A Criticism of a... Criticism of Higher Education

05/28/2011 by Sylvain Hallé

I stubmled upon a little article published in last December's IEEE Computer magazine, which was intriguingly titled A Nonlinear Perspective on Higher Education.

"To their detriment," its authors claim, "academic institutions are increasingly stove-piped in highly specialized disciplinary fields, often losing touch with emergent social, cultural, and natural realities." The authors rightfully criticize academia's tendency to "bin topics in narrowly scoped disciplines", and in general call for a more holistic view of higher education. This issue is intersting in itself and clearly can't be resolved or even fully exposed in a magazine article. Since I agree with this view to some extent, I was glad I could find there thoughtful arguments in favor of a more open model of education and research.

Unfortunately, the article manages to cram in three puny pages a baffling mishmash of concepts that supposedly back that claim, but left me confused and in general admirative of Computer's openness of mind. I'll leave out the doubtful pile of sand metaphor, the nonlinearity of climate change and the "sociological tipping point backdrop" that allegedly underlies the paper's rationale (or lack thereof), to rather highlight a few of the sophisms that made me wince upon reading.

A practical application of technology?

The article cites a well-known CACM column by David Lodge Parnas, which argued that a mere counting of a researcher's publications is a bad substitute for a genuine assessment of the "correctness, importance, real novelty [and] relevance of their contributions". But then the authors stretch that opinion by "agreeing [with Parnas] that research should be a practical application of technology". This is an unwarranted and reductive shortcut that clearly distorts the meaning of Parnas' words. It travestises his criticism of paper-counting metrics into a claim that insidiously equates relevance with practical relevance.

The authors also seem to gladly subscribe to some scholar's vision that higher-ed institutions should "increase ventures with corporate entities", to "deliver education that is appropriate for the emerging needs of the workplace". While their article worries in its introduction that scientific research is too narrow, they ironically call for the transformation of academia into a factory that should turn on a dime to "constantly change and adjust" to corporations' (among all) topical, short-term requirements. The irony is double, given that some large industries already think that academics are not specialized enough to their taste.

I fear in particular the consequences of the paper's blunt statement that "universities must cease cultivating useless knowledge", if it were put into application with all the slippages we can imagine.

False research findings?

The article spends a few paragraphs complaining about an allegedly "increasing concern that most published research findings are false". I take issue that the reference that backs this "claim" is precisely of the brand of results the authors sneer at: its bombastic conclusion stems from a mathematical (and purely formal) analysis of experimental hypotheses validated through statistics. It was published in a medical journal and hardly translates to research and experiments conducted in Computer Science and Engineering.

But more importantly, I remind the reader of the article's original claim: that scientific research is producing results (and people) that are too specialized. Here the authors take an additional step and, by all practical means, claim that most are downright invalid. Non sequitur: I don't see how the number, quality or validity of publications has anything to do with the lack of cross-disciplinary research. We could very well replace an avalanche of bad, false, and narrow papers with an avalanche of bad and false, but broad papers.

Any answers?

Finally, the paper complains that previous critiques of the current system suggest solutions that "haven't perceptively reversed the trend toward publishing more articles and [...] trivial results." The authors solve that problem by not suggesting anything. All in all, their paper looks less like an articulated and constructive analysis of academia's true weaknesses, and more like a blind and undirected charge against higher education for the mere sake of it. The maneuver is counter-productive: presented with such a tousled argumentation, I have, for good measure, to side with the system as it is --which is not what they claim it to be.

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