The fatal attraction of the short term

by reestheskin on 19/05/2016

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A couple of sentences from this article on the value of interdisciplinary research got me thinking — or at least pulling some memes off my dusty intellectual shelf of clutter. The article is about Ian Goldin, and some ideas I am sure he talks about in his new book, which I haven’t read.


He added that “one of the reasons” for the 2008 financial crisis was that “people lost their ethics, their judgement, and their wisdom” because of disciplinary silos.

I agree. I remember the Economist putting it more harshly: …’professors fixated on crawling along the frontiers of knowledge with a magnifying glass’[Economist, December 10th 2011]. Economics, a bit like psychiatry in medicine, is the canary in the mine. Nor would teaching mandatory ethics courses (‘I am certified in ethics A+!), do very much. Enron’s management were stars at HBS. This is one of the tragedies of many modern universities, so busy edging their way up largely meaningless ranking scales, that they are unable to tackle the problems society faces.


Golden was quoted as saying, ‘[there is] a “real pressure” on universities to be “thinking ahead” and teaching information that will remain relevant when current students “reach their mid-careers”’.

There are two aspects to this. One is that the whole idea of education is a way of hedging against a changing environment. If the world was constant, we could dispense with much (but not all) education — training would suffice. This is just another way of saying advance comes from when sons do not do what their fathers did (‘20th century physics was made by the sons of coblers’. Substitute your gender, please). But from a teaching perspective there is another facet to think about. We cannot adequately judge how well we educate our students over the short term (alone). Yes, they can pass finals. Yes, they can take a history etc. But the test of education is how well they behave and think 20 years down the line. This is a large search space that we can only navigate using theories about what makes the world change, and what makes people push at the boundaries: do not cite Cronbach’s alpha, at me. But in examinations and certification, like so much else in science and society, we are blinded by the apparent certitude of short term goals. And the allure of summary measures, rather than the messiness of the real world.