The value of a practical education

9 minute read

A couple of weeks ago, I was reading Jerry Pournelle's thoughts on debt and higher education. The comments were prompted by Joseph Rago's Wall Street Journal editorial describing a lawsuit by former Dartmouth professor Priya Venkatesan, who argues that her students created a hostile working environment for her in a freshman composition class.

After a winter of discontent, the snapping point came while Ms. Venkatesan was lecturing on "ecofeminism," which holds, in part, that scientific advancements benefit the patriarchy but leave women out. One student took issue, and reasonably so - actually, empirically so. But "these weren't thoughtful statements," Ms. Venkatesan protests. "They were irrational." The class thought otherwise. Following what she calls the student's "diatribe," several of his classmates applauded.
Ms. Venkatesan informed her pupils that their behavior was "fascist demagoguery." Then, after consulting a physician about "intellectual distress," she cancelled classes for a week. Thus the pending litigation.

Pournelle put the episode into a different context: after all, these students are paying hefty tuition, and taking on significant debt, to have an English professor teach them about why "scientific knowledge has suspect access to truth." Many students across the land are not Dartmouth freshmen, and don't have the luxury of paying for such nonsense, which is nonetheless all too common.

The points here are two: first, pretending that everyone is competent to go to university drives the cost of university education up to the point that many will have to go heavily into debt in order to afford a university education; and secondly, the major universities are so awash in money now that they can afford -- and WANT to afford -- Priya Venkatesan to teach French Narrative Theory in Freshman Composition.
Many go to University who ought to have learned their career skills in high school -- or at least in junior college. It is not necessary for all the citizens of a republic to have gone to university and learned French Narrative Theory. One need not know know anything at all about Foucault or Deconstruction to be a good citizen, vote in elections, pay taxes; and indeed I put it to you that being without debt is probably preferable to knowing French Narrative Theory.

Now, I'm not hostile to the humanities -- hey, I majored in English and French as an undergraduate. But as one with this experience, I can't help but notice the cases where the humanities may be hostile to me. We do students a disservice when we divorce scientific knowledge -- increasingly important to the future -- from humanistic and traditionally liberal arts pursuits. They are not antithetical to each other; they should complement each other. But too many humanists are either unaware of the process and results of science, or take the doctrinal stance that science may be ignored because it is "one way of knowing among many."


I thought of these things when I read an article in The Atlantic by an anonymous adjunct instructor of English Comp, titled "In the basement of the ivory tower." The author, Professor X, teaches mainly non-traditional students in evening and community college classes, and describes the indifference of his university higher-ups to the high failure rate of these students. He gives the reason as profit: a failing student must take the course again, and must pass to earn the degree -- the piece of paper -- that she hopes will make a difference to her life.

Adult education, nontraditional education, education for returning students -- whatever you want to call it -- is a substantial profit center for many colleges. Like factory owners, school administrators are delighted with this idea of mounting a second shift of learning in their classrooms, in the evenings, when the full-time students are busy with such regular extracurricular pursuits of higher education as reading Facebook and playing beer pong. If colleges could find a way to mount a third, graveyard shift, as Henry Fords Willow Run did at the height of the Second World War, I believe that they would.

This is a sad story, and well-written in a personalized manner. The author deserves to write. I wonder on the basis of his description whether he deserves to teach. But this is harsh, since so many people find themselves in the same position: trained for jobs that don't exist in nearly the numbers to employ the pool of humanities Ph.D.'s.

I knew that Ms. L.'s paper would fail. I knew it that first night in the library. But I couldn't tell her that she wasn't ready for an introductory English class. I wouldn't be saving her from the humiliation of defeat by a class she simply couldn't handle. Id be a sexist, ageist, intellectual snob.
In her own mind, Ms. L. had triumphed over adversity. In her own mind, she was a feel-good segment on Oprah. Everyone wants to triumph. But not everyone can -- in fact, most can't. If they could, it wouldn't be any kind of a triumph at all. Never would I want to cheapen the accomplishments of those who really have conquered college, who were able to get past their deficits and earn a diploma, maybe even climbing onto the college honor roll. That is truly something.

