What’s an Educated Man?

Now boys, this is a football…
Vince Lombardy

It may be an urban myth, but it did not surprise me the first time I heard that university English Majors are no longer taught Shakespeare. It’s getting a lot of press now (or, um… blog-time, at least), but noted astrophysicist Frank Tipler is making the analogous statement about the state of education in physics:

I am aware of no American university that requires, for an undergraduate degree in physics, a course in general relativity, which is Albert Einstein’s theory of gravity. At the overwhelming majority of American universities, including Harvard, M.I.T. and Cal Tech, one is not even required to take a course in general relativity to get a Ph.D. in physics!

There’s a lot of high-powered discussion going on about the rational behind the choice to teach (or not to teach) a particular sub-discipline, and it’s easy to see that when you’re near the tip of an educational mountain, it’s not wise to be studying something that looks unable to take you further. And right now, General Relativity looks oddly sterile. As does most of physics.
Which is just the way it looked at the end of the 19th century.

At all levels of education we’re caught up in the problem of choosing what to teach. We don’t know, and we can’t decide. Should we teach “the three r’s” to children, algebra to adolescents, Shakespeare to English majors and Relativity to future physicists? Why? Will any of them benefit from that, in comparison to teaching them about diversity, deconstruction and String Theory? How will they get jobs in either case? Should universities teach anything except what’s hottest in the job market?

We’ve forgotten that cleaver is not the same as smart, smart is not the same as educated, educated is not the same as intelligent, and intelligent is certainly not the same as wise.

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2 Comments on “What’s an Educated Man?”

  1. Jon Voisey Says:

    Just a few comments: My school doesn’t require a course specificially covering relativity, but it is discussed in modern physics courses, and the effects of it pop up in many other places, such as astrophysics courses, quantum mechanics, and others.

    My roomate this semester was an English major and was required to take an entire course devoted to Shakespeare.

    Meanwhile, the thing I think that’s really lagging now is math skills. Students know how to add, multiply, etc… but it seems that fewer and fewer are having any notion of what it means. Especially when it comes to dimentional analysis.

  2. Joe Says:

    Whew! I’m glad that some schools are still offering courses in Shakespeare.

    Still, because you said, Jon, that relativity only “pops up” in modern physics courses taught at your school, I’m still thinking about the idea I tried to get across, and troubled by it.

    I mean, are colleges becoming trade schools? Would that really be so bad a thing if it happened? Should college really be for everyone?

    That last question was something we all took as axiomatic back in the ’60s. I question a lot of the ideas from that time.

    Anyway, I know what you mean about the innumeracy. Math may not be the only way to understand the physical universe, it may not be sufficient. But right now, it’s the only language that physicists understand, so it’s indispensable.

    Thanks for reading, Jon.


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