Science, Technology, and Society

Another class I have this Spring '07 semester is "Science, Technology, and Society" with the esteemed Dr. Neuenschwander. In STS we study the relationships between those three topics and the effects they have on each other and us. We look into some of the moral issues that are created by Science and Technology.As part of the class we are to read two books, the first Disturbing the Universe by Freeman Dyson and the second Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into Values by Robert Pirsig. In addition to reading these books, each week we write a "letter" about the journey we are taking in STS. The letters are supposed to be how we relate to something we've read in the assigned readings (from those books or handouts in class). In the words of the assignment we are to show evidence that we've "reflected on the reading and/or discussion of the week" and "applied the reading and/or discussion to your own experience or observations". So, as a treat for you, I will be posting these letters here, which will comprise this short book. Each chapter is titled with a brief phrase about the content of the letter and the reading for that week.

Week 1: On the Somtimes Seeming Futility of Change (Dyson 1-4)

Greetings,     Reading Dyson's account of his time with the British bomber command brought to mind the many conversations I've had with my father. Not about the British bomber command, or even about war per say, here let me explain. First Dyson's account is a bit large to just refer to it in its whole. In specific I'm thinking of his struggle in getting the higher ups to act upon his research, and that of his friend Mike O'Loughlin; for Dyson it was the ripping out of the turrets to at least save the lives of the gunners, for Mike, the enlarging of the escape hatches, both great ideas, but ideas that would require change.     And now I can relate these to the conversations with my father. Conversations about the seeming futility of change. For instance, the world, and in particular America, is in a great deal of trouble if it doesn't lower its energy usage, but no one wants to drive less or switch to florescent bulbs. In the case of florescent bulbs, the switch is trivial as they are widely available, Walmart carries them. While Dyson was dealing with changing the minds of the higher ups, and my father and I talk about changing the masses, the similarities are there, people don't like to change. Why? In these cases two reasons, one, they'd have to admit they were wrong or don't know everything, two, they are lazy and don't wish to make the extra effort or pay the minor cost.     I'm not sure, but I'd wager that Dyson will run into this fear people have of change again in his life. Of course his life is already well advanced, so more correctly, I will find out if he ran into it. I can only hope that I learn from Dyson, and unlike him I take after Mike. Dyson got depressed, Mike got angry, and in the words of Dyson “Anger is creative, depression is useless.” So, I figure if we can all take after Mike, and use our anger at injustice, or waste to eventually change things, just as Mike finally got his escape hatches enlarged, we will be better off. Not only will we personally be happier with our life when our time has ended, but the world to will be better off. -- Nathaniel

Week 2: On Relationships With Professors (Dyson 5-9)


Something that impressed me is Dyson's relationships with his Professors, both while studying and afterwards. He talks of them with great fondness and respect. The first we meet with Dyson is Hans Bethe at Cornell. Dyson's relationship with Bethe, at least at the time of the book, has deepened to the point where he always refers to him first name, always Hans, never Dr. Bethe. There is something amazing about those kinds of relationships, they fill me with hope and gladness.

One thing I really like about SNU, above everything else, are the professors. Sure, like every relationship we have our differences, and at this time there is still very much the feeling of student and teacher, but they are also real people, and my friends. I love the privilege I have of being about to walk into Dr. Wantz's office and ask random questions about things I've been doing in my own time, or in other classes. Or how Prof. Eskridge and I can talk about many things other than his classes as we share much in common.

Later on Dyson goes to Princeton and works under J. Robert Oppenheimer, affectionately called by his friends Oppy. Here is one the most highly regarded physicists of Dyson's time, and Dyson's relationship with Oppenheimer grows to the point where he can even call the great Oppenheimer, Oppy. It is truly amazing to read about how the relationships were formed and grew over time, how these great men met each other and changed each others lives.

I can only hope, that throughout my life I meet the kind of people that Dyson did, and to develop relationships on par with his. Luckily I already know that I have a good start.

