oh, the humanities – part two


The earlier post in this set gave a typical defense of the humanities – disciplines like religion, philosophy, languages, and literature – which is that we all benefit from understanding ourselves as part of a bigger purpose. That intellectual birthright, systematically developed in college, helps orient our work and lives afterward. So, good job security for the soul searchers and poets, right?

In recent centuries, at least in the west, the searchers and poets have clumped around varieties of humanism – an ethic different from the set of disciplines called “the humanities,” but arising from them. Humanism takes the human condition as a self-contained, self-evident good, man as the measure of all things.

For some of us – maybe the majority on American campuses – it’s “secular humanism,” agnostic if not godless. We readily admit to a universe that includes the supernatural, imperceptable, and mysterious – whether called branes, dark matter, or Quetzalcoatl. But we don’t take daily cues from it.

These days even formal religions seem influenced by humanism, as we see falling from favor those that discount or threaten human well-being, for example by preaching intolerance, mutilation, or virgin sacrifice. They just don’t draw crowds like they used to.

So, humanism for all, and the answer to the eternally nagging Why is apparently some version of “because it’s us.”

That alone fuels a lot of the human enterprise. We work hard, cure diseases, and write apps for smart phones not just to get ahead personally, but also to add to the overall stock of human happiness. The more you contribute to the common good instead of the personal one, the more virtuous you feel, but really it’s all just different versions of petting ourselves. It’s been a surprisingly durable way of avoiding the question Why, at least up to now.

If that’s about to change – and I think it is – then college curriculum in the humanities should brace itself. But for what? The acceleration of change on a few fronts has made it harder for colleges and universities to guess what’s around the next hedge.

tara-johninmazeThose fronts:

1. Machine learning is now mostly inductive, a lot like human learning. As they catch on, our gadgets are taking over not just factory work but also driving, diagnosing disease, and even making art. Already our computers can translate, and our phones can see. Whatever our colleges teach people to do next, we want to take care that it’s things people will still be the ones doing.

2. To higher education this raises a not insignificant question: what is that? In other words, at the maturity of our current AI growth spurt, what will remain as the competitive advantage of homo sapiens, and then how do we organize our curriculum to cultivate it, so our graduates can be employed? The answer, increasingly, may be volition.

Machines can find, solve, and invent many more things than they used to, but we humans still have a corner on wanting to.

So does it come down to that? Will college learning be mostly about purpose and meaning, about why we should want some things more than others? About the nature of the good life, of telling right from wrong?

I would welcome that, but also enjoy the irony, that the build-out of our STEM infatuated, high-tech world could usher in a golden age for the arts and humanities.

Except that:

3. The idea of free will itself is under new fire, beautifully summarized in a recent Atlantic article. It was never on solid footing, empirically speaking: we feel like we act for ourselves but it’s been mighty hard to prove. Now we’re seeing that the interval between deciding to take action and taking it may be reversed; that is, that an opaque cognitive curtain keeps us from knowing what we do for a moment or two, during which we mentally process the intention, fooling ourselves into thinking our wishes matter.

In the context of machine learning, this may be an even bigger deal than we think. It seems that if a day comes when we have to concede we lack free will, then on that day we will really have run out of uniquely human capacities.

And that means we will also have to face up to the circularity of secular humanism and our longstanding measure of meaning, ourselves. It may not be enough anymore to say art, or health, or technology are valuable because they advance the human condition, because that condition will no longer be exclusively human.

On that day, maybe coming up fast, we’ll have reached the end of the street down which we kick the can that asks Why.


What does a forward-looking university do then? I am not sure, but hope I’m not sitting on the platform behind the commencement speaker who has to explain that intellectual bequest to the next generation. “It’s been a pretty good run but we kind of ran out of steam toward the end there.”

I was ruminating on this, rummaging around for a ready reason to go to work each day when the present one sputters out, when a couple of experiences gave me hope that the humanities may yet have some good continuing uses, even after they’re understood as not uniquely human. One was a textbook I read this Christmas on macroeconomics, and the other was a day last month that I spent in prison.

