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THE REALITY CLUB
Edge University:
A Proposal


John Brockman, Carl Djerassi, Roger Schank, Michael J. Gazzaniga, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Rodney Brooks, Martin Rees, Pattie Maes, Patrick Bateson, Marvin Minsky, Frank Moretti, Howard Gardner, Freeman Dyson, David Gelernter, John Maddox, and Marc D. Hauser on Edge University by John Brockman


From: John Brockman
Date: 10-14-97

Thomas De Zengotita, responding to Howard Gardner's "Education For All Human Beings", notes that "only intellectuals seeking understanding spend serious time doing things like "just getting enough history and math" so they can have a "background" for other inquiries. In the absence of exposure to real intellectuals only a very few kids will be inspired to seek understanding in such ways. No technology will take up the slack."

Apropos the Gardner and De Zengotita comments in the last two editions of EDGE, it occurs to me that the rich, challenging material that the contributors to EDGE offer week after week can serve as a fertile launch pad for college and university seminars -- perhaps an interdisciplinary freshman seminar, perhaps given for course credit. The EDGE editions can be the weekly reading which serves as the basis for explorations of questions raised and subjects and ideas presented by the material. Most of the participants present new ideas -- asking the questions they are asking themselves. They have also written books which are being read and studied on campuses by students and faculty alike and which can be assigned as the reading material for the seminar.

Some examples: George Dyson's presentation on "Darwin Among the Machines" leads to the scrutiny of artificial intelligence and artificial life in relation to the work of Samuel Butler (1835-1902), who faced the same mysteries that permeate these two subjects today. The presentation by Lee Smolin and Stuart Kauffman on "A Possible Solution for the Problem of Time in Quantum Cosmology" is an invitation to discuss evolutionary biology as it relates to concepts of time. Reuben Hersh's thesis in "What is mathematics?" is a lead-in to a study of the collective human consciousness. Brian Goodwin's "A New Science of Qualities" suggests that by studying the work of Goethe as an artist we can regain a balance between the analytical way of knowing and the intuitive way of knowing. The talks by Microsoft scientists Nathan Myhrvold on technology and Charles Simonyi on "Intentional Programming" can be the basis for discussion on the relationship of new technology to human perception. Joseph Traub's talk on "The Unknown and the Unknowable" introduces a central issue of the relation between reality and models of reality.

During the summer, I began discussing this idea with a number of leading thinkers, all of whom are professors at leading universities. I suggested the following:

1. Syndicate the email version of EDGE editions free of charge to a selected group of colleges and universities to serve as the basis for interdisciplinary seminars perhaps for course credit, or simply to make the ideas and information available to a wide array of students and faculty.

2. Develop an "EDGE Extranet" for the pilot group of schools -- a secure, private network on the Internet to serve as the platform for the interchange of ideas of students and faculty alike within each institution and across the institutions;

 

3. Display an edited version of the activities of the school groups on the EDGE Website (http://www.edge.org).

Below are the responses via email and my recollection of discussions. I present these comments as the beginning of a conversation. I look forward to comments. Feel free to forward this email to your local Provost.....

-JB


From: Carl Djerassi
To: John Brockman

Date: 10-14-97

Your idea warrants experimentation but I agree that the contacts in the schools will differ from case to case. At Stanford, you should clearly contact the Vice Provost of Sciences and Humanities, who is very interested in new approaches to undergraduate education.


From: Roger Schank
To:
John Brockman
Date: 10-14-97

Approach university librarians. They're the gatekeepers of the ethernet ports in the dorm rooms.


From: Michael S. Gazzaniga
To: John Brockman

Date: 10-14-97

As to EDGE, I don't understand the following. Where is the commercial value in it? Why give one's thoughts away? I never understood the point of it. Now since you brought profit to the scientist I am sure there is an angle.


From: Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
To:
John Brockman
Date 10-14-97

The EDGE educational project looks good, although I agree with some of the comments to the effect that if you want this to work as part of course offerings, you need to market the idea, find someone interested enough to prototype a seminar/course based on it, and then deliver the prototype as well as the content .



From: Rodney Brooks
To:
John Brockman
Date: 10-14-97

MIT offers a freshman seminar during which faculty members work with small groups of students. People like Minsky, Guth, Pinker, Maes, and myself could organize seminars around the weekly EDGE mailings.



