What do you learn in college?

As you know the topic of the future of the university, the role of MOOCs, and online learning, is highly topical these days. I happen to be interested in it too so I refer you to this David Brooks Article, called, The Practical University. It’s an interesting angle.

However I want to pull a single quote out of that:

“Think about Sheryl Sandberg’s recent book, “Lean In.” Put aside the debate about the challenges facing women in society. Focus on the tasks she describes as being important for anybody who wants to rise in this economy: the ability to be assertive in a meeting; to disagree pleasantly; to know when to interrupt and when not to; to understand the flow of discussion and how to change people’s minds; to attract mentors; to understand situations; to discern what can change and what can’t.” (from New York Times – The Practical University)

I don’t know if that’s David Brooks or Sheryl Sandberg speaking, but it does make we want to read her book. Anyway, watch how I turn this post into something about Olin College of Engineering 🙂

Why is it so important (in my opinion) that college students get lots of experience working in teams from the start? Because indeed it teaches them exactly those skills in italics above. And they are indeed very important skills. And don’t assume that these skills and experiences are commonplace across colleges. In my experience this is one of the major differences of how Olin approaches its mission.

Epistemological Modesty… What?

I was listening to an interview with David Brooks the other day. The interview was conducted by, of all people, Alec Baldwin on “Here’s the Thing”, a show I discovered on public radio.

Alec Baldwin is a good actor for a certain kind of role, and can be quite funny, but we have learned things about him which are not very likable at all, right? But who knew that he was very intelligent and quite a good interviewer?

The David Brooks interview is very interesting and enlightening and I recommend it. But this post is mostly to point you to a highfalutin term for something that makes a lot of sense to me:

“The correct position is the one held by self-loathing intellectuals, like Isaiah Berlin, Edmund Burke, James Madison, Michael Oakeshott and others. These were pointy heads who understood the limits of what pointy heads can know. The phrase for this outlook is epistemological modesty, which would make a fine vanity license plate.

The idea is that the world is too complex for us to know, and therefore policies should be designed that take account of our ignorance.” (fromThe American Scene”, a blog I stumbled across when googling the phrase “Epistemological Modesty”)

Here is the David Brooks quote where I first encountered the phrase:

David Brooks: Yeah, so I was a lefty and I was assigned a book called “The Reflections of the Revolution in France” by Edmund Burke. And here is a guy saying you really shouldn’t think for yourself. The power of reason is weak. What you should do is rely on the just prejudices that have survived the test of time. And I just loathed that book, that idea — because I thought ‘I want to think for myself. I want to come up with my own ideas.’

But as I got older, and especially I became a police reporter covering crime, murders and rapes in the south side of Chicago, I began to see that he’s right. Our power of reason is weak. And part of the core of my conservatism is the phrase ‘epistemological modesty;’ the world is incredibly complicated; we can’t know much about it. We should be very suspicious that we can plan.” (from Here’s the Thing: David Brooks Transcript)

 Anyway, it’s kind of dangerous to be linking to blogs I never heard of or references to books that I might loathe, references to intellectuals like Isaiah Berlin, and so on: but who has the time to check all this stuff? I think the underlying concept of Epistemological Modesty is right on. (Now I got to go to look of the definition of epistemological. See u!)

How far does idealism get you

David Brooks of the New York Times, in an article about (my interpretation) the limits of idealism:

“It’s hard not to feel inspired by all these idealists, but their service religion does have some shortcomings. In the first place, many of these social entrepreneurs think they can evade politics. They have little faith in the political process and believe that real change happens on the ground beneath it.

That’s a delusion. You can cram all the nongovernmental organizations you want into a country, but if there is no rule of law and if the ruling class is predatory then your achievements won’t add up to much.” (from “Sam Spade at Starbucks”)

My favorite line from “The Maltese Falcon” (from memory, so paraphrased): “Loose a son, you can always get yourself a new one, but… there’s only one Maltese Falcon.

Anyway, that’s off topic.

This article makes the case that if you are not happy with the ways “things” (the world, your town, your company) are run, you can’t make fundamental change other than engaging with “the system”.