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Self-Help for Higher Education: Should Large Research Institutions Be Avoided?
“How to Make the Most of Your College Education” has become a popular blogging theme. Megan McArdle got things started this time, but the most sensible contribution has come from the professor writing under the name Cattle King. All I’m going to do is comment one portion of King’s “two cents”:
Avoid large research institutions? Sure. You only go to college once. And the priorities of the place will have little to nothing to do with YOU. It turns out to be hard to graduate in four years in such a “warehouse” environment. It’s not that the courses are hard, but it’s a lot more difficult to find your place and figure out what you need to be doing. Well, here’s another reason: Large research universities are typically located in great towns—such as Athens, GA or Charlottesville, VA. Why would you want to leave? But you can’t get much of a job there—too much competition. So just don’t graduate. Change your major one more time. Or hang around and get a graduate degree that, for you, becomes ridiculously extended adolescence.
Point in the other direction: If YOU (meaning the kid choosing a college) are savvy and mature beyond your years, have excellent academic skills, and really are in love with learning, you can find what you need and want somewhere in almost any basically mediocre, techno-specialized, and mindlessly politically correct university. If you take an interest in a professor for the right reasons, he or she, at least once in a while, will take in an interest in you. And you can find what you want at a very low cost while enjoying the cultural amenities and diverse (in a way) community of your university town. There are various self-help guides that can tell you who the decent professors are at this or that warehouse university. There should be more and better such guides. We can even add: It may well be the case that, say, the historians at a major research university are more talented and just know that those found at “backwater” colleges. They are often more famous or highly regarded for good reasons. This is a rule that doubtless admits of a significant number of exceptions, but you know what exceptions prove.
Another point in the other direction: If you’re have the aspiration to be a research scientist or theoretical physicist or something similar, it’s at the research university that you’ll be in contact with the world-class scientists doing the cutting-edge research. I know undergraduate colleges are pushing the idea of undergraduate research. Professors at mere colleges might well be more likely to involve undergraduates in their work, given that they don’t have graduate students. But the research won’t be as groundbreaking or funded as well, and the professor’s job isn’t or shouldn’t or just can’t mainly be about cutting-edge research. Not to mention: the facilities, equipment, and such at the four-year college usually won’t be as good. So my general advice to some budding Sheldon Cooper is to go to the place where the best physicists are, and then work as hard as you can to get in good with them.
The “undergraduate research” model may make some sense in the “hard sciences,” but it distorts the social sciences and the humanities in ways that might actually undermine the singular claims of liberal arts colleges. I asked a fine biology professor here at my college about the ten best books in his field. He responded: there really aren’t any books, but I can tell you about the ten best “papers.” That means, of course, that the sciences aren’t really oriented by the achievements of the past—by Aristotle or Newton or whomever—but mainly build on the assumptions of the reigning “paradigm,” which they believe they have good reasons to believe is superior to its predecessors.
But to treat, say, political science as a science in that way is a profound disservice to students. They come to believe that the road to the cutting edge doesn’t require the careful mastery of a huge number of great or at least “real" books, and they come to specialize too quickly in order to a “research contribution” too easily. What they’re bypassing, of course, is “liberal education”—which means Plato, Aristotle, Locke, Tocqueville, The Federalist, and such. (This bypassing tendency is even found in what should be the more traditional discipline of "Englilsh" or literature. Being on the cutting edge means being in touch with the latest form of critical theory—with, say, Derrida. But Derrida himself wrote that if you read Aristotle for ten years and Nietzsche than another ten, then you might be ready to really benefit from reading me.)
The result is students end up with the dumb opinion that political scientists today have simply displaced the contributions of the past; they end up stuck in an academically dominant but, truthfully, not-so-impressive techno-paradigm (such as rational choice theory). They end up, ironically, knowing less about the real world and human psychology than they might have known had they resisted or been led to resist the temptation of scientific specialization.