From: Martin Rees
To:
John Brockman
Date: 10-14-97

I like the idea as it offers an approach to interdisciplinary thinking. Some of us here at Cambridge have been thinking along these lines with regard to instituting an interdisciplinary seminar.



From: Pattie Maes
To: John Brockman

Date: 10-14-97

I think the way to do this is to find faculty who are willing to organize a class around EDGE. That way there is a structured, regular meeting that takes place which ensures that the students really pursue this in depth and for a longer period of time.



From: Patrick Bateson
To:
John Brockman
Date: 10-14-97

There is no structure at Cambridge for such a program to fit in with course credit. Also, for Cambridge students, the program would be more suited for graduate students than the undergraduates.



From: Marvin Minsky
To:
John Brockman
Date: 10-14-97

Do a one-time email spam of the entire student body of a university. Tell the students that EDGE is a magazine with a subscription price of $800 a year but that they are being offered a free subscription. I bet you'll even get some $800 subscriptions!


From: Frank Moretti
To:
John Brockman
Date: 10-14-97

I suggest having a face to face meeting with at least three of the desired institutions represented to design a pilot for this Fall with the full-blown launch set for the Spring. Those of us in the pilot could then meet December to decide on the Spring strategy. Some things you can only do face to face! COLUMBIA WOULD BE HAPPY TO PROVIDE THE SITE FOR THE MEETINGS.


From: Howard Gardner
To: John Brockman

Date: 10-14-97

Your memos are not falling on deaf ears. I have already been in contact with a house master (who referred me to someone else) and am consulting several cognitive scientists at Harvard. I will let you know what I learn.



From: Freeman Dyson
To: John Brockman
Date: 10-14-97

Freeman, now an advisor Ryder College, a small liberal arts school in New Jersey, indicated that students at a school such as Ryder would receive greater benefits from EDGE than students at a top school such as Princeton where the student body tends to be blasé.


From: David Gelernter
To:
John Brockman
Date: 10-14-97

Relating EDGE to course credit constrains it more than necessary. The EDGE stuff might (also) be a supplement to existing courses, including courses that aren't per se "interdisciplinary" and aren't seminars. (You could make the stuff available to 500 people in a lecture course on "tech & society" just as easily as you could to a 10-student seminar.)

Your comment that "This rich, challenging material can serve as a fertile launch pad for college and university seminars" is the heart of it, and it strikes me you have a very strong case. You might point out (granted, most people know it) that (1) intellectual, cultural, social implications of science & technology -- this is a tremendously important topic, universities know it, students want to study it -- future journalists and lawyers & doctors & teachers & academics (as well as future scientists & technologists) need to study it, BUT (2) universities in general don't have a clue about how to teach it. "Science and culture," "the cultural implications of science," "what science means and why it matters," "where is science going?" -- most universities have few or zero people who can teach such topics well. Most scientists can't and most humanists can't; there are no standard texts and few acknowledged classics to show the way; demand for this stuff is great and supply is low. The EDGE material potentially plugs an important intellectual hole.

I'd make a short, tight electronic doc that (merely) gets people interested, and email it to a bunch of relevant people at the target colleges. (I'll admit the endorsements [Ed. Note: See "Feedback on EDGE" at http://www.edge.org} in particular are very impressive, but my guess is that most higher-ups at these universities simply ignore email that's more than a screen's-worth -- but would be fascinated by this idea if they latched on to it.)



From: John Maddox
To:
John Brockman
Date: 4-30-98

I think it's a good idea that you should make the excellent EDGE site more generally available. However, the knowledge this is happening may make people more self-conscious than they are now. There's also the business of junk e-mail to your contributors from a wider audience and the possibility that statements made might be published out of context (which argues for a "NO COPYING IN OTHER MEDIA" injuction). But with all that said, I'm for the scheme.


From: Marc D. Hauser
To:
John Brockman
Date: 1-5-98

Dear John,

Irv Devore and I teach the Evolution of Human Behavior class, a Core Course at Harvard with 500 undergraduate students. The interdisciplinary course, "Science B29" (nickname: "The Sex Course"), has been running for 30 years, was started by Devore and Robert Trivers, and is the second most popular course on campus, behind "Econ 10". Section teachers over the years comprise a who's who of leading thinkers and include people such as John Tooby and Leda Cosmides, and Sarah B. Hrdy.

