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The STEM and the Flower (Education)

Thanks to Fareed Zakaria for his recent column calling out the recent obsession with STEM education — science, technology, engineering and mathematics. I urge its wide readership.

The issue is not STEM, of course, but obsession — and it’s not really obsession, in the end, but the lazy desire for a panacea. Wouldn’t it be great to think that we could just do one kind of studying to be successful? And we could cut school funding too!

The world doesn’t work that way, alas. Defunding arts and humanities education will not make us a nation of successful technocrats. It will make us poorer in spirit, which will make us poorer in pocket, and make our culture harder to sustain. Without language, music, and art, people literally can’t communicate, explain, teach, and inspire.

It’s that last one which is hardest to quantify, least utilitarian, but most vital. Life is not easy, and even the most successful of us have days on end of meticulous tedium. Most people are hard pressed to give a damn about anything over time if their lives are not enriched by whimsy and beauty – not merely by consuming it, but by engaging with it, in the way one only can with understanding and training. Even Mr. Spock liked to jam with a band.

The stem is vitally important to the plant, but so is the flower. They are parts of a common purpose. Things can survive if they are stunted, but they can’t flourish or evolve. Lose sight of that, and we lose.


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The future of the university

My father recently put money in my son’s college fund. My son has more than a decade before he heads to college, but what a decade that might be.

Already, online educational courses, from primary- and secondary-school initiatives like Khan Academy to university-level work, are not just spreading knowledge irrespective of distance and tuition, but inverting the traditional model. Instead of students attending school lectures and doing homework, the future promises home-viewed lectures, and coaching sessions where instructors help students execute what they learn online.

That the model of university education we’ve used for the last half-millenium will be going through some amazing creative destruction in the next decades seems a sure bet. Schools will merge, downsize, specialize. Some will go out of business. But I think the university, as an institution, has more staying power than many believe.

In the early days of online shopping, new Internet grocery ventures failed while older supermarket chains developed successful delivery systems. In hindsight it’s easy to see why — Continue reading