February 27, 2004



W.W.I.A.D?

Arnold Kling has published the top 10 answers given in a poll of university presidents asked what books they believe “every undergraduate university student should read and study in order to engage in the intellectual discourse, commerce, and public duties of the 21st century." Here’s the list:

  1. The Bible
  2. The Odyssey
  3. The Republic
  4. Democracy in America
  5. The Iliad
  6. Hamlet
  7. The Koran
  8. The Wealth of Nations
  9. The Prince
  10. The Federalist Papers

Kling is disturbed by the vintage of these books, and he notes rather dourly that the university presidents have apparently failed to sanitize the canon of its over-reliance on “dead white males.” He also points out that the top ten list is void of books on science and technology, and that there are few books on the longer list of about 70 that were written since 1950.

I have a couple of preliminary comments on this list:

1. The presidents were asked to give a list of books, not topics of study. Science, technology, and current events would no doubt have had a much stronger showing had the presidents been asked to name topics, rather than books. As one of the commenters over on Randall Parker’s blog pointed out, science and technology are topics that need not rely so heavily upon a defined canon:

It may be that university professors were considering works that really ought to be read in the original. Science and mathematics benefit from an approach that can treat the latest theories and arguments, as well as providing a grounding in the history of the doctrines. An up to date textbook is better for that than actually reading Darwin's writings.

The Iliad, on the other hand, is not improved by being made into a textbook. It ought to be read in the original Greek, but failing that, in an accurate translation—I like the Fitzgerald myself. Many of these other works are of the same type—literary masterpieces that everyone ought to actually read. They can't be substituted with excerpts or textbooks, whereas Darwin not only can, but [is] thereby improved upon.

The canon of science is important for understanding the history of science, but perhaps less important for understanding science itself.

2. They were asked to provide a list of books they recommend, not books that are actually read. For my part, when my daughter starts college in a few years, I will be delighted to learn that she is being required to read any of the books named on the list (absent some anti-Western smear job in which the books are required so that the student scan learn how wrong they are or, in the case of the Koran, how much better it is.) The presidents may be recommending them, but I doubt that these titles are making it on to the required reading lists at many universities.

That being said, I think Kling is right in concluding that the list is deficient. If we want to truly prepare young people for life in the 21st century, those books alone are not going to cut it. Kling proposes his own reading list.

  1. The Blank Slate, by Stephen Pinker

  2. The Age of Spiritual Machines, by Ray Kurzweil

  3. The Transparent Society, by David Brin

  4. The Diamond Age, by Neal Stephenson

  5. Eastward to Tartary, by Robert Kaplan

Excellent selections. If some of the titles look familiar, they should. The Transparent Society has been mentioned in many of our recent discussions on The Speculist, and hardly a week goes by that we don’t make a reference to The Age of Spiritual Machines.

As Stephen has been pointing out in his recent entries on rapid change, today there is simply more to know than there has been at any previous point in human history. As has always been the case, the path to usefulness in society — that is, to having a career — involves picking out a subset of knowledge in which to specialize. Nobody can know everything about everything; however, the notion of a “liberal” education came from the idea that there was a core of highly generalized knowledge that a productive and responsible citizen of a free society should have.

So we have to be specialists, but we should also be generalists. Unfortunately, the idea of a liberal education has fallen by the wayside. There are abundant examples of stories of academicians who specialize in the humanities or social sciences, where they appear to get by just fine, and yet who have staggeringly under-developed or erroneous knowledge of science and mathematics. Here’s one of my favorites.

The equal and opposite stereotype is that of the soulless technocrat who can’t be bothered by the kind of “mushy thinking” that a typical philosophical or aesthetic discussion would entail. There are no measurements to be taken, no numbers to be recorded, so such a conversation is a pointless waste of time. We were given a very mild nod toward this kind of thinking in a recent comment from one of our readers, responding to the proposition that qualitative as well as quantitative differences can be identified between two information processing systems:

Well, the word "information" must be a term of art then. You're using it to mean "words and ideas and stuff" (a lay definition), while those of us who study information flow in complex systems use it to capture the Shannon information measure of a system, which describes the system's state.

If you'd like to propose a reasonable and mutually agreeable replacement word, which describes the very limited and special form of information processing you're talking about, I'm game. Give me something you can measure, and we can have this entertaining discussion like adults.

