上大学应该学什么?7 Core Courses in Neoliberal Arts Education

Background Music: Guitarra by Madredeus

Preface:It’s the 21st century. Knowing how to read a novel, craft an essay, and derive the slope of a tangent isn’t enough anymore. One needs to know how to swim through the data deluge, optimize his or her prose for Twitter, and expose statistics that lie. In the following article, you’ll find the updated core curriculum, which fills in the gaps of our 20th-century education with the tools one needs now. Call it the neoliberal arts: higher learning for highly evolved humans.

Statistical Literacy

Why take this course? We are misled by numbers and by our misunderstanding of probability.
What you’ll learn:  How to parse polls, play the odds, and embrace uncertainty.

We use only 10 percent of our brain! That familiar statement is false—there’s no evidence to support it. Still, something about it just sounds right, so we internalize it and repeat it. Such is the power—and danger—of statistics.

Our world is shaped by widespread statistical illiteracy. We fear things that probably won’t kill us (terrorist attacks) and ignore things that probably will (texting while driving). We buy lottery tickets. We fall prey to misleading gut instincts, which lead to biases like loss aversion—an inability to gauge risk against potential gain. The effects play out in the grocery store, the office, and the voting booth (not to mention the bedroom: People who are more risk-averse are less successful in love).

And it’s getting worse: We are now 53 percent more likely than our parents to trust polls of dubious merit. (That figure is totally made up. See?) Where do all these numbers that we remember so easily and cite so readily come from? How are they calculated, and by whom? How do we misuse them to make them say what we want them to? We’ll explore all of these questions in a sequence on sourcing statistics.

Next, this course will turn to the topic of probabilistic intuition. We’ll learn to judge what’s likely and unlikely—and what’s impossible to know. We’ll learn about distorting habits of mind like selection bias—and how to guard against them. We’ll gamble. We’ll read The Art of Probability for Scientists and Engineers by Richard Hamming, Expert Political Judgment by Philip Tetlock, and How to Cheat Your Friends at Poker by Penn Jillette and Mickey Lynn.

Finally, we’ll learn how to use statistics to our advantage. You don’t have to be an actuary to understand just how likely various potential outcomes actually are.


Post-State Diplomacy

Why take this course? As the world becomes evermore atomized, understanding the new leaders and constituencies becomes increasingly important.

What you’ll learn: How to practice statecraft without states. 

From tribal insurgents to multinational corporations, private charities to pirate gangs, religious movements to armies for hire, a range of organizations now compete with (and sometimes eclipse) the nation-states in which they reside. Without capitals or traditional constituencies, they can’t be persuaded or deterred by traditional tactics.

But that doesn’t mean diplomacy is dead; quite the opposite. Negotiating with these parties requires the same skills as dealing with belligerent nations—understanding the shareholders and alliances they must answer to, the cultures that inform how they behave, and the religious, economic, and political interests they must address.

Power has always depended on who can provide justice, commerce, and stability. Successful insurgents aren’t just thugs; they offer their members tangible benefits—community, money, education, and a sense of order (even if the rebels are the ones creating disorder in the first place). We must learn how they gain loyalty, even if our goal is to undercut it.

In this course, we’ll study how some of the most influential entities on the world stage—religious extremists, criminal enterprises, diasporas—are at their most potent online and must be engaged there. Case in point: the South Ossetia War, in which Russian hackers set up websites that enabled anyone sympathetic to their cause to launch denial-of-service attacks against Georgian targets. We’ll learn how to go about winning over the hearts and minds of these transnational groups. This requires launching sophisticated media and political campaigns—in much the same way that underground samizdat publications and Radio Free Europe broadcasts served to undermine the international Communist movement during the Cold War.

Remix Culture

Why take this course?  Modern artists don’t start with a blank page or empty canvas. They start with preexisting works.
What you’ll learn: How to analyze—and create—artworks made out of other artworks.

Here are some defining artists of the post-postmodern age: Spike Jonze, whose video for Weezer’s “Buddy Holly” wove the band into an episode of Happy Days; Girl Talk, who turned 322 snippets of recordings into an original album; and Garfield Minus Garfield, a website that erases the eponymous cat from his own comic strip. The creative act is no longer about building something out of nothing but rather building something new out of cultural products that already exist.

