3.178 education and universities, cont. (184)

Mon, 26 Jun 89 19:39:27 EDT

Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 3, No. 178. Monday, 26 Jun 1989.

(1) Date: Mon, 26 Jun 89 09:28:00 EDT (34 lines)
From: DEL2@phoenix.cambridge.ac.uk
Subject: Re: [3.161 education and universities, cont. (116)]

(2) Date: Mon, 26 Jun 89 09:12 EST (75 lines)
Subject: Education, human role in tech. world

(3) Date: 26 June 1989 (50 lines)
From: Willard McCarty <MCCARTY@vm.epas.utoronto.ca>
Subject: is it possible to be disinterested?

(1) --------------------------------------------------------------------
Date: Mon, 26 Jun 89 09:28:00 EDT
From: DEL2@phoenix.cambridge.ac.uk
Subject: Re: [3.161 education and universities, cont. (116)]

(Message number 102) [ ]Draft
IPMessageId: A084903CDC894870

There is an interesting antinomy in our anonymous friend's contribution
to the discussion on teaching values. He (?or It) says,

>Teaching values makes me nervous. I think what we need to do instead is
>to preserve the practice of disinterested inquiry and let the values
>come of themselves.
> ...
>Disinterested inquiry can only be managed by a confident people, and I
>think we are not so confident anymore.

If none of us is confident then none of us can possibly be distinterested,
and if none of us is disinterested then we *cannot* preserve the practice
of disintersted inquiry. Indeed, I believe that *any* confidence in one's
ability to be disinterested would be misplaced. Surely a more responsible
approach is to recognise just how little we are able to be disinterested.
Like the observer in classical quantum mechanics, we are intimately
involved in what we are doing; part of the system we study.

I am less and less convinced that we can impart *data* to students, whether
they be values or historical facts. We don't have raw data. What we can
do, perhaps, is to clarify the issues, stop up some old dead-end approaches
to prevent students re-inventing the square wheel, and -- perhaps most
significantly -- open their minds to new possibilities; undreamed-of
worlds to explore. One value which may hopefully come across in this
recognition of our own limitations is -- humility.

Douglas de Lacey <DEL2@UK.AC.CAM.PHX>
(2) --------------------------------------------------------------77----
Date: Mon, 26 Jun 89 09:12 EST
Subject: Education, human role in tech. world

My "devil's advocate" proposal to close universities was, of course,
intended to focus on what universities do by thinking about what hole would
be left if they closed. Personally, I think that there is a rapidly growing
need for a mixture of humanists and computer-specialists in dealing with
this growing technology and the evolving hybrid planet. The technologists
have actually just about run out of their ability to manage change, so
I actually see hope where Robert Amsler sees a dead-end. EVEN THE COMPUTER
people have run into a brick wall that only humanists can help them past.
The following, by yours truly, reflects my actual views, and, despite the
title, seems relevant to this forum.


(Reader's Platform/Viewpoint, Computerworld, June 12, 1989, page 26,
by R. Wade Schuette, Database Specialist, at Cornell University's
Johnson Graduate School of Management)

