Photo: No Words for France


(Credit: Randomly found via Google – no name on post)

Sociology? What a Waste of an Education!

Emile Durkheim

Emile Durkheim (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I like to listen to CBC radio when I drive. I like the mixture of arts, culture, politics, music and just general blather. Makes me feel like I am right up there on current events and in keeping up with what is “now”.

Recently, as I was driving, while listening to one of the phone-in shows on the “student protests in Quebec” I was struck by a sub-theme of some of the callers: What is the value of an education?

Maybe I should take  a couple of steps back and give the 30-second explanation of the student protest that have been happening in Quebec. Basically the Quebec government is trying to reduce their deficit – and so has proposed increasing the portion that students pay towards post-secondary education. The tuition increase proposal has generated a rather large back-lash from the students and other members of Quebec society that view education as an “obligation” of a just and democratic society. This is based on the ideals espoused by thinkers like Thomas Jefferson who said, “I know, [there is] no safe depositary of the ultimate powers of society, but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education. This is the true corrective of abuses of constitutional power.”

Building off the thoughts of Jefferson, and others, the movement in Quebec has focused discussion on the value of “higher” education. And on who “pays” for that education. If an educated society is critical to a successful democracy – then should not that education be affordable and accessible to all members of society?  I would guess that probably a majority of our society will agree that some type of post-secondary education is important and even necessary. Where a major division seems to arise is the discussion on the “utility” of that education.

A sub-text of that discussion becomes “if society pays for an education – then society should decide what you choose to learn.” In other words – we as taxpayers must realize some return on our investment in your education. And as part of that return on investment, society should have an expectation that you will get a good job as a result of your education – and in turn pay taxes.

The danger here is we value education not for knowledge and for learning how to ask questions and for learning to critically think – but for the economic measurable it provides. Thus an “applied education” is the best type of higher education. While “applied education” is useful and often leads to employment, “applied education” tends not to be very creative or adaptable to change. On the flip side education that is focused on the “theoretical” tends to be highly adaptable and creative and not so immediately employable. (Yes those are both generalizations – however that is where the call-in show was headed…)

So getting back to the call-in show, and what has sparked my little ramble. One caller made this comment: ‘These protesters are lazy and need to get real jobs! Why should I pay for their education? That student you had on is studying sociology! My god – what is the point of sociology? That isn’t a real education! People just need to use their common sense and do something real with their lives.’ (Now that isn’t an exact quote as I was driving!)

The caller went on further dismissing Political Science and Anthropology as legitimate areas of study. Basically with the same point: it is an expensive education for something that most of society really does not care about. Those subjects are all theory and thinking – and have little application or utility in an economic sense. And really why study what is just “common sense”?

When he said “common sense” my brain went a-ha! In my experience of the world people who invoke “common sense” dislike social sciences because those disciplines dare to question “common sense.” In fact I would argue those disciplines not only question – they also dare to analyze and measure the utility of “common sense.”

I am not a Sociologist so my understanding of Sociology as a discipline may need to be refined. Sociology examines society using a number of empirical investigative and critical analysis techniques. Sociology attempts to develop an understanding of the way groups of humans interact and behave, and to gain an understanding of how social processes develop and evolve.

Common sense might say that an individual is poor because they are too lazy to get a good job. If that individual would only apply their abilities and talents they would be rewarded and would be a successful, productive member of society. Sociology would examine why that individual is living in poverty, look at how society is helping or hindering; take time to examine the laws, culture, institutions, and other parts of society that surround that individual.  And that data may suggest “social policy” that we can enact to help people out of poverty.

People that want us to rely on “common sense” dislike sociology because sociology dares to measure what “common sense” says is the truth. Sometimes sociology will affirm “common sense” – to which the response will be “what a waste of time and money to learn what we already knew was true.” Or worse it will contradict “common sense” – to which the response is “what a waste of time and money to come up with a flawed study!”

At the end of this ramble I am not certain I have any conclusions to offer. Simply my observations. I believe that higher education is an important part of a successful and fully functioning democratic society. Knowledge is power. And an important part of obtaining knowledge is knowing how to ask questions. If we only focus on “applied” knowledge we become focused on the “how” of the world – and we lose sight of the “why?”. And more importantly the “why not?”. I don’t want to be stuck in a world where the norm is: “I know what I know – don’t confuse me with the facts!”

And so I will leave you the reader with one interesting thought. In a North American consumer society that is focused on economic utility – we rely on a field of study called Economics. Economics it seems is an off-shoot of Sociology with many common roots and connections. So what is the point of Sociology? One might as well ask what is the point of thinking?


English: the log of the political part the com...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Green Washing of Printing

I really want to be environmentally responsible. I do my best with every purchase to consider the impact of my choices. Every decision starts with the basic ideas of “reduce, re-use, recycle”.

Reduce implies questioning a process or a need. Do I really need to do this action/behaviour/process? Do I need to use as much of this? Can I make do with less or none? Is there an alternative? In a green life-style the first choice is always to reduce consumption.

If I cannot reduce my need for something can I re-use some of what I am using in other ways? Can I use scrap paper for scribbling on? Can that container be used for another shipment, or for another purpose? Can I make something else out of these materials?

The last step is to recycle. It may be similar to the re-use step if it is a flexible building material like wood. I take apart this wooden structure to make another different one. Generally, recycling involves gathering materials and shipping those materials to to a depot where they are processed into similar items. Aluminum cans become new aluminium cans. Glass bottles and jars become new glass-bottles and cans. Plastics become different types of plastics.

I am working for a large organization that is looking at making some processes “green.” That sounds good. The one process they are looking at is printing. Remember how the world would one day go paperless? As more and more of our world is virtualized and digitized – we would simply need less paper. Yet I think I actually have more paper in my office than ever before.

The solution according to our local green evangelists is to remove all the “small” printers from offices and have central printers for groups to use. So now the project is to purchase and install high-availability, high volume printers in central locations (which also means designating space just for the printers). The argument is we will “reduce” the number of printers – and then this will in theory make people think before printing because they will have to walk to the printer. Really? My experience is that people do not print less – and often forget what they have printed. So they reprint before going to the printer – and oh I have two copies now of that 45 pages manual! Oooops.

The “reduce” portion of green living is about reducing the use of consumables. Printers are not consumables – they are equipment. Printers are a tool. If I already own a perfectly functioning printer I do not need a new printer. All I am doing is creating e-waste with a greater impact on the environment via the disposable process than by continued discrete use.

In printing, it is paper and toner/ink and electricity that are consumables. How then do I reduce my use of consumables for printing? Simple: Don’t print. Turn off the printer and only print when one absolutely must print. The IT solution to printing is to provide a virtual output format for reports (like PDF’s and webpages).

Why do people print? Ease of use, ease of access, mobility. People print because they need to fill in paper forms, or to get signatures. And what do they do with those forms and signed documents? Scan them. Copy them. Print them again to have multiple copies for each person involved in the process.

If you really want to stop people from printing take away their need to print. Provide central document management systems that can handle workflows and electronic approvals. Create portals with secure mobile access so I can access and read any document on-demand from my mobile device.

Buying new printers to make printing inconvenient does not change behaviour. It just spends a lot of money to make people miserable. Change the underlying need and the behaviour will self-correct.