Michael Hemesath

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Michael Hemesath

About Michael Hemesath

Michael Hemesath is the 13th president of Saint John's University. A 1981 SJU graduate, Hemesath is the first layperson appointed to a full presidential term at SJU. You can find him on Twitter [at] PrezHemesath.

Demographic Reductionism

Brooklyn Museum via wikimedia common's user Cm300883A recent article in the New York Times examines a controversy at a New York art museum.

The article by Maya Salam describes criticism the Brooklyn Museum is receiving for hiring Kristen Windmuller-Lund as the curator of the African art.  Windmuller-Lund appears highly qualified on paper.  The story notes that she “has Ph.D. and M.A. degrees from Princeton, and a bachelor’s degree in the history of art from Yale. She has worked at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Princeton University Art Museum and the Neuberger Museum of Art in Purchase, N.Y.”  She is also white.

Critics of the decision “on social media and from an anti-gentrification activist group…argue the selection perpetuated ‘ongoing legacies of oppression.’ ”  Another activist group wrote that the museum’s choice was ” ‘tone-deaf’ and said that ‘no matter how one parses it, the appointment is simply not a good look in this day and age.’ ”

The Brooklyn Museum is pushing back against the criticism, releasing a statement praising Windmuller-Luna and including a reaction from Okwui Enwezor, the renowned Nigerian-American curator, scholar and arts leader, who called Dr. Windmuller-Luna,

“…formerly a brilliant student of mine.  The criticism around her appointment can be described as
arbitrary at best, and chilling at worst,” he said. “There is no place in the field
of African art for such a reductive view of art scholarship according to which
qualified and dedicated scholars like Kristen should be disqualified by her being
white, and a woman. African art as a discipline deserves better.”

The story caught my eye because of its potential implications for higher education.  There are at least two major concerns with a world view that suggests subjects, disciplines or topics should be limited to certain individuals or groups.

1. Educational breadth.  A broad-based liberal arts education is the foundation of most of the finest universities in the United States and is part of every institution that has general education requirements.  The underlying philosophy is that every student benefits from studying things that are outside their experiences in order to stretch and challenge them.  Such study makes students better able to understand the experiences of others and more empathetic.  It might even introduce them to a topic that could become their academic major and even a lifelong passion.  Faculty do not discourage certain students from studying topics based on their background, gender, economics, religion or any other demographic characteristics.  In fact, on the contrary, students are often encouraged to try subjects that are distant from their previous experiences.  This may well be how Windmuller-Lund got interested in African art.

2. Demographic constraints on professors.  Beyond the limitations this narrow world view would impose on students’ educational choices, consider how the logic of the Brooklyn Museum’s critics could play out when taken to its logical extreme.  Only white men teach Shakespeare?  Christians only research Christianity?  Women only teach Middlemarch and Virginia Woolf?  Latin American or Asian or European historians must have appropriate genetic/family roots?  Jews only explore the meaning of the Holocaust?

To reduce individuals to the collection of demographic characteristics they might check off on a census form is deeply reductionist.  It suggests that an individual is simply a collection of traits rather than a person capable of synthesizing their many attributes into a complex irreducible human being.

If a liberal arts education teaches anything, it is that we are all capable of transcending mere genetics and history.  Ideally we can discover and live out a shared humanity in which we have much more in common with each other than the differences that are sometimes given too much weight.

Is Education a Waste of Time and Money?*

Those of us in higher education have become used to criticisms of our work.  Recent polls have shown decreasing public confidence in the value of education and even the recent tax reform bill had provisions that were implicitly critical of higher education.  But some of the recent criticism comes from a surprising source: inside the academy itself.

Bryan Caplan, a George Mason University economist, has written a book whose title succinctly describes his criticism: The Case Against Education: Why the Education System is a Waste of Time and Money.

This criticism is particularly surprising coming from an economist because one of the most robust research results in economics is the positive impact education has on earnings for individuals and on GDP growth for countries.  (See here  and here  and here)

Caplan’s basic argument is that a college degree serves primarily as a signal to employers of the types of traits a potential employee will bring, such as “brains, work ethic and conformity,” rather than providing any real skills that will be useful on the job.  Caplan writes that, “the only marketable skill I teach is ‘how to be an economics professor’.” In short, Caplan believes there in little value added in higher education.

Caplan starts from a pessimistic and ungenerous premise about students.  “Most kids are philistines—they are that way deep in their souls.”  Therefore, he asserts, education is wasted on them.

While not every 18 year old is worldly and cultured when they enter college, surely they should be allowed the scope to grow and develop intellectually, emotionally and spiritually.  Education is all about hope and possibilities.  The transition from childhood to adulthood is a powerful and important time in the lives of most people, and a four-year college experience is often an important part of that transformation for young people.

