In Sun with Moon*, and afterwards at the Borders** Bistro downstairs, I had the conversation I have come to expect with two good friends – thoughtful, opinionated, passionate academia-related stuff. As usual, I came away from our session thinking about teaching and doing research at a university for a living.
This time, we talked about what the teaching and research were for. About how schools sometimes focus their research more on theory – i.e. aiming to unearth a more complete picture of the world – or application i.e. aiming to solve problems.
About what to teach one’s students – how to pick among focused, immediately applicable skills (how to write an “inverse pyramid”-style news story, for example), less immediately applicable “life skills” (say, how to think and write clearly) and probably ultimately useless skills (case in point: do we need to know, really, how to do differential equations if we don’t end up teaching others how to do differential equations?).
About the differences between education in polytechnics and that in universities.
About how that distinction may get complicated again, if we talk about the teaching of professions – in which case the value-add in universities may be teaching would-be doctors how to think about doctoring, for example.
At the beginning of our conversation, I mentioned that I had read that, after his student complained about not gaining anything from being at his school, a Greek philosopher had given the student a penny and expelled him. Impressed, one friend asked which book I had read. Here is what I read, and from where:
In the fourth century BC, the great Athenian philosopher Plato established a school (the Academy) at which mathematics was a key portion of the curriculum. It was taught with the utmost rigor of which the times were capable, and it dealt with idealized shapes on which idealized operations were performed.
One student, who was put to stern mental exercise over the Platonic conception of mathematics, kept searching in vain for some application to the various forms of artisanry for which he knew mathematical concepts were useful.
Finally he said to Plato, ‘But, master, to what practical use can these theorems be put? What can be gained from them?’
The old philosopher glared at the inquiring student, turned to a slave, and said, ‘Give this young man a penny that he might feel he has gained something from my teachings and then expel him.’
– Joke 142 of Isaac Asimov’s Treasury of Humor
Here’s Joke 137 from the same book. I do hope my friends won’t turn out to be too much like the good Professor Krumpelmayer:
‘I have brought a frog,’ said Professor Krumpelmayer, beaming at his class in elementary zoology, ‘fresh from the pond, in order that we might study its outer appearance and later dissect it.’
He carefully unwrapped the package he carried and inside was a neatly prepared ham sandwich.
The good professor looked at it with astonishment. ‘Odd,’ he said, ‘I distinctly remember having eaten my lunch.’
And here is Joke 156, about the utter uselessness of it all. Maybe.
Finkelstein had made a huge killing at the races and Moskowitz, quite understandably, was envious.
‘How did you do it, Finkelstein?’ he demanded.
‘Easy,’ said Finkelstein. ‘It was a dream.’
‘Yes. I had figured out a three-horse parlay, but I wasn’t sure about the third horse. Then the night before, I dreamed an angel was standing over the head of my bed and kept saying, “Blessings on you, Finkelstein. Seven times seven blessings on you.” When I woke up, I realized that seven times seven is forty-eight and that horse number forty-eight was Heavenly Dream. I made Heavenly Dream the third horse in my parlay and I just cleaned up; I simply cleaned up.’
Moskowitz said, ‘But, Finkelstein, seven times seven is forty-nine.’
And Finkelstein said, ‘So you be the mathematician.’
Or the person who learned the right math. Or taught it.
*One friend had the wafu ramen, which came with red dates. The other had a pork don. Both dishes got enthusiastically positive reviews from their tasters.
**I’d have added a link for you to subscribe to the Borders newsletter, which delivers some pretty good discount vouchers to your email address. Thing is, one has to print them out. And that’s tree slaughter. Anti-greenery is not cool.