Like Bush, a President Trump might try to swing for the fences in an effort to deliver big payoffs—to make America great again, as his campaign slogan says. As a real-estate developer, he has certainly taken big risks, although he has become a more conservative businessman following setbacks in the s. As a result of the risks he has taken, Trump can and does point to luxurious urban towers, lavish golf courses, and a personal fortune that is, by some estimates, in the billions, all of which clearly bring him big psychic rewards.
Risky decisions have also resulted in four Chapter 11 business bankruptcies involving some of his casinos and resorts. And because he is viewed as markedly less ideological than most presidential candidates political observers note that on some issues he seems conservative, on others liberal, and on still others nonclassifiable , Trump may be able to switch positions easily, leaving room to maneuver in negotiations with Congress and foreign leaders. There has probably never been a U.
In international affairs, Nixon was tough, pragmatic, and coolly rational. In domestic politics, Nixon was widely recognized to be cunning, callous, cynical, and Machiavellian, even by the standards of American politicians. Empathy was not his strong suit. This sounds a lot like Donald Trump, too—except you have to add the ebullient extroversion, the relentless showmanship, and the larger-than-life celebrity. Nixon could never fill a room the way Trump can. Research shows that people low in agreeableness are typically viewed as untrustworthy.
Dishonesty and deceit brought down Nixon and damaged the institution of the presidency. It is generally believed today that all politicians lie, or at least dissemble, but Trump appears extreme in this regard. One possible yield is an energetic, activist president who has a less than cordial relationship with the truth. He could be a daring and ruthlessly aggressive decision maker who desperately desires to create the strongest, tallest, shiniest, and most awesome result—and who never thinks twice about the collateral damage he will leave behind. Because Jackson did not have a majority, however, the election was decided in the House of Representatives, where Adams prevailed.
Adams subsequently chose Clay as his secretary of state. The Washington establishment had defied the will of the people, they believed. Jackson rode the wave of public resentment to victory four years later, marking a dramatic turning point in American politics. A beloved hero of western farmers and frontiersmen, Jackson was the first nonaristocrat to become president.
He was the first president to invite everyday folk to the inaugural reception. To the horror of the political elite, throngs tracked mud through the White House and broke dishes and decorative objects. Washington insiders reviled Jackson. They saw him as intemperate, vulgar, and stupid. Opponents called him a jackass—the origin of the donkey symbol for the Democratic Party. Jackson fought at least 14 duels in his life, leaving him with bullet fragments lodged throughout his body. On the last day of his presidency, he admitted to only two regrets: that he was never able to shoot Henry Clay or hang John C.
The similarities between Andrew Jackson and Donald Trump do not end with their aggressive temperaments and their respective positions as Washington outsiders. Jackson was an angry populist, they believed—a wild-haired mountain man who channeled the crude sensibilities of the masses. Authoritarianism is also associated with suspiciousness of the humanities and the arts, and with cognitive rigidity, militaristic sentiments, and Christian fundamentalism.
When individuals with authoritarian proclivities fear that their way of life is being threatened, they may turn to strong leaders who promise to keep them safe—leaders like Donald Trump. In a national poll conducted recently by the political scientist Matthew MacWilliams, high levels of authoritarianism emerged as the single strongest predictor of expressing political support for Donald Trump.
As the social psychologist Jesse Graham has noted, Trump appeals to an ancient fear of contagion, which analogizes out-groups to parasites, poisons, and other impurities. On a daily basis, Trump seems to experience more disgust, or at least to say he does, than most people do.
The authoritarian mandate is to ensure the security, purity, and goodness of the in-group—to keep the good stuff in and the bad stuff out. In the s, white settlers in Georgia and other frontier areas lived in constant fear of American Indian tribes. They resented the federal government for not keeping them safe from what they perceived to be a mortal threat and a corrupting contagion. Responding to these fears, President Jackson pushed hard for the passage of the Indian Removal Act, which eventually led to the forced relocation of 45, American Indians.
