Distinctions

The German philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein once told us that the way to begin any philosophical discussion is to first “show the fly the way out of the milk bottle.” I gather what he meant is that we must begin discussions with definitions to make sure we know what we are talking about. If we debate, for example, who is the greatest athlete to ever perform on the public stage we must  start with some sort of stipulation as to just what “greatness” means. Otherwise we are much like the fly in the milk bottle: we beat our heads against an unforgiving surface.

This reasoning allows us to solve the age-old question of whether the tree that falls in the forest with no one around to hear it makes a sound. That depends on what we mean but “sound.” If we mean vibrations in the air, simply, then surely it makes a sound. If we mean vibrations heard by at least one person then, obviously, it made no sound.

But I have always found that making distinctions is also extremely helpful in showing the fly the way out of the milk bottle. For example is the distinction between WANT and NEED. I have made mention of this in previous posts and it remains a focal point in my thinking about so may complex issues — as in the case of what students need as opposed to what they want.

Take, for example, the current discussion over whether or not collegians should or should not play football this Fall. This is what is known as a “hot” topic and everyone and his dog has an opinion.

In a recent informal poll on a sports show I learned that nearly twice as many people say”yes” to the question as say “no.” The vast majority want to play or to watch football this Fall. Additionally, a football player at Ohio State has initiated a petition among football players nationwide and has nearly a quarter of a million “yes” votes that show clearly that a great many football players in this country want to play football this Fall. Even the President of the United States, who cannot keep his fingers still, has plunged in and insists that it would be a “tragedy” if the game were not played this Fall.

Seriously? A tragedy. Let’s define our terms! I jest, of course, but the word does seem a bit overworked, to say the least. If the absence of football this Fall is a tragedy then what do we call the death of a grandmother whose young son brings back the Covid-19 virus after football practice, infects her, and she dies? Surely there are tragedies and there are simply unfortunate or even sad circumstances: things we don’t like.

For a great many Americans what they like or want amounts to what they need (in their minds). As a people we are not very good at denying  ourselves what we want. Calling those things “needs” makes us feel better about our choices, I suppose. The petitions and the polls show us clearly that many people want to play (or watch) football. But do the polls and the petitions show us anything about what the people need as far as football is concerned? Surely not.

It might be argued that a great many people genuinely need to play or watch football for their own psychical well-being — as a release of pent-up frustration, perhaps. But it is a game, after all, and the one thing we know for certain is that given the circumstances these days, it is a game that courts danger: it is risky, at the very least. We know nothing about the long-term consequences of infection from this virus. There are indications that there might be as many as one hundred possible side-effects, some of them very serious. And the wise choice in this case is to err on the side of caution. In general that might serve as a viable general rule, one would think.

But in the end, we do not really need football. We (or many of us) want it. And that is something entirely different.

 

Making Widgets

Some time ago I wrote a post about the need to make distinctions in order to be clear about the things we discuss. One of the distinctions I mentioned is that between “wants” and “needs.” We rarely make the distinction and that leads to major confusion, especially when forming policies or selling goods. We insist, for example, that people need the product they are buying when, in fact, they may simply want the product. One of the things marketing people are very good at doing is creating wants and they do this by insisting that those wants are needs. (Do we really need a 5 hour energy drink??)

Surprisingly, educators do the same thing. They talk about what the kids need when they are really talking about what the kids want. It’s easier to determine wants than needs, because we can simply ask the kids: “what do you want?” Or we can continue to dumb-down the curriculum until they stop complaining. When it comes to needs, the kids don’t have the slightest clue. And this is a very important point, because it leads us to the central reason why education is in deep do-do: those who are in a position to determine what the kids really need fail to act on that knowledge and fall into the marketing trap of simply determining what the kids want and then attempting to meet those fleeting wants by insisting that they are providing the things the kids really need. It’s the path of least resistance. The confusion is abundant and until it is cleared up there is little likelihood that those who teach will lead those who learn rather than the other way around.

But there’s another distinction that we seldom make and that is the distinction between education and training. I have discussed the confusion in previous blogs but have never focused on the key difference — until now. Training involves teaching learners how to do something, say, make widgets. Education involves understanding why we might want to make widgets in the first place. This is a critical difference, and the fact that education has devolved into job training is a serious mistake, because we need folks now more than ever who ask the troubling questions — why DO we make widgets?