-- Nathaniel

Week 3: On The Extinction of African Cultures (Dyson 10-14)

Hello again,

This weeks journey has been fascinating. There is so much that could be discussed, but in all of it I find little that I can really relate to. Sure, I like to discuss the consequences of terrorism and means of prevention, but I really have no experience with it. Similarly, colonization of the solar system is very intriguing, but unless you call being an avid science fiction reader experience, I can't claim to have any there. So I was thinking back over the journey, to the discussions with Dr. N, Dyson, and even Oppenheimer or Rothman and Sudarshan (which was a very short conversation, really just a taste of the depths that these men are able to take one in thought). And in my search of these conversations with these great men I remembered part of what Dr. N was talking about last Monday, about the Neiz Peirce, and how their culture was radically changed with the forced adoption of technology.

The Neiz Perice reminded me of Africa and of the many tribes across the continent. Just like the Native Americans two centuries ago, the many tribes of Africa are being forced to adopt new ways of technology. I must for a second amend my statements, I've only mentioned forced adoption, however, that is not always the case, some of it is willing adoption, but nevertheless it wouldn't have come about if their lands had not been colonized. What is the adoption of technology doing that is worthy of spending time thinking about? It driving cultures to extinction, that is what is worth being aware of. The cultures of the many tribes of Native Americans have changed significantly since the entrance of the "pale face" with our new fangled technology and disregard for others way of life. Parts of their culture is now extinct. It was never recorded in history books and many of the younger generations sought to embrace the ways of technology and shrugged of the story-telling of the grandparents which would pass the history along, keeping their culture alive.

So what makes this personal, what experience do I have with it? Well, as far as Native Americans go, none, but to the tribes of Africa, much. As you might remember my parents were missionaries to Africa for 15 years, 12 of which were spent in Beira, Mozambique in Southern Africa. So I saw first hand some the encroaching of technology on other cultures, but really, my experience comes mainly from my father. He was really out in it, sometimes the first white person a village had ever seen. You might think that if he was the first westerner, then their culture must be safe, with so little contact. No, because my father will not be the last. Others will come, bringing with them technology and a new way of life, and it won't necessarily be westerners, others from even their own tribe might come, riding in on a bicycle with a radio blaring, strapped to the carrying rack with rubber inner-tube. Africa is the most linguistically diverse continent in the world. According to UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) Africa has some 2,000 languages. Many of the languages will be extinct in the next 50 years. As the continent is urbanized languages and cultures will die out, they will be forced into extinction by the expansion of man.

Now, am I bashing technology? No, of course not, technology has brought with it amazing things. But I am cautioning blind expansion and disregard for existing cultures. We must wipe them to extinction, but instead find some way to preserve them, at least in the annals of history books, if not in living breathing human beings. In 2001 the African Union created the sub-organization African Academy of Languages, whose job it is to preserve the myriad of languages in Africa from extinction. The AAL declared 2006 as the Year of African Languages in hopes to raise awareness of the threat on the life of African languages. But, if I only found out about the AAL today, in a quick google search to check some of my facts, then how many other westerners live unawares of the issue? I leave you with that to mull over in your mind, Regards, Nathaniel Troutman

Week 4: On Questions of Nuclear Weapons (Dyson 15-16)


Last weeks journey in STS really focused around two areas. With Dyson we explored the world of consequences of continuing research in recumbent DNA. While fascinating I can't bring anything to the table beyond what I've read by Dyson and the meager thinking I've done about the consequences of cloning, so I won't simply quote Dyson and rehash his thoughts. If you wish to know what he thinks and why then I suggest you read his book. Instead, I will be looking at the other area in last weeks journey, atomic weapons.

Over my time in college I have joked about getting an audited minor in physics as I've audited a couple upper division physics courses. Most relevant to this discussion though will be Atomic and Nuclear. Now, in all honesty I didn't actually audit it, rather I sat in on the second half of the course, the half that covered atomic weapons. So I have seen the math and physics behind these powerful creatures and because of that they are more real to me.

