Saturday, October 18, 2014

Steven Pinker: what college students should learn

Steven Pinker, a well-known professor of psychology at Harvard recently stated what he thinks a college student should learn:
It seems to me that educated people should know something about the 13-billion-year prehistory of our species and the basic laws governing the physical and living world, including our bodies and brains. They should grasp the timeline of human history from the dawn of agriculture to the present. They should be exposed to the diversity of human cultures, and the major systems of belief and value with which they have made sense of their lives. They should know about the formative events in human history, including the blunders we can hope not to repeat. They should understand the principles behind democratic governance and the rule of law. They should know how to appreciate works of fiction and art as sources of aesthetic pleasure and as impetuses to reflect on the human condition.

On top of this knowledge, a liberal education should make certain habits of rationality second nature. Educated people should be able to express complex ideas in clear writing and speech. They should appreciate that objective knowledge is a precious commodity, and know how to distinguish vetted fact from superstition, rumor, and unexamined conventional wisdom. They should know how to reason logically and statistically, avoiding the fallacies and biases to which the untutored human mind is vulnerable. They should think causally rather than magically, and know what it takes to distinguish causation from correlation and coincidence. They should be acutely aware of human fallibility, most notably their own, and appreciate that people who disagree with them are not stupid or evil. Accordingly, they should appreciate the value of trying to change minds by persuasion rather than intimidation or demagoguery.
The above quote is from the middle of a New Republic article by Pinker. Let me tell you about the article and its context.

In July, The New Republic ran an article called "Don't Send Your Kid to the Ivy League by ex Yale professor William Deresiewicz. The subtitle of the article was "The nation's top colleges are turning our kids into zombies" and it was the most widely read article in the magazine's history.

In September, professor Pinker wrote a strong rebuttal to Deresiewicz entitled The Trouble With Harvard, with the subtitle "The Ivy League is broken and only standardized tests can fix it." Pinker disagrees with pretty much everything Deresiewicz says, but they do agree that the admissions process at elite universites is broken.

If the articles sound interesting or you are involved in college admissions or know someone who is applying to college (like your kid maybe), by all means read them, but I would not have written a blog post on them if it were not for Pinker's definition of a college education.

Do you agree with Pinker? How did your education stack up against his goals? Do the same goals hold for students at "not elite" schools?

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Credits -- I found this quote in a post by Rodney Van Meter on Dave Farber's IP email list and the cool picture is from shutterstock.com.