DAY 108, Monday, August 18, 2014, ALBERTA– We’re still a month away from official fall, but all kinds of signs of the change are already here on campus. Our forty or so junior class forestry students have arrived for their fall semester (they’ll got to just before firearm deer season). They arrived in trucks and SUVS many with boats or kayaks on top and lugging their fishing gear over to the lake, and playing Frisbee on the grass, and basketball on the court, young life breathed into the whole place, and yet, it remains quiet and peaceful.
Shaksper is trying to figure out his role vis a vis the interlopers, bark and challenge, or just watch them? Right now it’s a fifty-fifty deal and impossible to predict which fifty will prevail. Three of the grad student – instructors (they live next door) walked past this morning with ponchos, packs on their backs and yellow brain buckets strapped to their packs and of course our sharp-nose sentry had to signal his discontent. The kids just smiled and trooped on toward the cafeteria and dorm.
We had all of three weeks of glorious legendary Yooper summer (75 days/50 nights) but that seems kaput, now, and we’ve had rain for three days with more in the forecast. Fireweed is popping everywhere, as are fall0blooming New England Asters, and the tree leaves are starting to yellow and orange in places and the sumacs are turning bright red. Blackberries are starting to ripen and thimbleberries are going pretty nicely. We have tons of bloobers, but they are very bland and not very flavorful. Not sure why. Maybe the crop will sweeten over time. Friends tell me the crop in the EUP is late.
We’ve decide that our comfort here (mine, at least) is because this campus is so much like military housing, where I spent a great deal of my life. Uniformity in buildings, no pretensions and people going about their business. Great spot. We don’t have TV and with the exception of BIG BANG THEORY we don’t really miss it. What I love about BIG BANG is the writing and the way that small group of actors works together. Wonderfully done and though humorous, there are some very serious undertones which I’ll address in a moment. (Seems like rainy days and thinking sometimes pair up nicely.) There are computers here for the students, but they will spend much of their time in the weeks ahead in the woods do the real work of foresters and there is no way computers can simulate the smell, feel and sound of being surrounded by real trees and various fauna. Solutionist are Techies who want to ameliorate or eliminate societal problems with technology. Good for them , but wanting and doing are separate critters.
I’m reading Evgeny Morozov’s TO SAVE EVERYTHING, CLICK HERE (Public Affairs, Perseus Book Group, 2013). The author tackles the whole “Solutionist Movement” ( my quote marks, the movement largely centered in techie enclaves like Silicon Valley), which is nothing more than the latest iteration of thinking in the industrial age, etc. I got to thinking about education and how long distance learning, yada yada is the way to go in the future, and all I can think of are the for profit ops that have bilked millions of $$ from vets on the GI. Bill and I’m not buying that technology can do anything other than provide a limited tool to help in what education is. Morozov notes, “It’s as if the Solutionists have never lived a life of their own, but have learned everything they know from books — and those books weren’t novels but manuals for refrigeration, vacuum-cleaners, and washing machines.”
Said a bit differently, such folks often live far from “normal” (assuming there is such a thing) lives. Look at BIG BANG”s engineer Howard, who lives with his mother and whose claim to fame is having built a waste disposal unit (crapper) for the international space station, yet has only the barest clues of what actual life on earth is like. His friends are quite similar in their outlooks and awareness deficiencies.
According to Morozov, conservative philosopher Thomas Molnar complained in the 1960s “when Utopian writers deal with work, health, leisure, life expectancy, war, crime, culture, administration, finances, judicial matters and so forth, it is as if their words were uttered by an automaton with no conception of real life.” Morozov tells the reader, “It’s not that solutions proposed are unlikely to work but that in solving the ‘problem,’ Solutionist twist it in such an ugly and unfamiliar way that, by the time it’s ‘solved,’ the problem becomes something else entirely. Everyone is quick to celebrate victory, only no one remembers what the original solution sought to achieve.” The author reports, tongue in cheek, “Technology can make us better: and technology will make us better,” this being the underlying assumption of all true Solutionists, Or, Morozov says, “As geeks would say, given enough apps, all of humanity’s bugs are shallow.” In other words, NBD. He also point out in quoting some noted thinkers, that thinking about what we might build tomorrow tends to blind us to question of our ongoing responsibilities to what we built yesterday.” I think this is a way almost of referring to thinking is a throwaway society.