In class last week Dr. N had three questions for the the weeks “questions du jour”:

  1. If you had been asked to help develop the atomic bomb in 1942, what would have done?
  2. If you had been President Truman in August 1945, what would you have done to end the war?
  3. What would you have decided about the hydrogen bomb in January 1950?

They were intended to get us to really think about the events that lead upto the bombings of Nagasaki and Hiroshima. I really don't find it that hard a question to answer. But then again, I've spent so time already thinking about it.

On the physics trip I went on, with the SNU physics department, one of the places we visited was Los Alamos New Mexico. We got to see many of the places in which the historic events of the creation of the atomic bomb took place. It was a fascinating experience as there were entire museums dedicated to that era of history. At several of the museums I saw bomb casings identical to Little Man and Fat Boy, the bombs dropped on Japan to end WII. They weren't behind glass or barriers, they were right where we could touch them, to run our hands along the metal shapes that represent the most fearful weapon technology of the times. And in the pit of your stomach you can feel it tighten as your thoughts drift back into time, considering the destruction they wrought. Just as frightening is the knowledge that in comparison, Little Boy and Fat Man are relatively weak compared to current bombs. The hydrogen bomb using in the Ivy Mike test, 10.4 megatons, is nearly 1000 times more powerful than the 20 kiloton bomb exploded for the Trinity Test.

However, in spite of the awesome destructiveness of the bombs I find my self agreeing with President Truman. I to would have dropped the atom bombs on Nagasaki and Hiroshima. When faced with the estimates handed to me by my military advisors, of the number of lives that would potentially be saved by not invading Japan, it seems like there was no other option. At the worst, it would cause no more death than the invasion, and while it may sound bigoted, at least American lives would be saved. And in that vein I would have gladly worked on the development of that weapon, right along side Oppenheimer and others. On one hand is the privilege to get to work on the new and exciting, the cutting edge of physics, who wouldn't want to do that? And the other lies the possibility of saving the lives of your brothers, cousins, and friends. Again, I don't see that there would be any question, I would have most definitely worked on it.

This letter is far to short to even begin to do justice to the thoughts that needed to be thought, and questions asked, but my time is running short and I must close now. Perhaps we will later continue this discussion in more depth. Till then my friend, Nathaniel Troutman

Week 5: On the Importance of Cultural Diversity via Languages for Space Exploration (Dyson 17-21) Nathaniel Troutman

Hello Friend,

It has been a long week, but alas, you don't read my letters to hear me complain. In what I've written you so far there have been two sources, the conversations I've had with Dr. N. via his lectures and those with Dyson through Disturbing the Universe. The past letter or two have been from Dr. N.'s lectures, this week I'll be going back to Dyson, albeit in a vein similar to what I talked about previously. If you recall a couple of weeks ago I wrote to you about the extinction of Africa languages, well today I will revisit that topic, this time under the light of Dyson's book (chapter 20 if you wish to make reference to it) instead of the Neiz Peirce Native Americans.

In chapter 19 Dyson was talking about the search for extra-terrestrial technology, a sign of extra-terrestrial intelligence, and during his conversation he listed Kardashev's three phases a society would go through as they colonized the galaxies. What I want to recall is not the work of the search or the expansion, but that Dyson said in order for the phases to traverse quickly it would require a very flexible society. I see that as being one that is constantly evolving to fit the needs of exploration of the space surrounding us. And if we now move into the next chapter Dyson talks about the role languages play in the evolution of cultures and societies. He says that a diversity of languages allows us as human beings to evolve rapidly in culture and society. That without it we would be as he puts a "clone" which is stagnate and leads no where as far as change and evolution are concerned. He also says that just as with the extinction of a species we are a made poor as a whole by the death of a language. With that he goes on to point out that we make great efforts to protect endangered species, but make little effort to protect endangered languages, and with them endangered cultures. For as Dyson says and I agree, language can support a culture and keep it alive under great oppression.

