Critical Thinking and the Scientific Process First—Humanities Later

1/18/12Follow @vkhosla
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If luck favors the prepared mind, as Louis Pasteur is credited with saying, we’re in danger of becoming a very unlucky nation. Little of the material taught in schools today is relevant to the future. Consider all the science and economics that has been updated, the shifting theories of psychology, the programming languages, political theories, and even how many planets our solar system has. Much, like literature and history, should be evaluated against updated, relevant priorities in the 21st century. So, what can we “teach” our students to prepare them for the future?

1. The fundamental tools of learning and analysis, as well as basic concepts

2. Knowledge of a few generally applicable topics

3. The skills to “dig deep” into their areas of interest in order to understand how these tools can be applied to one domain and to be equipped to change domains every so often

4. Preparation for jobs in a competitive and evolving global economy

5. Preparation to continuously evolve and stay current as informed and intelligent citizens of a democracy

To me, the fundamental tools of learning stem (no pun intended) from science, technology, engineering, and math. This updated curriculum should eclipse the archaic view of liberal education still favored by institutions like Harvard and Yale based on a worldview from the 1800s. Critical subject matter should include economics, statistics, mathematics, logic and systems modeling, current (not historical) cultural evolution, psychology, and computer programming. Furthermore, certain humanities disciplines such as literature and history should become optional subjects, in much the same way as physics is today (and, of course, I advocate mandatory physics study).

Finally, English and social studies should be replaced with the scientific process, critical thinking, rhetoric, and analysis of current news—imagine a required course each semester where every student is asked to analyze and debate topics from every issue of a broad publication such as The Economist, Scientific American, or Technology Review. Such a curriculum would not only provide a platform for understanding in a more relevant context how the physical, political, cultural and technical worlds function, but would also impart instincts for interpreting the world, and prepare students to become active participants in the economy. After all, what is the job of education?

Should we teach our students what we already know, or prepare them to discover more? Memorizing the Gettysburg address is admirable but ultimately worthless; understanding history is interesting, but not as relevant as topics from the Economist; a student who can apply the scientific process or employ critical thinking skills to solve a big problem has the potential to change the world or at least get a better-paying job. No wonder half the college graduates who fill jobs actually fill jobs that don’t need a college degree! Their degree is not relevant to adding value to an employer. Often, in my view, it is even less relevant to being an intelligent voter in a democratic economy. Most graduates cannot read the Economist and separate “facts,” “assumptions by the writer,” “biases,” “projections,” or “conclusions and their validity” in a critical way.

I’d also suggest tackling several general and currently relevant topic areas such as genetics, computer science, systems modeling, econometrics, linguistics modeling, traditional and behavioral economics, and bioinformatics (not an exhaustive list). Not only do these topics expose students to a lot of useful and current information, theories, and algorithms, they may in fact become platforms to teach the scientific process—a process that applies to (and is desperately needed for) logical discourse as much as it applies to science, and of much future learning in general. Even if the specific information becomes irrelevant within a decade (who knows where technology will head next; Facebook, Twitter, and the iPhone didn’t exist in 2004, after all), it’s incredibly useful to understand the current frontiers of science and technology as building blocks for the future, more so than understanding history or Kafka.

If we had enough time in school, I would suggest we do everything. Sadly that is not realistic, so we need a prioritized list of basic requirements because every subject we do cover excludes some other subject given the fixed time we have available. We must decide what is better taught during the limited teaching time we have, and what subjects are easier learnt during personal time or as post-education pursuits. For instance, passions like music and its history may be best left to self-pursuit, while exploring the structure and theory of music may be a way to teach critical tools!

For some small subset of the student body, pursuing passions and developing skills in subjects such as music or sports can be valuable, and I am a fan of schools like Juilliard, but in my view this must be in addition to a required general education. It’s the lack of balance in general education which I am suggesting needs to be addressed. Setting music and sports aside, with the critical thinking tools and exposure to the up-and-coming areas mentioned above, students should be positioned to discover their first passion and begin to understand themselves, or at the least be able to keep up with the changes to come, get (and maintain) productive jobs, and be intelligent citizens.

After grasping the fundamental tools of learning and some broad topical exposure, it’s valuable to “dig deep” in one or two topic areas of interest. For this, I prefer some subject in science or engineering rather than literature or history (bear with me; I’ll explain in a minute). Obviously, it’s best if students are passionate about a specific topic, but it’s not critical as the passion may develop as they dig in (some students will have passions, but many won’t have any at all). The real value for digging deep is to learn how to dig in; it serves a person for the duration of their life: in school, work, and leisure.

If students choose options from traditional liberal-education subjects, they should be taught in the context of the critical tools mentioned above. If students want jobs, they should be taught skills where future jobs will exist. If we want them as intelligent citizens, we need to have them understand critical thinking, statistics, economics, how to interpret technology and science developments, and how global game theory applies to local interests. Traditional international relations and political science are passé as base skills and can easily be acquired once a student has the basic tools of understanding.

Back to history and literature for a moment; these are great to wrestle with once a student has learned to think critically. My contention is not that these subjects are unimportant, but rather that they are not basic or broad enough “tools for developing learning skills” as they were in the 1800s, because the set of skills needed today has changed. Furthermore, they are topics easily learned by someone trained in the basic disciplines of thinking and learning that I’ve defined above: this isn’t as easy the other way around. A scientist can more easily become a philosopher or writer than a writer can become a scientist.