Where Morozov really caught my attention was win his look at education and some of the challenges there. “The ballyhoo over the potential of new technologies to disrupt education — especially now that several startups offer online courses to hundreds of thousands of students, who grade each other’s work and get no face time with instructors is a case in point. (Grades are determined by a certain number of peer ratings averaged into a letter grade. Which is bizarre, sportsfans, like having NBA players call their own fouls, etc.
Morozov goes on. “Digital technology might be a perfect solution to some problems, but those problems don’t include education — not if by education we mean the development of skills to think critically about any given issue.” From Pamela Hieronymi, prof of philosophy at UCLA is quoted from an essay by Morozov, “Education is not the transmission of information or ideas. Education is the training needed to make use of information and ideas. As information breaks loose from bookstores and libraries and floods onto computers and mobile devices, that training becomes more important, not less.”
Adam Falk, president of Williams College (about as intellectually elite a school as you can find) is cited by Morozov. Falk tells us that according to research at Williams, the best predictor of student’s intellectual success in college is not their major or GPA, but the amount of personal, face-to-face contact they have with their professors.” Falk adds, “That averaging peer letter grades is not the equivalent of a highly trained professor providing thoughtful evaluations and detailed response.” This was certainly my college experience. For example, I once had a Journalism course (my major was J) in science writing. It was taught by Prof Jim Stokely, who also had a nationally syndicated astronomy radio program. I was the only student. Just Stokes and me and we traveled all over the Midwest (me doing most of the driving) to go to science meetings so he could teach me how science worked from scientific method up through peer-reviewed research papers, and all that went with that. It was like living in the age of tutors a hundred years before and I learned a whole heap. In fact a syndicated news outfit called SCIENCE SERVICE (I think that was the name) gave me an offer to me join the outfit and for them to cover science across the Big Ten, but I had a commitment to the USAF and turned down the offer. My profs chewed my butt over that one, arguing that if I got out of the service I’d have a job waiting. My counter-argument was, and remains, that if I stayed in the service, SS would have missed an opportunity to train and develop another individual for five years. I went on to the USAF, did my five years and got a job with The Upjohn Company (now morphed into the dark halls of money-hungry Pfizer) after my discharge, and there I remained for 30 years, prospering largely because my job involved in one way or another the dissemination and explanation of s science to the media and various publics. Education had opened me to a field I otherwise might not have even thought about. One thing is certain, no computer classes could have given me anything like the education I got at the Michigan State Journalism school. Not even close.
Morozov concludes that “in an ideal world, both visions (all electronic vs face time) can coexist and prosper simultaneously” But, as Morozov adds, “In the world we inhabit, where administrators are as cost-conscious as ever, the approach that produces the most graduates per dollar spent is far more likely to prevail, the poverty of its intellectual vision notwithstanding. Herein lies the hidden danger of Solutionism: the quick fixes it peddles do not exist in a political vacuum. In promising almost immediate and much cheaper results, they can easily undermine support for more ambitious, more intellectually stimulating but also more demanding reform projects.'”
It’s the old opportunity cost conundrum. “Whey you choose to do X,” you choose also to NOT do Y or A or K.” I can’t shake the mental image of Sheldon, Leonard, Raj and Howard attending to the world’s problems in our behalf. The four of them have enough problems living their own daily lives, especially since all of them indeed, seem to be buffaloed by anyone not of their own strange geeky ilk. In fact, I’d argue that the multi-storey apartment building where Leonard and Sheldon live serves as a symbol for an ivory tower and as they traipse up and down stairs (ironically because they broke the elevator) they jabber ib about problems that are totally disconnected to any semblance of real life,except perhaps to problems that sixteen-year-olds faced and solved.
It seems to me that what we need are programs producing good teachers, weeding out those who don’t belong before spitting them into our schools (and this does NOT happen in most colleges now), and our communities and states need to pay teachers like they are valued, not just pay lip service to this and do everything they can to avoid paying what they are worth. Teachers in this regard are in the same boat as our professional military, who get lots of half-ass attaboys, but few people want to join the ranks, and increasingly fewer people outside the ranks of military or education have even the merest clue what such folks have to put up with in our behalf.
The rain continues to fall, a testament to gravity still being with us. Shot and a Beer. Over.