Liberal education, basic research, and Neal Stephenson's "Anathem"
In today's NYT, Stanley Fish laments the demise of liberal education, which, he says
"is distinguished by the absence of a direct and designed relationship between its activities and measurable effects in the world..."This could perhaps also be a criterion by which basic research is distinguished from applied research. Another characteristic that basic research shares with liberal education is that each offers fewer career opportunities than there are people who want to pursue it as a career. This led me to suggest, in a previous post, that the only people who should consider grad school in science are:
1) those who expect to enjoy grad school itself...Even the second option is becoming competitive enough that I might delete "requiring a PhD" and suggest doing a Masters first. My rationale is that an MS will often make you more competitive for jobs that strictly require only a BS, whereas having a PhD may make you "overqualified" for positions that don't require an advanced degree. Potential employers may assume you will quit as soon as you can find a more-academic position. You may be in the first category if your undergrad research was published or if you frequently went to graduate seminars as an undergraduate.
2) those who think they would be happy in some science-related job requiring a PhD, even if it's not a professorship
But back to Stanley Fish's "Last Professor." I see "effects in the world" as the only reason to spend tax money (or allow tax exemption) to support liberal education and basic research. The physicist who discovered the electron once proposed a toast
"To the electron, may it never be of any use to anybody."I disagree with the sentiment, but this example shows how research whose practical value is not immediately obvious can eventually have a big impact. Similarly, I am happy to pay taxes to support the teaching of literature and philosophy because I assume those courses will develop the thinking skills of future citizens and leaders. Barack Obama might be an example.
Maybe Fish and I would argue about the "direct and designed" part. For example, I would consider actual evidence as to whether liberal education really does lead to better thinking skills to be relevant to the discussion, just as it is relevant to the discussion of how we should allocate tax money between basic and applied research. As one minor example, if you compare people with similar income, which is a better predictor of buying a more expensive house than one can afford: not studying philosophy or not studying economics? If some philosophy courses protect against future stupidity better than others, can we figure out what the most-effective courses have in common?
We need to ensure that practice in writing about literature improves students' ability to write clearly about other topics (from trade policy to disease prevention) rather than making their writing more obscure. If I may use an example from computer software, which should be understood by anyone who can claim cultural literacy today, students need intellectual tools analogous to spreadsheets, which can handle a wide range of problems, not single-purpose tools like tax-preparation software.
One problem is that the effects of liberal education on an individual's decision-making skills may take decades to become fully evident. This can be equally true of practical results from basic research. If we take the long view, we might end up with something like the monastery-like "concents" in Neal Stephenson's "Anathem", where "avouts" pursue philosophy and math in moderate to extreme isolation from the outside world. Isolation from outside influence is seen as so important that, when one of these thinkers leaves the concent to help solve some problem in the outside world, he or she is never allowed to return.
I really enjoyed the book, as I have Stephenson's previous ones. It made me want a bigger chalkboard for my office. It made me think about the difference between "valuable new information" and "distractions", revisiting questions like "should I go to this 3-day scientific meeting, or spend 3 days in the library?" or "would adding more species to our soil microcosms make them more or less useful in understanding plant-microbe interactions in the field?" And it's an entertaining story.