This week I’ve been getting ready for two days of strategic planning with one of the CSU’s disciplinary affinity groups, reading faculty responses to surveys of where their field is heading, and how their community of practice might respond. It makes for a compelling look at one frontier of knowledge, and it calls to mind some other things I’ve been reading.
On the publication of The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution, Walter Isaacson recently addressed a group of investors who were eager to inform their next bets. Here’s how the Washington Post quoted his advice:
“The real value creation, especially in the technological revolution, is not just from the engineers but the people who connect the humanities to technology, or the arts to science,” he said. “That has been the theme so far of the digital revolution,” he said.
The Post article goes on to report that “Isaacson called on those who study the sciences and humanities to pursue knowledge of the others’ discipline, and to come together to develop the transformative technologies of the future,” paraphrasing an observation he’s made elsewhere recently. As Isaacson said, “One of the conclusions I came to was it wasn’t just lone visionaries who made this happen.”
He put it more starkly last month, in an interview for Harvard Gazette:
Those of us who write biographies know that to some extent we distort history. We make it seem like somebody in a garage or in a garret has a ‘light-bulb moment’ and the world changes, when in fact creativity is a collaborative endeavor and a team sport.
These ideas aren’t new. Around a century ago Shaw wrote this in the preface to his play Major Barbara:
“If there is such a thing on the philosophic plane as a matter of course, it is that no individual can make more than a minute contribution to it. In fact, the conception of clever persons parthenogenetically bringing forth complete original cosmogonies by dint of sheer ‘brilliancy’ is part of that ignorant credulity which is the despair of the honest philosopher, and the opportunity of the religious impostor.”
So, same ideas, differently (but always wonderfully) expressed.
You can see that same humility in these dispatches from CSU faculty at the bleeding edge of one discipline – a hunger to build on the understanding of others. Except these survey responses have a new wrinkle, amid the chronic pleas for money, staff, equipment, and release time: they want help conducting interdisciplinary research.
Until very recently, we organized the production of knowledge in isolated departments, leaving any connections to emerge on their own:
In that world, whose assumptions shaped ours, the premium was on sustained focus and individual reputation within the discipline, as established by sole or leading credit for publication reviewed by peers – that is, by other experts in the same field. It sounds a little incestuous, and can be. (A friend of mine in a private non-profit university calls it “the quarterly journal of You Scratch My Back and I’ll Scratch Yours.”) But for generations, this system served us pretty well.
Looking ahead, we want to add support for the interdisciplinary production of knowledge, filling in the buffer zone around disciplines:
That is, we’ll want to foster learning that’s not just collective, but contiguous.
And in this emerging world, the new premium is on openness to exogenous ideas, on lucid communication crafted for educated outsiders, and on getting along. We could see tenure decisions based not only on contributions to fields in isolation, but also, maybe even mostly, on the candidate’s ability to help other people apply those contributions to their own work.
Behind the scenes, universities and the informal learning communities that flourish inside them should stop leaving those interdepartmental connections to chance. Instead, we can add value by cultivating the boundaries, the interfaces between ways of knowing.
This occurred to me as I was reading a Steven Pinker book on good writing, called The Sense of Style. As a language junkie I’m a pushover for such stuff, but Pinker’s angle is especially intriguing: a psychologist, he draws his advice from concepts like working memory, the human attention span, and cognitive load. The result is equal parts utilitarian and beautiful, a grammar book that puts purpose above tradition.
But there’s also something fundamental in here, bigger than sentence structure and central to the way we share our ideas.
Repeatedly he comes to the chief failing of those who don’t communicate well, what he calls the “Curse of Knowledge.” As he puts it:
The main cause of incomprehensible prose is the difficulty of imagining what it’s like for someone else not to know something that you know.
One whole chapter deconstructs typically bad academic writing, of the kind that Pinker and the rest of us run into regularly. At the end he summarizes the diagnosis:
“Most of the problem comes down to the very expertise that made [the author] so qualified to write his books . . . after a lifetime of scholarship he was so laden with erudition that his ideas came avalanching down faster than he could organize them.”
