Wednesday, May 23, 2007

The decline of Western civilization continues apace

From The Guardian:

The situation in universities is exacerbated by present policy, which actively encourages vice-chancellors who know the cost of everything and the value of nothing to eliminate science departments in favour of trendy, cheap courses. These VCs bleat about how important their freedom is to do whatever they wish with taxpayers' money, and steer funds earmarked for the sciences into softer areas that students prefer.

Just as cheap fast food has resulted in unprecedented levels of obesity, so this McDonald's approach to cheap, trendy, seductively soft courses designed for mass consumption in tertiary education has resulted in a plethora of students trained for non-existent jobs.
This is not just a problem in England, and it is not just a problem of science courses versus asshat bullcrap like media studies. Even within the sciences core training is being eroded in favor of trendy 'conceptual' courses. It's all very good for students to have exposure to 'multi-disciplinary' courses in biodiversity, bioinformatics, and evo-devo, but not if those courses replace rigorous training in natural history, comparative anatomy, and embryology. For one thing, if you've never had any natural history--ichthyology, mammalogy, etc.--what are you supposed to do your biodiversity studies on? Ditto for evo-devo and good old-fashioned anatomy. I fear that we are producing a generation of biologists that will be able to talk eruditely and at length about a bunch of up-to-the-minute paradigms*--many of which will expire in just a few years--but won't be able to tell you anything about the lymphatic system or, you know, identify frickin' critters, because they lack the foundation of basic knowledge that their training was supposed to impart.

* This seems to be the current word of choice when you want to sound smart but don't actually know what the hell you're talking about. David Wake shared with me a great quote from some physicist (I need to find out who): "When concepts fail, a word will arise."

This wasting disease is even wearing down Berkeley. On one hand the natural history courses are zealously defended here. People know that natural history is in serious retreat across the rest of the country. They also know that is absolutely foundational if we want to know anything about the natural world. But on the other hand, comparative anatomy has not been taught here for about a decade. It could not be sustained because of dwindling enrollment. Enrollment dwindled because the guidelines for biology majors were revised so that an anatomy course was no longer required.

Who do you think revised those major requirements? It is time to ask ourselves if that committee should have been given the power to compromise the education of generations of students to come. And we should keep an eye on the inanities being perpetrated by similar committee right now.


Hat tip to Mike for the article.

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Blogger Mike Taylor said...

"Enrollment dwindled because the guidelines for biology majors were revised so that an anatomy course was no longer required."

Excuse me?

Isn't this on a par with "the guidelines for mathematics majors were revised so that arithmetic was no longer required"? What is biology but the study of anatomy?


10:34 AM  
Blogger Duff Stone said...

Well, comming from a non-educated man (not higher ed anyway), isn't most college level math derivities of algebra anyway? I seem to recall the major part of what little theory my electronics training did teach was mostly x + y = z on crack...

Although my courses did in short order replace those variables with real testable numbers, I have my doubts that true calc, diff-eq, etc. gets into physical numbers...

then again, I never progressed that far like I said above. I am thinking about going back for the math stuff tho, after the wedding that is... Still mulling it over.


5:08 AM  
Blogger Mike Taylor said...

Well, alright then, "revised so that algebra was no longer required".

3:43 PM  
Blogger TheBrummell said...

What is biology but the study of anatomy?

It's certainly a lot more than the study of anatomy! Biology's leading edge has moved a bit since 1830, you know.

Having said that, it's still inexcusable that a biology degree does not require a solid foundation of anatomy, natural history, physiology and genetics, among other things.

7:18 AM  
Anonymous archoholic said...

Well, "parts is parts" and biology is nothing unless parts are subjected to "compared to what?". One could argue that "anatomy" is simply structure&function at whatever level you so choose to study:
anatomy of the planet= ecology/geology
anatomy of cell=microbiology
anatomy of molecules=biochemistry

1:02 PM  
Blogger TheBrummell said...

Alright, alcoholic, if you dilute the definition of "anatomy" so far to be essentially "looking at stuff", then yes, I'd agree. Keeping it to its more traditional definition of "comparing morphologies of organisms and parts of organisms", then biology includes more than that.

2:46 PM  
Blogger TheBrummell said...

Oops, sorry, my mistake on your username, archoholic, please accept my apologies.

2:47 PM  

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