Sunday, January 8, 2012

Perhaps One Should Be A Bit Impractical

Tomorrow, I am going to hear a student ask "When will I ever need this?"  I'll hear it the next day too in a different class.  No matter how I answer the question, I'll hear it again next month and next year.  It may be the last question I get asked in the last class I teach on the day I retire seven or eight years from now.

Writing for the Washington Post's Answer Sheet, Virginia Postrel asserts
. . . . critics miss the enormous diversity of both sides of the labor market. They tend to be grim materialists, who equate economic value with functional practicality. In reality, however, a tremendous amount of economic value arises from pleasure and meaning — the stuff of art, literature, psychology and anthropology. These qualities, built into goods and services, increasingly provide the work for all those computer programmers. And there are many categories of jobs, from public relations to interaction design to retailing, where insights and skills from these supposedly frivolous fields can be quite valuable. The critics seem to have never heard of marketing or video games, Starbucks or Nike, or that company in Cupertino, California, the rest of us are always going on about. Technical skills are valuable in part because of the “soft” professions that complement them.
The practical folks who believe that everything must have a commercial function argue that STEM education is both necessary and sufficient because it helps ensure that students will be employable. Postrel uses something from logic class, a non-STEM field, to illustrate that error.
Those who tout STEM fields [science, technology, engineering, math] as a cure-all confuse correlation with causality. It’s true that people who major in those subjects generally make more than, say, psychology majors. But they’re also people who have the aptitudes, attitudes, values and interests that draw them to those fields (which themselves vary greatly in content and current job prospects). The psychology and social work majors currently enjoying relatively low rates of unemployment -- 7.7 percent and 6.6 percent respectively — probably wouldn’t be very good at computer science, which offers higher salaries but, at least at the moment, slightly lower chances of a job.
Derek Thompson points out that statistics are often a snapshot of a particular moment.
employment and earnings statistics are variable. Real estate was all the rage in 2003. But four years after the housing bust, it won't surprise you to learn that architecture majors now have highest jobless rate among recent college graduates at 14%, nearly three times higher than for Information Services Majors. Or poll business school grads from 2000 or 2008 how flooding into finance worked out. Stats are moving targets.
Finally, what would a Sunday morning post be without a little scripture.  Commenting on the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible, England's Prime Minister David Cameron reminds us,
Along with Shakespeare, the King James Bible is a high point of the English language……creating arresting phrases that move, challenge and inspire.
One of my favourites is the line “For now we see through a glass, darkly.”
It is a brilliant summation of the profound sense that there is more to life, that we are imperfect, that we get things wrong, that we should strive to see beyond our own perspective.  The key word is darkly – profoundly loaded, with many shades of meaning.

I feel the power is lost in some more literal translations.  The New International Version says: “Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror”  The Good News Bible: “What we see now is like a dim image in a mirror”
They feel not just a bit less special but dry and cold, and don’t quite have the same magic and meaning.
When everyone is advocating something, in this instance STEM and practicality, it's good to be reminded that
wide is the gate, and broad is the way, that leadeth to destruction, and many there be which go in thereat (Matthew 7:13)
The solution might be found in Romans 12:2:
And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God.
A little beauty,a little renewal, and a little less conformity might be more important that the tech that everyone is looking to as a savior.


Anonymous said...

Perhaps one should be a bit impractical and perhaps teachers and parents should just try harder to make the impractical relevant. We don't have enough time to chase all learning for the sake of learning. The web reinforces that there are things worth learning well and worthless junk not worth ones time or brain cells. The dogma from law classes to "argue both sides" when there is only one side to most moral situations highlights the dilemma; i.e., we're still waiting to hear Nixon's defense because what he did is indefensible.

Through teenage slovenliness, and lack of imagination and trying harder on the part of teachers and parents - I bailed from German class. Not having a German surname, lacking evidence of a lineage, and little desire to work hard conjugating verbs and discerning gender where none existed was, well, impractical.

I suspect if someone had taken the time to discover my forebearers arrived in NYC in 1710 as a part of the Palatine Exodus, that as recently as my great grandmother's name was Anglicized German, that the family suppressed the heritage in the xenophobia resultant of WWI and WWII, perhaps I would have persevered in the impractical. It would have made my 10 years in Germany more enjoyable - but I learned of my lineage well after having lived there and having children born there.

I encourage teachers, including my STEM-teaching son, to make teaching the apparently impractical, practical for the kids have no idea what they want, need, where they will go, what they will do, or even who they are.

LK said...

If your STEM teaching son teaches high school in South Dakota, the state is about to assert that he's a more valuable human being than I am.