But more on those later.

Image credits: airships.net, Tara in Poland, International Business Seminars

oh, the humanities – part one


Before getting into academic administration I taught film and wrote screenplays. I’ve always liked movies, but not the same way as other film people. I don’t enjoy being on sets, for instance, or have a strong opinion about different movie stars, or whether we shoot on film or video. What draws me is the stories, that can feel like novels brought to life. (Some people who haven’t met her feel a personal connection to Emma Stone; I feel closer to Tess of the d’Urbervilles.)

Colleges and universities have trouble categorizing film departments. Usually we end up in the visual and performing arts, next to painting, dance, photography, and theater. I like the company but never felt a part of it; I get tired at night and I don’t smoke.

Instead I’ve identified with the literature and philosophy people, whose raw material feeds Hollywood. It was a little isolating, a storyteller exiled to live with the artists, like I should have had my own bathroom.

diagramIn college administration for an entire campus, the difference is less stark: arts and humanities are typically grouped together, film courses can land with either group, and the two feel equally dissed by the public’s obsession with STEM, degree production, and gainful employment. We are united in beleagueredness; you can spot us by our short shrifts.

This post will add to the handwringing about the humanities, but in a different way.

Frankly I’m not as worried as others about the prospects for our departments of literature, languages, philosophy, and religion. We have all been stepchildren at least since the Athenian system office poured Socrates a glass of hemlock, and yet we’re all still here. Apparently there’s something inherently necessary about making meaning.

No matter their majors and eventual professions, our students need and want to know how to string together their experiences into something significant. They expect college to help them read purpose into their lives. At denominational institutions they learn one way to do that; at secular comprehensives like mine, they can learn them all.

That urge to assign significance marks my humanist colleagues at committee meetings. In my experience this is truest when they try to talk to social scientists who – burdened with insecurities of their own – resist embellishment of any kind. People in psychology, public policy, and sociology don’t want to make meaning so much as discover it. Crossing that line feels to them like fudging the findings.

Consider this sample paragraph from a text on a subject dear to my heart, student success:

Five years ago the California State University began requiring incoming students to take summer classes before the freshman year, whenever their test scores indicated they were short of college-level proficiency in English, math, or both. As the new policy has covered a greater share of the students who are eligible, the CSU has seen a dramatic reduction in rates of fall remediation. Other factors are also at play; for example, California high schools now encourage more of their students to take rigorous college prep courses. Still, these results suggest the policy is working.

If you take out the last sentence, then to humanists the argument feels incomplete.

But if you leave it in, social scientists will worry that you’ve said more than the evidence supports.

For much of this decade I’ve been a humanist among social scientists, who work in higher education research, learning science, and policy. Their writing often looks to me like all the last sentences are missing. I’ve gotten past longing for my own bathroom door, but I sometimes want a different color in Track Changes.

Yet in the long run these distinctions are a comfort. The urge to assign significance, to answer a why with a because, gives my tribe its staying power. Few may have the nerve to declare a major in philosophy, but we all need a dose.

So then where is the new threat?

Well, in my opinion, for much of our history when we get to the rest of the “because,” we have been kind of cheating.

If you back up to the scale of millennia, then you can see the answer to “why” evolving in a clear direction. As far as we can tell, the earliest humans thought deeply about their purpose and the meaning of their lives. Even before we took our current physical form as Cro-Magnons we were acknowledging our dead in burial rituals, signaling an awareness of our own mortality, and an urge to defy it.


Most embryonic cultures, including a handful that persist to this day, have venerated the dead and especially their ancestors. Moving forward in time you see the addition of supernatural beings, whether one or many, and myths of origin and destiny. These conceptions of a broader context orient our lives while we’re on earth, setting the tone for business deals, codes of law, and good manners, for example.

In Europe you can mark the apex of this approach around the 13th century, with Aquinas on the eve of the Great Schism and other fissures that challenged the assumption of One True anything beyond our immediate perception – challenges that included contact with cultures elsewhere, who read the invisible universe very differently, yet thrived.

