David Mullins: Complexity pedagogy must define the university

David Mullins, an undergraduate student of comparative literature and one of the SRC’s most visible representatives, has sent us the text of his presentation at the symposium.

“Complexity Pedagogy Must Define the University”

Many commentators tend to talk about science and math as if they were neatly separable from language, liberal arts, and literature. That we can shorten column B (say liberal arts) and lengthen column A (say, science or business) and then we will have less B and more A. This presentation will argue that this is a bit of a devil’s bargain, and we will end up losing both. We will lose both because something that might be called complexity is both what the liberal arts excel at navigating, and that which underpins breakthroughs in science and business. so it is not that the liberal arts are somehow parasitic on scientific or economic breakthroughs, it’s actually precisely the opposite. That complexity, and creativity in the face of complexity, is the basis of groundbreaking investigation in all three: the liberal arts and the sciences, and economics and that the liberal arts, because they do not have this input/output fixation, this focus on efficiency they are in a privileged position because generally better situated than a Management 101 class to navigate complex systems, which have multiple and sometimes unknowable variables, not just one variable that we might call profit or empirical success, empirical success from the perspective of a rather naieve sort of modern, pre-Einsteinian, pre-quantum physics science.

The claim here will be that those that want to boost science, boost business, have no idea where the paradigm shifts in these fields come from, how revolutionary creativity happens. I’m going to argue that instead it’s based on being able to creatively navigate complexity, and that business, when it is good, when it is both interesting and socially helpful, is also not quite measurable in terms of profit.

First, I want to turn both of what I see are the dominant categories that are placed in the column A position, of the terms that are privileged by Managers, science and business.

Science, to start with, is not about deriving the objective truth through data, and as a practice, historically it is not even really a body of knowledge — it’s about experimenting, playing, with models and visions, seeing how they work and seeing what you can create with them. It is not a big jump to see how something like visual arts, aesthetic understanding is crucial to this, and so it’s no surprise the head of the medical school is very upset at the closing of the visual arts department.

Albert Einstein skipped class when he was 14 to read Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason and he said it was critical to his scientific investigation.

Artificial intelligence researchers are quickly discovering that they cannot teach a machine to speak if they have no idea how words or languages work.

Quantum physics, as anyone who has spent any time studying it can tell you, places profound importance on narrative and language as productive of whatever field is being investigated.

As for business, the positive examples are slightly scarcer. But what’s clear is that cutting edge business does not look like a stuffy or repetitious managerial model. Google’s new project, Google Glass, I don’t know if you’ve seen it, it’s that like scanning device you put on your face… But the point here is that it is based on a paradox — that to become less technological we must become more technological, that once we have a lens affixed to our heads we won’t have to pull our phone out, it won’t always be in our face and we can pay attention to others. This paradoxical structure, becoming more of something in order to be less of it, is a structure very familiar to students of deconstruction and literary theory. If Google was following their Management 101 class they would never be pursuing a project like that.

So when managers say existing departments are underperforming, the analysis I am laying out here challenges that directly. That based on testing procedures we have now to test outgoing students to see if we have value added, we aren’t really measuring That if we measured things in the style Emory’s administrators use to make their hiring and firing decisions — although of course part of the ethical dimension here is that we do not know how they made their decisions — nevertheless, the best we can tell, if they had their way, we would not really have scientific or economic breakthroughs. Einstein would have been told to go to class. Google would be told to stop wasting time with a paradox. We wouldn’t know how to design AI because we stopped studying languages because you only need one language to communicate — the language of the world power, and if a new world power is rising up maybe we’ll add that into the mix. I leave the ethical implications of these curricular to be explored by others, but I suspect they are multilayered, on the level of democracy, on the level of race, on the level of united states hegemony as it attempts to integrate and dialogue with chinese hegemony.

Up to now it might seem that complexity pedagogy might just be a way to be better scientists and businesspeople and, well, that is hard to get excited about.

I think we can do more. I’d like to bring up the seemingly non germane topic of global warming. now if you ask a business person or more importantly an engineer about global warming, they will tell you these green economists are sort of lying that, it’s simply not realistic that we will reduce our co2 emissions in a way that is at all commensurate with the threat of global warming.

and what sucks is that, well, they are kind of right. The math is absoultely sobering, but all hope is not lost. Kevin Anderson, one of the foremost climate scientsits in Britain, said it most beautifully and brilliantly, well, he quoted somebody who said it beautifully and brilliantly, who I will now quote again. You can speculate as to what this means for our creativity.

At every level the greatest obstacle to transforming the world is that we lack the clarity and imagination to conceive that it could be different.
If the developing parts of the world can emit peak emissions by 2025 to 2030 (India, China and so forth);
If there are rapid reductions in emissions from deforestation;
If we can halve emissions from food production from food per capita that we have today by 2050 (and currently they’re going up, not down)…
And if we can achieve the reduction rates that Stern, the CCC and the IEA say are possible with economic growth in terms of reductions of CO2 emissions–
If all of that’s possible and put together, two degree stabilization is virtually impossible. Now, I’ve shown you things that we could do, but, and that’s why it’s virtually impossible, the current political framework, the current economic framework of society makes it impossible but it’s not absolutely impossible.

One thing we know about the future of climate change is that it will be different. If we do nothing then we’ll be hit by the impact and adaptation. If we choose to mitigate to avoid the worst then the mitigation will be very significant indeed. The future is almost impossible it is almost beyond what we can imagine and beyond what we have clearly seen before. So our role now is to think harder, to have greater clarity and have greater imagination, and to no longer keep saying “that’s impossible.” So we need to be making the impossible possible. I’m trying to say that with a very upbeat tone and I do actually think there is some real hope out there. But the hope is reducing significantly everyday, this is a cumulative problem going up. And let’s not just forget where we are, what’s the world we live in today.

The liberal arts, and the creativity they make possible, are crucial to nothing less than the survival of the human race.

Many administrators will respond to my argument with something like “that is all well and good but how do we fire people?” How will we know what we are doing is working? Will we ever close a department? By what right? First, we are going to have to realize that if education is going to be meaningful it is not going to be quantitatively representable, and what goes on in a classroom must be evaluated with a combination of contextual factors. Is the class making connections? Producing critical thinkers? How could it be improved? Graduate admissions in many fields already function primarily through written essays and recommendations, and many universities evaluate students holistically without foregrounding numbers.

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