The other day this student was telling me about her brilliant friend: he is double-majoring in Statistics and Computer Science and getting a 4.0 in his majors, and on top of that is doing a Certificate in HTSTYMWN (How to Sell Things You Make with Numbers) and getting all A’s in that too. Plus, if he crams some stuff in and overloads, he’s even on track for a pre-med! And he’s co-authoring an article his lab group is working on. Cool (terrifying) Duke stuff.
My student looked weirdly pale and flushed at the same time. She’s a literature reader, and even writes some, but her friend says that in a time of climate change and looming global catastrophe it’s basically immoral to waste time taking courses in the Arts and Humanities. The ALP is for wusses (i.e. girls) who can’t do hard stuff like science and math. In this day and age, you must acquire serious, tough skills, and certify that you have mastered those skills, and then you can go out and get jobs, where you can apply your knowledge to solve problems. And people will see all these credentials and A’s, and realize that you are the very best and so you should get the best salary too! Smartness is a quantitative thing that you proved with your SAT, and that can be easily measured by your Econ test, and certified by your GPA, and if your brain is not the kind of brain that can solve numbers puzzles, then basically you are the stupider one. And besides, you can read books and listen to music and look at art on your own time; why pay a professor to teach you about it?
By the way, this kid could be a real kid, or it could be a hypothetical one.
It is a real kid though, just so you know. Both of them.
Now I’m not a numbers person, though I do believe that numbers are pure, beautiful things, worth spending time with and contemplating. I have a theory that each number links up with one particular star somewhere, and with one particular molecule, and with one particular idea, and that someday if we’re lucky we’ll learn what those linkages are, and that that understanding will bring us great joy—though probably not during our lifetime. I know that numbers are very useful in making things, and am in awe at what our Prattsters and computer science majors can conjure up with their numbers. It feels like magic. Given that I spend most of my time in the nineteenth century, it basically blows my mind that the entire internet, and just about everything else, is the product of alternations of two digits, zero and one.
What our quantitative sciences do is pose and solve problems. The more complex the problem, the tougher the task. There are some math problems that have bedeviled people for centuries. The solutions are creative and beautiful. Once you have solved the problem, everything falls into place, and your task is done. You have an answer that you can use, or think you can use, to reverse climate change, feed the hungry, devise new clean technologies, build new stuff, and save humanity. And of course get a job too.
My own shrinking niche in the university is a very different place. Here, the more we think, the more complex things get. I read the same literary works year in and year out, and each time they are different, even though not a single word has changed. The worst thing that can happen in my world is to solve a problem so perfectly that the conversation ends.
Deep inside my head there’s a creepy little voice that says, “2 x 2 = 4 is utterly unbearable. It’s insolent. 2 x 2 = 4 stands smugly in the road blocking your way with its hands on its waist, spitting. OK, maybe 2 x 2 = 4 is a fine thing. But 2 x 2 = 5 is awfully cute too.”
I read that somewhere and it took root.
I can’t help it. I’ll take that 2 x 2 = 5 every time; I don’t care if it’s wrong. Because you can play with it.
My BFF Chekhov showed me a letter he’d written to a friend, who had asked him to take a stand on some transient political issue: “You confuse two concepts: answering a question and formulating a question correctly. Only the second is mandatory for an artist. Not a single question is answered in [great literature], but the works completely satisfy you, because all the questions are posed correctly....”
“That’s all very well and good,” the stemmy student interjects, with a whiff of condescension and gentle pity, “but I’m not paying $78,000 to sit around and talk about stuff.”
Get The Chronicle straight to your inbox
Signup for our editorially curated, weekly newsletter. Cancel at any time.
Or, in fact, to learn about stuff either.
Not too long ago, universities were repositories of knowledge about the world, places students came not only to solve math problems and do chemistry experiments, but to get acquainted with the many varieties of human thought—history, philosophy, art, religion, literature—that have taken shape over millennia, in the many languages of the world. Professors were paid to communicate all these treasures to young minds. And the idea was that learning these things was good for your mind and soul, and good for the people around you. And fun, too.
How quaint this feels in 2020. As we teeter on the brink of Apocalypse (google this or even take a course on it), our university mindset turns ever more insistently to the future. Instead of learning, students are to produce, experiment, innovate, discover, collaborate, serve, solve, invent, get out of the box, move forward. They are to produce, market, and sell things, not sit around reading, thinking, and writing.
Not too long ago I returned to a sophomore a paper which, in my usual annoying manner, I had covered with comments and suggestions. There were, as always, stylistic hiccups to tame, sentences to trim, sources to consult, weak verbs and redundancies to purge, illogicalities to rectify, evidence to add. The student would do well to reread the story he was writing about. And the paper needed a thesis, that kind of thing. Your basic run-of-the mill B. After class the student came up with the paper and asked where he should send it to get it published.
This, too, is true.
Amidst all this labwork, all this collaboration and experimentation, all this frenzy to publish and patent, is anyone asking why, if you students are the ones who have to produce all this new knowledge and solve all these problems, why you have to pay us? You guys are pretty smart. Why do you even need professors at all? All this stuff is online. Why even come to college?
Before I release my vice grip on you, there is one very simple math, actually arithmetic, problem that we have to address. Bear with me for a minute. In order to graduate from Trinity College, you have to take 34 courses. Some of these have to be in your major, and some you have to take to satisfy various requirements. A major can require as little as ten courses. So while at Duke you have the option to take 20 or so courses in anything you want, outside your major! If you go for minors and certificates and whatnot, it only means you’re limiting your choices, not that you’re doing any more work or getting more education than anyone else.
Whatever you choose to do, if you complete your coursework you’ll end up with one of the most coveted things in the entire world: a Duke degree. If you take courses that you want to, you’ll have fun in them and earn great grades and the high GPA will just plop into your lap on its own. And you’ll be really really well-educated, with a broad outlook and a flexible, nimble mind. People will like you. And you will be just as well-positioned to save the world (or to get a job) as the person who tells me, sweatily, that he can’t take those music history and documentary studies classes he’s interested in because of those last few courses he has to take to meet the requirements for his second major and certificate.
That is not a free human being.
So who’s the smart one, and who’s the one who’s turning himself into a tool that someone even smarter is going to buy and use to do stuff with someday?
It’s simple arithmetic.
Carol Apollonio is Professor of the Practice of Slavic and Eurasian Studies at Duke. Her column, “rants from the podium,” runs on alternate Mondays.