocks the structural foundations of existing paradigms and prevailing thought, are the source of radical and revolutionary progress. His position was that science and discovery, namely all progress, should be open and interdisciplinary, facilitated by the synthesis of perspectives across disparate domains of knowledge.

From this summary we see two paths of education that provide utility, each in their own right. The first path, characterized by formal education, is closed, training students to solve problems delineated and created within the bounds of existing paradigms, by current research programs, by mainstream prevailing thought. The second path is open, experimental, interdisciplinary, imaginative, creative, and seeks novelty. The consequence of the second path is an exposure to tremendous risk and ridicule in the event of being wrong. But as we know, where there is no risk there is no reward.

This brings me back to my original discontent: the university. I should consider myself fortunate for playing the game right and having the privilege of attending such a prestigious institution, but there is a disconnect I have serious difficulties reconciling. Namely that there is no room for open dialog, creative problem solving, critical thinking, and diverse perspective. Any remnant of a free and open intellectual atmosphere fostering critical dialog that we tend to typify with higher learning institutions has by and large disappeared. Of course it still exists in isolated cases with those “liberal” professors in their “progressive” disciplines, but the culture itself is nonexistent on a broad scale. Instead we see fragmented departments partitioned across campus.  Students are dis-incentivized from introducing material from other domains of thought into classroom discussion, from experimenting with relevant perspectives and cross applying relationships. Very rarely do I observe or am aware of professors taking time to form real relationships with their students and gain a mutual understanding of their incoming context. Perhaps this is for economic reasons, reasons of utility, to retain efficiency. Perhaps it is too costly in time and faculty resources. But then I ask, what is education for? The efficient dissemination of knowledge? What of effectiveness? What of comprehensive understanding?

Maybe I’m being too Pollyanna. Remind me though, who are the greatest stakeholders in education? The board of trustees? The faculty? Or is it the future of our country? the next generation? the students?

And so we see my current dilemma. I yearn for a place to stretch my mind, to inquire, to challenge assumptions and engage in mutually vested dialog and debate. As someone totally disenchanted with the rigidity and apathy I experienced during my first twelve years of formal education, I expected this from the university. I was told that the university is where I would find the intellectual atmosphere filled with other inquisitive peers and engaging professors I was looking for, and I can honestly say that I’ve found a handful of both. But only a handful. The experience, however, is  more of the same.

I have to ask myself why this is the case. If we look throughout the annals of history for a clue to our current problems, for some trace of wisdom to tell of our prospects on the horizon, I can’t help but notice a glaring similarity in trends: the greatest civilizations fell at the peak of their opulence, the pinnacle of their immoderate greatness. (GibbonsLahiri) My mind immediately turns to Plato who said, “Necessity, who is the mother of invention” and everything becomes clear. We have shunned change, avoided struggle, distanced ourselves from challenge, and effectively rid ourselves of the need and, in effect, the capacity to confront real problems. Instead we hunker down in our theoretical delusions and preserve the status quo. It’s only natural that our institutions should reflect this reality.

It’s not a perfect world, I realize that. Perhaps my grandiose vision of higher learning should be restrained. Or should it? William James said “Genius, in truth, means little more than the faculty of perceiving in an unhabitual way.” If that’s the case, then I want to retain my vision of a better world and embody this attitude of genius towards life. And if America should continue flourishing, I believe it should integrate James’ wisdom into the very fiber of its institutions, especially education.


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