Language is at its heart for communication, why else would language exist except for the transfer of knowledge, thoughts, feelings, and ideas. Its all about communication. With language culture is also communicated, either by traditions passed down orally or by the very essence of the existence of the language itself. Let me illustrate for you how language, its structure and vocabulary, is culture.

In Mozambique alone there exist some forty tribal languages. My father is familiar with many of them and with some of the languages in the surrounding countries. The tribal languages in southern Africa are in the family of Bantu languages and thus share some similarities in structure, much the same way that Romance languages share some similarities. Of the languages around the area in which my family lived (we lived in the city of Beira, Mozambique in the province of Sofala) my father has learned Cisena, the language of the Sena people. Of our family my father is the only one to learn any of the Bantu languages, I find them interesting and have had several conversations about them with my father, probing into their unique structure, a grammar entirely unlike that of my native English.

Here I will make a brief diversion from my planned to course to touch ever so briefly on the structure of Bantu languages. Bantu languages have a very noticeable characteristic of having a large number of classes, easily but questionably compared to genders in romance languages. A typical Bantu language has around ten classes with the exact number varying between language. But what is considered one of the most pronounced characteristics of Bantu languages is the extensive use of affixes. An affix is a form of the smallest element of a language with semantic meaning attached to other elements to form words. Or more simply stated something you affix to something else to change its means (although that is a very vulgar summery). For instance prefixes and suffixes are both affixes, and commonly used in the English language, but at a level of simplicity far below the complexities in which affixes are taken in Bantu languages. Each noun in a Bantu language belongs to a class and the affixes must agree in class throughout the sentence. For the sake of clarity and your sanity I will take a quote from Wikipedia on Bantu languages that illustrates the complexity of affixes: " In Swahili, for example, Mtoto mdogo amekisoma means 'The small child has read it [a book]'. Mtoto 'child' governs the adjective prefix m- and the verb subject prefix a-. Then comes perfect tense -me- and an object marker -ki- agreeing with implicit kitabu 'book'. Pluralizing to 'children' gives Watoto wadogo wamekisoma, and pluralizing to 'books' (vitabu) gives it Watoto wadogo wamevisoma. " I can only guess that I've completely confused you by this diversion, but my hope is to illustrate the richness that is implicit in other languages, and that this richness would in fact be a great loss to humanity were it lost.

Back to my original track with its own illustration. One thing that I find fascinating, that to me indicates quite well the idea that language is intrinsically culture, is the vocabulary of languages. The words a culture has, and sometimes just as interesting doesn't have, play large role in uncovering the culuture in which the language lives. In this case I want to draw your attention to Cisena language. Cisena in its purest form doesn't have analogues to our words to indicate time. There isn't the concept of hours or minutes, much less seconds. Instead, and I find this most fascinating, is that there are distinct words for the position of the sun! But of course, it makes so much sense. In a culture without time pieces (including such antiquities as hourglasses) there would be but one easy way to tell the passage of time, the progress of the sun across the sky. And just as interesting is that there are few positions indicated and time is indicated in a nonchalant manner. The exactness of time isn't required in the culture in which the language resides, and thus not provided for in the language.

By now I am assuming you wondering what my point is as this conversation, well, monologue, grows in length. My point is this, we can not continue to drive languages to extinction! We can't afford to lose the cultural diversity, for when we do we will find ourselves as a whole, all of humanity, stuck in time. We will become one of Dyson's clones, incapable of advancing at a useful rate. Without diversity we will not continue to evolve, we will not become the global society, yet still a diverse one, that is capable of passing through Kardashev's phases of civilizations in a timely manner. We will forever be stuck on this one planet, never to explore the magnificent universe in which we reside! That my friend is a sad thought. To never explore Creation beyond our little blue sphere, a mournful thought indeed.