There is a growing number of company CEOs who insist that educators are failing because the people coming out of college lack the ability to communicate, read and write memos, and speak before an audience. These highly paid corporate bosses talk a great deal about the need for these young people to have a broader, “liberal education,” though what they mean is that the folks they hire should be more effective at their jobs. However, at the level at which people are hired the message to hire broadly educated employees has failed to filter down and the initial search is simply for college graduates who can do a particular job, who can make widgets. The computer apps these recruiters use tend to screen out applicants who have majored in, say, philosophy, because presumably those people cannot make widgets (even though they could be trained to do so in a matter of weeks [days?]). So the job market looks bleak for graduates in such subjects as philosophy, literature, and history, because they are weeded out by a process that is designed to assure companies that the folks hired can do meaningless jobs without the companies themselves having to spend money training them: the colleges are now expected to turn out people to make widgets, not ask why those widgets are being made in the first place. So, many college students are now getting double majors — one in a broader field they actually enjoy and another, narrower one, that will get them past the initial screening for that first job. Not a bad strategy.

Even the CEOs who speak about the need for liberally educated employees don’t really mean it. The last thing they want is employees who ask troubling questions. They want workers who are already trained and can effectively make and market the products. The irony is that those who stop to ask the troubling questions would make the best employees in the long run because it is those people who can not only learn how to make and market the products, but they can also figure out how to improve those products as the world changes and demands for new products arise — as they most assuredly will. Because the only certain thing about the future is that things will change. And this is why America needs educated college graduates, not simply those trained to make widgets.

Bright College Days

It’s time to debunk another cultural myth, folks! In the 50s and 60s college was sold to young people as a way to increase their income during their lifetime. That doesn’t seem to work any longer, so the marketing tune has changed though the object is the same: sell the product to disinterested young people who don’t quite know what to do with their lives. The latest marketing ploy is to get these people into college by promising them the four years will be “the best years of your life!” If it’s true, it is very sad. But this, in fact, is the approach Claire used on the sit-com “Modern Family” last season to persuade her spaced-out daughter Haley to apply to college, referring to the parties and sporting events. It seems to be the best she or anyone else can come up with, though Claire says it with conviction. Again, how sad.

The “best” years of a person’s life should not be identified with four or five years of mindless partying, though if one watches the TV on Saturday morning and sees the young people flocked around the cameras on “College Game Day” on ESPN, and reads about the amount of alcohol consumed on college campuses these days, the myth seems to be true —  if we insist on identifying “best” with pure, mindless pleasure.

The problem is, of course, the colleges have to find a message that will resonate with high school students who are by-and-large miseducated, spoiled and self-indulgent, and who are unable to relate to the kinds of things that will in fact make them better and more successful human beings. So the marketers have latched on to the “best years of your life” mantra, and it seems to be working, at least for those kids whose parents can afford it. In fact, it works so well that a great many students actually resent it when their professors try to get them to do the work necessary to complete their courses and move on to the next level. Even in my teaching days, students talked about little else than the party(s) coming up on Thursday night (!) or over the weekend. Except for the honors students, I don’t think I ever heard the students generally talking about the subject matter they were learning about in their classes. The classwork almost seemed to be an intrusion into what they regarded as the real reason they were in college. But, of course, that was what they were told.

It is doubtful any more that young people would be willing to take on the huge loans and the hard work of preparing for challenging courses for four years unless they were convinced it was going to be fun. It should be fun, of course, but it should also be much more. It does the young a disservice to lower the appeal to their level and not make them stretch and grow — like selling them toothpaste. One would like to think that they would respond to the challenge provided by the promise of intellectual and emotional growth. But not in this world; not as we know it. So the myths will persist and the colleges will not only promise them fun but do their level best to turn the colleges themselves into country clubs. They might change slightly, but they will lead the young into a new world that isn’t really all that different from the one they know, and one that doesn’t threaten them with challenges they are unprepared for because an indulgent society keeps telling them they are brighter and better than, in fact, they are.