I think there’s a reason this theory-of-mind argument recurs in a psych-based grammar book: understanding the other is essential to the negotiation of space between consciousness, to filling in those gaps between us, and between our academic departments. Listening carefully, evaluating how much your audience already knows, and then sequencing the new information for optimal understanding, is a growing part of the job. We seem to be running out of ways to make progress without it.
This leaves me wondering if we’ll see a new set of organizing principles shape our intra-system learning communities, along with our journals of faculty research, our student research competitions, and, I guess eventually, our colleges and departments.
They’d all be better suited to the work ahead if they promoted interpersonal and interdisciplinary communication, bringing people together on the basis not of where they came from (the way we do now), but of where they want to go.
Here’s something I find interesting: the mass of an animal’s brain correlates very well with the mass of the rest of it. That is, most of what the brain does seems to relate to sheer embodiment: moving around, tracking the various sensory inputs. Keeping the lights on, as it were. The longer your string of lights – say, if you’re an elephant – then the more processing power you need. And the correlation is surprisingly linear.
Here’s a version of that relationship as I found it online, in a chart prepared by Harry J. Jerison of UCLA:
The red line in the middle is the typical ratio, with variation for particular species represented by the dots on either side.
Now, ranking animal intelligence is problematic: the different species need different aptitudes depending on their niche. So a cat is very smart at being a cat, but dumb at being a dog. But it’s interesting to me that the animals we consider brainy, like wolves, do in fact end up above the red line. Those below, not so much.
Putting it another way, if I’m locked in a room and need a bird to bring me the key, I’d rather count on the crow than the ostrich.
So the first thing about this chart is there seems to be something to it.
The second thing is that those of us above the red line tend to be social. Cooperation with others requires a whole new tier of mental stamina, as you may know from staff meetings. L’enfer, c’est les autres.
And the third thing, the ringer: after you control for body mass, there’s not a lot distance from smart to stupid. I think of that as analogous to the way a modest pay raise can feel like more than it is. Once you’ve covered the nervous system’s nut, the rest is pin money. Now you can hunt in packs, or echo-locate your way back to the cave.
The relatively small difference between us and porpoises may indicate the limits of this chart. There are probably things that matter for brain power more than mere mass, such as the number of folds, or the ratio of synapses to neurons. Intelligence itself is so hard to define that it’s hard for us to say what physical traits engender it.
But still, I think our proximity to the porpoise is thought-provoking. I look at that and wonder what made that slight advantage so significant? I mean, how come at Sea World, we’re not the ones performing for them?
I think it’s because we took our slight advantage in intelligence and made it accumulate over time.
Most who obsess over such questions will tell you that humans aren’t the only animals with language and culture, that you can see symbolic communication among bees for example, or local habits of conduct shared and passed down within groups of baboons.
But we’re certainly the first to take such full advantage of them. By learning stuff and passing it along – across time and space with language and culture – we spare each generation the need to start from scratch. Over the long haul, this turned a miniscule edge into an astonishing lead.
It’s like other small changes that accumulate over time, like bacteria growth or asset appreciation, or the observation Jared Diamond makes in Guns, Germs and Steel, about the relative nutritional value of some grasses from one continent to the other. Give one side a little advantage and a lot of time, and the differences become stark.
And I’ll admit it: this chart makes me proud to work in education. It reminds me that the raw material wasn’t nearly as crucial as our ability to share and transfer what we learn. We took that marginal extra distance from the axis, and with teaching and learning, we compounded it over time like interest. It’s essentially human. It’s magic.
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It was an energizing experience – the group covered four walls of a ballroom with good ideas, and I’ll bet many of them will happen soon. The provost and most deans were in attendance, the provost for every minute. The place means business.
You can click the image to the left to download the presentation Greg and I made, or see Denver for the good stuff.
Last week I visited United Arab Emirates University to address its convocation of the new academic year. Candidly, I find just typing that pretty exciting. There are those of my breed – that is, higher ed geeks who travel around and make speeches – who are more jaded. (“Do you fly on points?” “No, PowerPoints.”) But for me this was a flippin’ thrill.