In closing I ask one question to which I am sadly without an answer. What can we do to ensure the diversity of humanity? Nathaniel

Week 8: (Pirsig 8-12)

Greetings friend, Pirsig's book is very hard to get into on an intellectual level. The book itself is quite easy to read, the words and grammar are not complex in the slightest, but when I try to relate to it I find my self sitting there with a blank stare on my face. I'm sure that what he has said is profound, but I don't know what to do with it. Phaedrus is quite a character, yet another part of Pirsig's book I'm not sure how to interpret. I find myself relating to him though, inspire of a very real feeling of distance. Phaedrus and I do share a passion for idealism. As Phaedrus moved into the high country of the mind he becomes very idealistic measuring all philosophers against his own thoughts and gets rather perturb when they disagree with him. I feel him trying to find a unified theory of everything, those exact words haven't shown up, nor has it really been pointed at, but thats the feeling I get as I read Phaedrus' thoughts. I, like Phaedrus, hold people up to my view of the world and they way I think it should operate. We are very much idealists together, just of a different breed with different areas of focus. Him with the high country of the mind, me with the morality of everyday life and circumstances. It is a bit odd reading about Phaedrus and his thoughts while knowing who he is and his fate in the back of my mind. Its not a particularly encouraging fate as in essence Phaedrus dies and all that is left is he has written down and the few memories of him that dwell in the minds of others, primarily Pirsig. I am eager to see how the rest of Pirsig's discussion of Phaedrus pans out and how Phaedrus' life is worked into the rest of the book. And perhaps his ending will not be as glum as I forecast for Phaedrus. Nathaniel

Week 9: On Pirsig's Gradeless University (Pirsig 13-16)

Greetings friend, It has been some time since I last wrote you. In that absence the journey with Pirsig has continued on as I continued to read despite a lack of correspondence and thus might have read beyond you. For a spell I found little in his book that I could easily relate too, and was beginning to wonder if I'd have much to tell you about my journey, however Pirsig began to talk about the experiments of Phaedrus during the first phase of his discovery of the meaning of quality. As I read about his gradeless classes and a desire to have school with students motivated by a yearning to learn and make knowledge there own, not just going for a piece of paper and grade point average, I began to get excited for alas someone was saying some of the very things I have thought for years. I have always thought the standard way grades are done and students grasp of a subject area is tested is a rather crude way of doing things. When Dr. N. presented us a with a chance to at least hide the grades in STS I jumped on it. I can see now where I would wager Dr. N. got the idea from. In reading Pirsig's accounts of Phaedrus' classes I found it interesting that Phaedrus was surprised by who favored his new gradeless system vs who opposed it. I have found that as one of the “A” students grades are important in a very odd way. To me the grade is important only because it determines my future. Dr. N. is fond of a saying “Will it really matter in ten years?,” at first I didn't know what to make of this. With some thought I drew it out to an extreme and applied it to grades and was immediately aghast at the implications and quite upset that someone might apply it thus. While the actual grade I make now might now matter in ten years, it will mater in one or two when I apply for graduate school, and graduate school will matter in ten years. Figuring that Dr. N. didn't really mean for it to be take with extremes I decided that when looking at it applied to how much one stresses over things it might be more of a valid question. And here I have run off on a rather long tangent. Back to grades. As I said, to me the grade is only important in its power to affect my future. I frequently frustrate my friends because they will be itching to know what they got on an exam and I could care less. In my view I took the test, I did my best, and fretting will not miraculously change the red number at the top of the page to a higher one. I think I would have correctly predicted the results of Phaedrus' survey had anyone asked me to. It is my opinion that the results hold true for a majority of all “A” students across all fields. We are here to learn, few people who get “A”'s are doing so merely to get the “A”, but instead because they feel knowledge is important, and doing one's best is important, and thus the “A” is the natural result. To be honest I must admit that I do care about exactly what the grade is because I feel that anything less than a certain threshold is unacceptable. However this feeling comes from a knowledge of what my best actually is, what I know I can accomplish, not because an “A” is necessarily so much more beautiful than a “B” or any lower letter. I'm not quite done with my views on our academic system of the graded university. However, Phaedrus hasn't touched upon the usefulness of tests or the way a students knowledge in a field is determined identically in all fields despite the students major. That my friend is another whole letter, a rather long one as I'm rather adiment of the fact that there are better ways than the current method of testing. Until then my friend, Nathaniel

