So now engineers are jihadis too?

[This post is to be treated as a draft rather than a fully-developed position: so I welcome comments, and requests to expand points, and may well change my mind about certain things.]

Not for the first time, the argument is being made that STEM turns its graduates into uncultured oafs, recoverable only through the application of the mind-soothing balm of the humanities. This time, however, it’s serious: Paul Vallely, citing a British Council study, claims that there is `“an engineering mindset”, which makes science students easier prey for terrorist recruiters.

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War on the humanities, again

The THE reports that leading historian Professor Peter Mandler has delivered a paper on the “crisis in the humanities”, concluding that there isn’t one. In particular, he says:

It is hard to take too seriously talk of a crisis in Britain when even by the narrowest definition of the humanities the absolute number of humanities students has increased fivefold since 1967, and by the broader definition almost 10-fold.

In the US, over a period of much slower expansion, their numbers have still doubled…Talk of a crisis triggered by a decline in a percentage point or two does seem like an over-reaction that is likely to contribute to rather than ameliorate the alleged problem.

As well as looking at student numbers, we can look at the UK data for academic staff numbers, as a proxy for resource allocation.


The figure shows the percentage of academic staff in STE (Science, Technology, and Engineering), Humanities (shown dashed), and Medicine from 1994 to 2008, using the freely available HESA data sets. The break in the curves corresponds to a change in the reporting of data. The details of how staff numbers were assigned to the three categories are given in a separate PDF.

The first part of the plot shows a drop in the percentage of STE staff, which might correspond to the closure of Chemistry departments over that time (the data for these years are not broken down to subject level), while Medicine rises, and Humanities are fairly steady.

After the change in reporting methodology in 2003, Medicine has about the same proportion of staff as before the change, while Humanities increases markedly and STE reduces. Clearly, this is an artifact of the breakdown of data and does not indicate real changes in the proportion of academic staff in STE or Humanities. The trends from 2003 onwards are validly indicated, however, and show STE and Humanities holding more or less steady.

In summary, the data from 1994 onwards show a sharp drop in STE, a rise in Medicine, and a small drop in Humanities.

Crisis in the humanities? What crisis?

War on the humanities? What war?

After I wrote a response to Professor Sarah Churchwell’s comments on the `war on the humanities’, she tweeted that if I wanted her opinion, it could be found in a piece on The Conversation, and represented a better statement of her views than a ten sentence extract from a ninety minute interview. I was not the only person to object to the comments as reported, whether in comments on the article, or in the letters page, but it seems only fair to engage with a full statement of the position.
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It’s only yourself you’re hurting in the long run

Recently, Sarah Churchwell, `one of our most prominent public intellectuals and professor of American literature at UEA’, was quoted on the subject of the `war against humanities at Britain’s universities’:

“What has changed radically in the last 10 years is that they’re trying to turn everything into a for-profit business,” said Churchwell. “And that’s bullshit. Universities are not for profit. We are charitable institutions. What they’re now doing is saying to academics: ‘You have to be the fundraisers, the managers, the producers, you have to generate the incomes that will keep your institutions afloat.’ Is that really what society wants – for everything to become a marketplace, for everything to become a commodity? Maybe I’m just out of step with the world, but what some of us are fighting for is the principle that not everything that is valuable can or should be monetised. That universities are one of the custodians of centuries of knowledge, curiosity, inspiration. That education is not a commodity, it’s a qualitative transformation. You can’t sell it. You can’t simply transfer it.”

Churchwell is right: education is not a commodity and should not be monetized, and universities are “custodians of centuries of knowledge, curiosity, inspiration” (letting pass what Paulo Freire might have made of such a concept of learning). It can surely be agreed that universities are, in Stefan Collini’s words, places where things are studied for their own sake and that the value of education is not monetary, whether to the student or to an economy, that education needs no market justification because it is a good thing for people to be educated and for there to be places where disciplines can be pursued for their own intrinsic worth. Read the rest of this entry »

A mathematician writes …

From the preface to Introduction to the Theory of Fourier Integrals, Titchmarsh:

A great variety of applications of Fourier integrals are to be found in the literature, often in the form of `operators’, and often in the works of authors who are evidently not specially interested in analysis. As exercises in the theory I have written out a few of these applications as it seemed to me that an analyst should. I have retained, as having a certain picturesqueness, some references to `heat’, `radiation’, and so forth; but the interest is purely analytical, and the reader need not know whether such things exist.