They end up dissing in ignorance what has been, historically, the singular contribution of the brick-and-mortar, four-year college in the development of American leaders and scholars: an informed understanding of each of us as a whole human being living in a particular place and as part of moral and intellectual tradition.
This dissing of liberal education ends up feeding off itself. Students go on to grad school too eager to get right down to publishing without knowing all that much. They return to liberal arts colleges hyper-specialized and without the broad knowledge that comes through broad reading. So they want to teach their specialization and little more to undergrads, and they want their students to be competent little researchers like themselves. That means, in fact, that our professors and students know more and more about less and less, and they become progressively less equipped to prepare students and anyone else they might influence to become anything more than “specialists without heart.”
So the argument for avoiding large research institutions depends on the smaller colleges believing they have a distinctive method that goes beyond “small classes” and “engagement.”
In the absence of that argument, it’s hard to see why the virtues—having to do with research, diversity, and low-cost—of the large university don’t trump those of the small college. I hope Cattle King remains right because our colleges don’t continue to lose confidence in what they’re about and what the foundation of higher education really is.
A man's skeleton, found facedown with his hands bound, was unearthed near an ancient ceremonial circle during a high speed rail excavation project.
- A skeleton representing a man who was tossed face down into a ditch nearly 2,500 years ago with his hands bound in front of his hips was dug up during an excavation outside of London.
- The discovery was made during a high speed rail project that has been a bonanza for archaeology, as the area is home to more than 60 ancient sites along the planned route.
- An ornate grave of a high status individual from the Roman period and an ancient ceremonial circle were also discovered during the excavations.
Foul play?<p>A skeleton representing a man who was tossed face down into a ditch nearly 2,500 years ago with his hands bound in front of his hips was dug up during a high speed rail excavation.</p><p>The positioning of the remains have led archaeologists to suspect that the man may have been a victim of an ancient murder or execution. Though any bindings have since decomposed, his hands were positioned together and pinned under his pelvis. There was also no sign of a grave or coffin. </p><p>"He seems to have had his hands tied, and he was face-down in the bottom of the ditch," <a href="https://www.livescience.com/iron-age-murder-victim-england.html" target="_blank">said archaeologist Rachel Wood</a>, who led the excavation. "There are not many ways that you end up that way."</p><p>Currently, archaeologists are examining the skeleton to uncover more information about the circumstances of the man's death. Fragments of pottery found in the ditch may offer some clues as to exactly when the man died. </p><p>"If he was struck across the head with a heavy object, you could find a mark of that on the back of the skull," Wood said to <a href="https://www.livescience.com/iron-age-murder-victim-england.html" target="_blank">Live Science</a>. "If he was stabbed, you could find blade marks on the ribs. So we're hoping to find something like that, to tell us how he died."</p>
Other discoveries at Wellwick Farm<p>The grim discovery was made at Wellwick Farm near Wendover. That is about 15 miles north-west of the outskirts of London, where <a href="https://www.hs2.org.uk/building-hs2/hs2-green-corridor/" target="_blank">a tunnel</a> is going to be built as part of a HS2 high-speed rail project due to open between London and several northern cities sometime after 2028. The infrastructure project has been something of a bonanza for archaeology as the area is home to more than 60 ancient sites along the planned route that are now being excavated before construction begins. </p><p>The farm sits less than a mile away from the ancient highway <a href="http://web.stanford.edu/group/texttechnologies/cgi-bin/stanfordnottingham/places/?icknield" target="_blank">Icknield Way</a> that runs along the tops of the Chiltern Hills. The route (now mostly trails) has been used since prehistoric times. Evidence at Wellwick Farm indicates that from the Neolithic to the Medieval eras, humans have occupied the region for more than 4,000 years, making it a rich area for archaeological finds. </p><p>Wood and her colleagues found some evidence of an ancient village occupied from the late Bronze Age (more than 3,000 years ago) until the Roman Empire's invasion of southern England about 2,000 years ago. At the site were the remains of animal pens, pits for disposing food, and a roundhouse — a standard British dwelling during the Bronze Age constructed with a circular plan made of stone or wood topped with a conical thatched roof.</p>
Ceremonial burial site<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzUzMTk0Ni9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY0NDgwNTIyMX0.I49n1-j8WVhKjIZS_wVWZissnk3W1583yYXB7qaGtN8/img.jpg?width=1245&coordinates=0%2C82%2C0%2C83&height=700" id="44da7" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="46cfc8ca1c64fc404b32014542221275" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="top down view of coffin" data-width="1245" data-height="700" />
A high status burial in a lead-lined coffin dating back to Roman times.