Well it may be something, but at least we should ensure that it's not a waste of one's money.


Something else that Pournelle wrote resonated with me. Of all the things that I do in the course of my work, probably the thing that people ask me about the most often is my illustration skill. How did I learn to draw? And I always give the same answer: I had a good, rural Kansas practical education. Everything I learned about drawing, I learned in high school.

What is surprising to many people is that this is generally true of everything I do, outside of anthropology itself. I learned to program a computer in high school. I learned public speaking, composition, and math except for calculus. I use these things every day. French I don't use every day, but I learned it well enough in high school to earn a college degree in it.

Now, as it turns out, this is a practical education of distinctive advantage to an anthropologist doing what I do. My high school training certainly included what Pournelle would call a "world class college prep" education, but the parts that I value the most now were the parts that actually taught a skill. And as I remember, every student took skills courses of some kind -- the majority took typing (which I avoided), many took accounting, photography, metalworking, agriculture, business law, marketing, drafting. Some interned at businesses for credit, others interned with teachers to get a feel for what education was about from the other side.

None of these things are required in state curricular standards, or expected by college admissions officers. No student would want to do all of them -- I took art, probably the least practical-seeming of any of them, because I liked it. But I'll bet that these are the things that stick with people who go on to college. And I'm sure that they're the right kind of education for people who won't go on to college.


A lot of academic-oriented bloggers write about what they do in their classes. I don't often blog about my teaching. Mainly, I like to keep my class activities between me and my students -- I don't want them to think they'll be reading about themselves outside of class. If I discuss questions I've asked in class and the students' responses to them, I don't want to have to stop and think whether I've presented things the same way, or inhibit people from speaking up and participating in class in any way. And participating in class is the most important thing -- if a student thought he could read my blog instead of going to class, that would be really bad for my pedagogy!

But I'm going to make some exceptions in the next few months. Classes are over, and a couple of ideas from readers have me thinking about writing and teaching. Earlier this week, I wrote some thoughts about the lack of evolution understanding among scientists and educators.

There are a large group of "science-friendly" people who do not understand evolutionary biology, and who do not have a practical idea of its importance. These people are without a doubt against teaching creationism in science courses, but they cannot be for evolution except in the most nebulous sense, because they have no more than a nebulous idea of what evolution is. Unfortunately, some professional biologists, geneticists, and other scientists are among this group.

In response, a reader wrote:

What would be very helpful to that group -- or really, to those who attempt to brief that group -- is a summary that addresses those issues in a reasonably succinct manner. How about it?

In addition to this, the linked articles above illustrate the problem that non-science educators lack a basic understanding of science, what it is, and what scientists do.

I'm going to start a series of articles about this issue. What about evolution is actually practical knowledge? How can it help people understand things relevant to their own work or lives? This goes beyond the gee-whiz, "Where do we come from," National Geographic-kind of interesting question. That's nothing more than a framework for idle curiosity: it presents evolution as a kind of adjunct or substitute for religious inquiry.

I want to convey something more important. It matters that we evolved. The process of evolution allows scientific predictions that we can use to make things happen, to make them work. Evolutionary biology illustrates and informs us about decisions that society will have to make in the next 20 years; decisions that I want my students to be informed about.

When I teach evolution, I emphasize a common sense perspective. There is mathematical theory in evolutionary biology, an it predicts that some things are impossible. Understanding a science means knowing the boundaries of the possible. Entropy must increase in a system unless energy is added to it. That's a fundamental trade-off. In evolutionary biology, a gene that kills you will decrease in frequency unless (1) it has other compensatory advantages on reproduction, (2) it kills you so rarely or so late in life that it doesn't matter, or (3) there are so few individuals that chance outweighs the increased risk of death from the gene. That's a fundamental trade-off.

Why does this sort of thing matter? One out of every 40 of my students carry an allele that causes cystic fibrosis. What should they do about it? Why are such alleles relatively common?

The U. S. government routinely recommends high consumption of dairy foods on the part of its citizens, for a healthy life.