Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.
― Nelson Mandela
Today and tomorrow I am visiting the University of Notre Dame for the purpose of reviewing and advising a DOE sponsored research center (CSWARM). The project combines material science, computation and computer science as the scientific world struggles toward the next generation of computing. Given today’s work, my
background and my son’s entry into science and engineering education next year, the topic of college and its health is keenly in my focus. Universities are perhaps one of the most important institutions in our society. They should be emblematic of the best we have to offer and a shining example of what we aspire to be. So what do university’s have to say about us today?
Anyone who stops learning is old, whether at twenty or eighty. Anyone who keeps learning stays young.
In all respects the visit didn’t disappoint me. The research project while centered at Notre Dame spans two other universities (Indiana and Purdue) and involves computer science, computational science, experiment, and theory. Each topic was present and the work of melding the usually independent university research agendas into a single multidisciplinary center has begun. This is hard work that is firmly against the grain of university dynamics. We were presented with a plethora of results, wowed by their progress, but saw many areas where suggestions could profitably be made. All-in-all a good showing and a great start at a great research project.
We are all failures- at least the best of us are.
Before going on to the things that bothered me about the visit, I will freely admit that some aspects of interaction with the universities give me pause. The current style of program management for research is not congruent with educational objectives. These projects do not get the full brunt of government management, but enough of their guidance is the sort of “do not ever fail” category to run afoul of educational optimality. Research if done properly will fail, and fail a lot. It is research because we don’t know exactly what we are doing. If it isn’t failing a great deal it probably isn’t good research. Too much of what I work on is under a no-failure edict. This creates an environment that largely runs counter to the capability to create of good educational setting. Given that the current nature of the educational setting is itself a problem, we may not be doing too much extra harm.
Children must be taught how to think, not what to think.
The less favorable side of college is also evident. Notre Dame oozes with money, in an almost overwhelming way. Given the tuition it demands, it must, but clearly wealthy donors are at work too. The university is also taken with their pride and joy, the football team and its effects are profound. Events must be scheduled around the home games, which impact everything in town making anything else impossible. The stadium looms over the campus like the shrine to modern gladiatorial combat that football is. It is a semi-pro team in every respect except paying the players and name. Its impact and importance at an educational institution is both unsettling and all too common. The opulence of the setting is somewhat out of character with ought to be the priorities.
Like so much with higher education there is a lot to be said about these trappings and their seeming importance, none of it good. We are not emphasizing the educational aspects, nor celebrating its achievements like the sporting face of the university. Similarly and complementary, money is being celebrated as important in equal measure. This too is a problem because all of this is being done under the watchful eye of the generation being educated. What message are we projecting through this? What impact do the obvious priorities have on the perceptions and thoughts of the youth?
Tell me and I forget, teach me and I may remember, involve me and I learn.
All of this is merely a backdrop to an educational setting where research is also happening. Research in and of itself has become a similar obsession for universities because of its place as a source of money. This has in turn driven resources and focus away from education as the principal focus for universities. At least research can serve a proper place in education. If done with the proper balance research can be a powerful for educating the participants and continuing the development of the senior people involved. I wonder whether in some places the focus is even further removed from education by rich alumni, and massive athletics. Is this really what we need from these institutions? Is this really in service of the best interests of society as a whole, or are these institutions being highjacked to entertain the wealthy while giving substandard educations to the less fortunate?
Wisdom is not a product of schooling but of the lifelong attempt to acquire it.