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Out of touch with those they teach

February 11, 2015

Absent_minded_professor_by_JohnnyMc

To step away from diversity for a moment, here is an introduction to Chris Hayes’s Twilight of the Elites (which I have not read):

Since the 1960s, as the meritocracy elevated a more diverse group of men and women into power, they learned to embrace the accelerating inequality that had placed them near the very top, leaving a new American elite more prone to failure and corruption and more out of touch with the people they govern.

I thought of such passages while reading the latest iteration of the humanities in crisis. It’s something that seems to crop up every few years–what are the humanities for? How does studying literature help our students get jobs? Are the humanities too political?

This sort of introspection and reflection shouldn’t be limited to the humanities. The sciences and engineering would also benefit. It would be helpful to also channel Chris Hayes’s sentiment into the discussion. As I reread researchers in the public understanding of science, I see them making a sort of Hayesian argument.

They are trying to explain that scientists and professors don’t know how people use science in their daily lives. And so we insist on all this evolution and cosmology without understanding its impact–or lack thereof–on those in whose name we serve. Similar to our governing elite, I wonder if our instructing elite are more out of touch with the people they teach.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. February 13, 2015 9:23 am

    If it’s happening in the humanities, I can’t imagine it’s not happening in the hard sciences as well. For the most part, these folks are WEIRD – White Educated Industrialized Rich Democratic. So the questions they ask, and the pursuits they deem worthy of research will inevitably reflect their insulation. Small example – I have a friend who’s been at CMU for over 10 years, who swears she’s never heard the type of Pittsburghese accent that gets played (in jest) on local radio. She’s not an elitist but she does lead an elite academic life.

    • February 14, 2015 6:14 pm

      Great points. Thanks for the comment. It definitely happens in the hard sciences. A common complaint of engineers is that their education has nothing to do with the work they will eventually do. The curriculum is designed accordingly. I’ll never forget my senior design project from Penn State. I worked with one of the smartest engineers I’ve ever know. But he had problems with an abstract math class required of all EEs. I have wondered often how it helped anyone to hold up his graduation (which is what happened) because he couldn’t get Laplace transforms.

      Don’t know if my comment (admittedly posted after I’ve had a bit too much bourbon) connects to what you said. But I hope it makes some sense!

      Funny comment about your CMU friend.

  2. Victor permalink
    February 14, 2015 12:52 pm

    Yes, and these institutions will not change or be more connected until, at the least, they look more like the general populace and include large subpopulations excluded from their leadership, administration, and faculty.

    It’s the same reason why we try to diversity exam writers to hopefully help eliminate inherent bias. In the case of academia, we have inherent ”out-of-touchness” since it does not reflect the people. I am happy this is not the case everywhere, though it’s a large problem across the world. I am happy that some universities focus research on global development challenges because those are the challenges the country faces and they are being relevant.

    What would be great and more bold would be if universities make a move toward concentrating funding towards issues of more significance. I love the arts and humanities, but I’m sure that due to some of the crises we face today, the balance of funding should shift to climate sciences, for instance, over funding to discover who really wrote Shakespeare’s plays.

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