From that point on – roughly the Italian Renaissance and the beginning of secular humanism in its present form – the argument gets strangely circular. Why are humans worth helping? Because they’re human. Why do we work hard? To promote human happiness. Why is human happiness valuable? Uh, it just is, and we take these truths to be self-evident. ‘Nother words, don’t hold your breath waiting for proof.

At a time of disruption and upheaval, at the trading crossroads of dozens of civilizations and three continents, the Italian humanists were relieved to rediscover the ancient Greek resort to the one indisputable universal: Man is the Measure of All Things.

With a tweak since then for gender equality, the slogan has served us surprisingly well for the last six or seven centuries.

library__3153But I think its time is running out, probably within our lifetimes. And for the life of me I’m not seeing a ready replacement.

I worry.

But more on that later.

Image credits: airships.net, National Geographic, fourthdoor.org

the next flavor of quantitative reasoning?

Until recently I worked at the CSU system office. Like other states, California is wondering about math – who needs it, how much of it, and for what. My own background in the humanities sometimes let me claim an outsider’s objectivity, but most who know me know I happen to like quantitative reasoning.

When you ask which quantitative skills are useful for all college graduates, you get strange answers, that change over time. I find it a helpful trajectory to keep in mind, as we try to guess what’s next.


Some of our earliest recorded uses of math relate to counting, taxation, and calendars – things that were useful for the emerging technologies of settlement, agriculture, and sharing resources with strangers. These yielded some of our biggest initial breakthroughs, and legacies like separating circles into a number of degrees approximating the number of days in a year.

As astronomy outgrew human eyesight, we measured moving objects with more precision than counting alone could accurately model. We developed calculus surprisingly soon after the telescope’s wide adoption in the 17th century. That knack for representing rates of change that themselves change over time went on to liberate several centuries of engineering.

If there’s a shift in our own era, then people in many public universities and state systems are trying hard to recognize it. Insistence on calculus as the pinnacle of quantitative reasoning – and the particular algebraic skills required to ascend it – has come under recent fire. It turns out that such algebra is beyond the reach of many students, or maybe just of their grade schools’ powers of preparation.

Yet these days more and more people need college, relatively few of whom go on to launch rockets. Weeding them all out over calculus feels like shortchanging both the students and the broader society, which regularly tells the state universities it would like us to produce more graduates.

Which has us wondering whether there are other kinds of quantitative reasoning that might do instead.

If there’s a front-runner in these sweepstakes then it’s statistics. Just as the telescope made fluency in calculus useful, the technological breakthroughs of virtually connected databases – big data – suddenly make ordinary people want to understand and work confidently with large pools of numeric information: how within those oceans to recognize patterns, to roil a record set, to surface significance.

This is no longer just a skill for government economists, the stats counterpart to algebra’s rocket scientist: these days we all need it. For most of us these vast record sets are as close as the phones in our pockets, and we’re expected as citizens and employees to respond intelligently to what they tell us.

agsi-bhi-asset-heatmap-2262449This way of life is becoming a given so quickly that it’s hard to picture today’s college students using the phrase “big data” into mid-career, any more than my generation is likely to say “color TV.” It all is.

So then are we already too late? Should higher ed be peering around the corner past statistics, and bracing ourselves for other kinds of quantitative reasoning? At this moment of transition we have an opportunity to embrace diverse kinds of quantitative reasoning, before we simply replace one hegemony with another.

Lately I’ve started to wonder. One of the detours relatively late along the road to calculus is a branch of math called “optimization,” which seems increasingly indispensable in a world with too many people and a finite store of food, water, and carbon sinks.

We won’t all need this the way we all need statistical fluency, but it is growing, and spilling out of work and into citizenship, a sure sign that it’s positioned for a GE requirement. Your first exposure to it and mine, if we live another decade or two, is likely to come with your first purchase of a drone or self-driving car.