Besides, physics is a much more important tool to understand the science and technology that drives modern life than history is, not to mention that it’s far more useful in helping someone understand how her car or refrigerator works. This makes it all the more concerning that many states don’t require physics to graduate from high school but do require many years of history classes—a lopsided and poor use of student time. University education continues this tradition, especially as students flock to the “easier/less work” courses. If subjects like history and literature are focused on too early, it is easy for someone not to learn to think for themselves and not to question assumptions, conclusions, and expert philosophies—this can actually do a lot of damage. On the other hand, with the right critical lens, history, philosophy, and literature can help creativity and breadth by opening the mind to new perspectives and ideas. Still, learning about them is secondary to learning the tools of learning.

In the end, school is a place where every kid should have the opportunity to become a potential participant in whatever they might want to tackle in the future, with an appropriate focus not only on what they want to pursue but also, pragmatically, what they will need to do to be productively employed. By embracing thinking and learning skills, and adding a dash of irreverence and confidence that comes from being able to tackle new arenas (creative writing may have a role here, but Jane Austen does not make my priority list), hopefully they will be lucky enough to help shape the next few decades or at least be intelligent voters in a democracy and productive participants in their jobs. At the very least they should be able to evaluate how much confidence to place in a New York Times study of 11 patients on a new cancer treatment from Mexico or a health supplement from China and to assess the study’s statistical validity and whether the treatment’s economics make sense. And they should understand the relationship between taxes, spending, balanced budgets, and growth better than they understand 15th century English history.

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Vinod Khosla was co-founder and first CEO of Sun Microsystems. He became a general partner at Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, and in 2004 formed cleantech- and infotech-focused investing firm Khosla Ventures. Follow @vkhosla

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  • http://frankston.com/public Bob Frankston

    Overall very good advice though there is so much that is interesting to learn.

    Learning to learn is indeed key — a point stressed by Seymour Papert when I was a student. He gave the example of responding to a test by debugging ones understanding rather than letting oneself be classified as “dumb”.

    It is important to learn to be wrong. Though the world may not have definitiveness of mathematical proofs, the acceptance of disproof lets one treat failure as learning. Treating ones understanding as tentative is fundamental to the scientific process.

    One topic that may be implicit in the list is learning to programming languages not as a job skill but as a language for dynamic systems. But I say this with a caveat because programming is often taught as a job skill rather than a cognitive skill.

  • http://vbelfor.weebly.com Victor Belfor

    Hi Vinod
    A few weeks ago, I wrote a letter addressed to my three year old daughter Katie (http://vbelfor.weebly.com/talking-to-katie.html). The post is focused on the importance of “going deep”. Recently, I’have been working on another letter to her on importance of analytic / critical thinking and scientific method. And I think you just beat me to it!

    Yes, those unfamiliar with mistakes of the past are bound to repeat them, but how does one even know what is and what isn’t a mistake without skills for analysis.

  • Elam

    In so many words,Mr.Khosla, you’re recommending people study Philosophy and Mathematics. Hard to argue with that!

  • Tom

    Vinod, some “critical thinking”:

    1. “Cynicism”: You are a VC and invest in mainly science and technology – of course you want more folks involved in it, because you’ll make more money off these potential entrepreneurs.

    2. “Logic”: There are many folks in technology that had no technology background or simply picked it up without any, or minimal, “college training” and did pretty well for themselves and moving society forward as a whole (Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Larry Ellison etc. come to mind).

    Communism doesn’t work because people don’t want to be “force fed” what they should be learning and doing. The scientific and technology oriented mind will seek science and technology, especially in this age of the internet.

    3. “Pragmatism”: if you really feel strongly about this, quit your VC job and spend your life pushing what you believe in. You are, I believe, wealthy enough to support this agenda and still lead as lavish a lifestyle as you like, why not make this your crusade to better the U.S. educational system if you feel so strongly about it?

    Jesus had his beliefs, preached and lived them – he didn’t have a “day job” (of course, he’s a historical figure and may not be part of your curriculum).

  • Dave

    Completely agree that there should be more emphasis on science and engineering in the curriculum. I would add that languages are also important – learning a foreign language is a powerful exercise in information exchange and also facilitates a more global world view through exposure to speakers of that language. The more prepared one is to communicate with and understand the global community, the better equipped he/she is to contribute.

  • Muhammad Furqan Freed

    Sir me too agree but there are some issues…. with this pattern of studies we will be strong in theories then practical implementation. because for the deep undertaking of a particular thing we have to study and research in deep and after completing research on that particular thing someone might won’t get enough time to make it happen! might because of time or other things…

    why would time be more important! because if i chose a particular topic to study and for research that isn’t discuss before or never heard it would would take multiple time than if i continue my research on where other left uncompleted…

  • http://www.wgains.com Bruce MaDougall

    I guess then Alexander Pope , John Steinbeck and Shakespeare did not really get it as they did not study physics or math but wrote literature. People can access concepts and critical thinking via any discipline if applied with rigor and commitment. In further history has the benefit of helping the understanding of context not just content. I do agree that physics should be required as part of any high school diploma however as should all the basics .

  • ChristopherStarr

    I agree that economics, statistics, systems theory, and programming should be emphasized more, as these will be increasingly important tools for understanding the world and obtaining a good job in the 21st century. I can also see why literature should be an optional subject, as it is essentially a form of art. However, I think you are missing the purpose of a good high school education in history. The study of history is essential for understanding how we, as a society, ended up where we are now. It is also just as important as psychology in understanding the complexities of human nature.

    Without an understanding of history, we are more likely to repeat the mistakes we have made in our past.