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Educational monoculture

John Cook writes that he’d like to hear more people talk about “educational monoculture.” I don’t actually know John Cook but I enjoy reading his blog, so I feel like the least I can do is to honor his request.

I have to admit that I have a bit of a monocultural temperament myself. I have strong feelings about the right and wrong way to do things, and I don’t have much patience for what seems to me to be the wrong way. As a result, I’ve often disparaged or ignored important statistical developments because some small aspect of the new idea didn’t fit with my thinking. (On the plus side, I think I’ve disparaged or ignored lots more bad ideas thad deserve oblivion.)

I’ve always been suspicious of the hedgehog/fox distinction because my impression is that just about everybody likes to think of him or herself as a fox. Being a hedgehog is like being “ideological”; most of us like to think of ourselves as pragmatic foxes. And in any case I think most statisticians are foxes.

One of the many positive outcomes of my mugging at Berkeley was a commitment to pluralism (for example, see here).

Beyond this, I move away from my natural monocultural instincts by teaching classes that include material I wouldn’t otherwise cover, by listening carefully to people I respect who do things in a different way than I do, and by thinking hard about why certain methods or attitudes which seem silly to me, still remain popular.

Finally, my approach as a political scientist and public opinion researcher is to understand the views of others. I think I have a pretty good grip on why it can make sense for people to vote for Gingrich or Romney or Obama or Santorum or whatever, and I’m interested in understanding political ideologies as they manifest themselves in different areas (even in statistics, where political views range from Dennis Lindley to Jacob Wolfowitz).

“Moving beyond monoculture” doesn’t mean that I abandon my skepticism but it means that I should at least try to understand other approaches to looking at the world.

P.S. I thought the above discussion would be more useful than yet another argument about the extent to which modern education is such a scam etc.

4 Comments

  1. Koala says:

    Some posts on education

    http://goo.gl/RI7fh

  2. Erin Jonaitis says:

    What is meant by “monoculture” here? Do you teach enough people that you can really create a monoculture on your own? Or is your commitment to your vision just one variant in a diverse “gene pool” of teaching and writing about statistics?

    I had a maybe-related thought recently, amidst all the press for initiatives like the Khan Academy, Udacity, and MITx, which some are heralding as potentially disruptive technologies. Most of me is charmed by this, but there is a small part that worries: if super-massive lectures & syllabi become really common, if most students are learning one dude’s vision of (say) AI, isn’t that a particularly dangerous sort of educational monoculture? One of the weaknesses of the educational system we have, from the POV of consumers, is that it’s not standardized and so it’s very hard to judge the quality of what you’ll get before spending a lot of money on it. But the corollary to this is that we can support a diversity of opinion on what to teach that would be difficult in a standardized, easy-to-measure system. The problem is that some kids get shafted, and pay through the nose for it; the benefit is that if everybody’s getting something a little different, we are more resilient to the Dutch Elm Disease of the mind. So to speak. Similarly, genetic diversity might be bad for you if it gave you an unfortunate variant of some gene, but it’s great for the species as a whole.

    I’m kinda thinking out loud here, but thanks for the prompt.

  3. revo11 says:

    As someone who struggles with being accepted across disciplines, the differences in value systems across fields are very apparent. It seems that every field focuses on its own aspect of the standard of evidence. People can get really picky about what’s important to them, and be very negligent the minute (real) issues fall outside that interest.

    For example, in applied economics research, if causality is non-identifiable, the work is a non-starter and uninteresting. On the other hand, unrealistic assumptions for the sake of being able to model a system are accepted as a methodological necessity. In a lot of biology/medical research, correlational arguments are often accepted and even mistaken for causality, but unreasonable modeling assumptions are a source of much skepticism. In computer science, proof of optimality is highly valued, while estimation error is often ignored (people seem to use naive estimators without following through on the implications). In many sciences, whether you’re within 1% of optimality or 10% of optimality often doesn’t matter because that’s swamped by measurement error. I could probably go on forever…

    I don’t know what the solution is. The reality seems to be that it would take a tremendous amount of training and effort to satisfy all values in all fields for any given piece of research. Values in one field are often not appreciated in another. Real interdisciplinary research is hard.

  4. Kaiser says:

    I clicked to John’s website but couldn’t find a definition of “educational monoculture”. A Yahoo search has this webpage and John’s webpage as the top two results. Hmm… what is it?