At least 4, Cherokees died on the Trail of Tears, which ran from Georgia to the Oklahoma territory. An American strand of authoritarianism may help explain why the thrice-married, foul-mouthed Donald Trump should prove to be so attractive to white Christian evangelicals. As Jerry Falwell Jr. When my research associates and I once asked politically conservative Christians scoring high on authoritarianism to imagine what their life and their world might have been like had they never found religious faith, many described utter chaos—families torn apart, rampant infidelity and hate, cities on fire, the inner rings of hell.
By contrast, equally devout politically liberal Christians who scored low on authoritarianism described a barren world depleted of all resources, joyless and bleak, like the arid surface of the moon. For authoritarian Christians, a strong faith—like a strong leader—saves them from chaos and tamps down fears and conflicts.
Donald Trump is a savior, even if he preens and swears, and waffles on the issue of abortion. You must project bigness. Cognitive-science research suggests that people rely on personal schemata to process new social information efficiently and effectively. A key to successful decision making is knowing what your schemata are, so that you can change them when you need to. In the negotiations for the Menie Estate in Scotland, Trump wore Tom Griffin down by making one outlandish demand after another and bargaining hard on even the most trivial issues of disagreement.
He never quit fighting. He promised that its construction would create 1, permanent jobs in the Aberdeen area, but to date, only about have been documented. On the campaign trail, he has often said that he would simply pick up the phone and call people—say, a CEO wishing to move his company to Mexico—in order to make propitious deals for the American people. For example, a contributor to Lyndon B.
Obama, by contrast, has been accused of failing to put in the personal effort needed to forge close and productive relationships with individual members of Congress. Having said that, deal making is an apt description for only some presidential activities, and the modern presidency is too complex to rely mainly on personal relationships. Presidents work within institutional frameworks that transcend the idiosyncratic relationships between specific people, be they heads of state, Cabinet secretaries, or members of Congress.
The most-effective leaders are able to maintain some measure of distance from the social and emotional fray of everyday politics. Keeping the big picture in mind and balancing a myriad of competing interests, they cannot afford to invest too heavily in any particular relationship.
For U. It has to be much more. Trump has hinted at other means through which he might address the kind of complex, long-standing problems that presidents face. Amid the polarized political rhetoric of , it is refreshing to hear a candidate invoke the concept of compromise and acknowledge that different voices need to be heard. It is possible that Trump could prove to be adept as the helmsman of an unwieldy government whose operation involves much more than striking deals—but that would require a set of schemata and skills that appear to lie outside his accustomed way of solving problems.
F or psychologists , it is almost impossible to talk about Donald Trump without using the word narcissism. As nearly everybody knows, Trump has attached his name to pretty much everything he has ever touched—from casinos to steaks to a so-called university that promised to teach students how to become rich. It was the toughest day of his own life, Trump began.
In the ancient Greek legend, the beautiful boy Narcissus falls so completely in love with the reflection of himself in a pool that he plunges into the water and drowns. The story provides the mythical source for the modern concept of narcissism, which is conceived as excessive self-love and the attendant qualities of grandiosity and a sense of entitlement. Highly narcissistic people are always trying to draw attention to themselves. Repeated and inordinate self-reference is a distinguishing feature of their personality.
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What does Donald Trump really want? What are his most valued life goals? Narcissus wanted, more than anything else, to love himself. People with strong narcissistic needs want to love themselves, and they desperately want others to love them too—or at least admire them, see them as brilliant and powerful and beautiful, even just see them, period.
The fundamental life goal is to promote the greatness of the self, for all to see. Accordingly, some experts insist that narcissistic motivations cover up an underlying insecurity. But others argue that there is nothing necessarily compensatory, or even immature, about certain forms of narcissism. Consistent with this view, I can find no evidence in the biographical record to suggest that Donald Trump experienced anything but a loving relationship with his mother and father. Narcissistic people like Trump may seek glorification over and over, but not necessarily because they suffered from negative family dynamics as children.
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Rather, they simply cannot get enough. Ever since grade school, Trump has wanted to be No. Attending New York Military Academy for high school, he was relatively popular among his peers and with the faculty, but he did not have any close confidants. As both a coach and an admiring classmate recall in The Trumps , Donald stood out for being the most competitive young man in a very competitive environment.