I’d never before been anywhere on the Arabian Peninsula. So there I am listening to my hosts, trying to focus on their questions of student engagement in the CSU, and all I can think is how I might sneak a selfie with a camel. Before the trip I’d fantasized about white robes, otherworldliness. Sitting on floor cushions and eating with my fingertips. But I also know it’s a McDonald’s and Ikea world out there, and braced myself for a letdown.
But so help me it’s still there, the calls to prayer, the crowding and wealth, the extreme hospitality, the omnipresent dates, and yes, even the flowing white robes and headgear. In fact, the traditional dress is such a given that it’s drawn onto the silhouettes of crosswalk signs.
Some of the old world touches can rankle. The country’s class system is explicit; that white and checkered headgear is the dress only of the nationals, called “Emirati.” Although they hold a growing number of executive positions, much of the day-to-day work of the university, and for that matter of the country, seems performed by expatriate workers brought in. Emirati don’t need to cook or clean, or in many cases even drive. I can’t be too judgmental here – you will hear very little English among the dishwashers and farmworkers of California – but the strata are starker here.
And then there are gender relations, which I’m not sure what to make of. Those top Emirati exec positions are largely male, but here, too, people who sit on glass ceilings shouldn’t throw stones. Although there are women in the CSU who outrank me, it’s telling that everyone who reports to me is female, and those I report to are male. No exceptions on either side of me. Similarly, in the UAE five cabinet positions out of 25 are held by women. It’s a hard thing to measure precisely, but female authority seems about equally attenuated on both sides.
The classrooms and labs segregate students by gender, something we don’t do. But I left wondering if we should try it: UAEU is trying to get more males into Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math, to balance all the successful women engineers and scientists it produces. That’s right; the country is running a surfeit of females in STEM. Faced with the opposite problem in the CSU, I was agog. I asked if all those female STEM grads were getting jobs. “Oh, yes. The country is culturally conservative, but the women do work. Many are engineers.”
I asked what the men majored in instead. In fact many of the high-performing high school graduates pursue college overseas. Many others don’t pursue education at all; the country is ahead of us in the loss of men in college. At the CSU the male portion is 40% and falling; at UAEU it’s already down to 25%.
Maybe when we get down to 25%, we’ll also find that our STEM gender gap has reversed. I’d like to close it by other means.
The university’s academic and administrative structures feel oddly American, the upshot of decades of consulting with westerners like myself. Instruction is in English, the curriculum and selection of majors familiar; they even have our quirkiest contribution to higher ed, General Education. They’re up for accreditation by WASC, the same U.S. regional that does the CSUs. There’s a meal card, a student affairs division, dorms, and a registrar’s office. Many of the bad habits came in too – lectures, content emphasis, disciplinary silos. All this eleven time zones away. It’s disorienting.
Maybe I’m biased by the way I parachuted in, but I have to believe globalization fuels this university. The UAE has a near monopoly on safety in a part of the world where jet planes can just about make it on a tank of gas. If you’re going to have a layover somewhere, it’s likely to be here, the O’Hare or DFW for the world. (See a recent Wall Street Journal op ed from the ambassador, on keeping your cool in a tough neighborhood.)
Before we left the LAX runway, a PA announcement catalogued the languages of our Etihad Airlines flight crew: Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Hindi, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish, Turkish, and two others I didn’t catch. I’m not kidding. Think of those currents of culture, creativity, and ideas, swirling together in the mega cities of Dubai and Abu Dhabi, and lapping up to the universities in between. Think of living in that. Making it your base for study.
Seeing such a confluence rise out of the desert, built on oil and an ideal location, it’s hard not to think of earlier trade hubs striking it rich – 13th century Venice, or 19th century London. Or the Silk Road. After all, the world’s clearinghouse of knowledge was once its Arabic trade routes, along which the eastern world curated Roman and Hellenistic thought for centuries, while a few countries to the west we were still cleaving each other with broadswords and meat axes, the lights out for a while to come.
