WANTED: Retired Alumni to Teach “How to Think …” Courses
by Frank Forman, Class of 1966 and Echols Scholar
March 19, 2015
What makes UVa a *good* school is the strength of its traditional major courses. By taking these courses, students stretch their minds in many different ways, in more different ways than they are likely to get anytime before or since.
So, if you took medieval history, you won’t remember “whether Charles the Fat was at Ingelheim or Lustnau on July 1, 887,” as the great historian Carl Becker put it. What might its significance possibly be? Charles III (he wasn’t assigned great girth until the 12th century) was the last king in the empire founded by Charlemagne and was deposed later that year. It could very well be that the Carolingian Empire would have gone on much longer, even to today, had Charles been in the other place.
Learning history gives you a feeling that what happens can be a matter of accident but other times a feeling of inevitability. Those who know little history might think a term like the Dark Ages is unproblematic, but it is really the absence of preserved writings and big buildings that lead admirers of both (most academics) to run down whole centuries. It took archeologists to find out that Dark Age Britons engaged in long-distance trade with India.
Closer to home, historians of the period in American history from Jackson to Lincoln label the era as the “Pre-War Years,” as though people were doing nothing except waiting for the Civil War to break out. In fact, had it not been for a certain type of fencing, raising cattle in the dryer regions of western Nebraska down through Texas would not have been possible. The ranchers there became numerous enough to engender a shift away from slavery. This resulted in a shift from a South-West alliance (the South was more west expansionist) to a North-West alliance. It took this shifting to let the North go ahead with a war. Indeed, war might have been averted many other times.
I can go on about other courses you might have taken during your education. You won’t remember the quadratic formula (-b +/- (sqrt b*2 -4ac)/2a), but you will never forget that some assertions can actually be proven. You won’t remember Newton’s universal law of gravitation; you will remember the basic ideas of the scientific method: developing concepts, deriving statements, testing them, and revising and refining when theory and experiment don’t match. History enters science: What topics get focused upon? How quickly do old theories get abandoned (Max Planck said “funeral by funeral” as the old guard dies off)? But do they sometimes get abandoned too quickly?
Good courses in these traditional fields make UVa a *good* school. What makes it a *great* school is less tangible, much to do with the spirit of Mr. Jefferson, of course, but the students being treated with the utmost maturity as well. But I have something more ambitious, fitting for that most progressive of universities. This is to offer one-semester courses in professional fields that do more then just survey a field but enable students to gain an intuitive understanding (KNOW-HOW rather than KNOW-THAT). Many of the great educators from John Dewey, Albert North Whitehead, Howard Gardner of today, and whoever said “education is what remains after you have forgotten everything you learned in school” share these ideals.
BEWARE: This is all highly speculative. I don’t know the practicalities. Time was when a university president could almost be a charismatic dictator, but today there is much consultation and negotiating to do. Nothing must seem out to lunch, over the top, or off the wall. Parents do not want to spend a lot of money on an education that will not fit into standard modes, with their children not gaining admission to the best graduate and professional schools or given the best job offers. If some of my suggested one-semester courses, or ones you may put forward, prove popular with students, graduate and professional school admissions officers, and, later, employers, UVa could well become a pioneering school.
Here are a few fields:
Economics: Economists strive to specify the exact cost and choice situation, including the choice of doing nothing. Most of us include under the cost of college tuition & books and room & board. This is the money paid out. But an economist removes room & board, since you are going to sleep and eat whether you go to college or not. On the other hand, an economist adds the earnings received and the job experiences gained if you don’t go to college. The decision to go to college by most of the secondary school seniors that are now at UVa is so automatic that this opportunity cost rarely comes up, even if a very few each year opt out of immediately going to college. Taken as a whole over all high school seniors, however, this cost is about the same as the money forked over. We are not natural economists and few outside the profession “think like an economist.” I suggest a one-semester course in how to automatically “think like an economist.”
Law: I have asked many lawyer friends what percent of what they learned in law school have the applied on the job. “Two percent.” Was going to law school a waste of time? “Absolutely not. I learned how to ‘think like a lawyer.'” What does this mean? My friends can’t say, for they have not given it much thought. I say it has much to do with traveling down multiple pathways and arguing your side for each one. Whether a law is valid depends on five factors: text of the law, intentions of the legislators, precedents, traditions, and, since the later nineteenth century, policy objectives. Their arguments turn out to be a sophisticated version of the legendary country lawyer, who said, “My client didn’t commit the murder and was crazy when he did!” But above this is the habit, nay compulsion, lawyers have of anticipating the *best* arguments of opposing counsel. In no other profession is this quite so important. Most of us look for the *worst* arguments of the opponents and ridicule them. A one-semester course in law might have one/two days a week learning about the law and two/one day in a moot court anticipating the best arguments of opposing counsel.
Medicine: Physicians’ brains are stuffed with knowledge about the human body, far more than mine ever could. The intuition part is to get a diagnosis *out* of their brains. We have been finding out, from studies of different states where nurses are given more rights than others, that nurses give just as good diagnoses as physicians! Their lack of the sheer knowledge physicians have is balanced by a better ability to diagnose. A one-semester course in how to “think like a physician” could also be one/two days learning about the body and two/one day making diagnoses. By the way, computer repair and car repair are much like medicine.
Engineering: Engineering is rarely about making a grand design and then moving on. It is mostly about tinkering with the design as it is being built and being available for consultation afterwords. Except that engineers work mostly in teams, this may not be so very different from medicine, so I leave it to experienced engineers to think about a one-semester course in how to “think like an engineer.” I note that one-semester college undergraduate courses in law, medicine, and engineering are offered at precious few colleges.
Let’s discuss. I have no idea how many retired alumni would be interested, how they would be paid, or whether they would be given office space (and parking space!). In my dreams, I would have eight courses, one for each semester. A student who took them and learned to “think like a …” eight times over could automatically filter his ideas through several ways of thinking. Giftedness (the ability to think along multiple tracks) is probably more amenable to education and training than intelligence (the ability to juggle conceptual balls down one track). Those able to do so will be well-placed to make creative contributions. As the great French cell biologist François Jacob said “to create is to recombine.”
UVa could start a long overdue revolution in education.
If this piece gets much attention, perhaps it could be refined and placed in the Alumni Bulliten.