His need to excel—to be the best athlete in school, for example, and to chart out the most ambitious future career—may have crowded out intense friendships by making it impossible for him to show the kind of weakness and vulnerability that true intimacy typically requires. Whereas you might think that narcissism would be part of the job description for anybody aspiring to become the chief executive of the United States, American presidents appear to have varied widely on this psychological construct. In a Psychological Science research article, behavioral scientists ranked U.
Franklin D. Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, Nixon, and Clinton were next. Millard Fillmore ranked the lowest. Correlating these ranks with objective indices of presidential performance, the researchers found that narcissism in presidents is something of a double-edged sword. In business, government, sports, and many other arenas, people will put up with a great deal of self-serving and obnoxious behavior on the part of narcissists as long as the narcissists continually perform at high levels. Unlike Trump, he basically ignored his kids, to the point of refusing to acknowledge for some time that one of them was his.
Psychological research demonstrates that many narcissists come across as charming, witty, and charismatic upon initial acquaintance. They can attain high levels of popularity and esteem in the short term. As long as they prove to be successful and brilliant—like Steve Jobs—they may be able to weather criticism and retain their exalted status. But more often than not, narcissists wear out their welcome. Over time, people become annoyed, if not infuriated, by their self-centeredness. When narcissists begin to disappoint those whom they once dazzled, their descent can be especially precipitous.
There is still truth today in the ancient proverb: Pride goeth before the fall. The president of the United States is more than a chief executive. He or she is also a symbol, for the nation and for the world, of what it means to be an American. It is largely through the stories he tells or personifies, and through the stories told about him, that a president exerts moral force and fashions a nation-defining legacy. Like all of us, presidents create in their minds personal life stories—or what psychologists call narrative identities—to explain how they came to be who they are.
This process is often unconscious, involving the selective reinterpretation of the past and imagination of the future. A growing body of research in personality, developmental, and social psychology demonstrates that a life story provides adults with a sense of coherence, purpose, and continuity over time. In middle age, George W. Key events in the story were his decision to marry a steady librarian at age 31, his conversion to evangelical Christianity in his late 30s, and his giving up alcohol forever the day after his 40th birthday party.
By atoning for his sins and breaking his addiction, Bush was able to recover the feeling of control and freedom that he had enjoyed as a young boy growing up in Midland, Texas. Extending his narrative to the story of his country, Bush believed that American society could recapture the wholesome family values and small-town decency of yesteryear, by embracing a brand of compassionate conservatism. On the international front, he believed that oppressed people everywhere could enjoy the same kind of God-given rights—self-determination and freedom—if they could be emancipated from their oppressors.
His redemptive story helped him justify, for better and for worse, a foreign war aimed at overthrowing a tyrant. In Dreams From My Father , Barack Obama told his own redemptive life story, tracking a move from enslavement to liberation. Obama, of course, did not directly experience the horrors of slavery or the indignities of Jim Crow discrimination. Obama had already identified himself as a protagonist in this grand narrative by the time he married Michelle Robinson, at age What about Donald Trump? What is the narrative he has constructed in his own mind about how he came to be the person he is today?
And can we find inspiration there for a compelling American story? Our narrative identities typically begin with our earliest memories of childhood. Rather than faithful reenactments of the past as it actually was, these distant memories are more like mythic renderings of what we imagine the world to have been. For Obama, there is a sense of wonder but also confusion about his place in the world. Donald Trump grew up in a wealthy s family with a mother who was devoted to the children and a father who was devoted to work. All five Trump children—Donald was the fourth—enjoyed a family environment in which their parents loved them and loved each other.
Instead, it is saturated with a sense of danger and a need for toughness: The world cannot be trusted. Fred Trump made a fortune building, owning, and managing apartment complexes in Queens and Brooklyn. On weekends, he would occasionally take one or two of his children along to inspect buildings. You have to be tough.
He trained his sons to be tough competitors, because his own experience taught him that if you were not vigilant and fierce, you would never survive in business. There were ex—drill sergeants all over the place. Military school reinforced the strong work ethic and sense of discipline Trump had learned from his father.
