By Hammad Ali
Why those foundation courses are important
I often joke that I have spent all my life since September 2002 in one college campus or another – whether as an undergrad, a graduate student, an instructor, or on at least one occasion, as a visitor. In addition, I have always been deeply interested in the philosophy of education, and have friends in university campuses all over the world. What all of this means is that I spend a substantial portion of my leisure learning and thinking about tertiary education around the world. I do not claim to be an expert on any of this, just someone who thinks about it, especially in the context of the history and sociology of nations and how they think of the role of universities.
Two roads diverged
One thing I often think about, for instance, is how university education can be divided into two major approaches around the world. On the one hand there is the European approach, where college students choose their field of study, and then for the entire duration of their program, focus on going progressively deeper in that field, with little if any attention to anything outside of this field. At the end of a European style program in, say, mathematics, the graduates are almost at the level of a second-year graduate student in other systems. However, this comes at the expense of much sacrifice in terms of breadth. Under this system, it is possible for someone to attain multiple advanced degrees in Nuclear Physics or Biomedical Engineering, without taking a single class on literature, history, or philosophy.
This stands in sharp contrast with what, for want of a better word, we will refer to as the North American approach to higher education. In North America, and colleges around the world based on this model, students get a more broad-based education, often spending almost one-third of the program duration in general education courses in humanities, social sciences, and perhaps even multiple languages. This approach is often misunderstood, because the room for all the general courses is usually made by sacrificing some of the depth within one’s major area. Many detractors will say that a math major under this approach, to continue our example, knows less advanced math than their European counterpart. This may well be true, but not because the former were slacking and not working hard, but rather because they completed several classes on those other general fields mentioned.
Seen in that light, the next logical question seems to be – what is the value of each approach? On the surface, it is easy to see the argument for the European approach. It would seem that European graduates are more knowledgeable of their own field, and better equipped to make new contributions to human knowledge, being already at the frontiers of knowledge. In comparison, what value does the North American approach offer?
To answer the question, we must first ask another question. Do college graduates, whether scientists/doctors/engineers/lawyers, have to know anything about anything beyond their own field? How about accountants and CEOs? Is it enough that they enjoy an education that prepares them for their chosen professions, and not one that wastes any of their time and other resources in learning Greek philosophy?
Beyond good and evil
To answer the question, I bring to our attention some incidents of our own collective past. After World War 2, the world came to know about Nazi scientists who had experimented on human subjects, under the guise of the advancement of human knowledge. The details of some of these experiments, if we dignify these acts with that word, are enough to turn the stomach. On the side of the Allied Forces, we have scientists who took part in the Manhattan Project and helped build the first atomic bombs. It is worth noting that, once the destructive power of these bombs became clear, most of these same scientists spent the rest of their lives and careers advocating stronger regulations on Nuclear Physics research, and disarmament.
In more recent history, the Enron scandal has often been cited as an example of what happens when brilliant strategic/financial minds are no longer burdened by a knowledge of ethics, sociology, and collective responsibility. And then there is the technology time bomb we are presently sitting on – social media. Most of the social media tools of today are designed by graduates of elite colleges, high-achievers who nonetheless are spending their best years designing something that wreaks havoc on our attention spans, harms the quality of our leisure, and is polarizing the world in ways unseen in history.
What do all these examples have in common? To me, and many finer minds than mine, the Nazi willingness to sidestep human dignity, the Enron executives thinking nothing of defrauding the public, or modern day social media monetizing every second of someone’s life, all spring from the same phenomenon – the technical ability to do something, paired with a complete apathy about the ethical and socio-psychological impacts of doing it. On the contrary, the American physicists who spoke up about the dangers of Nuclear proliferation were mindful that just because you can build something, does not mean you should. It is this willingness to think of, and ability to analyze, the unintended consequences of one’s actions, that a more broad-based education can bestow us with. Of course, there are no guarantees – the world is full of educated people with no moral compass. However, we at least have to make the effort. I firmly stand in the camp of those who believe that any advanced topic that an engineering graduate with a more broad-based education is lacking in, they can teach themselves from books and resources. However, the ability to think beyond one’s profession and projects, the ability to appreciate the less commercialized domains of our lives, must be practiced in one’s most formative years. We live in a world today where technology can do anything. What we need is more people who think about what the right thing to do would be.