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October 15, 2010


International Psychogeography

Even since I got a very good humanities degree, I've had to struggle with being told it was a useless degree.

Cyrus Hall

Coming from the left-side of academia, I can report that the same trends are penetrating engineering faculties. In computer science, the beneficial trend toward greater abstraction has bled over into pedagogical thinking, leading some faculties away from the fundamentals. Combined with the trend to see students as customers instead of, well, students, along with adoption of extraneous learning objectives, pushed by administrations and self-declared gurus, departments have dropped theory courses, or made them vapid. Students get the message (I certainly did; this trend isn't that new): this isn't important, ignore it. I barely need to say that, of course, this turns out to be anything but true.

There is another dynamic, perhaps more embarrassing, at play. It's easier as a professor to ignore the fundamentals. This is likely counter-intuitive until you have tried to teach them, but here again abstraction makes things misleadingly simple.

Programming languages, like any human language, have a grammar that organizes how different operations (i.e., "words") relate. When learning basic programming, students will inevitably commit syntactical genocide several times over. Yet, the way such courses are now often taught, no one, including the lecturer, will likely be able to discuss the language at the grammatical level. Instead abstraction is brought to bear, and the details are hand-waved away, with intuition substituting for understanding. After all, grammars are hard. The excuse "we'll see this later" is rarely fulfilled.

Happily, I can report that there has been a moderately successful counter revolution at my current institution. The ordering of the material is still jumbled, with fundamentals and higher-level material somewhat randomly mixed together, but at least the fundamentals are present, taught by individuals who know them and love them.

Myself, I'm still trying to pick up what I was never directed toward during my formal studies. Turns out it's all pretty awesome.


It goes back even further than that. Oxford and Cambridge stopped requiring Greek as an entrance requirement in the early 20th century when they were told Etonians were increasingly not going to be able to meet their requirements.

As with music, you can't teach someone fluent French in 3-4 years unless the person is in a French speaking environment. Mutter's neurons were already totally different at 10 probably. I think the idea of the university as transformative is still pretty strong, though, but maybe in way analagous to the way military service used to function.

Ed Bernal

Before I started my secondary ed. program (I'm a grades 6-12 math teacher) I innocculated myself against some idiocies in education by reading lots and lots of Richard Mitchell (http://www.sourcetext.com/grammarian/), and later on took a booster with Victor Davis Hanson and John Heath (http://www.amazon.com/Who-Killed-Homer-Classical-Education/dp/1893554260/ref=ntt_at_ep_dpt_10). Both of the above talk about the attenuation of Latin and Classical Greek, but French? I can scarcely believe it. If you're concerned with K-12 education in the United States, the alpha and omega is the colleges and universities; we need to fix them first.

Kai Matthews

As a student, albeit only part-time, of the Hindustani musical tradition, I note with pleasure your reference, alongside your analogy to Ms. Mutter's skill, to the Indian emphasis on the thorough mastery of the elements of language, before one can claim to contribute anything worthwhile. The comparison goes both ways, of course: my teacher, like many in the tradition, frequently uses linguistic metaphors (as well as theatrical ones: the notes of a raga as a cast of characters whose relationships in various combinations are to be carefully illuminated in the course of the exposition of the alaap portion of the performance) to illustrate points about what is universally called the grammar of ragas. One learns this grammar incrementally and indirectly in a kind of triangulation of many, many examples. Whatever explicit theory exists is touched upon almost incidentally, unlike my Western compositional training, where it was the centrepiece. The theory itself is considered woefully inadequate as a guide to one's improvisation; it's merely the starting point, the barest of outlines. Improvisational practise, arising from one's osmotic absorption of the character of a raga via this triangulation, is the thing. It is much more like learning an actual language, in the need for constant immersion in it and constant practise of it in real-world contexts. In one's improvisation with its elements in response to the contingencies of the moment, it recalls the observation that language is a finite but flexible set of elements with which one can make an infinite number of statements.


The humanities taught me to think. Science won't teach you that---synthetic truth is driven by repetition, not thought. The best scientists do much more than science.

I'm a scientist now, but I'd be an automaton without my philosophy degree.


Solin gold

Do you think there is a utilitarian element to what you're seeing in the decay of the humanities? It seems to me that there is a sort of unchallenged idea that the big picture of society is already taken care of. All that is left for us humans to do is chose where we fit into the scheme of that society. If this is true then universities are simply a place where consumers go to become certified for a specific function.


The reduction of foreign language instruction in the universities is a terrible loss to students, whether they appreciate it or not (and apparently they don't).

It is also one more way in which job opportunities for those holding a graduate degree in the humanities are being curtailed. There are fewer and fewer reasons for anyone to go to graduate school these days:


Josh Mitteldorf

It's not just the humanities. Study of the sciences is being diluted as well, as students learn about science, rather than learning to think like a scientist. Statistics is a particularly poignant example: competence in statistics is essential for work in every science from sociology to astrophysics. But learning to think like a statistician is difficult, so almost all stat courses are designed to teach students by rote to plug numbers into formulas and report the results.

Ray Davis

I agree for the most part, but would like to add:

1. In college in the late 1970s, after a year of introductory French I decided not to pursue it, not because I didn't enjoy my studies and not because I felt I'd learned enough, but solely because it was too difficult. I cared nothing about grades but my scholarship cared a great deal, and with the loss of my scholarship all would be lost. Such financial pressures only intensified after 1980.

2. At the time, and through the 1980s, the most significant dumbing-down of liberal higher education seemed to me not to involve "classical studies" or the usual multicultural hobgoblins but the rise of "computer science" (AKA vocational ed) as a department. Many places began to accept programming courses as fulfillment of foreign language requirements, apparently misled by the use of "language" to brand clearly documented brands of pidgin English.

3. When I saw Anne-Sophie Mutter play, she was pretty dreadful.

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