Too Many Universities? Too Many Graduates? Too Much Debt?

This one’s been knocking around in my head for a few days, and it’s one of those “thinking out loud” posts where I’m not sure about the track I’m on. It’s OK.  I think that it was Bertrand Russell who said something like..

What’s wrong with the world is that fools and fanatics are so sure of themselves, while wiser men are so full of doubts.”

It started with a conversation I had with one of my younger brothers. He is writing a family book about the life of our father (I’m doing the one about our mother). He reminded of a particularly difficult time when my Dad and I were not on the best of terms. It was a strained period, partly because he spent much of his world-view-forming years with the flag-waving culture of World War II while I spent pretty much those very same years with a flag-burning culture – Vietnam.

After spending two years in college, I’d felt that I needed a different kind of education, a real-life schooling that a university was not going to provide. I had been attending a community college, and most of my friends where working real jobs at the same time that they attended class, which in that part of the country meant working in a mill or a factory.

To make a very long and complicated story short and sweet, I put a hold on college to work for a while, getting a job at a Gastonia factory that made chain saws. My father was crushed. He was certain that I was stepping into quicksand, and that once I left school, I’d never be able to return. His dream was that all his sons would earn their eagle badges and college degrees – and I was turning my back on that dream and choosing failure.

Working in that factory was an education. Among other things, it convinced me that without an education, I would never be able to choose my work. I would never be able to mix passion with vocation. But that’s not the point of this writing.

Mostly, because I had taken drafting in high school, I pretty quickly moved up; from machine operator, to materials handler, to set-up man and finally, quality control. It is a track I could easily have continued, moving up, and having opportunities to creatively contribute to the success of the company, and perhaps even, one day, make my father proud.

But I was smart and better than that.  I had always been destined for college, not a factory.  I returned to college (in no small part because I love my father) and graduated a few years later with a history degree and a teaching certificate. What I’m trying to say is that for decades, we have convinced ourselves that success meant getting a college degree, because nothing less than that degree could bring success. Has this notion of college-or-nothing led to a brain drain, of sorts, from other important and critical quarters of the economy. I am grossly generalizing here, but this thread of thought has reminded me of a story that Bill Clinton told in his book, about how the smartest person he knew in his home town, was the man who pumped gas at the local service station.  Today, the smartest man we know is majoring in philosophy at the University of…

It was Audry Watters’ Wednesday blog post, Don’t Go Back to School… Or Do that provoked me to go ahead and write this down. She describes her son’s decision not to pursue a college degree, and I think of my own son’s decision to leave campus and rethink what he wants to do. I have faith that they will both find their ways, and make us proud. But I suspect that contributing to our problems are the myths about formal education that have guided our parenting and that persist in being part of the framework of our culture.

At least all of the sons of my father earned their degrees and we all got our eagle badges. What’s left, is that we all become Presbyterians. 🙂


About Creativity from Jonah Lehrer

Jonah Lehrer
Jonah Lehrer

We hurried back from Cullowhee Thursday so that I could see Jonah Lehrer talk about his new book, Imagine, at the Quail Ridge Bookstore in Raleigh.  We’d been in Cullowhee for events leading up to the installation of Western Carolina University’s new chancellor, Dr. David Belcher.  Brenda and I both graduated from WCU more than 35 years ago — “GO CATAMOUNTS.”

But I had seen some buzz about Lehrer’s new book, and I wanted to hear more.  His background is neuroscience, but he also studied 20th century literature and philosophy at Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar.  He blogs at Frontal Cortex.  Evidenty, one of Jonah’s passions is “healing the rift between sciences and humanities.” ((Wikipedia contributors. “Jonah Lehrer.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 25 Mar. 2012. Web. 30 Mar. 2012.)).  Also, he looks to be only a bit more than 17 years old.  But that’s OK.

He was not able to share much during his 30 minute lecture and what he did share had little to do with the buzz I’d gotten (You have to suffer in order to create – link).  Jonah did describe two sources of creativity.  He talked about those sudden insights that we have when struggling with a problem.  There are two features of these insights, that they seem to come from nowhere and that we intuitively know they’re right when they come. They also seem to come from a brain that is relaxed and emanating alpha waves.

Creativity is the residue of wasted time! — Einstein

My notes from the lecture

The other source was not such good news for those of us in the standing-room audience who were looking for a shortcut to creativity.  It is the GRIT factor.  He said that creativity is hard work and that it comes to people who stick with a problem long enough to combine the pieced of the non-obvious solution.  “If creativity was easy, we wouldn’t have a Bob Dylan.”  Angela Duckworth was the researcher he quoted with regards to the grit trait.

While he signed my copy of his book, I expressed some frustration with efforts in the education world to try to teach creativity.  He told me that kids are naturally creative.  The best thing we can do is just get out of the way and encourage them to express their creativity.

Coolest Thing I’ve Seen in a While

I have felt bad about not blogging lately. It’s partly because of travel, but mostly because of three projects that have drawn most of my attention lately. One of those has been preparation for the NCTIES conference later this week. It’s a special event for me because NCTIES is the ISTE affiliate for my home state and also because it is an especially successful conference. This year’s featured speakers include Richard Byrne, Patrick Crispen (regular), Rushton Hurley, Peggy Sheehy, Kathy Schrock (regular) and Tammy Worcester, with a kickoff keynote by Ken Shelton.

One of my presentations will explore instructional potentials of data visualization and infographics and in preparing for this session, I found one of the coolest things I’ve seen in a while.  I ran across the link via Nathan Yau’s Flowing Data blog, where he quoted Jeffrey Winter…

There was an idea floating around that continuously following the first link of any Wikipedia article will eventually lead to “Philosophy.” This sounded like a reasonable assertion, one that makes a certain amount of sense in retrospect: any description of something will typically use more general terms. Following that idea will eventually lead… somewhere.

Winter’s explanation of how he accomplished a test for this idea made it sound easier than I’m sure it was.  But the outcome was an intriguing mashup where you can type in a word or numerous words separated by comas, and his app will thread through the first link in each linked-to article until it reaches Philosophy.

Sitting in Starbucks, I looked for logical connections between Starbucks, coffee and caffeine. (click img to enlarge)

What struck me as I played with this data visualization, was how this operation meshes with our notions of curriculum and of libraries.

When information is scarce and education is defined by knowledge delivery, then the job of curriculum and of libraries is to package content into subjects and units and dewey decimal classifications.

When I watch seemly unrelated topics threading their way to a common subject and re-examine Boyack, Klavans and Palen’s Map of Science, which shows how various disciplines are interconnected by citations, it seems clear to me how schools and libraries need to become more like learning-literacy playgrounds than managed corals.

But that’s me!