What Are We Trying to Teach Our Children?

Me and my mother

I started writing this blog on D-Day, Thursday, June 6th (see the June 11, 2019 blog) — 80 years to the day since the Allied troops invaded the shores of Normandy to liberate Europe from the claws of Nazi Germany. A few members of my family and I were liberated on April 13, 1945, by the American army, which was an important part of this invasion. The opening photograph of this blog shows my mother and me shortly after our liberation. I obviously don’t remember much of the occasion of the photograph, but I like to think that we were posing after a mother-son conversation. I imagine my mother tried to explain to me the nature and prospects of our changing reality and our responsibilities to use our liberation for the good of others and the world around us.

80 years later, when I put myself into the context of this blog’s title, the concept of children also applies to my grandchildren. As should be obvious now, I am an old guy, about to retire from a teaching position at a university (see the November 21, 2023 blog), where I have taught Physics for 45 years. My (younger) wife has taught at the same university for even longer. For the last 10 years, she has also taught a course at our Honors College, focused on changes in academic institutions. My youngest grandson just graduated from Rice and was accepted for his PhD at MIT. Retirement or not, I care deeply for our academic institutions. Much of my time teaching was focused on energy use, climate change, and a basic course in Cosmology. In my interpretation, I was teaching about our present global reality and our chances to escape from this reality, if needed. At my departmental retirement party, I asked the students to raise their hands if they belonged to Generation Z (currently those ages 12-27). Less than half raised their hands, even after I clarified the dates (Generation Z: born 1997-2012; Y or Millennials: 1981-1996; X: 1965-1980. For a more general concept of generations, see Wikipedia). Generation Z is the main group that is attending college right now, and therefore they are the ones who will be most impacted by current or upcoming changes to educational policies.

So, when I read a recent newspaper article announcing Harvard Says It Will No Longer Take Positions on Matters Outside of the Universitylast month, I paid attention:

Harvard said on Tuesday that it would now avoid taking positions on matters that are not “relevant to the core function of the university,” accepting the recommendations of a faculty committee that urged the university to dramatically reduce its messages on issues of the day. If put into practice, Harvard would no longer issue official statements of empathy, which it did for Ukraine, after the Russian invasion, and for the victims of the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks in Israel, for example.

“In issuing official statements of empathy, the university runs the risk of appearing to care more about some places and events than others,” the report said. “And because few, if any, world events can be entirely isolated from conflicting viewpoints, issuing official empathy statements runs the risk of alienating some members of the community by expressing implicit solidarity with others.”

At almost the same time, I read a different article from December of last year: “Experts discuss whether college is still worth it”:

David Deming, Harvard University Professor of Political Economy, explained that after increasing for decades, the college wage premium—the difference in average earnings between college graduates and non-college graduates—has plateaued, but remains around 65%. That is, the average four-year college graduate earns about 65% more than the average high school graduate. The panelists also discussed the cost of going to college, noting that financial aid is available for qualifying low-income students, though it is not always enough to make college affordable. Stephanie Cellini, George Washington University Professor of Public Policy and Economics, pointed out that while the average posted “sticker price” of college has been rising, the “net price”—what students pay after subtracting out financial assistance that doesn’t have to be repaid—is lower than the sticker price that receives so much attention. She notes that the average sticker price has actually been decreasing in recent years. (See a recent discussion of that trend here.) Still, Cellini emphasized that many students have to take out loans to afford college and then struggle to repay these loans. Denisa Gándara, Assistant Professor of Educational Leadership and Policy at UT Austin, added that higher wages are not the only benefit of college attendance. For example, there is a growing body of evidence suggesting that college graduates have better physical and mental health. Society also benefits when people go to college; college graduates tend to be more civically engaged, reported Gándara.

In my head, the two articles are strongly related. Of course, I am fully aware that Harvard is taking this position in response to their experiences with student and faculty demonstrations during the present Israel-Hamas war. But the new position is much broader and could have much larger consequences. It can be interpreted as an announcement that the school is not going to take positions on the reality of our current society—and as a result, will not teach students how to understand reality and decide for themselves how to deal with it. Most of the students at Harvard, as at any university, are Generation Z. As I have tried to show in the more than 12 years that I have been writing this blog, humanity is in the middle of at least 5 existential transitions; all of these started around WWII. They include climate change, nuclear energy, declining fertility, global electrification, and digitization. These transitions started around the time that I was born, but they will hopefully last (if some of them do not lead to extinction in the meantime) at least through the lifetime of my grandchildren (I call this time “now” in some of my writing).

My grandchildren belong to Generation Z; if universities will not try to teach them how to analyze these continuing global changes, what is the point of their attending? All of these trends have their roots in science. Now, there are prerequisites for learning how to deal with the real world but there needs to be a next step. If higher education teaches only these prerequisites, without connecting them to the real world, the schools are not doing their jobs and students are right to question being part of such an academic system. Advertising the number of majors that they offer (see October 31, 2023 blog) is not enough if the schools do not offer training for how to deal with changing global environment.

About climatechangefork

Micha Tomkiewicz, Ph.D., is a professor of physics in the Department of Physics, Brooklyn College, the City University of New York. He is also a professor of physics and chemistry in the School for Graduate Studies of the City University of New York. In addition, he is the founding-director of the Environmental Studies Program at Brooklyn College as well as director of the Electrochemistry Institute at that same institution.
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