And it taught him how to deal with aggressive men, like his intimidating baseball coach, Theodore Dobias:. Trump has never forgotten the lesson he learned from his father and from his teachers at the academy: The world is a dangerous place. You have to be ready to fight. The same lesson was reinforced in the greatest tragedy that Trump has heretofore known—the death of his older brother at age Freddy Trump was never able to thrive in the competitive environment that his father created.
Alcoholism contributed to his early death. The greatest risk for the warrior is that he incites gratuitous violence in others, and brings it upon himself. Trump loves boxing and football, and once owned a professional football team. In the opening segment of The Apprentice , he welcomes the television audience to a brutal Darwinian world:. The story here is not so much about making money. As president, Donald Trump promises, he would make America great again.
They keep beating us. We have to beat them. Economic victory is one thing; starting and winning real wars is quite another. In some ways, Trump appears to be less prone to military action than certain other candidates. He has strongly criticized George W. David Winter, a psychologist at the University of Michigan, analyzed U. And, as noted, his extroversion and narcissism suggest a willingness to take big risks—actions that history will remember. Tough talk can sometimes prevent armed conflict, as when a potential adversary steps down in fear. But Trump has kept this same kind of story going throughout his life.
Even now, as he approaches the age of 70, he is still the warrior. Going back to ancient times, victorious young combatants enjoyed the spoils of war—material bounty, beautiful women. Trump has always been a big winner there. His life story in full tracks his strategic maneuvering in the s, his spectacular victories the Grand Hyatt Hotel, Trump Tower in the s, his defeats in the early s, his comeback later in that same decade, and the expansion of his brand and celebrity ever since.
Throughout it all, he has remained the ferocious combatant who fights to win. But what broader purpose does winning the battle serve? What higher prize will victory secure? Here the story seems to go mute. You can listen all day to footage of Donald Trump on the campaign trail, you can read his books, you can watch his interviews—and you will rarely, if ever, witness his stepping back from the fray, coming home from the battlefront, to reflect upon the purpose of fighting to win—whether it is winning in his own life, or winning for America.
But his narrative seems thematically underdeveloped compared with those lived and projected by previous presidents, and by his competitors. Although his candidacy never caught fire, Marco Rubio told an inspiring story of upward mobility in the context of immigration and ethnic pluralism. Ted Cruz boasts his own Horatio Alger narrative, ideologically grounded in a profoundly conservative vision for America. Bernie Sanders channels a narrative of progressive liberal politics that Democrats trace back to the s, reflected both in his biography and in his policy positions.
To be sure, all of these candidates are fighters who want to win, and all want to make America great again. But their life stories tell Americans what they may be fighting for, and what winning might mean. And he must relish the prospect of another big win, as the potential GOP nominee. But what principles for governing can be drawn from a narrative such as his?
What guidance can such a story provide after the election, once the more nebulous challenge of actually being the president of the United States begins? Nearly two centuries ago, President Andrew Jackson displayed many of the same psychological characteristics we see in Donald Trump—the extroversion and social dominance, the volatile temper, the shades of narcissism, the populist authoritarian appeal. We speak of the triple helix of "ENA" which characterizes individuals who exemplify the good. When I talked about beauty I put forth a rather unusual definition of beauty: "Beauty is a property of experiences.
Having beautiful experiences, reflecting on them, adding to them, rethinking earlier experiences—these are also important desiderata of education. I want to ensure that people in the world have an education where they are informed and enthusiastic about the pursuit of truth, beauty, and goodness. As I framed it above—I focus on the realm between the literacies and the job listings. Part of life is that what you value changes in your own knowledge and your own experiences. The kind of education you get in the United States, if you go to a four-year non-vocational school, is an American invention; it shares property with education at Oxford or Cambridge but with few other systems.
Only in America do we have over 3, colleges and universities where you can go and study a range of topics, a range of disciplines, write a thesis, have a major, have other areas of concentration without that regimen certifying you to be a doctor, or a lawyer, or an architect, or indeed a school teacher.
This is a very valuable form of education. Yet in this country, four-year non-vocational education is in serious trouble. Many faculty focus only on their research and their careers, not their students or their calling as a teacher. Their performances in writing, their ability to analyze and solve problems is not much better after a few years than when they started.