Where is Professor Ludd when you need him?

It may be time to keep certain people away from computers, lest they corrupt the youth. The starry-eyed carny barkers for iTat have decided that no university is complete without a MOOC, a Massive Open Online Course. A number of British universities have joined Futurelearn, a consortium led by the Open University which will “offer a best-in-class educational experience that will delight students”. The main reason for offering MOOCs seems to be that they are popular, especially in America. The main feature of a MOOC is lectures, mostly by star professors, recorded and made available online as part of a course taken by `students’ who are not present at the university and who have no contact with the person who is `delivering’ the course.

The argument put forward in favour of MOOCs is that they allow millions of people who would not otherwise have the chance to `access’ higher education. By integrating tests of knowledge and understanding into the course, it is possible to assess students and give them something of the university experience, for free.

Clearly cost is an issue here. As Moshe Vardi, editor in chief of the Communications of the Association for Computing Machinery (so not an obvious opponent of the use of IT in education) puts it:

It is clear, therefore, that the enormous buzz about MOOCs is not due to the technology’s intrinsic educational value, but due to the seductive possibilities of lower costs. The oft-repeated phrase is “technology disruption.” This is the context for the dismissal (and later reinstatement) last summer of Theresa A. Sullivan, University of Virginia’s president, because she was not moving fast enough with online education. The bigger picture is of education as a large sector of the U.S. economy (over $1T) that has so far not been impacted much by information technology. From the point of view of Silicon Valley, “higher education is a particularly fat target right now.” MOOCs may be the battering ram of this attack.

Higher education is one of the few public goods yet to have been taken under private control and run for profit. MOOCs offer a cheap way of selling something which can be passed off as a university education, without the inconvenience of dealing with students or, probably, academics. Individual profit and loss accounts for teaching staff are already here. Once a university realizes that it only needs its star teachers to give one show, perhaps for a cut of the advertizing revenue, why should it bother hiring permanent staff?

The aim, in the pursuit of lower costs (i.e. profit), is to remove the essential elements of a university education and replace them with an inferior substitute for one of them, the ersatz lecture.

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Mayan Mystic Mathematics, no thanks

Ed Vulliamy has some reasonable things to say about the Mayan `prophecy’ of the end of the world  but he gets it wrong here:

The Maya were no fools. Likely inventors of the figure zero, their mastery of astronomy – bequeathed to history through various codices and stoneworks – was breathtaking not only for its time, but for all time. Their systems for measuring time were more sophisticated than ours, with pivotal numbers of 13, 18 and 20, based upon lunar, Venusian, astronomical and mathematical measurements, and expressed in glyphs.

Vulliamy seems to confuse obscurity and sophistication. Our Arabic-numeral, place-system, method for arithmetic is much more sophisticated than one based on different `pivotal numbers’, because it makes things simpler for the person using it. By having one, and only one, set of rules, all calculations are the same, no matter what size of problem you deal with, a point which will be appreciated by those who had to learn the pounds, shillings, pence system of currency, or by those in benighted countries which continue to use imperial measures. Try doing mental arithmetic switching from base 13 to 18 to 20, without mechanical aids.

Vulliamy then talks of `lunar, Venusian, astronomical and mathematical measurements’, without saying what a `mathematical’ measurement is, and how it might differ from the other three he mentions.

Finally, he is impressed by the Mayans’ use of glyphs: `glyph’ is a fancy word for `character’ or `letter’.

We seem to have here a journalist falling for the idea that any ideas which survive long enough are `ancient wisdom’ and therefore better than our own. Actually, mathematics, and arithmetic, are areas where we can be fairly sure that the modern state of knowledge is definitely better than what people had X centuries ago.