Once a week.
Subscribe to our weekly newsletter.
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.
What is human dignity? Here's a primer, told through 200 years of great essays, lectures, and novels.
- Human dignity means that each of our lives have an unimpeachable value simply because we are human, and therefore we are deserving of a baseline level of respect.
- That baseline requires more than the absence of violence, discrimination, and authoritarianism. It means giving individuals the freedom to pursue their own happiness and purpose.
- We look at incredible writings from the last 200 years that illustrate the push for human dignity in regards to slavery, equality, communism, free speech and education.
The inherent worth of all human beings<p>Human dignity is the inherent worth of each individual human being. Recognizing human dignity means respecting human beings' special value—value that sets us apart from other animals; value that is intrinsic and cannot be lost.</p> <p>Liberalism—the broad political philosophy that organizes society around liberty, justice, and equality—is rooted in the idea of human dignity. Liberalism assumes each of our lives, plans, and preferences have some unimpeachable value, not because of any objective evaluation or contribution to a greater good, but simply because they belong to a human being. We are human, and therefore deserving of a baseline level of respect. </p> <p>Because so many of us take human dignity for granted—just a fact of our humanness—it's usually only when someone's dignity is ignored or violated that we feel compelled to talk about it. </p> <p>But human dignity means more than the absence of violence, discrimination, and authoritarianism. It means giving individuals the freedom to pursue their own happiness and purpose—a freedom that can be hampered by restrictive social institutions or the tyranny of the majority. The liberal ideal of the good society is not just peaceful but also pluralistic: It is a society in which we respect others' right to think and live differently than we do.</p>
From the 19th century to today<p>With <a href="https://books.google.com/ngrams/graph?year_start=1800&year_end=2019&content=human+dignity&corpus=26&smoothing=3&direct_url=t1%3B%2Chuman%20dignity%3B%2Cc0" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Google Books Ngram Viewer</a>, we can chart mentions of human dignity from 1800-2019.</p><img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDg0ODU0My9vcmlnaW4ucG5nIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY1MTUwMzE4MX0.bu0D_0uQuyNLyJjfRESNhu7twkJ5nxu8pQtfa1w3hZs/img.png?width=980" id="7ef38" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="9974c7bef3812fcb36858f325889e3c6" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
American novelist, writer, playwright, poet, essayist and civil rights activist James Baldwin at his home in Saint-Paul-de-Vence, southern France, on November 6, 1979.
Credit: Ralph Gatti/AFP via Getty Images
The future of dignity<p>Around the world, people are still working toward the full and equal recognition of human dignity. Every year, new speeches and writings help us understand what dignity is—not only what it looks like when dignity is violated but also what it looks like when dignity is honored. In his posthumous essay, Congressman Lewis wrote, "When historians pick up their pens to write the story of the 21st century, let them say that it was your generation who laid down the heavy burdens of hate at last and that peace finally triumphed over violence, aggression and war."</p> <p>The more we talk about human dignity, the better we understand it. And the sooner we can make progress toward a shared vision of peace, freedom, and mutual respect for all. </p>
Scientists find that bursts of gamma rays may exceed the speed of light and cause time-reversibility.
- Astrophysicists propose that gamma-ray bursts may exceed the speed of light.
- The superluminal jets may also be responsible for time-reversibility.
- The finding doesn't go against Einstein's theory because this effect happens in the jet medium not a vacuum.
Jet bursting out of a blazar. Black-hole-powered galaxies called blazars are the most common sources detected by NASA's Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope.
Cosmic death beams: Understanding gamma ray bursts<div class="rm-shortcode" data-media_id="cu2knVEk" data-player_id="FvQKszTI" data-rm-shortcode-id="c6cfd20fdf31c82cb206ade8ce21ba3f"> <div id="botr_cu2knVEk_FvQKszTI_div" class="jwplayer-media" data-jwplayer-video-src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/cu2knVEk-FvQKszTI.js"> <img src="https://cdn.jwplayer.com/thumbs/cu2knVEk-1920.jpg" class="jwplayer-media-preview" /> </div> <script src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/cu2knVEk-FvQKszTI.js"></script> </div>
Researchers dramatically improve the accuracy of a number that connects fundamental forces.
- A team of physicists carried out experiments to determine the precise value of the fine-structure constant.
- This pure number describes the strength of the electromagnetic forces between elementary particles.
- The scientists improved the accuracy of this measurement by 2.5 times.
The process for measuring the fine-structure constant involved a beam of light from a laser that caused an atom to recoil. The red and blue colors indicate the light wave's peaks and troughs, respectively.
Scientists at Washington University are patenting a new electrolyzer designed for frigid Martian water.
- Mars explorers will need more oxygen and hydrogen than they can carry to the Red Planet.
- Martian water may be able to provide these elements, but it is extremely salty water.
- The new method can pull oxygen and hydrogen for breathing and fuel from Martian brine.