This lack of confidence in education also comes from Caplan’s view of education as a rote process.  He says, “Most of the stuff [students learn], right after the final exam, they’ll never need to know again.”  Needless-to-say, this is not how most faculty approach their subjects or their interactions with students.  While students invariably forget specific details from courses, most faculty would argue that education changes the habits of mind and skills of students. Education can improve critical thinking skills and research skills, as well as writing and communication skills – all widely applicable in the job market and providing a payoff over a lifetime.

Caplan focuses almost exclusively on what happens between the professor and student while paying little attention to the significant learning that takes place outside the classroom.  Athletes, student journalists, musicians, student senators and volunteers all gain valuable skills through their extracurricular activities.  Furthermore, the informal interactions in residential settings also provide students with opportunities to learn from peers who have had other kinds of experiences or upbringings or hold different worldviews.  The ability to listen and learn from others clearly benefits both the individual and ultimately society as a whole.

Are we in higher education successful in transforming all students equally?  Of course not.  Could we improve our teaching and add more value?  Certainly.  But to suggest that the whole educational enterprise is just a charade, that clever students “go through the motions” and cynical faculty play along simply to signal job readiness to narrowly self-interested employers is an assessment that is deeply at odds with the experience of most educators and students I know.

I suspect that most students with college-educated parents will pay little attention to criticism such as Caplan’s, having experienced within their families an educational reality that is rather different from what he describes.

I worry most about another group who may hear criticisms such as Caplan’s. He sends exactly the wrong message to those students and families who have not had the experience of college in their past.   For students who are capable and ambitious, not attending a four-year college prevents them from achieving the well-documented economic benefits that accrue to degree holders over their lifetimes, to say nothing of the many other personal benefits of higher education.

Caplan’s general thesis is certainly a view to be considered and some of his criticisms are fair, but I trust an application of sound critical thinking and some informed research will persuade students and their parents that a college degree is still an exceptional investment.

*A version of this post was published in the St. Cloud Times on February 25, 2018.

Reflections on a Liberal Arts Education: Part III

What Google Learned

Among the tech companies, Google is probably the most famous for its rigorous hiring process.  As Cathy Davidson, the author of The New Education: How to Revolutionize the University to Prepare Students for a World in Flux, writes:

Sergey Brin and Larry Page, both brilliant computer scientists, founded their company on the conviction that only technologists can understand technology. Google originally set its hiring algorithms to sort for computer science students with top grades from elite science universities.

Obviously this algorithm would fill Google with STEM graduates at the entry level and presumably those employees would eventually become the successful mid level and top management in the organization.

True to its DNA, Google decided to use data to analyze how well its hiring algorithm was at producing successful employees.  Davidson writes:

In 2013, Google decided to test its hiring hypothesis by crunching every bit and byte of hiring, firing, and promotion data accumulated since the company’s incorporation in 1998. Project Oxygen shocked everyone by concluding that, among the eight most important qualities of Google’s top employees, STEM expertise comes in dead last. The seven top characteristics of success at Google are all soft skills: being a good coach; communicating and listening well; possessing insights into others (including others with different values and points of view); having empathy toward and being supportive of one’s colleagues; being a good critical thinker and problem solver; and being able to make connections across complex ideas.

This list is very much like the skills and experiences that are touted by residential liberal arts colleges: critical thinking, communication, living and learning in a diverse community, and synthesizing ideas. I’d also note that some of the Benedictine values we emphasize at Saint John’s University and the College of Saint Benedict map nicely onto this list: respect for individuals, hospitality and the importance of community.

Google did further research in 2017, employing anthropologists and ethnographers, and found further support for the importance of soft skills:

Project Aristotle analyzes data on inventive and productive teams. Google takes pride in its A-teams, assembled with top scientists, each with the most specialized knowledge and able to throw down one cutting-edge idea after another. Its data analysis revealed, however, that the company’s most important and productive new ideas come from B-teams comprised of employees who don’t always have to be the smartest people in the room.

Project Aristotle shows that the best teams at Google exhibit a range of soft skills: equality, generosity, curiosity toward the ideas of your teammates, empathy, and emotional intelligence. And topping the list: emotional safety. No bullying. To succeed, each and every team member must feel confident speaking up and making mistakes. They must know they are being heard.

As a result of its research Google has broadened its hiring model with the goal of including humanities majors, artists, and even MBAs, candidates that the STEM-heavy organization had previously viewed with skepticism, at best.

None of this is particularly surprising for fans of the liberal arts.  The philosophy behind a broad based curriculum emphasizing exploration of the humanities, arts, natural sciences and social sciences is that such an education both makes students more successful in their major field of study and better prepares them for the diverse and changing world they will live in.

What Google’s research suggests is that even technology and science companies that embrace the liberal arts find themselves more successful and better at understanding the needs of their customers and the changing marketplace.

This worldview is shared by another highly successful tech company that is a neighbor of Google’s in Silicon Valley.  Steve Jobs famously said of his company, “It’s in Apple’s DNA that technology alone is not enough — it’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the results that make our heart sing.”