Physics and Astronomy


Ask Ed

Professor Meyer's response to the complaint, "The trouble with students today is that they want to be entertained."

Of course they want to be entertained!  When I go to a lecture, I want to be entertained.  Why shouldn't the students?  As a professor, I consider it part of my job to be entertaining.  Every class is a stand-up act in which I try to get the students to appreciate the course material and, hence, motivate them to master it.  To make the lectures entertaining, I choose interesting and relevant problems.  I choose problems that they haven't seen before and problems that make them wonder and think.  I choose problems that they would be proud of solving.

I teach physics, so it is relatively easy for me to be entertaining because physics is so wonderful.  However, other subjects can be entertaining as well.  I personally was fascinated by my Art History course in college.  Also, philosophy, computer programming, mathematics, biology and even chemistry have the potential to be entertaining.

Yes, the students want to be entertained -- so, entertain them!

Professor Meyer's response to an article on the "Uselessness" of a Liberal Arts Education.

On February 11th 2008, an article appeared titled, "Can Liberal Arts Colleges be Saved?"   In it the author argues,

"It is the very 'uselessness' of what liberal arts students study that opens the door to their appreciating knowing for the sake of knowing, that drives home the point that learning is of value in and of itself whether or not it leads directly to a marketable skill. It is possible to realize these things while studying banking or engineering, but it is much more difficult because the student is constantly distracted from the utility of acquiring knowledge by the utility of the knowledge being acquired. The genius of the American system of liberal education is that it eliminates this distraction. Its uselessness separates knowing from need to know, learning from need to learn, desire to understand from need to understand."

The author, Victor E. Ferrall Jr., was president of Beloit College from 1991 to 2000. Before then, he practiced law in Washington. He is currently writing a book on liberal arts colleges.

Here is Professor Meyer's comment:

By far the most marketable skill in the workplace today is the general ability to solve problems.  That is, the ability to think creatively and intensely - about anything.  So-called career-directed training is usually just remembering a series of responses to stimuli.  For example, the diagnosis for a particular set of symptoms, or the thickness of the steel needed for a particular sized bridge.

The problem with a career-directed education is just that: it is career specific.  The economy is changing so fast that the former Secretary of Education, Richard Riley, stated, "None of the top 10 jobs that will exist in 2010 exist today."  As teachers, we are preparing our students for jobs that don't exist yet.  So, how best to prepare them?  The answer seems clear to me.  In the information-rich age of the computer and internet, the skills that need to be developed are those that complement rather than compete with the skills of a computer.  Computers are much better than humans at storing and retrieving information.  Computers are very fast at providing a programmed response to a particular stimulus.

However, computers are not creative.  Computers can't wonder.  Computers are not good problem solvers.  The best way to prepare young students for a career is to develop their general problem solving ability.  The only way to develop a general problem solving ability is to solve problems!

This is what Liberal Arts Colleges do.  Teachers pose questions and then lead a discussion.  They provide the playing field on which to develop the students' thinking skills.  Teachers at Liberal Arts Colleges don't give the student the answers.  Too often, in career-based education, the student is given answers to remember rather than problems to solve.  With the economy changing so fast, these answers can quickly become irrelevant or even wrong.

Indeed, if a student gets a 4-year career-based education in a technical area, much of what they learned the first and second year will be out-dated by the time that they graduate.

Graduates who have a career-based education are vulnerable to the rapidly changing economy.  Graduates who are good problem solvers are always employable because problem solving is a skill that finds applications everywhere.  According to Former Secretary of Labor, Robert Reich, "Looking closely at the American economy today you find two growing categories of work.  The first involves identifying and solving problems."

So, I would argue that an education that is NOT career-specific is the best one for getting a job.  Not only that, it is by far the best one if you want to start your own company.

I would sum up the difference between a Liberal Arts Education and a Career-Based education as follows: "A career based education prepares you to be an employee whereas a Liberal Arts Education prepares you to be an employer." 

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