Photo Credit: HS2<p>While these ancient people moved away from Wellwick Farm before the Romans invaded, a large portion of the area was still used for ritual burials for high-status members of society, Wood told Live Science. The ceremonial burial site included a circular ditch (about 60 feet across) at the center, and was a bit of a distance away from the ditch where the (suspected) murder victim was uncovered. Additionally, archaeologists found an ornately detailed grave near the sacred burial site that dates back to the Roman period, hundreds of years later when the original Bronze Age burial site would have been overgrown.</p><p>The newer grave from the Roman period encapsulated an adult skeleton contained in a lead-lined coffin. It's likely that the outer coffin had been made of wood that rotted away. Since it was clearly an ornate burial, the occupant of the grave was probably a person of high status who could afford such a lavish burial. However, according to Wood, no treasures or tokens had been discovered. </p>
Sacred timber circle<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzUzMTk0Ny9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY2MDAwOTQ4Mn0.eVJAUcD0uBUkVMFuMOPSgH8EssGkfLf_MjwUv0zGCI8/img.jpg?width=1245&coordinates=0%2C149%2C0%2C149&height=700" id="9de6a" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="ee66520d470b26f5c055eaef0b95ec06" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="An aerial view of the sacred circular monument." data-width="1245" data-height="700" />
An aerial view of the sacred circular monument.
Photo Credit: HS2<p>One of the most compelling archaeological discoveries at Wellwick Farm are the indications of a huge ceremonial circle once circumscribed by timber posts lying south of the Bronze Age burial site. Though the wooden posts have rotted away, signs of the post holes remain. It's thought to date from the Neolithic period to 5,000 years ago, according to Wood.</p><p>This circle would have had a diameter stretching 210 feet across and consisted of two rings of hundreds of posts. There would have been an entry gap to the south-west. Five posts in the very center of the circle aligned with that same gap, which, according to Wood, appeared to have been in the direction of the rising sun on the day of the midwinter solstice. </p><p>Similar Neolithic timber circles have been discovered around Great Britain, such as one near <a href="https://bigthink.com/culture-religion/stonehenge-sarsens" target="_blank">Stonehenge</a> that is considered to date back to around the same time. </p>
Research reveals a new evolutionary feature that separates humans from other primates.
- Researchers find a new feature of human evolution.
- Humans have evolved to use less water per day than other primates.
- The nose is one of the factors that allows humans to be water efficient.
A model of water turnover for humans and chimpanzees who have similar fat free mass and body water pools.
Credit: Current Biology
Being skeptical isn't just about being contrarian. It's about asking the right questions of ourselves and others to gain understanding.
- It's not always easy to tell the difference between objective truth and what we believe to be true. Separating facts from opinions, according to skeptic Michael Shermer, theoretical physicist Lawrence Krauss, and others, requires research, self-reflection, and time.
- Recognizing your own biases and those of others, avoiding echo chambers, actively seeking out opposing voices, and asking smart, testable questions are a few of the ways that skepticism can be a useful tool for learning and growth.
- As Derren Brown points out, being "skeptical of skepticism" can also lead to interesting revelations and teach us new things about ourselves and our psychology.