Two Dangerous Problems In The SA's Report

by Roger Masters | 5/23/01 5:00am

The Student Assembly's report on the future of Dartmouth provides valuable indications of the concerns of many members of the College community. Though I do not agree with all of the proposals in the Student Assembly's report, many of the issues are serious, and need continued dialogue and reflection. There are, however, several very serious issues that are NOT discussed in the report but are clearly reflected in the two passages quoted below:

FIRST QUOTATION (CONCERNING THE VALUE OF A STUDENT ROLE IN RESEARCH):

"One final concern was the stark difference between disciplines regarding research. One humanities professor argued that the recent Academic Planning report, put forth by the College Provost, was heavily science-centered. The report put forth a scientific model not appropriate for all departments. Under this science model, a professor explained, a student aids the professor in their research and does a small part of a much larger experiment. In the humanities, however, a student runs their own experiment and, although in itself the work is not groundbreaking, it is paramount to students. However, if the standards are more and more geared to what the faculty is able to produce and not what he or she can get a student to produce, an important aspect of many students' education can be lost."

ISSUE #1 -- WRITING AT DARTMOUTH: Student writing at Dartmouth is often disastrous. In term papers and theses, grammar and spelling are often ignored. In part this may be due to growing numbers of students with learning disabilities, but there are other factors. In the above quotation, the MLA's new, politically correct usage apparently led to the phrase "a student runs their own experiment." This confusion between singular and plural can influence meaning, as in "a student aids the professor in their research." Presumably the author(s) meant "aids the professor in the professor's research." Here, however, the plural "their" changes the meaning, so that the sentence seems to refer to "the research of the professor AND the student."

ISSUE #2. The distinction between the "scientific model" and the "humanities" is overly drawn and to a large degree false. Over the years, I have often had undergraduates assist me in various research tasks. A number are co-authors in published articles. Some collaborated in my research as co-translator and editor of the Collected Writings of Rousseau (an example in the "Humanities"). Others worked on empirical data in the social sciences. And more recently, some have focused on problems linking brain chemistry, toxicology, and behavior.

This experience has not revealed a difference by field. All "research" is a SOCIAL endeavor. Even more important, the gap between the emerging revolution in the biological sciences and the understanding of human behavior is not merely an intellectual problem. The dichotomization of the "scientific model" and the "humanities" threatens to render our undergraduate education useless to those playing a leadership role in an age of dramatic scientific and technological change. An example will make this clear.

Current undergraduates will be forced to make difficult decisions under circumstances of the greatest scientific and humanistic uncertainty. How many contemporary freshmen realize that they will probably have the possibility to attempt in vitro fertilization of multiple ova, then selecting one with preferred traits for implantation, pregnancy and birth? This is already being done in some countries for couples in which one partner carries the gene for Huntington's Disease. And the future will probably add to the choices facing us: genetic engineering, organ replacement based on stem cell technology, and even greater biochemical control of behavior.

Although not mentioned in the Student Assembly report, the College is aware of this problem. Under a grant from the Hewlett Foundation, a new Human Biology program this year began introducing interdisciplinary courses linking the traditional approaches of the humanities and social sciences with those of the natural sciences and medicine. This new initiative deserves special attention because the assumed distinction between "humanities" and "science" which permeates the Student Assembly report is now as obsolete as the Flat Earth approach to geography. Doubt it? Today approximately 83 million Americans take Prozac or similar medications for depression. Estimates of the number of children taking Ritalin to treat hyperactivity are around 11 million. Has it crossed the minds of enough students and faculty that many chemicals in our environment and food influence behavior? If alcohol does, how about pollution with lead or other heavy metals (which extensive research links to hyperactivity, violent aggression and many other behavioral problems)?

SECOND QUOTATION (CONCERNING THE PROBLEMS OF THE DEPARTMENT OF EDUCATION).

"Now that two new permanent faculty members have been hired, many might be surprised to find out that one will be half-time in the Education department and have-time in the Psychological and Brain Sciences department. The other professor who is top in her field and without question brilliant at what she does, does not focus on education. Her research certainly has educational implications and she is more than capable of teaching courses like child development and education psychology, but her specialty has to do with the functions of the brain. However, those who hired the two new faculty members would probably consider them an incredible victory for Dartmouth. If they both taught in Psychology, where they truly belong, then maybe Dartmouth might have a reason to celebrate."

ISSUE #1: WRITING AT DARTMOUTH. Good writing requires proofreading. Consider: "one will be half-time in the Education department and have-time in the Psychological and Brain Sciences department." Didn't more than one student read "have-time" before this text was posted for the community? Moreover, good writing also entails thinking. Did the author(s) of the paragraph quoted above really mean to suggest that learning is NOT one of the "functions of the brain"?

ISSUE #2. The substantive objection in this paragraph of the report reflects lamentable ignorance. With staggering numbers of children in America's schools and Dartmouth's classrooms suffering from ADD, ADHD, and other learning disabilities, it would be a gross irresponsibility for our Department of Education to isolate itself from developments in the brain sciences. The notion that brain scientists "truly belong" ONLY in the Department of Psychology represents an outmoded conception of specialization. As Dr. Sydney Walker, a medical specialist treating learning disabilities, has pointed out (The Hyperactivity Hoax [St Martin's Press, 1998]), Ritalin works much the same way as does cocaine. Moreover, Ritalin is becoming a popular recreational drug. No student should go from Dartmouth to a career in education without knowing the scientific issues involved in drugging our children as a "quick fix" for managing classroom behavior.

CONCLUSION: The Student Assembly report is, ironically, valuable for the mistakes in the passages reproduced above. These vivid examples of the problems confronting higher education in the U.S. remind us that, working together, Dartmouth can continue to be a "special" institution. Whatever the problems confronting Dartmouth, the College's leadership has been aware of the need to take into consideration the long term needs of the current generation of students in ways that most undergraduates (not to mention many among the faculty) do not recognize.

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