The difficulty is compounded by the fact that so many of America’s colleges that promise their students a “liberal education,” even the most “prestigious” of those colleges, have lost their way and have forgotten their fundamental purpose, which is to free young minds. As a recent book published by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni points out, of the twenty-five most prestigious liberal arts colleges in the United States — as identified by that oracle of  Truth, U.S. News and World Reports — twenty are “falling short” of their express purpose. They all have a weak general education program (which is where the liberal arts are housed these days, if they can be found anywhere), at a time when students come out of high school with little or no real preparation for college work. They need those core courses now more than ever before. Of the seven core subjects that the ACTA has identified as central to any meaningful education “twenty [ of the prestigious] schools required three or fewer. . . five required none at all.” The irony is that the colleges make the assumption that the students no longer need these basic subjects at a time when the students’ needs couldn’t be any greater. The truth of the matter is, as noted above, the colleges seek to attract and retain students and tough subjects only get in the way.

At the same time the presidents of these small colleges, some with enrolments as low as 2000, are making close to half a million dollars in annual salaries, with houses and cars thrown in for good measure. And they have gathered around themselves a coterie of highly priced, like-minded administrators and “support personnel” whose goal is to make sure the institution operates in the black, no matter what the cost to the students in dollars and real achievement. As a result, tuition rates are out of control and in order to keep students in school the quality of what they are paying for is on the decline.

The good news is that the A.C.T.A. is slowly but surely putting pressure on the colleges and universities around the country to get their act in gear by going public with the embarrassing data their research continues to turn up. They understand fully the difference between what the students want and what they need, and they also realize that only by bringing the cost of tuition down (by, among other things, lowering the high salaries of overpaid administrators) can the colleges hope to make education more affordable for more students, thereby taking some of the pressure off the faculties to further dumb down the curriculum in order to attract and retain students. These are good things, to be sure, and it does offer a glimmer of hope. In the meantime, parents of college-bound students would be well advised to check the A.C.T.A. website to see whether the college their children might be considering is worth the thousands of dollars it is sure to cost.

The Best Years

It’s time to debunk another cultural myth, folks! In the 50s and 60s college was sold to young people as a way to increase their income during their lifetime. That doesn’t seem to work any longer, so the tune has changed though the object is the same: sell the product to disinterested young people who don’t quite know what to do with their lives. The latest marketing ploy is to get these people into college by promising them the four years will be “the best years of your life!” If it’s true, it is very sad. But this, in fact, is the approach Claire uses on the sit-com “Modern Family” to persuade her spaced-out daughter Haley to apply to college, referring to the parties and sporting events. It seems to be the best she or anyone else can come up with, though Claire says it with conviction. Again, how sad.

The “best” years of a person’s life should not be identified with four or five years of almost continuous partying, though if one watches the TV on Saturday morning and sees the young people flocked around the cameras on “College Game Day” on ESPN, and reads about the amount of alcohol consumed on college campuses these days, the myth seems to be true —  if we insist on identifying “best” with pure, unadulterated pleasure.

The problem is, of course, the colleges have to find a message that will resonate with high school students who are spoiled and self-indulgent, and who are unable to relate to the kinds of things that will in fact make them better human beings. So the marketers have latched on to the “best years of your life” mantra, and it seems to be working. In fact, it works so well that a great many students actually resent it when their professors try to get them to do the work necessary to complete their courses and move on to the next level. Even in my day, students talked about little else than the party(s) coming up on Thursday night (!) or over the weekend. I don’t think I ever heard them talking about the subject matter they were learning about in their classes. The classwork almost seemed to be an intrusion into what they regarded as the real reason they were in college. But, of course, that was what they were told.

It is doubtful that young people would be willing to take on the huge loans and the hard work of preparing for challenging courses for four years unless they were convinced it was going to be fun. It should be fun, but it should also be much more. It does the young a disservice to lower the appeal to their level and not make them stretch and grow. One would like to think that they would respond to the challenge provided by the promise of intellectual and emotional growth. But not in this world; not as we know it. So the myths will persist. They might change slightly, but they will be created in order to lead the young into a new world that isn’t really all that different from the one they know, and one that doesn’t threaten them with challenges they are unprepared for because an indulgent society keeps telling them they are brighter and better than, in fact, they are.

In addition to being a place to make new friends and have fun, the young need college to be what it is supposed to be. But it won’t happen as long as the myths prevail and the colleges keep lowering their expectations, giving the young what they have come to expect from a culture that is focused on “wants” rather than “needs.”