Week 10: On "The University" Respecting the Student (Pirsig 17-20)

Hi again, I have been struggling with what to write about last weeks journey. Reading the article of science and religion in a post-modern world presented some possible points of conversation, but none of them grabbed me completely. Floating in the back of my mind was a topic I was itching to get out and talk about but having trouble relating it to very much in Pirsig's book. Then things began to unfold. Pirsig in recounting Phaedrus' struggles with the second crystallization of quality reminded me of “respect.” How you might ask? Earlier in the book I saw Phaedrus respecting his students greatly when he asked them to define quality, to help him define it. In my mind I see him being very sincere, he really was asking their true opinion and would have welcomed it whole heartedly. He threw away barriers of age and education to meet them on a level ground, a ground of respect. When he is attempting to make a rigorous definition of Quality looks at Quality being an emotional response vs the sum of knowledge. He quickly pointed out that teachers (and in my mind all more educated people) would have greatly liked the concept of Quality as having to do with the sum of knowledge for it would place them in the seat to define Quality. This made Phaedrus uncomfortable because his students were aware of Quality and could accurately pick it out without have the sum-of-knowledge of the highly educated. This leads me into thoughts about respect, but not in the normally used direction of student respecting a teacher or elder, but of the teacher or elder respecting the student. It seems to me that the University, possibly both the ephemeral and the concrete components, have problems with sending the respect back down to the student. I see that the goal of the University is to prepare students for life, to educate them in what is need to live a happy and successful life. However, while this may be their professed goal or duty it seems that they fail in quite completely in at least one particular area. (One can kind of see what I am talking of in how Pirsig treats Chris and John and Sylvia.) I see the University in failing to treat the students as adults. How are students to become adults without practice in all the things of adulthood while remaining in the relative stability of the University. It is really quite odd, University students are treated as half-breeds or lower-class citizens by the heads (faculty, administration, etc) of the University (and beyond the University by other people with power). I have seen people with only a high-school education be treated with more respect than a University student who is still dedicating his life to the acquisition of knowledge. Why is this? Why are the minds the University is trying to raise are the very people who get the least respect? To me this is the biggest problem of the University and the most illogical. If the goal is to breed peons and slaves then perhaps its the right path to take, but if the goal is to instead breed confident individuals then the wrong path has been chosen. To foster confidence and respect the students must be treated with respect, their concerns must matter. If they question, with respect or at least without malice, the authorities or dogma or laws of physics or whatever, they are not to be slapped down or shoved aside. The University should tolerate these questions, better yet encourage them, because this is when the student really thinks. And while no one likes to be shown wrong, if they question what is easily proven, then the University should prove it respectfully and by doing this create individuals who think for themselves yet also respect the knowledge of others. Perhaps the simplest way to sum this up is that students are humans, and most by time they are in University are legal adults, they have rights and feelings and potent minds. The most beautiful pottery is molded by hand, lovingly crafted. The injection molded, machine trimmed is cold and stark, without feeling and without compassion. Perhaps there is little you can do about this, but at least it is in your mind friend. I thank you for your respect. Nathaniel

Week 11: On Grades and "Quality" (Pirsig 21-24)