This is a big problem. I have nothing particularly original to say about the value of liberal arts. Its praises have been sung eloquently for at least years. We are interviewing all the major stakeholders: incoming students, graduating students, parents, faculty, senior administrators, trustees, alums, and ultimately job recruiters though recruiters, people who are going to be hiring people out of the school, will not be done on a school-by-school basis. We talk to people. Why should somebody go there? What do you hope you will get out of it?
Should it be transformative? Should you take risks? If you were the czar of education, how would you change education? If you were given a free week on campus, what would you do? What do you think others would do? Some of the questions may strike persons as trite, but they actually perform a very valuable function.
What questions am I asking? How do the students think about higher education? How do their parents think, etc.? Another bit of social science terminology: we are interested in alignment and misalignment. An important part of the project is to identify schools, programs, projects that bridge those misalignments and bring what the faculty wants in closer alignment with what the trustees want, what the recruiters want in closer alignment with what the students think they want. And the like. This is at least a five-year project. Interested readers will have to wait a few years until we begin to talk and write about it.
In fact, a couple of them already are. Sometimes it's by my kids, sometimes it's by people who work with me. Time is finite, and I don't think the best use of my time is to come up with characters six times a day. But if someone else wants to tweet about our questions and our findings, that's absolutely fine with me. Looking at education more broadly, we are at a pivotal point now. Speaking as we are, at the very end of , I think the federal role is going to be diminished in the years to come because neither the left nor the right particularly wants education policy to emanate from Washington.
The big players are going to be entities with lots of money, which are individuals who are very wealthy and individuals with foundations. Until now, of course, the Gates Foundation has been the biggest, but about a month ago Mark Zuckerberg announced he was going to give the bulk of his wealth to causes involved in education. The very first thing he said was "Education which is more personal. Zuckerberg and put it in the Washington Post. My partners have been psychologists Mike Csikszentmihalyi and Bill Damon. The Good Project considers the nature and the achievement of good work, good play, good citizenship, good collaboration, good life, a whole bunch of "goods.
Originally we were interested in how people could be both creative and humane at the same time because those two descriptors have rather different connotations. The project was called the Humane Creativity Project. In fact, nobody understood what humane creativity was; and so we changed the name to the Good Work Project, and it secured support over a ten-year period.
Then my colleagues moved on, but I stuck with it. I began to create blogs and have been doing this for about a year. Then I decided it needed to have more energy. I thought I would create a blog and a website called the Professional Ethicist.
At the time, the New York Times had three different ethicists writing every week and I thought it was just ridiculous. I was, in a sense, making fun of their enterprise. He talks about moral questions, in general. This is now a case of "be careful what you wish for? I was going to write an omnibus response to these different critics of mine, which include people who I never thought would hear about it. Anyway, I would hope that the blog would eventually have some energy of its own so other people will contribute and people will respond to them.
Here I am, well into the eighth decade of my life, not interested very much in multiple intelligences anymore, but very interested in the bigger picture of education between literacies and job listings; taking the Good Project, which Damon, Csikszentmihalyi, and I have worked on for many years, and trying to get a discussion going on what it means to be a good professional.
When we get our results out, a lot of eyes are going to be opened much wider. Some autobiographical reflections: I grew up in Scranton, Pennsylvania. I was the son of Jewish refugees from Germany, who arrived in America on Kristallnacht November 9 , so my sister and I are lucky that they made it. I was the typical Jewish boy who hated the sight of blood, so I was going to be a lawyer. There I was, like a kid in a candy store. I took courses on every particular topic that I was interested in.
I did prelaw and premed. It was across the board. Then I met two people who had a big influence in my life: Erik Erikson, the psychoanalyst, and Jerome Bruner, the cognitive psychologist. My interactions with them were not in psychology courses. I probably could have become a card-carrying psychologist, but I took an unusual career path. First of all, when I was just beginning graduate school, I met a philosopher named Nelson Goodman. He was starting something he called Project Zero, which was a research project at the Ed School at Harvard.
I was a graduate student in psychology, helping Goodman figure out an effective way to do arts education. I found Goodman very appealing as a mind. For twenty-eight years I was the co-director with Perkins. I got grants through Harvard and grants from the Veterans Administration in Boston, where I was studying aphasia and other kinds of cortical disorders.