In this class, we’ll examine the philosophical roots of remix culture and study seminal works like Robert Rauschenberg’s Monogram and Jorge Luis Borges’ Pierre Menard, Author of Don Quixote. And we’ll examine modern-day exemplars from DJ Shadow’s Endtroducing to Auto-Tune the News.

Next, we’ll take a look at three sets of technological tools that helped democratize art creation.

Writing tools: From the Gutenberg printing press to Microsoft Word, publishing technology has made it easier to reproduce, copy, and manipulate words. 

Aural tools: Grandmaster Flash’s turntables and crossfader turned records into instruments. Samplers like the E-Mu SP-1200 and the Akai S950 made prerecorded music a manipulatable musical ingredient. Pro Tools and other software programs made professional-quality sound deconstruction available to the average consumer.

Video tools: From reel-to-reel film editing suites to Avid to iMovie, the process of video editing has grown cheaper and easier, as well.  

Finally, students will be asked to create their own manipulations of preexisting works.  

注2:Girl Talk:美国音乐家,擅长混搭和数字采样。
注3:Garfield Minus Garfield:由丹·沃尔什(Dan Walsh)创作的网络漫画。他重印了连环漫画《加菲猫》,但使用图像处理把加菲猫这个角色从原作移去。
注6:DJ Shadow:美国音乐制作人兼创作人,被认为是器乐嘻哈的代表性人物。
注8:Grandmaster Flash:美国音乐家,嘻哈音乐的伟大革新者,曾发明变奏搓碟法等多项演奏技术。

Applied Cognition

Why take this course? You have to know the brain to train the brain.
What you’ll learn: How the mind works and how you can make it work for you.

How we think is as important as what we think. The workings of our minds have long been mysterious, but we understand our mental processes much better today than we did 20 years ago. Unfortunately, education hasn’t caught up.

In this course, we’ll get smart on brains, beginning with a sequence on neuro-rhetoric. Ads, political campaigns, and spam have sharpened the art of persuasion and given it a quantitative edge. We’ll read Denis Higgins’ The Art of Writing Advertising and Robert Cialdini’s Influence. We’ll dissect late-night infomercials and Zynga’s games to understand what makes them so compelling.

Next we’ll turn to decisionmaking. We’ll learn how emotion influences reasoning and how language influences emotion. You’ll read Jonah Lehrer’s How We Decide and Barry Schwartz’s The Paradox of Choice. We’ll study the spread of memes with Facebook’s “in-house sociologist,” Cameron Marlow.  

Finally, we’ll delve into the fraught topic of brain maintenance. What nutrients affect mental performance? What drugs provide improved cognition? What can you do today to keep your mind healthy? Many of the most celebrated supplements and tools, from ginkgo biloba to the Nintendo DS game Brain Age, are of limited value. Separating science from the snake oil used to promote these enhancements will tap all the critical thinking skills you sharpen in this course.  


Writing for New Forms

Why take this course? You can write a cogent essay, but can you write it in 140 characters or less?

What you’ll learn: How to adapt your message to multiple formats and audiences—human and machine.

Writing used to mean arranging words in a particular order to be printed with ink on the cellulosic entrails of a tree. You wrote for people, and you hoped that the marks you made would leave a permanent impression upon the world. Today, writing can refer to anything from posting a one-line status update on Facebook to dashing off a 10,000-word blog entry. Your readers include not just humans but algorithms, and your goal is not immortality but a momentary piercing of the ever-shifting zeitgeist.

There are more writing opportunities than ever, but they require skills that Strunk and White never dreamed of. This course will teach you how to Photoshop images to create a narrative, edit a 20-second YouTube video, compress your thoughts into 140 characters (or clarify them into a PowerPoint presentation that won’t put your audience to sleep), write a wiki entry that encourages other people to edit and adapt it, and ensure your work goes viral, turning readers into vectors for your ideas.

Technical skills, however, are not enough. Writing successfully requires knowing how to attract niche audiences with depth and detail. To demonstrate this, we’ll contrast The New York Times Magazine’s profile of Yankee pitcher Mariano Rivera with the accompanying Web video of the nearly 1,300 pitches Rivera threw during the 2009 baseball season.

