The cost of neglecting education

There are many things in life that have unintended consequences. Well meaning people can take action without having considered all of the consequences of their action. I’ve made that kind of mistake a lot in my life. I mean to help, but my help isn’t always helpful. I was thinking on unintended consequences recently as I listened to a radio program while driving my car. The topic of conversation was developing regulation for driverless cars.

Driverless cars hold the promise of increasing highway safety. Some of the innovations that are in modern cars driven by people help to increase safety by sensing the distance between the car being driven and another car in front of that car in the same lane, recognizing when the vehicle wanders from its assigned lane, and other features. Autonomous vehicles obey speed limits, operate within appropriate right-of-way laws and observe traffic signals and signs. There is hope that persons with disabilities will be able to achieve a level of independence not currently available when a driverless car can take them from one place to the next. The discussion in the program was around what legislation is needed to regulate the cars. Those on the program agreed that there needs to be some system to evaluate the effectiveness of the system’s sensors. One person suggested something akin to the vision test now required for a driver’s license. Of course a robotic vehicle doesn’t see images in the same way that humans do, but many systems employ cameras which could be tested for accuracy and acuity. Some kind of simulation could be developed and examiners could observe the vehicle on a test track or some other safe location before the vehicle is allowed to operate in traffic. The problem with such a test is that vehicles could be designed for the test and still lack some of the elements required for real world situations.

Those participating in the show kept coming around to the fact that creating reasonable regulation is extremely difficult. It is a conversation that was repeated, in a different form, yesterday when Google Chief executive Sundar Pinchai faced questions from US lawmakers about the company. The lawmakers questioning him kept trying to ask simple “yes” or “no” questions and the reality is that the company doesn’t exist in a simple environment. The capabilities of an individual device depend on what software and applications have been installed, how the privacy settings are used and a wide variety of other factors. When a legislator asks, “Can my phone do this or that?” the answer depends on a lot of different things. The legislator demands a simple “yes” or “no” answer, but such an answer cannot be accurate because the question is more complex than the questioner understands.

So creating regulation is difficult. That is true. But creating the technology is also difficult.

I am not one to call into radio programs, but I was momentarily tempted. What I wanted to say is that we shouldn’t turn aside from a problem simply because it is complex or difficult. We don’t turn away from complex or difficult engineering challenges. But one of the unintended consequences of years and years of focusing on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) education is that we have neglected humanities education. We have colleges and universities that excel in STEM areas and do not even teach a course in the history and philosophy of science. We have major universities that produce graduates who have never taken a basic ethics course.

It really shouldn’t surprise us that we have legislators who are unable to legislate when we have watered down and removed civics education from our secondary and post-secondary schools. We have put such an emphasis on producing technicians and engineers, those with skills much-needed, that we seem to have forgotten that this world also needs people who can make complex ethical decisions, ones trained in the art of debate and negotiation, and people with the skills to craft meaningful legislation to address complex social problems.

As was illustrated by a bizarre public argument between legislative leaders and the President yesterday, there is more to the art of negotiation than making demands and refusing to compromise in any manner. Whatever else that display of public grandstanding was, it was not an effective lesson in the art of the deal. No art was demonstrated in that strange display.

The humanities, including history, philosophy, sociology, psychology, anthropology, modern languages, geography, law, politics and religion are essential fields of study. Education in those areas is as essential as education in science, technology, engineering and math. The solution is not to decrease the emphasis on STEM education, but to acknowledge that those educated in STEM areas alone are not fully educated and additional education in the humanities is needed for a balanced society.

The failure of modern schools to adequately teach humanities has direct costs for society. It results in brilliant engineers who can create computers with enough capacity to allow a motor vehicle to operate autonomously, but who balk at the complexity of designing common sense regulation of such a vehicle. It results in governments who cannot negotiate agreements and who cannot foresee the consequences of their actions.

The truth is that we haven’t been faithful in creating educational systems that serve all of the people. We have mistaken the size of budgets for the quality of education. We continue to design large educational systems with complex administrative structures without considering the basic needs of students in the classrooms. We isolate superintendents of education in office buildings and allow them to spend their days on tasks that involve little or no contact with students.

I know a brilliant physicist who has a Ph.D. degree but who, until recently, had not even considered why his degree is called “Doctor of Philosophy.” The highest academic degree awarded by universities once were awarded for programs of study that spanned the entire breadth of multiple academic fields. As opposed to a Master’s Degree which denotes mastery of a specific field, a Ph.D. was awarded to one who understood how their area of expertise fit into the wider picture of education and life.

These days you can earn a Ph.D. without having taken a single course in philosophy, or history, or ethics.

And our society is paying the cost of those unintended consequences.

Copyright (c) 2018 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!