This is Your Brain On Awesome Thoughts on the world from a student of the mind


Some sobering words on modern-day academia

I hope everyone has been having a fantastic holiday, I know I've spent most of my time eating, drinking, and generally doing things that don't involve writing blog posts or being productive.  To that extent , perhaps it is most fitting that I mention this article that recently showed up in the Economist.

I feel like quite a few of you all are, or plan to be, PhD candidates, and while this article isn't technically about science, it certainly has some pointed words for the academic world in which we all immerse ourselves.

The article takes a new look at the life and worth of PhD students, and I suspect that many would take issue with the stance that the author has on the value of higher education in this world.  The author notes that, while PhDs were once seen to be an impressive feat of one's life, the recent explosion in programs offering them has cheapened their worth in modern day society.  While this may not be true across the board, it is certainly the case that specific academic disciplines are rife with recruits looking to pursue higher education, oftentimes with unrealistic expectations about what their extra training will afford them in the future.

With a society that is becoming increasingly focused on specialization and operating in an incredibly fast environment, one might argue that the skills that are often taught in PhDs aren't as applicable to the real world as we'd like to think they are.  Certainly, in-depth research and writing are impressive feats, but in the world of blogs and instant communication, are they really what is most important?

As usual, I feel a bit conflicted about these kinds of articles, but I can't help but agree with the basic premise that they take.  The world is a rapidly changing place, and it is certainly possible that even our most well-respected academic institutions haven't been able to keep up.

I'm going to hold off on throwing any more of my own opinion out there, since I'd rather the article speak for itself.  I'm looking forward to seeing how you all feel about this.

via The Economist


Bard College just got my attention…

In an age when it seems that schools and universities are cutting important programs across the board, it's good to see an example of a useful course of study actually being created.

Incoming freshman at Bard College, a liberal arts school in New York, will be required to take a "Citizen Science" program during their first years.  Such a course will entail learning about the scientific method, covering modern issues in science, and understanding how empiricism and a scientific approach to the world can be applied to all kinds of life's problems.

This sounds like a pretty awesome program, and assuming that they pull it off well, hopefully it will inspire many more colleges to do the same.  One of the things that I love about science is the extent to which it connects lots of different aspects of life that seemingly have nothing to do with research or academics.

By having a solid understanding of logic, the use (and misuse) of data, and basic statistics, students of all academic approaches will learn to make better decisions and separate the legitimate claims that people make from the utter nonsense that is often thrown around the media.  Teaching these basic principles (and others involved in the scientific method) to students outside of the scientific disciplines is a great step towards more well-rounded students and will help bridge the gap between the scientific community and the general public.  Bravo, Bard College!



Is higher education a waste of your time?

A recent interview has been posted to NPR's website that covers the issue of higher education and its place in our society.

Tony Cox sat down with Andrew Hacker, a distinguished academic and author of the recent book "Higher Education?" to discuss his thoughts on our current system and why it may be broken.

In a nutshell, he criticizes many institutional traditions such as tenure, declaring that it encourages professors to focus on themselves rather than on their students.  He also suggests that the research-focused nature of most large universities leaves students who shell out significant amounts of money each year in a lurch.

I have to say that I'm inclined to agree with Professor Hacker - it seems ridiculous to me that the cost of college degrees keeps on getting bigger and bigger while the value of having one seems to be shrinking by the day.

Most studies suggest that it is becoming easier and easier for students to pidgeonhole themselves into a specific field at a young age, something may aid in getting a job but ultimately deprives them of the breadth of experience that historically defines university life.

In my own experience with university life, it seems like the most valuable lessons I learned came unintentionally, from unexpected or even unwanted sources.  I wonder what kinds of experiences and knowledge people are missing out on these days by being allowed to avoid anything deemed "unnecessary."

via NPR