The role of the writer is also changing. In the age of objectivity, writers kept their personalities out of their work. But now, the author’s identity is paramount; readers have to believe you offer a unique—and trustworthy—perspective. Tone and personality are once again central to writing, not something to be smoothed and scrubbed. We’ll study the work of The Atlantic’s Andrew Sullivan, who built a blog empire with an informal voice that makes readers feel as if they are accessing his unvarnished thoughts; New York Times blogger Andrew Revkin, who encourages reader loyalty by posting long passages from the emails that they send him; and director Kevin Smith, who recounts sex with his wife in lascivious detail to keep his 1.7 million Twitter followers hitting Refresh.  

Writing today also means mastering metatext, the cues and context that determine how, where, and if your words get read. We’ll learn that winning links depends on appealing to the unique tastes of different social networks. Each link will help you attract your most influential audience—the algorithms that determine where your story ends up in Google’s search results. As we optimize our writing for this cyborg readership, we’ll also learn the new tenets of writing well: Be conspicuous, be entertaining, and leave space for others to talk.  


Waste Studies 

Why take this course? Waste is the single biggest drag on our productivity—and it’s everywhere.
What you’ll learn: How to become a smarter consumer, investor, and conserver.

When trying to understand a country’s health, economists have a lot of numbers to pick from: GDP, consumer confidence, the balance of trade. But they could learn more by looking at the total amount of waste produced.

Waste isn’t just garbage (though there’s a lot of that: The US produces 250 million tons of it annually). Each year, we lose billions of dollars in valuable time as we sit in traffic and endless meetings. We spend billions more in health premiums that pay for administrative bloat rather than medical care. High unemployment rates constitute another kind of waste—available labor that isn’t being put to productive economic use.

Waste, of course, is a simple fact of nature: It’s baked right into the second law of thermodynamics. Instead of seeking to eliminate it, we need to learn what causes it, how to reduce it, and what purpose it might serve.

To see how devastating unchecked waste can be, we’ll examine the recent economic collapse. The financial markets were overcome by derivatives that took in billions of dollars without performing any benefit to the overall economy. Those wasteful innovations—like risky subprime mortgage pools—were instrumental in causing the worst economic slump since the Great Depression.  

We’ll learn how engineers, industrialists, and economists are finding new ways to reduce waste. “Smart” meters tell people how much power their appliances are consuming; as energy customers become more aware of their consumption, they use less. Companies like GE and Intel are spending billions of dollars to improve the efficiency of their turbines and computer chips.

Finally, we’ll take a more nuanced look at waste, asking how much we can eliminate and how much is necessary for a healthy economy. Some level of oversupply is required to insure against catastrophe, just as having two kidneys provides a backup in case one fails. And economists have concluded that some level of unemployment—perhaps the cruelest form of waste—is necessary to prevent runaway inflation.

Domestic Tech

Why take this course? We’ve lost touch with the act of making, repairing, and upgrading physical objects.
What you’ll learn: How to apply hard science and engineering to everyday life.

In 20th-century high schools, shop and home economics classes were considered easy As—or worse, one-way tickets to unexciting vocations. But we’ve become divorced from the skills those classes imparted. This course reexamines every aspect of home life, from cooking to cabinet repair, through the prism of science.

In the 18th century, it was common for curious amateurs to carry out experiments in their home. We’ll study the history, from philosophers John Locke and Benjamin Franklin to mythbusters Kari Byron and Jamie Hyneman. We will explore outfits like DIYbio and Foldit, which are tapping into that same spirit today.

The High Tech Home Ec sequence will cover kitchen chemistry and nutrition, providing a better understanding of how science can help you perform the simplest of tasks, like boiling an egg. (If the yolk turns greenish-gray, the iron in it has reacted with the sulfur in the egg white. To arrest this process, don’t overcook, and place the eggs in cold water as soon as they are off the boil.)

The Domestic Shop sequence will demonstrate the astounding range of experiments and projects you can do with household appliances. (No lab fee—the lab is your home and the world around you.)



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