Hello friend, Two weeks ago, I wrote you in regards to Phaedrus’ school without grades and other scholastic related ideas. You raised some questions in regards to my letter to which I will respond. You raised the question “If one takes care of the knowledge will grades—and grad school—take care of themselves?” Let us look at that question. In the case of grades, it depends on how knowledge reflects grades, more precisely, what knowledge is reflected in the grades. Pirsig and Phaedrus spent quite a while discussing why quality is not definable. They went on to say quality is different to each of us because we all bring our own a priori analogues, which define quality for us. Luckily, since we live in the same world we also share experiences allowing overlap between experiences and analogues, which give the ability to converse with one another, our views of quality, have met with some degree of harmony. The exact degree of overlap or harmony can very widely from one quality to another. Now the point for bringing this up is that I see grades as a measure of quality. Otherwise, why would one care so much about it, why would professors spend their lives in the pursuit of imparting knowledge to students? This knowledge is quality and to determine if they have imparted the knowledge, if they have done their job properly, there must be some form of measuring success, measuring quality. I can see now that your questions are inseparable, the other being a request to hear better ways of testing, better methods. Here comes the rub, in an attempt to be efficient the same methods of testing quality are used no matter what real world analogue quality is manifesting. Which is a problem because quality can’t be defined, can’t be shoved in box. It’s the source of everything after all. Furthermore, quality being different for each of us doesn’t lend itself to that one testing box. We are trying to use one manifestation of quality to judge the quality of another manifestation. Rather like trying to judge or define carbon in its graphite form with its diamond form. About all you can say is that they are from the same source, carbon, and are different manifestations of that source, carbon. We could throw them in the same box, saying this is carbon, but we couldn’t judge the properties of graphite against diamond and be fair, they are different things. To say one is inferior to the other is pointless until you say what you are planning to use it for, and even then, we aren’t saying the other is worthless, it after all has its own strengths for different uses. They are both full of quality. Grades are a metric by which a student measures the similarities in their quality as compared to quality as seen by the professor. To me this would indicate that simply taking care of the knowledge is only sufficient when the analogues used to view quality are suitably similar between student and professor. In certain fields of study, this is more likely than others are. The sciences are most likely to see this overlap in qualities because of it being a classical view of quality. The rest of the fields, the humanities and arts, use a romantic view of quality that doesn’t readily lend itself to such overlaps. Beauty, or should I say quality, is in the eye of the beholder. The smaller the area of the intersection between a professor’s quality and a student’s quality the more likely simply taking care of knowledge (quality) will be inadequate to ensure the grades. Here I am running out of time and I have barely begun to address your questions. I shall continue this discussion in my next letter to you. Till we next speak, Nathaniel

Week 12: On Quality as a Measure of Knowledge (Pirsig 25-26)

Hello, Last week a I began a look at quality related to grades as measure of knowledge. The first conclusion I came to was that taking care of knowledge won't always be enough to ensure the grades. This is an effect of knowledge being quality and an attempt to measure quality which requires defining quality which Pirsig and Phaedrus have shown to be evanescent at best. This implies that in order to ensure the grades, a student must learn to mimic or reproduce what the professor considers quality. This reproduction tends to stifle creativity, in my opinion making peons out of students. To be fair, some professors have manged to see quality in light of the individual students views of quality and thus seeing quality where the student sees it and the professor calls it quality as well. Now a place where I am unsure about where to draw the line is at what point is some overlap between the professors view of quality and the students required. No, more correctly this has to do about honesty. I'm having a bit of trouble trying to phrase this idea. Here, lets try this: How does the professor give the student a grade in light of the complexity of quality? This opens up a question, what is the intent of the University? Is it to make free thinkers of the students, creative individuals? Or, is it to create peons who can accurately regurgitate a body of facts? If it is the later then it is a requirement that in order to grade the student that student must adopt a near perfectly overlapping view of quality to all their professors. However, if the goal is the former, to mold creative free-thinkers, then there must exist a wide range of accepted views of quality. There must not be a requirement that the view of the professor on quality and the view the student overlap precisely. Unfortunately that brings back the former question, what level of overlap is required? This brings us back to testing methods. If the goal is to create fact-curators out of students then I would guess the current testing methods are quite good for that. To determine how well they “know” the subject area simply ask them to regurgitate various predetermined (by some governing body) facts about that subject. If the student fails to reproduce an given percentage of the facts then they have failed. But, if the University is trying to mold creative free-thinkers out of the students, then the current method of testing is inadequate. This isn't to say its bad, or to insult those who've devoted their lives to perfecting it, but to say that it is for testing fact-curators not creative free-thinkers. So I guess it boils down to the role of the University. And, as students, do we have the power to direct the University to one goal or the other. Personally I'm one for the creative free-thinker goal, which I believe is what Phaedrus was trying to create with his gradeless-university. Currently the University is running with the goal of creating facts-curator, a sad fact of reality. The obvious follow-up question is, does the world want/need facts-curators or creative free-thinkers? To that I don't have any inkling of an answer or any leanings towards one way or the other. I do think that they have been conditioned to at least accept facts-curators as this is what the University has been producing. I'm eager to hear what you think about all that I've said. Till we talk again, Nathaniel

