April 2, 2014

In the current QUANTA Magazine a segment of a lengthy interview with Freeman Dyson, “A ‘Rebel’ Without a Ph.D” by Thomas Lin, provides an arresting introduction to today’s blog.

Dyson, the world-renowned mathematical physicist and now 90, when asked, “You became a professor at Cornell without ever having received a Ph.D. You seem proud of that fact?”

“Oh, yes. I’m very proud of not having a Ph.D. I think the Ph.D. system is an abomination. It was invented as a system for educating German professors in the 19th century, and it works well under those conditions. It’s good for a very small number of people who are going to spend their lives being professors. But it has become now a kind of union card that you have to have in order to have a job, whether it’s being a professor or other things, and it’s quite inappropriate for that. It forces people to waste years and years of their lives sort of pretending to do research for which they’re not at all well-suited. In the end, they have this piece of paper which says they’re qualified, but it really doesn’t mean anything. The Ph.D. takes far too long and discourages women from becoming scientists, which I consider a great tragedy. So I have opposed it all my life without any success at all.”

But, let’s not stop there. In addition to the questionable worthiness of the Ph.D., the pursuit of an undergraduate college degree has morphed, in many ways, into a trade school activity with the emphasis on skills acquisition.

So, too, in our public education system —- elementary, middle and high schools.

John D. Sutter in a posting wrote, “Sir Ken Robinson says that our education system works like a factory. It is based on models of mass production and conformity that actually prevent kids from finding their passions and succeeding. . . . Instead of trying to mass-produce children who are good at taking tests and memorizing things, schools should emphasize personal development. Not all kids are good at the same things, and the education system shouldn’t pretend they should all turn out the same.” (Sutter is the author of “The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything”)

These remarks bring echoes of the great American mythologist, Joseph Campbell, who challenged us all to, “Follow your bliss!” and, America’s greatest 20th Century educator, Robert Maynard Hutchins, who advocated an education inspired by the reading of “the world’s Great Books.”

My own background includes a year of high school teaching and eighteen years on the faculties of several excellent universities where I found, in example after example, young people who prospered when their passions were electric and were disinterested when they were not personally involved.

Education used to be about either of two things: liberal arts emersion or trade school preparation. Each served a very useful and important purpose. Today, sadly, only the latter has survived as still-important. Even our finest universities are, too often, abandoning their liberal arts history in order to push students into job-specific memorization and skills acquisition. Consequently, far too many graduates of these once-fine universities have little preparation for multi-subject thinking as they myopically prepare for a particular profession’s skill set.

While in our public schools, with the SOL requirements foistered upon our youth by “No Child Left Behind,” fewer of our children are stimulated to think. Nor are they being challenged by the diversity of thought one finds in reading “The Great Books” and “The Great Ideas.” Their excitement for learning and their natural curiosities are dulled.

We need to, once again, exalt the diversity of our young people — their passions for living and their inherent desire to learn! Not only have our universities become quasi tradeschools, in our public schools overreliance on memorization and testing is neither the answer, nor a true measure of a person’s potential.

More on Monday – – – – –

— Bill Walton, Founder of ITC Learning