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Monday, April 23, 2012

Thucydides, Facebook and The Paper Chase

Paper Chase Theatrical Poster - Wikipedia
A consequence of the current educational problem in the US is, I think, carelessness.

As a small child with an overactive imagination I was always quick to jump to conclusions - most of the time wrong conclusions.  My mind, good at creating relationships between events often did not have enough information to make the right connections - so I simply got it wrong.

In the olden days of the 1970's places like college were designed to eliminate this.

I think that little epitomizes this more than the old television series from that time called "The Paper Chase" staring John Houseman.  Houseman played Professor Charles Kingsfield who said at the beginning of each episode: "You teach yourselves the law, but I train your minds. You come in here with a skull full of mush; you leave thinking like a lawyer."

The idea, of course, was that until you knuckled down and learned the law and how to think you were an idiot.

A few years later I found my own Professor Kingsfield.

Professor Fowler.  She was old and she taught ancient Greek.  She was old school and like the fiction Professor Kingsfield tolerated no nonsense and demanded results.

Most of the rest of the classes, even Latin which was taught in the same department, were modeled at that time on the new methods of liberal college instruction - friendly, accessible teaching assistants, office hours were you could bargain for a better grade, that sort of thing.

Not Fowler's class.  The taught it once.  You learned it.  She issued assignments.  You did them.

She didn't care if you did them or not.  She wasn't "friendly" and "helpful" - she simply expected you to keep up and learn.

If she called on you you had better produce results or you would be an embarrassing yourself in front of your peers.

Within the first few weeks at least half the students dropped the class.

It was do or die.

So I worked at it - hard.  The class was fairly small so it was easy to gauge your progress.  Every day I studied declensions, endings, accents, verbs and so on.  It took more time than calculus or history.

But over the course of the first semester I began to realize that not only was I learning ancient Greek but I was also learning to discipline myself.  To teach myself to think clearly - to reason out the nonsense from the reality.

I stayed in her class for two semesters.  By the end we could read certain passages (the simplest ones) from the Bible, we could read a little Thucydides who wrote "The History of the Peloponnesian War," and some other things.

Thirty some years later I cannot remember much about the details of ancient Greek but I do retain the discipline I learned.

And this has made a huge difference in my life - the difference, I think, between success and failure.

I know when I do a job if the job is merely adequate or fully correct.

For my money this was the most crucial thing I learned in my life - intellectual discipline.

So today, when I read stories like this one about how mistakes with cell lines are muddling and stalling cancer research I have to wonder: didn't these researchers learn academic discipline?  To check their work thoroughly?  To take nothing for granted?

It would seem not.

A few month's back I wrote "Falsified Medical Studies the Norm" - it covered the fact that most of the academic medical results published today cannot be reproduced outside academia in commercial settings.

My guess is that what's missing in academia today is not technology or knowledge but instead discipline.

The discipline to "do the right thing," to "remain honest" and so one.

Today, however, from my perspective, college teaches "groupthink."

Groupthink is the phenomena where groups of people tend to settle on a decision that yields "group harmony" instead of correct or accurate results.

You see this all the time today in corporations: I can't possibly go against so-and-so - it would destroy his work.  So instead of doing the right thing we go down the road of nonsense and foolishness so that everyone is happy and wrong.

This is what I see has happened in education, particularly at the college level, over the last few decades.  Hard, Professor Kingsfield (or Fowler) teaching methods have been replaced by methods that don't involve soul-searching, brain frying, self tormenting critical thinking.

So its little wonder that in the real world we now have commercial enterprises that operate along the same lines: lax, loose and sloppy.

But now these commercial enterprises are in the process of "taking down" the US as a world leader.


Because the vary basis of our countries progress in the world of technology and medical science is undermined by sloppy, lazy groupthink.

And sadly, this is not the worst of it. 

Groupthink is also taking over our morality.

We don't make clear decisions on what's "right" and "wrong."  Today, particularly in academia, there isn't a "right" and "wrong" as there was in the last hundred-or-so thousand years of humanity.

Instead there's a new model: Am I in within the bounds of the "groupthink" or am I outside?

Outsiders face ostracism - regardless of facts and objective reason.

Groupthink is a tool were social pressure is used to motivate thinking - whether on Facebook or in the classroom.  Social pressure to "think like the rest of us."

Yet virtually all significant scientific and intellectual progress over the centuries does not evolve from "the group mind" or "groupthink"  Instead it comes from the "outliers" who want to think about something in their own unique way.

Until Facebook the internet and computers were domain of techies and geeks.

But no longer.

Unfortunately what you are seeing and will continue to see is that Facebook is a tool for social engineering and peer pressure to enforce groupthink on outliers.  To create social "sameness" for the sake of "harmony."

Sadly this is becoming our national pastime - Facebook and friends.

And its taking our intellectual freedom and discipline along with it...

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