Would it help this reader in his work to know that the “lay” definition of information is what the word has meant for hundreds of years, that its Latin and Greek roots have to do with the idea of in-formed, that is to say, changed from within by the acquisition of “words and ideas and stuff?” Probably not. He can capture the Shannon information measure of system with or without knowing any of that.

On the other hand, would such background knowledge help him to have discussions on other (albeit closely related) subjects with people outside his discipline? Clearly it might, if only by freeing him from the insistence that his discipline’s (rather recent) co-opting of the term represents its only possible valid use. The broader our knowledge, the greater our ability to see an issue from a variety of perspectives.

With that in mind, let’s turn away from negative stereotypes. It would be helpful to find an example of someone whose knowledge was balanced between the old and the new, between the humanistic and the scientific.

Someone like Isaac Asimov.

Here’s a guy who wrote more than 300 books, and who was as interested in Shakespeare as he was in Physics, as interested in Biology as he was in the Bible. He had his own special interests, of course. His doctorate was in biochemistry. (He also specialized in robotic ethics and future history, but that’s a different story — or rather set of stories.) His annotated edition of Swift's Gulliver's Travels is one of my all-time favorite books.

I remember reading one of his books on astronomy, years ago, and being struck by a side passage in which he pointed out how silly and redundant it is to talk about “the Milky Way galaxy.” (Galaxy, it turns out, is Greek for milky way.) Always looking ahead, he was very much aware that knowledge is rooted in the past. Would he have approved of the university presidents’ list of books? Definitely. In fact, he wrote commentaries on several of them. Would he have liked Kling’s list of books? Without question. And it’s a shame that he’s not still around to write on some of those topics.

Here in the 21st century, the old questions are still with us. What does it mean to be human? How should we live our lives? What is truth? As difficult as these questions have always been to grapple with, rapid technological change promises to put a new spin on each of them. The “free citizen” would do well to be familiar both with traditional approaches to these questions and with the science and technology that promise to turn them on their heads.

Anyhow, that’s what Isaac would do.

Posted by Phil at February 27, 2004 02:26 PM | TrackBack
Comments

So you want to replace W.W.J.D. with W.W.I.A.D.? Hmm...

Okay, sounds good to me.

Posted by: Jesus Christ at February 27, 2004 06:39 PM

If you're who you claim to be, I suppose it would be something of a relief, having someone else "bear that cross" (if you'll pardon the expression.)

Still, replacing WWJD? wasn't really what I had in mind. I just took inspiration from it.

Posted by: Phil at February 27, 2004 07:38 PM

W.W.I.A.D.?

I bet he'd be running a kick-ass blog.

He was known for his science fiction but he could write about anything - and it was always interesting.

Posted by: Stephen Gordon at February 27, 2004 08:31 PM

Indeed I am a soulless technocrat! Very astute.

Posted by: Bill Tozier at February 28, 2004 05:51 AM

I promise to grit my teeth and steel myself fervently against my inherent bias towards machine-like precision and narrow-minded naysaying. And I apologize that it might have seemed that I was doing that in the past. Let's try again.

Phil. You write:

As difficult as these questions have always been to grapple with, rapid technological change promises to put a new spin on each of them

The questions I've tried to raise in my comments on the site have very little to do with detailed mathematics or specialist knowledge. Oddly enough, I am told they're rather old questions with a long history (by a friend I see rarely; he rattled off a bunch of obscure old-fashioned references in books I never heard of, but I could ask him to send them along if you like). These are exactly the same class of question I asked Stephen about, but I guess we got side-railed. Given that the discussion has helped bring them into focus, let me get back to them:

1. What's so special about technological change that makes it substantively different from the other forces that have affected human life through history? I am concerned that much ado is being made about something that is no more important than any other (more mundane) force for change.

Or: What's new?

If you were to quiz a person from the past, what do you think the odds were that they would also say they were living "in a time of great and dramatic change"? Would the odds be different in 319 BC, 1213 AD, 1502, or 1892 from the odds now? (There I go again! I can't even avoid talking quantitatively here. Sorry! My fault.) The changes your hypothetical respondent would cite in those cases might be political, technological, religious, geographical, or climatic, but it strikes me that the sense of impending drama is nothing new.