Nearly every EDGE edition features people and ideas we teach in the course. Moreover, the main focus of the course is provide students with radically new ways of thinking about the world. In essence, we want the students to play with ideas and challenge some of their most precious beliefs. I would thus be very interested in seriously exploring an official connection whereby EDGE is utilized as part of the course. In this regard the students would receive the EDGE editions, which would be discussed in the weekly section sessions. The students, both those at Harvard and at the other participating colleges and universities, would have their own area on the EDGE Website for "Reality Club" discussions. In turn, you would encourage the presenters on EDGE to take some time each week to participate in the student forums. For your interest, here is the course description:

The Faculty of Arts and Sciences
Science B-29. Human Behavioral Biology Catalog Number: 0152
Website: http://icg.fas.harvard.edu/~scib29/
Irven DeVore and Marc D. Hauser
half course (spring term)
VI
M., W., F., at 1, and a 90-minute weekly section/laboratory to be arranged. Additional meeting times for two required film showings to be announced.

Human biology and behavior are considered in a broad evolutionary context, showing how the facts of development, physiology, neurobiology, reproduction, cognition, and especially behavior are informed by evolutionary theory and comparative evidence. Field and experimental data on other species are introduced with the aim of illuminating human behavior. Behavior is traced from its evolutionary function as adaptation, through its physiological basis and associated psychological mechanisms, to its expression. The role of ecology and social life in shaping human behavior is examined through the use of ethnographies and cross-cultural materials on a variety of human cultures. Topics include basic genetics, neural and neuroendocrine systems, behavioral development, sex differences, kinship and mating systems, ecology, language, and cognition. Enrollment: Limited to 400.

There are two other similar courses which might be appropriate for EDGE University. At UCLA Robert Boyd and Joan Silk teach an interdisciplniary course; At Stanford, Anne Fernald runs the Human Biology Program. I suggest you contact them.

Best regards,

-Marc


From: Marc D. Hauser
To:
John Brockman
Date: 1-5-98

Science B29 is a core science course at Harvard. What this means is that it is one of several possible sciences courses that non-science majors can take, as well as science majors.

Three years ago it was also set up as the primary intro course for the Mind, Brain and Behavior program. I teach the course with Irv DeVore. Although B29 has been running for almost 30 years, starting with DeVore and Bob Trivers (who were literally inventing sociobiology on the fly), it has gone through many permutations.

It attempts to do for Harvard undergrads what Sesame Street does for young children: provide a flavor for new ideas, radical ways of thinking, and new frontiers of thought. It takes as its central thesis that evolutionary theory provides a unifying theme to the organization of life, but that there are constraints all along the way. It begins by laying out the central tenets of Darwinian thought, including discussions of natural selection, kin selection, adaptation, and so on. It then moves into brain evolution and design, targeting problems of modularity, domain-specificity, sex differences, brain damage, and brain development.

From neural evolution and constraints, we move to a discussion of how societies are constructed, using both data on animal cultures and human cultures as our empirical playground. Lastly, we turn to how brains build minds, how consciousness evolved, how languages play with mind and how minds play with language, and how systems of moral regulation emerge.

The lectures present broad strokes, designed to engage and enrage the students. Given that the class size reaches about 500, there is no time for questions in class. Questions and discussion emerge within the smaller sections. Each week, a group of about 20 students meet with their teaching assistants, graduate students who have training in biology, psychology or anthropology; some of them are even overqualified PhDs!

This year, we will try something new, integrating material from EDGE (http://www.edge.org) into the discussions. The hope is that students interested in the topics to emerge will not only bring up some of the material with their peers, but will also volley their thoughts back to EDGE members. Given that this will be our first go, we will certainly need to modify the nature of the interaction. It is our hope that the students will play a large role in customizing the extent to which the material on the EDGE is used. I can see several functions to the EDGE material: 1) as a vehicle for entertaining new ideas; 2) as a source of additional information on topics being discussed in lecture and in section; and 3) and a contact point for group discussions.

Marc D. Hauser


From: Marc D. Hauser
To:
John Brockman
Date: 4-30-98

Dear John,

The semester is virtually over. I would like to share my thoughts on how the EDGE material fared in our course at Harvard. The material was advertised to the students at the beginning of the term. After approximately 3 weeks, the students started receiving the first installment of EDGE. We encouraged the students to read the material, bring up questions in discussion sections, and to send questions to me if they were so moved. I made no promises that the questions would be answered by the authors of EDGE material, but said that I would certainly encourage responses. About half way through the term, I sent out a questionnaire, asking students for an opinion about EDGE material. The questionnaire and some of the answers are appended below. Based on these answers, as well as a more informal assessment, I would like to offer the following thoughts.

