Steve Pinker has a couple of reservations about a new Report of the Committee on General Education at Harvard, especially given the fact that it ‘will attract wide attention in academia and in the press, where it will be read not for its specific recommendations, but as a once-in-a-generation statement on the nature of higher education.’
As such, we should be mindful of the way the report frames the goals of general education, and not just its suggested menu of courses. This means affirming the goal of the university as the institution dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge and reason. (There is certainly no shortage of forces in the world pushing toward ignorance and irrationality.)
No, true, no shortage; more of a superabundance. More than enough, thank you.
My first reservation pertains to the framing of the “Science and Technology” requirement…The report introduces scientific knowledge as follows: “Science and technology directly affect our students in many ways, both positive and negative: they have led to life-saving medicines, the internet, more efficient energy storage, and digital entertainment; they also have shepherded nuclear weapons, biological warfare agents, electronic eavesdropping, and damage to the environment.” Well, yes, and I suppose one could say that architecture has produced both museums and gas chambers, that opera has both uplifted audiences and inspired the Nazis, and so on. It makes it sound as if the choice between science and technology on the one hand, and superstition and ignorance on the other, is a moral toss-up! Of course students should know about both the bad and good effects of technology. But this hardly seems like the best way for a great university to justify the teaching of science.
But it’s one that has been made to seem necessary or even obligatory by years of ill-informed hand-wringing tomfoolery. One of those forces in the world pushing toward ignorance and irrationality, in fact. Possibly also by equally mistaken ideas about ‘balance’ and the truth being whatever is between two arbitrary invented ‘extremes’ that infect and debilitate the news media. Perhaps the people who wrote the report simply felt obliged, since they mentioned some useful items of technology, to mention an equal number of harmful items, without actually considering the net impact of either. It’s a dopy, mindless, misleading way to think, but it’s pervasive. Bad, bad, very bad.
Missing from the report is a sensitivity to the ennobling nature of knowledge: to the inherent value, with consequences too far-reaching to enumerate, of understanding how the world works. For one thing, it is a remarkable fact that we have come to understand as much as we do about the natural world: the history of the universe and our planet, the forces that make it tick, the stuff we’re made of, the origin of living things, and the machinery of life, including our own mental life. I believe we have a responsibility to nurture and perpetuate this knowledge for the same reason that we have a responsibility to perpetuate an appreciation of great accomplishments in the arts. A failure to do so would be a display of disrespect for our ancestors and heirs, and a philistine indifference to the magnificent achievements that the human mind is capable of.
Ah. Now I really like that. That’s exactly what I was attempting to say in Why Truth Matters – I used the Bamiyan Buddhas as an example: it’s a responsibility to preserve such things, and a gross presumption to destroy them. One recent review of the book nailed that claim, saying it wasn’t an argument. I think it’s not an argument, it’s a reason. (Jeremy disputes that.) Whatever it is, it’s what I think, so I like what Steve said.
My second major reservation concerns the “Reason and Faith” requirement. First, the word “faith” in this and many other contexts, is a euphemism for “religion.” An egregious example is the current administration’s “faith-based initiatives,” so-named because it is more palatable than “religion-based initiatives.” A university should not try to hide what it is studying in warm-and-fuzzy code words. Second, the juxtaposition of the two words makes it sound like “faith” and “reason” are parallel and equivalent ways of knowing, and we have to help students navigate between them. But universities are about reason, pure and simple. Faith—believing something without good reasons to do so—has no place in anything but a religious institution, and our society has no shortage of these…Again, we have to keep in mind that the requirement will attract attention from far and wide, and for a long time. For us to magnify the significance of religion as a topic equivalent in scope to all of science, all of culture, or all of world history and current affairs, is to give it far too much prominence. It is an American anachronism, I think, in an era in which the rest of the West is moving beyond it.
Yeah. Steve rocks.