So what is new about technological change now that makes it special? I can't answer, since of course I have read very little beyond my narrow technical specialty, and have rarely if ever thought about these matters.

So I'm asking.

2. How evenly distributed are these coming changes supposed to be?

A quick example. Today, you and I use a computer regularly, though very few people in the world have access to one, or need to use one. Has the revolutionary world-change just not gotten to them yet?

If I understand the Singularity (you should of course assume that I have never read anything at all about it except what I hear from you here) and the accompanying world changes, a similar worldwide revolution occurred with the invention of movable type back in... well let's just agree to say 1440, since that other one that's rarely mentioned must have been a glitch in the records. Now, this revolution rapidly and deeply affected ever human being on the planet, just in the same dramatic and unsettling way that the Singularity will do, yes?

Because everybody in the world is getting swamped with more scientific information at an accelerating pace, right? I know my distant cousins in the mountains of Slovakia have been emailing me complaints about trying to keep up with Internet routing protocols and the latest in astrobiology results for years.

There's this thing I've heard about from my friend -- the one who actually has read some history and philosophy and stuff -- called an unconscious cultural bias. I don't quite get what that is, but I am told it might have something to do with the difficult -- and arguably unfair --questions I asked Stephen about some of his statements.

Posted by: Bill Tozier at February 28, 2004 08:02 AM

Whoops! I missed one last little bit, which was:

The “free citizen” would do well to be familiar both with traditional approaches to these questions and with the science and technology that promise to turn them on their heads.

I would have liked to ask in response: What exactly counts as a deep question about human life being "turned on its head"?

Might it depend on the speed at which change percolates through all of humanity? Might it depend on the completeness with which change percolates through all of humanity? Might it depend on differences in the way people value technological and scientific results? Might it depend on differences in what people already do and believe and think?

Posted by: Bill Tozier at February 28, 2004 08:14 AM

Hey, Bill

If you were to quiz a person from the past, what do you think the odds were that they would also say they were living "in a time of great and dramatic change"? Would the odds be different in 319 BC, 1213 AD, 1502, or 1892 from the odds now?

The odds of getting a "yes" would be about 100% in any era, I agree.

a similar worldwide revolution occurred with the invention of movable type back in...1440... Now, this revolution rapidly and deeply affected ever human being on the planet, just in the same dramatic and unsettling way that the Singularity will do, yes?

No.

Moveable type is one instance of discontinuous change, a "killer app" for those fond of passe dot-com-bubble terminology. And it's a doozy. But the world didn't become unrecognizeable because of it. People knew what books were, and their concept of them didn't change. There were just a lot more of them available, allowing more people to know more, and bringing about other (bigger) discontinuous changes like the Renaissance and the Industrial Revolution.

Pile up enough discontinuous change, and the world is fundamnetally transformed. Our earliest hunter-gatherer ancestors, if shown their fire-using, cave-dwelling, tool-dwelling progeny in action, might be able to understand what they were seeing. Show them their agrarian offspring and it's less likely they would. Show them the first city-dwellers and they would be completely lost.

It used to take tens of thousands of years to accomplish this level of change, then it took hundreds, and now it can happen within a human lifetime. The citizens of the first western democracy, Athens, would have -- for the most part -- understood the world of the U.S. Founding Fathers. But how much would either group understand our time? My job isn't that complicated (I do product managment for a software company) but I can only sort of explain it to my parents. And my remaining grandfather wouldn't understand it at all. He was a plumber, among other things. His great-grandfather would have had no problem unerstanding (conceptually) what it was he did for a living. Trace it back a generation or two more and you hit a farmer. He would have to go all the way back to those hunter-gatherers to a find an ancestor to whom he couldn't explain his job.

Each time the world becomes inexplicable to earlier generations, you hit a singularity. At the rate we're going, we can now count on hitting one or two within our lifetimes. (meaning that we either have to be okay with living in an incomprehensible world, or we have to adapt more quickly than our ancestors did.) But eventually, if artificial intelligence picks up the developmental thread, we're going to come up against an unprecedented singularity -- one that won't divide one human generation from the next, but that will divide all of humanity from...whatever comes next.

Tha's enough for one comment.

Posted by: Phil at February 29, 2004 08:34 AM