Thought After Teaching Today

We’re used to thinking of the Peloponnesian War as somehow parallel to the Cold War, with the Delian League in the role of NATO, and the Peloponnesian League as the Warsaw Pact. This comes naturally because Athens was the democracy, while Sparta was this grim, militaristic place where everyone was equal in deprivation. I suppose the fact that Athens was far more commercial than Sparta is also a factor. But what if the opposite is true? Consider the respective powers’ treatment of their alliances: Athens treated the Delian League far more like the USSR treated the member states of the Warsaw Pact than the US ever treated NATO (Mytilene and Melos as Budapest and Prague). And keep in mind that America is not a democracy in the Athenian sense. In Athens, every citizen got a vote, not for a representative, but in the assembly itself, on any question put before it. This would be as if every American had a vote in the House of Representatives, with no Senate, Presidential veto, or Supreme Court to deny their resolutions. This was really quite radical, and Athens had a great deal of the natural sympathy of the landless throughout the Greek world (there were always democratic factions in every polis) – much as Communism had an inherent appeal to the downtrodden of the Third World during the Cold War.

I don’t think that historical comparisons are never appropriate but I do think that we need to use them with care.

The Liberal Arts

This needs to be said again and again. On USA Today:

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Thinking Outside the Box

Our tech-driven future needs the skills of liberal arts graduates.

As more and more college students set their sights on jobs in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields, we tend to forget about figures across history who achieved great things in science but who had no formal training as “scientists” – for example, Benjamin Banneker, Benjamin Franklin, Leonardo da Vinci and George Washington Carver. It was the culmination of their experiences, curiosity and critical thinking that led them to the height of science, discovery and thought.

When most people hear “liberal arts” their thoughts turn entirely to the humanities. A rigid barrier in the popular mind separates disciplines like chemistry and physics from English literature and art. I’m a biochemist by training, but today I lead one of the nation’s most unique liberal arts colleges; just recently I sat in on classes in English, art and music. What we and many others have come to understand is that a full education in the humanities is not just important for a career in creative writing, it’s also critical to a career in one of the oft- discussed STEM fields.

In a difficult economy, the “employability” of an education is always given significant weight. Parents have understandably gone from encouraging “learning for the sake of learning” to emphasizing the course of study that they believe will set their child up for a rewarding career. There has even been discussion as to whether we really need the liberal arts at all – STEM-centric education is portrayed as the only option for our children’s economic futures.

But when you ask the employers at huge corporations and technology companies what they need in their new employees, they want people who can communicate and learn quickly outside of their comfort zone, both traits fostered better by a liberal arts education than a solely technical degree. Fast Company noted back in August that many tech CEOs actually prefer employees with liberal arts degrees, as “the liberal arts train students to thrive in subjectivity and ambiguity, a necessary skill in the tech world where few things are black and white.” At my former liberal arts institution, I helped start something called the Center for Entrepreneurship, which is providing strong evidence that a liberal arts college can be an incubator for tech and innovation.

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Read the whole thing.

A Peeve

It is always a temptation for teachers to want to innovate their curricula because what they’ve been teaching is old hat. Of course it’s old hat – to the teacher, who has been teaching the same thing for decades. But it’s completely new hat to the students! We’re all familiar with stories about history students who, having gone through the revised curriculum, know everything about the female mill workers of Lowell, Mass., but nothing about the political theory behind the American Revolution, or who know all about the hard tack consumed by the sailors in the Royal Navy, but not much about battle of Trafalgar or the Napoleonic Wars of which it was a part. The teacher might know all about it from when he himself was a student, making all the new information an exciting supplement to his knowledge base. But the student usually doesn’t, producing the effect of a building with a weak foundation, ramshackle frame, and gorgeous three-season deck.

Teachers need to be more humble about this.