For a couple of centuries this branch of mathematics has been fiddling with the Traveling Salesman Problem, which seeks to calculate the shortest round-trip route comprising a number of destinations. It is surprisingly hard to solve, and above a threshold number of cities may be literally unsolveable. (For a lucid account see the 2013 story in Wired.) This is relevant to more than Fuller brush salesmen: shortest-route calculations could improve the design of computer chips, for example, or of chemically synthesized DNA.

Meanwhile, in an unrelated development, we seem to be crossing an exciting milestone in the reduction of pilot and driver error, which is the reduction of pilots and drivers. Self-flying drones and self-driving cars have raised the prospect – with Detroit automakers at least – of a new kind of vehicle ownership, moving off the one-driver-one-car paradigm and getting to something closer to sharing and swapping, driverless cars going empty down a stretch of road, summoned by the next temporary user.

Think about that for a moment, all those GPS-enabled devices rolled up onto serverfuls of big data, mapped to an infinite combination of nodes on a round trip that never ends, not just calculating that elusive optimization problem but living it. It’s not hard to think of a machine-learning solution to a problem unassisted humans have called unsolvable.

Whether it comes to pass or not, that kind of discipline-crossing quantitative reasoning, dipping into just enough algebraic reasoning, arithmetic, and sheer number sense to support other kinds of math, seems worth building into college for everyone.

Image source:  “Greek Astronomy” at ibiblio.org



In antiquity Alexandria was second only to Rome. The north African port was home to a famous library and one of the seven wonders of the world, the lighthouse Pharos. Both are long gone, but you can see some remains of the physical library.

Visible remnants of the library at Alexendria, Egypt.

That was about all I thought of it until reading Stephen Greenblatt’s Pulitzer prize-winning The Swerve, which recounts the discovery in 1417 of a poem by Lucretius believed lost. This can sound like dry stuff but the story is vividly, almost luridly told, Greenblatt arguing that this is a moment to which the modern world can trace its origin.


His passage on Alexandria fits into a larger discussion of how all that ancient learning got lost in the first place – fire and intolerance directed at the books themselves, but also sheer time, random periods of social unrest, excessive scrolling and unscrolling, and bookworms.

In the center of the city, at a lavish site known as the Museum, most of the intellectual inheritance of Greek, Latin, Babylonian, Egyptian, and Jewish cultures had been assembled at enormous cost and carefully archived for research. Starting as early as 300 BCE, the Ptolomaic kings who ruled Alexandria had the inspired idea of luring leading scholars, scientists, and poets to their city by offering them life appointments at the Museum, with handsome salaries, tax exemptions, free food and lodging, and the almost limitless resources of the library.

Maybe it’s just because I work in one, but this sounds to me a lot like a university, down to the institution of tenure – but a good dozen centuries before the medieval European institutions we usually cite as our beginnings.

The library at Alexandria as it may have looked.

And these weren’t merely repositories of knowledge: like our own, they were also expected to generate it:

The recipients of this largesse established remarkably high intellectual standards. Euclid developed his geometry in Alexandria; Archimedes discovered pi and laid the foundation for calculus; Eratosthenes posited that the Earth was round and calculated its circumference to within 1 percent; Galen revolutionized medicine. Alexandrian astronomers postulated a heliocentric universe; geometers deduced that the length of a year was 364 1/4 days and proposed adding a “leap day” every fourth year . . .

. . . The Alexandrian library was not associated with a particular doctrine or philosophical school; its scope was the entire range of intellectual inquiry. It represented a global cosmopolitanism, a determination to assemble the accumulated knowledge of the whole world and to perfect and add to this knowledge.

Who knew? Probably many who read this blog, but I found it a surprising and reassuring sign of something old and essentially human.

However bleak things get, or overrun with fire, unrest, and digital bookworms, we apparently feel driven to systematically and cooperatively keep track of what we know, and add to it.

