24 September, 2005

Time to abandon arrogance

It's not hard to play the blame game. A number of new professors were playing it last night at a restaurant, myself among them. Our students aren't prepared. They have no interest in learning. They don't come to our offices.

A set-up to screw the poor
Then there's the obligatory student of the Marxist-Personalist school (or something to that effect) with the never-quite-novel idea so common to such schools: I'm reading a book that says the purpose of the American educational system is to sort people into a pre-determined social class, and that the American educational system is very efficient at doing that. I agree with it.

It wasn't hard for me to disagree with it: besides the fact that large number of immigrants and their descendants would protest loudly and angrily, I count as empirical evidence to the contrary (or at least anecdotal evidence). I have risen from a lower social class, thanks in no small part to the American educational system. In particular, I benefited from scholarships and assistantships. I have paid not one red cent in post-secondary tuition, beginning from the fall of 1989 at Marymount University, when I was an Undecided Freshman, ending in the spring of 2005 at North Carolina State University, when I received a Ph.D. in mathematics.

Not only did the American educational system help me, a lower-class, socially inept nerd, move to a position where my income is higher than the national median personal income, most of my friends and family have also benefited. I may seem insufficiently cynical for modern tastes, especially those of the Marxist-Personalist schools (or whatever they want to call themselves), but I hope the reader will take into consideration the fact that I hold a sense of gratitude towards my country. Gratitude, is of course, a perversity in the modern mindset, but that's the way I am. It's a little difficult for me to sit back and hear people bad-mouth it with ignorant notions of a set-up to screw the poor.

Back to the conversation. My red colleague objected that he had visited majority-black schools in his home state of Louisiana, and they tended to confirm his opinion. I had a reply for that, too. My high school was majority black. I neglected to add that I was salutatorian to a black female valedictorian, but that would have strengthened my evidence, not weakened it. The criterion came down to this: those of us who valued education and didn't object to expending some effort on our homework tended to do rather well. Those who valued television, partying, and sex, and expended their effort accordingly, tended to do rather badly. What a coincidence!

A liberal-arts school that scorns philosophy
At this same dinner, a different English professor questioned my irritation with the fact that the college does not offer any philosophy classes to the students, not even a course in elementary logic. (What sort of "liberal arts" school is this?!? Philosophy is listed in the catalog, yet there is no one qualified to teach it.) After all, my colleague claimed, there are different kinds of logic; the logic used in mathematics is not the same sort used in elementary logic. For example, in arguments you have to avoid generalizing from the specific. Moreover, one of the results of postmodernism is that you can't really know that A causes B; for example, that only women have children. The only thing we know for certain is that we've never seen B happen with A, but that doesn't make a cause.

This is so mind-bogglingly contradictory to my education that I had no idea where to begin. First off, generalizing from the specific is an error in symbolic logic: it's the error of confusing an existential quantifier with a universal quantifier. I was talking about that with my linear algebra students just last week, drawing the connection with stereotyping, no less!

As for "cause and effect": I held back on this one, but as I learned it, the deflation of cause-and-effect was accomplished not by postmodernism, but by British Empiricism in the person of David Hume. As a professor explained in my class on modern philosophy, David Hume made it quite clear in one treatise that one cannot know with absolute certainty that one billiard ball causes another billiard ball to move; all one can say is that, well, every time the stick has hit the ball in the past, the ball has moved.

David Hume, however, seemed to have a little more sense than our modern academics, because Hume concluded one lecture on this topic with a remark along the lines of, "I will now go play a game of billiards." Nor did he seem any less indisposed to either logic or science.

(So I was informed by a philosophy professor. If this is not the case, do let me know, and I will eat appropriate quantities of crow.)

Then again, mathematicians can point to the uncertainty principles discovered in the early twentieth century, discoveries that unsettled many mathematicians. I did refer her to that, which predates postmodernism by a healthy margin.

An incredible credulity
Here we are. The scholars of our so-called modern age have ready access to such evidence as I presented. I would wager that, as far as the American educational system goes, the majority of my colleagues are among the very benficiaries of that system. Yet the eagerness with which college professors swallow and then propagate such nonsense exceeds even the credulity of the readers of The Weekly World News. Our dear Marxist-Personalist friend will doubtless set about indoctrinating his students with this poisonous idea, inspiring even less appreciation for the value of education in the very people who most need to appreciate it. Then he will come back to dinner at the end of the year and complain that despite his brilliant insights, his students still don't value education. I wonder if he would value education after being saddled with a similar teacher?

Oddly enough, the moment I objected about my family's succeeding precisely because we valued education, other heads suddenly started nodding and agreeing, "Yes, that's the problem: our students don't value education."

How does this happen? What is it about having "Assistant Professor" inscribed below the name tag on one's office door that makes us forget that we are experts in our own fields only, that popular nonfiction books don't qualify as any sort of authority on a subject?

My patient, loving wife
My poor wife had to listen to me rant for a half-hour afterwards. I concluded by telling her that our mission as professors is not to blame our students, or to blame some convenient "system". Our mission is to inspire our students to value education. Sure, we can point the finger at someone else, be that the educational system, or the culture, or the students. The problem with this strategy is that pointing a finger never solves anything. Adam pointed the finger at Eve, and look where that got him.

Like Christ, I concluded, we have to lower ourselves to our students' level, take them by the hand, and invite them to follow. Like Christ, we have to be ready to die in the process. (I mean this figuratively, of course.)

My poor wife. She listened patiently to all of this, giving me a sympathetic ear when I should have shut up early on. It must be difficult for her to be married to a man with delusions of messianic proportions. God only knows what she was saying to herself. (When can we eat? When can we eat?)

Say a prayer for me, too. It's easy to talk; it's difficult, very difficult, to act. Especially when you're looking over your shoulder and asking yourself quietly, Do I really want to abandon research?

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