I discovered that I was a perfectly decent psychologist. I have well over peer-reviewed articles. But there were many psychologists who were as good at doing experiments as I was. My talent, such that it is, lies in synthesizing, in writing books. In , I got a MacArthur Fellowship. That was the first year of the so-called "genius awards"—I was the only psychologist to get one.
Now I want to try to change some parts of the world. Bill Damon, to whom I referred a couple of times, said it very well. He said, "If I could cure cancer, I would. The most important thing I think I can do is to work on issues of how to have people have a sense of purpose and yoke it to important issues. Most of us also want to make a difference. Shortly after that, they each left where they were. Maybe I should move too. In the s, I did a lot of research in China. I wrote a book about it—called To Open Minds. I visited China a lot in the s and finally visited India a few years ago.
Of course China and India are enormous. The century is going to be much more defined by what happens in those places than what happens in the United States. They are realizing—often painfully—that it is a much larger planet and their own demography is no longer going to be the majority in this country. Frankly, more money comes from those foreign editions than comes from the United States. I was talking to a wonderful Harvard freshman, a wonderful kid, about four years ago and I was trying to interest him in something. He said, "You know, Dr. About ten years ago, I was talking to Jonathan Fanton, who was then president of the MacArthur Foundation, and he said, "We decided to invest a lot of money trying to understand how kids are being affected by the new digital media.
We want to see whether they think differently, whether they feel differently, whether they interact differently with other people. What about their moral sense? A conversation sometimes leads to a research project. For about ten years we carried out the Good Play Project, an attempt to understand the world of young people that is increasingly digital.
My colleague, Carrie James, wrote a wonderful book called Disconnected. First, you have to go to the right school, then you have to have the right internship, then you have to have the right job, and so on right through life. We were quite critical of that world view. No longer just a voyeur. Understanding the positive aspects of the digital world, as well as the negative ones, is certainly something that is new for me. I have two children who are in education. One is very technological and one is not particularly, and I learn a lot from them and how they see things.
I continue to be excited by young people who are students or younger colleagues or whose works I read. One of the questions raised was, "We always thought in high school you should study algebra, but maybe you should study statistics. We always said the next thing after algebra should be calculus, but maybe it should be data science.
This gave me an idea that I passed on to a psychologist named Branton Shearer, who lives in Ohio. He is very interested in the brain basis of multiple intelligences, which I was interested in thirty years ago. Needless to say, the difference between what we knew about the brain in and what we know in thirty-five years is enormous. At the end of the day, when you get the data, you need to know how to make sense of them. Any set of data has an infinite amount of things you can say about it.
You need to be guided by an intelligence, both to come up with an appropriate question and to know how to make sense of the answer. Those of us interested in truth, beauty, and goodness think those are great tools. The three great media technology changes in human history were the invention of writing, the invention of printing, and the advent of the digital computer. The changes of the earlier ones took hundreds of years to be manifest and understood.
The changes in human beings now happen very quickly. The changes that are taking place now are ones that could not have even been envisaged except by science fiction writers. When I was working on The App Generation with Katie Davis, we realized that most kids nowadays growing up in the developed society have never gotten lost.
Getting lost for all of human history was part of life. Nobody ever got lost permanently; you got found or, more probably, you found yourself. That simple thing is very profound. If there were a cyber-attack, it would make no difference to me because I spent the first fifty or sixty years of my life without smart devices—all I ever used computers for was to do data analysis. People who are so-called digital natives, who were born in the last ten or twenty years.
The notion that human beings are going to be replaced within the next century is not a sophisticated notion, but changes are going to continue at a very rapid rate. To me, the big question involves ethics. Namely, at which point do we, a human community, stop making the ethical decisions for ourselves and turn these decisions over to some algorithm?
Who gets to devise the algorithm? The people who are in charge of servers and the people who come up with the programs that we all use are tremendously powerful. In a way, they may have to be the new professionals, because we must count on them to be disinterested in the best sense of the word. Which brings up the question of how we relate to one another, how we talk to one another. But the notion that we have to watch every word that we say and that we have to think about how what we say could be distorted into being an insult is unreasonable.
