Saturday, November 5, 2011

The future of the economy and how it relates to education

(this is a facebook comment I wrote and then decided to save here because I've been thinking about this stuff a bit)

My prognosis: Unemployment will continue to increase, as it has in Europe. Such employment as does exist will continue to change, becoming more about ideas, entertainment, design, and (probably the largest sector) service. This is the natural continuation of the long-term trend of technology reducing the need for large numbers of people in the means of production. Eventually this trend will also reach the economies where the factories are today - think China, Brazil, etc.

The upshot of all this is that we will have to let go of the expectation that everyone gets a job in the traditional sense. I think our goals in education should shift from a focus on "education is good because it will get you a job" toward "education is good because it makes you a better, happier, healthier, more complete person, one who can live a fulfilling life and be a citizen of the world."

In particular, I would like to see a balancing in mathematics instruction between "here is math that lets you engineer a sprocket" and "here is math that improves your overall habits of mind and helps you to reason logically in all areas."

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Ghostspotting: Belated Halloween musings on epistemology

RenĂ© Descartes, who famously created a whole year of high school math just trying to get his servant to kill a fly on the ceiling, thought that the human soul was hanging out in the pineal gland, up in the middle of your brain.

The pineal gland is smaller than a chickpea, which is what Paul Giamatti’s soul looked like in the movie Cold Souls. Descartes would approve.

But if you can’t make hummus out of souls, then ghosts are the next best thing. The words are even used interchangeably, sometimes. And I believe in lots of things that I’ve seen as many times as I’ve seen ghosts. Blue whales. Atoms. India.

Really, we’d better hope we’ve got souls somewhere, because otherwise what is there that makes humans so special compared to Watson and his digital kin? After you’ve lost Jeopardy, how long is it before you lose your job, your girlfriend, and your seat at church?

And ghosts are nothing! I believe in neutrinos, which are so nearly invisible that the great state university of Wisconsin uses a whole cubic kilometer of Antarctic ice just trying to figure out if there are any coming our way. It’s called the IceCube Neutrino Telescope.

I also believe in Einstein’s theories of relativity, which suggest, among other things, that if you stay home while I go for a jog, I’ll be younger relative to you afterward - and that nothing can go faster than light, ever.

This is so deeply believed, that when some European scientists said that they detected neutrinos going faster than light, a New York scientist said, on the record, that he would bet his house that they were wrong.*

And some people say they’ve really seen ghosts! I know the senses are fallible, but I’m pretty much married to mine, for better or worse. Would you bet your house that all those people who saw ghosts are wrong?

It comes down to how we decide what to believe. Are you less likely to kick your grandma if you believe she might haunt you? Are you more likely to support human rights for Ethiopians if you believe they have immortal souls? Maybe it’s worth believing.

But nobody thinks souls are physically hiding out in the base of your brain these days. What do modern people think of the pineal gland? People say it keeps you from getting horny as a kid, and it helps you get to sleep when the sun goes down, but the details are still as fuzzy as a graveyard Polaroid.