Week 13: On Testing Methods and Quality (Pirsig 27-28)

Hello, Ah, now the problem of exactly what to say comes up. There is much that could be said and might very well be worth saying. The question of better testing methods has always been one that has bugged me. Ask my father and he will tell you of the many conversations we have had in regards to testing methods; to be fair a good portion of them was mostly me ranting and my father injecting reason into my idealism. I have always been adamant that current testing methods are poor. Unfortunately, one is rarely listened to if they cannot produce a better solution. However, I do question how hard are other testing methods being looked for. Or has the University simply fallen into a rut it is unwilling to climb painfully out of? It has been my experience that the best learning I have done was largely on my own time, but guided by a mentor, with some time spent discussing the material with others learning the same or similar things. I had the privilege of experiencing this during my internship over the summers at OU and will be getting to do it again this summer! I believe one learns best when one is personally motivated. During the summer I was reading and asking questions of my mentor and his colleagues because I desired to gain information. I saw quality in it and desired quality so endeavored to gain it. Unfortunately, one is rarely self-motivated to study every domain of knowledge required by a liberal arts education decided upon some group of people. Of course, there is the possibility that this is because of the way the material is presented and tested. If I as a student, am presented with a way to make the knowledge mine, to actually apply my skills of reasoning and rhetoric, instead of mere memorization, I am far more likely to be interested in the material. An example of this in the arts was during a Fine Arts class. We were shown a set of paintings we had never scene before. The professor before hand had told us the era they were from so that we would know who the possible artists were. We were then to write down all the details and nuances we could about each painting during the 30 seconds or so we were shown it. Next, in small groups we were to try and deduce the artist of each painting based upon our combined notes and knowledge of the artists. It was fantastic! I found it throughly enjoyable because it required taking the knowledge about the artists and really making it my own. It required real thought, not just regurgitating the facts about the artists styles, but to find hints of style and personality in real paintings and make the connections ourselves. In my opinion there are few things that equal the pleasure of the “ah ha” moment when things click and crystallize in our minds. I would say that Phaedrus and Pirsig would agree with me that the thinking we were doing in that exercise was true quality thinking. Now the question comes up, “How would the professor grade such an exercise?” It wasn't graded in our exercise so I am unfortunately unable to give an example from that actual event. However, I can postulate about how it might be graded with current methods. Points would be received for correct identification of the artist of a given painting. Simple, yes? This seems somewhat laking as it entirely ignores any notions of quality. A quality-based approach would look at why we picked the artist we did. If our choice was supported with quality reasons, even though it was ultimately incorrect, I would argue that knowledge was gained and learning took place. Granted this would require more time as it would require the professor to step into the students' shoes and look through their quality “lenses”. And it would asking a different question of the students, not can you regurgitate what you have read in a dry textbook and heard in a lecture, but can you take that knowledge and information (hopefully presented differently) and actually use it, making it your own. I feel that the second question is the best. It sculpts creative free-thinkers out of our minds. It asks us to actually own the knowledge, to make it into quality. It appears that I am closing in on the “why” but not on the “how”. Nathaniel