Jul 14, 2021Liked by Timothy Burke

Hi! I read your opinion piece in The Chronicle today - congrats on publishing there! Instead of commenting there, I decided to go back to your original piece here and comment. Thank you for these musings - I agree with the point and the general tone. My comment is on two observations that are a bit different from your own though.

First, while 'creative destruction' may be having a moment and feel like something that comes from elites - I don't see it as new or the capricious abuse of power you make it out to be. Since you like economics, perhaps you've already read, or would like to read Joseph Schumpeter "Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy" (1942)? In it, Schumpeter effectively said creative destruction is what drives capitalism. And if you are equating elites controlling creative destruction because they control capitalism - well maybe - but that's a bit of a leap. I see creative destruction as marketably successful creativity. And that is certainly not the private playground of the powerful. Yes, it's hard to get creativity to break successfully in the market - but we certainly do have lots of examples of it. Is that getting harder because of elite control of capital? I guess that's an empirical question. And not one I've looked at or read about - but certainly all the budding entrepreneurs out there hope not!

Second, I found it interesting that you like 'Obliquity' by John Kay, that you talked about uncertainty, but you didn't reference his latest work, 'Radical Uncertainty: Decision-Making Beyond the Numbers' (which you can find here: https://www.amazon.com/Radical-Uncertainty-Decision-Making-Beyond-Numbers/dp/1324004770 ... sorry to link Amazon - feel free to get it from your school library or some other non-dominant creative destroyer!).

I myself just ordered it cause your opinion piece led me to it! Here's hoping we both learn more about uncertainty from the esteemed Mr. Kay. (I also like Obliquity and make it available to my students as one of the choices for their full book read in Organizational Behavior).

Thanks again for your thoughts on liberal arts education. I do agree with oh so much of what you said. I am known at my school for saying, 'critical thinking ... whatever that means' and then spending time trying to figure out how we teach that. I've had the great fortune to be invited by members of the First-Year Seminar teaching crew from the school of arts and sciences to join them in that endeavor even though I'm a 'vocational' management prof. Further, I very often find myself defending what we teach in the school of business AND simultaneously point out that more than 60 of our students credits are 'liberal arts and sciences courses' ... so clearly the degree is NOT purely vocational - even if none of the business courses were about preparing for uncertainty and learning to think critically (which seriously is ALL we do in business isn't it?)

I will come back here soon - pd

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This is a topic I have a lot of thoughts on perhaps unsurprisingly. Great piece. Agree with nearly all of it. Just a few trailing thoughts after reading....

- It's my observational experience that the teaching method of throwing kids into the water to 'figure it out' without much curricular structure can be surprisingly generative but also pretty bad. The difference, in my view, hinges on the student (and teacher's....) predisposition toward rationality. The more training in logic the people have, the better the experiment seems to work.. Where it fails is where students don't know what's at stake in a field or discipline, don't think to ask, and the teachers don't think to tell them (or don't care to). Then what happens is the really unprepared ones drown, and others get trained in the skill of mimicking gobbledygook. Leading to a bunch of people who think what matters is that they signal stuff, not that they know stuff or say interesting things.. I think the Liberal Arts obsession with "form" is one example of this. Perfectly formed papers (and yes, books) saying nothing of interest are very passable. Even if they make little sense and have no stakes.

- It's also my observational belief that the method of hand-holding kids through a structured course curriculum can also lead to some really simplistic people thinking they are really intelligent & getting A+s the whole time.. On the flip side, I absolutely wish my college curriculum had more structure and skill-building.

- Where teaching really went wrong is when we tossed out assigning full books in favor of assigning small excerpts scanned from janky PDFs. So much context and content is lost in the prefatory material. Also scanned PDFs are impossible to read and destroy the pleasure of it. It was an astonishing relief to graduate and begin ordering whole books from university presses to continue my education (and BTW someone should tell high schoolers & their teachers about university presses.... would change lives.)

- I think you know my thoughts on this, but I think the people in contemporary society who do liberal learning best are the petrochemical engineers and the vocationalists. I think these people are also the best at adapting to uncertainty: reason being that pragmatic work requires a consideration of systems, production flows, and economy. It also trains you in solving problems, such that when new problems arrive, you solve those too. (I've been on a big Peter Huber kick recently, and I think his training as an engineer made him a much better policy maker and lawyer than many before him. Also, his mechanical engineering training led him to propose a theory of how biological life might have formed on earth that is both novel and more sensible sounding than the proposed alternatives..) But: This is also a contention that is highly in favor of structured curricula.. As all vocational and engineering work has to be taught in progressions for anything really to make sense.. (otherwise, the bridges collapse!)

- I agree absolutely with the 'preparing for generative uncertainty' idea, and the rejection of 'manufactured precarity'. And I also really think that the liberal arts 'preparing for uncertainty' trope is astonishing nonsense. All the people I know who dealt with real actual uncertainty in their lives (my parents, grandparents, uncles, aunts) didn't have liberal arts training, and what's more is that they are deeply skeptical of it. Humans adapt to uncertainty by adapting. The best preparation for uncertainty is fierce and vigorous planning and paranoia. It's inquiry, sure, but it's inquiry into every practical thing you can imagine. It looks much more like threat modeling than close reading... Again.. thinking like an engineer. Moreover, many of the young liberal artists I know (and love as people) are astonishingly frail when it comes to not getting things they want, or having to adjust to inconvenience.

- Another point re vocation and the liberal arts.... there's a reason, I insist, that the founding fathers were called "framers" (for that is what you do when you build a house! it's called 'framing a floor' after all) & that many of them worked as surveyors, inventors, and solicitors. It's bizarre that we think the study of civilization can be divorced from mechanical work.

- Easy fixes for smore at least in my view are the following: Make Logic 101 a requirement (or let people test out of it). Require an accounting class (or let people test out of it). And encourage teachers to place questions and context at the very forefront of coursework. Students in the liberal arts should be encouraged to write or vocalize wayy more questions than they seem to do.

- I think it should be really telling that small christian colleges hit similar marks as top Unis and LACs for the average LSAT score of their graduates. It makes me think that they are doing something in regard to teaching that the so-called top schools are neglecting. (after all, top colleges have the luxury of accepting top high schoolers... shouldn't equivalent, let alone the advertised 'better', educations result in these graduates extensively outpacing the small christian schools in test scores?)

anyway. Much to chew on. thanks for the blog post. - K.K.

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