Fast forward a millennium to visit a staggeringly cosmopolitan, polyglot hub of learning, built on a commodity and occupying another crossroads, and it kind of makes sense. The next step, once they’ve won their accreditation and can relax a little, will be to think critically about which parts of the U.S. approach they can drop. They’re diversifying away from oil as fast as they can; there are probably some higher ed organizational habits that should go the same way.
A couple of posts ago I described indications that our economy increasingly prizes attention. These days, rich people and poor people both have many of the same gadgets, but the poor have less access to human-delivered services like education, health care, and legal help. That’s the consumer’s perspective, the attention we buy.
At the same time, our students are graduating into a world where the main thing they will sell is their attention: their ability to focus, to empathize, to make connections. The producer’s perspective.
Both of these signs of an ascendant “attention economy” affect higher education.
On the consuming or buying side, higher ed’s function as a driver of upward mobility gets harder to demonstrate, as some consumption gets less conspicuous.
On the producing or selling side, the common curriculum of all bachelor’s degrees – that is, general education – could anticipate the new valuations by foregrounding attention-related intellectual proficiencies, like cross-cultural competence, executive function, and the ability to argue in ways that are interesting as well as persuasive.
As I was writing that post, it occurred to me that its perspective was all microeconomic, following the incentives and actions of individual decision-makers.
Other likely upshots of the attention economy are macroeconomic, on a collective and social scale. But the implications on that front struck me as too weird for plausibility, so I stopped writing.
Now that it’s a few weeks later I think they’re still weird, but more plausible.
First, a word about wealth, not just for individual people but for the planet.
Every once in a while it surprises me to remember that everything we use, touch, and consume started as stuff in the ground. The fax machine, the pepperoni Hot Pocket, and the Mona Lisa all owe their origins, ultimately, to mining and agriculture. Everything else that brought them about came from us.
And as production gets more clever and efficient, the same finite raw material ends up as more and better finished goods, and wealth increases. Over the millennia those advantages have added up, to things like space ships and keyless cars and shampoo + conditioner in one.
When you put these next to each other they’re surprisingly stark:
|origins of wealth||growers of wealth|
That’s it. And for the first column, the Earth is carrying pretty much the same net nutritional and mineral value as it did when the comets stopped pelting us. That humans are far better off today than when we first dropped from the trees is owing entirely to the second column.
Now, in an attention economy, innovations and efficiencies arise not from tinkering with the assembly line, but from improving human cognition. The more developed each person’s intellectual capacity, the more high-quality attention there is to go around, and the more of it we have to divvy up. That is, you grow large-scale wealth with social work, corrections (in those rare cases of rehabilitation) and — most of all — with education.
That’s always been true, but it’s truer in an attention economy. Now the extra smarts aren’t just the means to a faster, say, assembly line; they are the end themselves. My colleagues and I may be the new miners and farmers.
A recent Frontline story looked at the city of Baton Rouge, and efforts by a group of affluent suburbs to break off and form a separate city of their own. This would considerably impoverish those left behind. According to the story, this is happening in cities across the south, where decades of mandated desegregation mixed good schools with bad. Now that’s unraveling. Even the liberals among the rich white parents support the drive to separate, to make sure their own children are well educated no matter what. It’s hard to fault them.
But watching the piece, I was most disappointed in the arguments on the other side. Advocates of city unity, and so tacitly also of racial integration, did a poor job defending their positions.
Some of them said staying together was the right thing to do on moral and altruistic grounds (in my experience, never a potent defense for public education). Others merely squirmed.
What I didn’t hear was the argument that strikes me as truest and most compelling: we want even our poorest neighbors to be well educated, because it makes us all richer.
I don’t mean in an abstract, humanitarian, road-to-Damascus sense, I mean it literally brings us more of the goods and services we want, raising standards of living, even in the neighborhoods that were already well off.
Because when wealth is measured by the ability to provide and command high-quality human attention, the production of more and better attention, education becomes the main source of material abundance.
I’m 90% sure.