On the other hand, having spoken to many students now and having read a great deal, there are lots of things we say carelessly that do hurt people. We should be aware of that. But if there are places that try to censor speech, I have no sympathy for that whatsoever. Education in America still is interpreted as meaning K But we now know that kids are learning in utero. We now know that the first three or four years of life can spawn huge differences by the time kids go to any kind of a public school. Learning takes place throughout life. We need to forget about education as occurring for certain ages and certain places and think about it as happening from the moment of birth until senility.
And there is little doubt that our political economy has stifled our nobler educational missions in American higher education. The problem with higher education, from a global perspective, may be more formidable than Gardner suggests. Higher education in South Africa illustrates global inequalities in access and opportunity. I spent several years conducting educational research in the Limpopo Province of South Africa, part of a project led by Daniel Wagner at the University of Pennsylvania called the Bridges to the Future Initiative.
Our broader objective was to better understand the social and economic consequences of literacy and technological competency among the economically disadvantaged. As part of the legacy of apartheid, many South Africans lack access to higher education. The mission of higher education in South Africa is entangled with issues of power, justice, and freedom, about access to means, culture, and language skills.
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Notably, the goal of adult basic education and training is to build the knowledge and skills required for social, economic and political participation. The goal of higher education is not only individual learning as such, but of the economic and social development of South Africa as a country. We should do more than teach content knowledge or vocational skills in higher education. I am the product of a liberal arts education from Swarthmore , and am on the faculty at a home for the artes illiberales, the illiberal arts MIT.
That distinction has outlived its historical utility, and impedes progress on both sides. What I learned at Swarthmore was how to think about thinking. What I didn't learn was how to do research; for that, I went to Bell Labs as a kind of physics finishing school, and grad school at a research university Cornell.
On arrival, I found that I was poorly prepared to compete in well-defined research tracks that were races to extremes, the lowest temperatures or highest energies. There was extensive discussion of how to accomplish these things, but not why—that was considered to be self-evident.
Instead, I've contributed by helping to connect apparently-unrelated concepts, like using the electron coupling between nuclear spins to do quantum logic. The techniques for doing that have since been used for both developing quantum computers and for studying the structure of molecules. Which kind of art is that? It's not a useful distinction; it's a liberal arts approach with the tools of the illiberal arts. The problem is that the conception of a liberal arts education still carries the Renaissance legacy of the subjects of the trivium and the quadrivium.
The means of expression have changed since then; I find that computer code or CAD files can be as expressive as paintings or sonnets. There is a false dichotomy between utility and profundity. It would be equally alarming if a professional education was deemed to not need the ability to evaluate and synthesize knowledge, or if studying the liberal arts an unprofessional education? Learning how to learn is vocational training, for a career as a sentient human being.
Education is not that complicated a subject. Its history is rooted in religion. There is truth to impart and each religion has established schools to impart it. While many from Plato to Dewey have mentioned that people learn by doing, we nevertheless insist that people can learn by listening. So we have schools that teach the truth by telling it to us. In non-religious schools, real truth is hard to find, so we insist on teaching algebra, or simple science, or we make people study literature.
I agree with Gardner that all this must and will change. The fact that students are burdened with fantastic debts to attend schools like Harvard, does not attest to the value of the education received at Harvard, but to the branding. Say you went to Harvard and people will think you are smart. Companies will hire you because you went to Harvard. It's irrational, but true. The great inhibitors to change are many, but my three favorites are: top universities, the government, and parents. They all know that school should be like… well, school. There should be classrooms and tests, and college admissions, and lots of requirements.
Here is what should exist in place of all that. In a world of computers we have the possibility of replacing the existing courses, by a wide range of stuff that might be fun to do. Each kid would choose their own fun. I am not the first to say that nothing worth learning can be taught. Kids need help when they try to do things. They need an environment set up for them to try things out and they need help from people who know more than they do when things go wrong. They need to be able to fail and to have conversations with someone else about why they failed, so they can try again or try something else.
And they need to be working towards their own goals and definition of success, not for grades. Can we create learning environments where kids can learn what they want to learn? Gardner mentions data sciences. We have built a thorough online course in data analytics. Could we offer it to high schools?