I don't believe the EDGE met with much success, but I don't think this is due to the material discussed. Rather, our course is quite well structured and there is a fairly hefty amount of reading. Many students felt that there was not enough time to read EDGE and think hard about the questions asked. On the other hand, many students were quite keen on the issues and often raised relevant questions after class. Several students, coming in as philosophy majors, have decided, based on some of the material in EDGE, to 'convert', integrating philosophical problems with scientific methods.

Several students have mentioned that they find the debates on EDGE fascinating, and wish that there were more forums for discussion. That said, I can think of several ways to improve upon the use of EDGE in the future. First, I am not absolutely convinced that the EDGE is best suited for such a large, introductory course. It certainly generates excitement for the area and the ideas. This is unquestionably a good thing. I will most likely teach this course again in the fall term, and am beginning to think about ways in which it can be better integrated into discussion sections. In particular, it might be possible to offer a mini-seminar within the framework of the course, where EDGE issues are aired. This could be designed for those students wanting more discussion. At present, our sections are packed, and thus time is precious. Second, the EDGE material may be more appropriate for a seminar group.

In this light, I am currently signed up to teach a course on the Evolution of Mind and the EDGE material would be ideal. In fact, I can see making the material mandatory reading. I would assign EDGE material and then have the students come in with questions for class discussion, and then ask them to do a 1 page critique of an argument raised. It might be interesting to use such critiques to assess how well REALITY CLUB fares in conveying complicated ideas in a simple way.

I find that in certain areas, there is, in the words of Richard Dawkins, a wanton eagerness to misunderstand some topics. For example, the interface between biology and culture, although discussed with great clarity by Pinker, Dennett and Dawkins, continues to be a stumbling block for students. By engaging the students in debates, as well as formal critiques, we might learn a great deal about why our teaching methods fail at some level.

Last year, I ran a seminar on the biology of morality and the final exam was a moot court where the topic of debate was inter-specific brain transplants. By forcing the students to engage in a formal debate I found that they more readily learned about the crucial issues, learned to defend their turf, and most importantly, learned about the weaknesses in their thinking. Needless to say, this forum works best in a class where the freedom to express ideas has been cultivated prior to the debate. In this particular class, such freedom readily emerged. The endproduct was a fantastic debate, with well crafted arguments.

In sum, then, I think that the EDGE can provide a useful device for teaching, but it is material that must be integrated in a more systematic fashion than I planned.

Marc

-----

EDGE-B29 student opinion

Here is what I sent out to the students:

Subject: B-29 letter from Marc Hauser

I would like to get some feedback from those of you who have been reading the EDGE material. Since this is a first attempt, it is imperative that we figure out ways to make the material more useful. Thus, for those of you who have a few minutes, I would very much appreciate receiving your thoughts on the following:

1. Have you found the discussions of interest? Please rate on a scale of 1 to 5, with 1 = VERY USEFUL and 5 = USELESS

2. Do you feel as though you are interested in the debates and would be interested in sending questions to the debaters? If yes, what factors would make the forum more open to question? Do you currently feel constrained in asking questions?

3. Would you like to have time to discuss the material in sections or in some other forum? If yes, what kind of forum might be useful to you?

And of course, if you have any other thoughts on the material and how to improve its usefulness, I would be happy to hear about it. We are reaching the mid-point of the course, and so there is time to improve.

Thanks for your help.

Marc

Here is what I got back:

-----

1. very useful

2. The discussions are of interest. However, they seem to be somewhat arcane and it would be foolish for one to argue over subjects which one didn't completely understand. There's also the fact that not every newsletter is going to contain information of interest to everyone.

3. If another forum is chosen, the EDGE should still remain an optional reading, which it is in practice now (whether that is intended or not). It's a lengthy reading assignment. Some other forums that might be of use are sections and occasionally, lecture.

-----

1. very useful

2. yes, not much, no

3. yes, in section

-----

1. Very useful. Sometimes in the shuffle of texts and exams we lose sight of the "big" questions.

2. I am very interested in the debates, but do feel constrained in asking questions.

3. Perhaps forming a discussion group that could meet at a designated day and time after each posting. I would certainly be interested in hearing other students' reactions to EDGE material, and I think the subject matter could generate some intense discussions.



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