As a computing professional and longtime observer of Japan, I'll throw in my
two yen to the discussion you launched [CW, May 8] about the nature of the
"threat" from Japanese software.
With the rapid emergence of computer-aided software engineering (CASE)
tools, we are a relatively short time (five to 10 years?) away from the state
in which the specifications-to-code steps are fully automated, and I foresee an
emerging realization that this accomplishment really doesn't solve as much as
we thought.
The central problem of IS is that we are trying to change the behavior of
_people_ by altering the embedded electronic infrastructure. Contrary to the
assumptions behind most systems, people are different from missiles and washing
While some of the past wreckage may be laid at the doorstep of inadequate
hardware or software, most of the failure modes of large projects seem to be
along the human, social, organizational, and managerial dimensions - not
technical ones.
It would seem that a slow, diligent and incremental approach to such
development - roote in concensus building before proceeding - may be the only
approach that will actually have a hope of pulling together the fragmentation
and heterogeneity within most large organizations today.
When human beings and turf are involved, systems integration is not an
activity that can be rushed. Adding more and more people to the development
team has, in general, a profoundly negative impact on the schedule and budget.
The rate-limiting factor is not inside the box.
In the Japanese language, there is a tendency to be vague in order not to
offend someone. Unfortuneately, this can cause ambiguity in delivering the
message in a technical area. Certainly this concern is deply rooted in the
culture and language and has been an impediment to everything from writing
instructions to writing classical software "packages." However, it is
preciselythis concern that turns into an advantage when working out an
implementation route between hostile departments in a corporate integration.
Also, it is not at all clear to me that the Japanese need to have any good
"hackers" to succeed in this arena. What on earth good does it do to rapidly
turn out clever, generic products that don't really fit the problem and don't
really deliver the business solution that was hoped for?
I believe that the fraction of American systems and computers that actually
have proven helpful to management is much smaller than generally believed. On
the other hand, open almost any publication and read about the latest
implementation disaster. Would you trust your own IS shop to write the code for
a medical life-support system that you are going to be on next year? Would you
prefer a "team" of hackers or diligent detail men?
In IS, our task is not to find incredibly ingenious ways to solve fantastic
problems -- it is to find workable, reliable ways to deal with the same old
problems. A slow and patient co-development may be the only way that such
systems cna be developed -- grown, not built.
Chief executive officers are getting pretty tired of systems that promise
much but deliver little. If the above analysis is correct, and the Japanese are
the only ones capable of delivering, then they will simply walk in and take the
market, whether they do "calesthentics at sunrise" or not.
- end -
(3) --------------------------------------------------------------------
Date: 26 June 1989
From: Willard McCarty <MCCARTY@vm.epas.utoronto.ca>
Subject: is it possible to be disinterested?

"Disinterested inquiry" is something I also value, so I find myself
again unable to resist pulling off my editor's hat for a moment and
jumping into the fray.

I also suspect that Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle -- that you
cannot observe a certain class of phenomena without affecting the
phenomena -- has useful analogies in larger realms than quantum
dynamics. One thinks of all those jokes told at the expense of
anthropologists, but the point is a serious one. Certainly, no one can
be completely disinterested, at least no one this side of death, but it
seems to me that the real question is what you DO with your admittedly
imperfect disinterestedness. The whole point of old fashioned historical
scholarship, I was taught, is that you try as hard as you can to break
out of what has been called your "historical provincialism" -- that
prison of time into which we are all born -- and attempt to LEARN
something by taking on the perspective, say, of a 17th century English
Puritan, or Royalist, or whatever. The disinterestedness in that
spiritual discipline (for that is what it is) expresses the aim, not the
probable achievement.

Some folks I know react quite differently. Having perceived the
impossibility of complete disinterestedness, they then proclaim the
wisdom of seeing everything in essentially political terms. I suppose
they are reacting against the hypocrisy of those who pretend to be
neutral while secretly following a hidden agenda. In any case, it seems
to me, politicizing the world makes independent thinking extremely
difficult -- that is, much more difficult than it otherwise would be.

I am reminded of an English professor of mine whom I respected (he was a
bright and friendly man) but with whom a truly intelligent conversation
was almost impossible. At some point he must have been taught extremely
well all the possible heresies of literary criticism. I infer this
because when I tried to explain in my typically impressionistic way some
thoughts about John Donne or whomever, he would spend the whole time
telling me what heresy I had either fallen into or was on the brink of
falling into. To survive his instruction I had to develop a very robust

To argue by extension. Certainly I am violent by nature, I know this.
But isn't there some point in me attempting to be peaceful? Isn't
humanity, like disinterestedness, a worthy goal even if we can never
reach it? Or has the "post-modernist condition" rendered all this merely

Willard McCarty