Saturday, July 9, 2011

The Science Building of Perpetual Twilight

Twilight seemed to hang over the Science building at Georgia College in Milledgeville. Some sort of perpetual gloom that I never quite understood.  Even when my Chemistry 101 classes were held at noon, I went inside the building and felt it was always dusk.  Perhaps it was the colors of the walls and the seats, oranges and dull yellows from the 70's when they were popular, or maybe it was the slowness of the elevator, one of the slowest ones I had seen. And in my Astronomy 101 class,

the labs we took were located in the basement, on computers from the 1980's, old Apple IIe clones, and this was 1996.  It was as if someone had taken the whole science building and stopped time around it, making it obsolete and rickety. Even the newest of technologies were out of date.  I witnessed my first laserdisc player there. And only. I've never seen one in use. 

I say all this because in the last magazine published from GC&SU, it was all about the revamped Science building, about the futuristic architecture, the white walls and plenitude of glass. About the new equipment and the benefits that new science research would do for the college.  That, along with Allan Bloom's book The Closing of the American Mind, made me think about the old rickety building and the uses for Science in a university  mainly driven toward the Liberal Arts, as well as the sudden change of ideas that the college seemed to have during the beginning of this new economy.

One of the main highlights of Bloom's writings was the perception of the student riots at the university level during the 1960's.  While some, such as at Kent State, became deadly, there were others, such as the student strikes at Cornell, that had a drastic effect on the university system, especially those in the northern United States.  What struck me as fascinating was his view of the professors in the Humanities areas versus those of the Natural Sciences.  The ideas of Cultural Relativism (which I talked about earlier) were very much understood by the professors of the Liberal Arts (while perhaps not always agreed with). But the Science departments remained out of the conflicts between teachers, students, and the administration, because there is no relativism in science. It is either one way or the other. And no one can argue with this, as the scientific method had be held as divine for many years.  So the chasm between the study of man and the study of nature widened.It's my belief that this is exactly what happened at Georgia College & State University during the period between the 1960's and the present day. But to take a look at this more closely, we have to see why the leftover supplies were relegated to the science building while the English department received a brand new, state of the art (at the time) building. To answer this question, we have to, as Bloom did, look at the function of the University to the State and to the people. 

The university system does two things, train citizens for future jobs, to be competitive in the job market, and to bring forth the best people to drive the economy of this nation.  Secondly, they are used to further the education of people who wish to know more than just the basic knowledge.  The university serves as the bank for knowledge for those who have been outside of Plato's cave and wish to pursue self-enlightenment through the wisdom of ancestors. And between the two, therein lies the chasm of knowledge versus a skill set. Both are valuable, both are vital, but unfortunately, it's hard to get both in 4 years of college, combined with all the social things that usually occurs with going to an institution of higher learning.

And so it is, much like every other paradigm, that the pendulum swings back and forth depending on the circumstances.  With the launch of Sputnik by the Russians and the Cold War escalating after World War II, skill sets in science and engineering were needed for the competitive drive to send man to the moon. I think that it was at this point where the university system became a training ground for workers in the "field." People wanted to get degrees that would earn them money, quickly, efficiently, without the need for pausing to contemplate the philosophical aspects of mankind, or the inner thoughts of the mind, the subconscious...etc...  And this rush to fill America with highly qualified workers resulted in economic growth in the 1980's and 1990's, so much so that the need for skilled workers declined, even as money and income increased.  So, there were many wealthy families with children who could go to college, but had no need to get their hands dirty. Aside from the exploding computer industry, the fields of nursing and science (I'm sticking with these two because of the applicable examples they have at Georgia College), among others, declined in people, in funding, and in prestige.  When I arrived at Georgia College, the Nursing program was in a small building on the corner of the campus, almost invisible from the street.  And the science building was as I have described it.  The attention had shifted from science to the liberal arts, the Humanities, as they call them, so that students could learn, spend four years of their lives contemplating the vast meaning of everything, and earn a degree in something that basically does nothing in the work field.  I am not saying that the degree I received, a BA in English, isn't valuable, or that I wouldn't have done the exact same thing if I had to do it all over again, but the skill sets that I learned are significantly less, and will earn less money, than those degrees in computers, or medicine, or science. 

I have long argued that students in High School and in college need to learn both a skill set to provide them the necessary income for the rest of their lives, as well as learning art, philosophy, music, literature.  There needs to be a balance.  A worker that can work with his hands as well as his mind is much more capable of adapting to any situation.  Unfortunately, that is not the case in today's world (for various reasons that are political as well as sociological, which would take a whole other blog to do), and so people have their diplomas, their degrees from college, and they are working either at a part time job not doing anything with their degree, or they are simply unemployed, while those that have a skill set, like fixing cars or assembling computers, are providing a living for themselves and happily watching reality tv at night (that statement is generalized, and an explanation would again take a whole other blog). 

In my dreams, I have seen a university system, a community coming together to learn, to train their skill sets and become experts in many fields, as well as discussing the various aspects of the humanities.  I think one needs to come with the other, with the time saved from the skill sets invested in the humanities.  Let us build a society that relies on science, technology, medicine, business, to make time for us all to enjoy the ideas brought on by the liberal arts. For every invention that saves an hour out of every person's life, that hour can be invested back into pushing humanity forward, both in the technological realm, but also in the realms of music, art, philosophy, and the inner workings of the human mind.  Think of what we could achieve if the ideas that are implemented from the science building in Milledgeville (and elsewhere) could save us enough time that we could go to functions during the week and further our education in areas that we enjoy.  There would be nothing that we couldn't do.  I know that when I return to Milledgeville next (whenever that may be), I will see a science building not in perpetual twilight, but in a sunrise that will fill the skies of that town.  Let the graduates offer the skills that bring us all a little more sunlight into our lives.  We all need it right now.

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