Image credits: pegnsean.net, thelivingmoon.com

news from Bowling Green, KY


Western Kentucky University has a lot in common with the California State Universities that have employed me for around ten years. It’s an access-oriented, regional comprehensive university, it’s proud of its continuing academic quality in the face of unpredictable challenges, and it would like to improve its graduation rates.

To that end, the university leaders are looking at educational practices that engage their students personally in their learning, making them less likely to drop out.

On Friday I paid WKU a visit to learn more, and share what we’re doing in California. Our discussions focused on high-impact practices, and making them work for a greater share of WKU students by identifying a handful that can be offered consistently, equitably, and campus-wide.

For example, like some CSU campuses, WKU may decide to focus on service learning, undergraduate research, and internships in particular. Those few would then be systematically offered, coded into student records, and regularly assessed for impact.

The links in this sentence will take you to my slides from the morning presentation and the afternoon workshop.

For my part, these are points I want to remember from Friday’s meetings:

  1. Everyone is an educator. Although faculty are authors of WKU’s educational programs, I was struck that our meetings were attended in equal parts by advisers, staff, student leaders, administrators – pretty much everyone who interacts with students. I think one value of high-impact practices is that they take advantage of all the ways humans learn; to that end, this full-spectrum participation seems especially important.
  2. Intentional work requires ongoing professional development. WKU’s efforts in this area are led by Jerry Daday, Executive Director of its Center for Faculty Development. His involvement will be crucial: during a closing discussion of the resources needed for scale-up, people said they needed dedicated training for staff and faculty even more than they needed money.
  3. Colleges will want a role. This was the biggest surprise of my visit, that deans and associate deans need to see themselves in the emerging approach, and will be unhappy if they can’t. Because high-impact practices are often connected to the student’s choice of major, departments won’t feel their identities threatened. And at the large scale of the whole university, picking a handful of signature high-impact practices for everyone will strengthen the institution’s identity. But what about the layer in between the campus and its departments – say, the College of Arts and Letters, or the College of Nursing?

I’m not sure what to do about that. A good answer may lie in integrated approaches to curriculum, like the AAC&U GEMs project, or in “meta-majors,” broad clusters of related subjects that students pursue before they know exactly what to major in. Such integrated pathways may reside in a single college, and lend themselves to a distinct set of high-impact practices.

(References to meta-majors are getting more common, but the field doesn’t have a single authority I can link you to. One example I like is from Complete College America, which describes meta-majors in its “Guided Pathways to Success” toolkit. See the PowerPoint here, and especially slide 22.)

Or maybe, as some in the meetings believed, bringing along the colleges just isn’t a problem: we need those administrative units behind the scenes, and not because our students should know where they are on the org chart.

I get it, but I’m not so sure. We may find that more should be done at the college level with high-impact practices, and how they bring students in, and support their decision to stay.

team science part one

web meeting

Increasingly I find myself joining or convening teams online, for some focused discussion that may take half an hour to an hour. In a world of laptops, smart phones, and tablets, all webcam enabled, I’m getting new insights into my friends’ living rooms, bedrooms, and airline preferences.

I’m also learning that for a given task and ad hoc group of people, two or three of these short meetings, spaced about a week apart, can be more effective than conference calls or traveling to a single longer meeting.

But with longer and more complicated projects, the collaboration is harder to optimize. And what we’re seeing with the development of knowledge – a core business of higher education – is that the projects are all getting longer and more complicated.

That is, we face a dwindling number of pressing research questions that can be answered by a solitary faculty member. Instead, the new premium is on interdisciplinary teams, say in combinations of chemists, political scientists, economists, and engineers, pulling together to compare competing energy policies. Or cognitive scientists, educators, psychologists, social workers, nutritionists, and pediatricians figuring out the critical components of the first year of human life.


These are questions that universities are well positioned to take on. We have the carrying capacity, the troves of smart people from different walks of life and ways of knowing. They are each expert in some field of inquiry.

What hardly any of my colleagues and I are expert in is how to work together toward a common goal. We may have developed our share of common sense and interpersonal skills, but colleges and universities aren’t especially known for either. Until recently we were mostly collections of cranky soloists, with a lot to learn from the emerging field of team science.

Last year the National Academies Press published Enhancing the Effectiveness of Team Science, a sobering look at the challenges inherent in group research at scale. For higher education I think a few of the NAP findings and recommendations stand out.

The writers open with advice for the teams themselves, calling for intentional selection and then targeted professional development for each member, taking into account each one’s specific personality and expertise. In a separate recommendation they call for research and professional development just for the team leaders. And for geographically distributed teams that use virtual meetings – a growing part of my own job – they advise additional team-building exercises and some room for local autonomy.

They close with a set of recommendations for funders to appropriately incentivize and support team science. And in between is this recommendation leveled at higher ed:

Recommendation 6: Universities and disciplinary associations should proactively develop and evaluate broad principles and more specific criteria for allocating credit for team-based work to assist promotion and tenure committees in reviewing candidates.


In other words, we shouldn’t be surprised to find ourselves among idiosyncratic loners if our system favors them.

I’ve seen universities try different things to overcome the centrifugal force of disciplines and departments. Some are structural, like creating centers for multi-faceted inquiry into a particular complicated problem, like the Institute for Palliative Care at CSU San Marcos, or the tradition at CSU Channel Islands of coordinating annual searches across departments to create research cohorts. Others are mostly rhetorical but still effective, intentional messaging from the top and written promotion policies that value teamwork.

For the last few months I’ve been advising a team-science project called CREDITS, which is itself a large-scale collaboration. It originated as a partnership between California’s more selective and research-focused UC system and the CSU system of regional comprehensives, where I work. We’ve had in-person meetings and conference calls, and reviewed applications from faculty to join an upcoming retreat.

We asked applicants about their experience in team science, and what they found challenging. Two answers have stuck with me:

From a UC geneticist who works with government agencies, mathematicians, and attorneys: “The main obstacle to collaborative projects, in my view, is that a project is not necessarily at the same level on all the participants’ priority list, and this can result in frustrating delays.”

From a researcher in international coastal flooding: “This work is inherently interdisciplinary. As a coastal engineer, I work closely with other engineers, ecologists as well as economists and risk analysts to quantify the risk reduction value of coastal ecosystems and enhance their consideration within coastal planning and policy-making. The foremost challenge was understanding the language of another discipline, communicating my ideas and work to experts in other fields, and reaching a consensus on research goals, outcomes and process.”

I’ve thought of these two submissions more than once in just the last week, in places I didn’t expect.

To raise their graduation rates, all 23 California State Universities are trying to improve the student experience, an effort that creates new connections among faculty, front-line advisers, and a surprising number of back offices, all struggling with mismatched priorities and murky reporting relationships. Last Thursday I spoke to a doctoral student at San Diego State about her research into exactly what that’s like, and what steps administrators can take to make such collaborations easier. I’ll share her findings with you when they’re ready.

A little later the same day, I was in a meeting on the redesign of the CSU’s statewide web site. For decades it’s been organized entirely from our perspective, each department getting some dominion over pages to maintain. The redesign leadership is heroically shifting all that to a team approach, aiming for a visitor-centered site organized not by what we do, but by what visitors want to know about us.

Created with Nokia Smart Cam

Curiously, both of these were research-driven discussions, and both involved people across a mix of “disciplines” or ways of knowing, all rummaging around for a common way to talk to each other.

There is a lot at stake as we all try to get better at this – for the health of our planet, for mitigating coastal floods, and for simply getting more people through college, precisely to take on all those other problems.

But I wonder if we’re doing enough in higher education for this, or if the proficiencies of teamwork deserve more attention in the undergraduate curriculum.

Like the faculty who applied to the CREDITS retreat, my colleagues and I are too often stymied not by gaps in our specialized learning, but by under-developed tools for getting along with each other. We seem ignorant of things people outside of academia have already figured out.

The retreat is next month, and I’ll report back then.

Image credits: livingwagejourney.org, hivlawandpolicy.org.