Skip to main content


ICC 650
Box 571014

37th & O St, N.W.
Washington, D.C. 20057

maps & directions

Phone: (202) 687.6400



Adults, COVID, and Friendships

Posted on

There has been much press about the rise of depression and anxiety among youth, as well as speculation about their heightened sense of isolation still present in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic’s onslaught. There seems to be less commentary on the social psychological effects of the pandemic on adults.

As we begin to gather together more frequently now in person, we find ourselves discussing how face-to-face interaction seems different now somehow. We share feelings about others who seem a little more distant in interpersonal activities.

There is an emerging research inquiry into the effects of the height of the pandemic on the welfare of the adult population. Post March 2020, the lives of many adults were radically changed at the same time as those of youths in school. White collar workers radically increased their time at home, using internet-assisted platforms to keep the workflow going. However, many front-line adult workers continued face-to-face duties. Some of these were caregivers necessary to the reaction to the pandemic. Others’ work demanded presence at a worksite.

It appears there is a bit of a social science literature that is seeking insights into the effects of COVID on adults. Some of these are small scale reports on clinical settings. Others are self-reports using national surveys. Many are looking at the effects on friends’ networks.

In a mid-2021 survey about half the respondents reported losing touch with at least a few friends in the last 12 months (mid-2020 to mid-2021), with women reporting this more than men. Making at least one new friend in the last 12 months, however, is reported at about the same rate (46%) but this is more a report of younger persons than older persons.

In 1990, about one-quarter of the adults (27%) report having three or fewer friends; the 2021 survey has about half (49%) reporting three or fewer friends. As one might expect, the larger the number of friends the higher the tendency, in another question, to report higher life satisfaction.

Many white-collar workers spent their work time at home, and thus spent more time with their family members than with co-workers. In 1990 a Gallup survey found that about a quarter of adults, when facing a personal problem, turned to a friend first; in the 2021 survey from IPSOS, only 16 percent reported turning to a friend.

In a 2022 study of persons 50 and older, there’s more evidence that the strength of ties with family increased during COVID but those with friends were weakened. The same study found a strong desire to reconnect. An Australian study between 2020 and 2021 of younger persons had the same result – perceived stronger ties with family, weaker ties with friends.

Other studies paint a similar picture, albeit with different measures. What’s the takeaway lesson? The social support that arises from friends’ networks is dependent on communication within the network. The pandemic tended to increase family interaction but seems to have weakened friends’ interaction.

Some of the same surveys that report weakened friendship ties also report a thirst for refreshing those networks.

It seems like a good idea.

Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivators for Learning

Posted on

Some years ago, at a meeting with a student advisory committee for the provost office, I playfully asked the students to discuss whether Georgetown should abolish grades for completed courses. At first, there was loud enthusiastic support. Then one student admitted, “You know, I’m not sure I’d go to class or do the full work of the class, without the reminder of grading.”

There is a many-decade history of studying the effects of intrinsic versus extrinsic rewards on human behavior. In the mid-20th century psychologists became more intrigued with different motivators to act. Extrinsic motivators identify social or material benefits to participating in some behavior; they appear to be effective in increasing the speed of a targeted task and compliance to social norms in the situation. Intrinsic motivators emerge from the enjoyment of performing the behavior; behavior change appears to take longer than extrinsically rewarded behavior. However, a consistent finding is that when the extrinsic reward is removed, the target behavior tends to decline much more than when the behavior is motivated by intrinsic rewards.

During parts of the COVID epidemic, students were permitted much more liberal use of pass-fail options for classes that they took. Average GPA rose rather noticeably in that time period. This might be viewed as an indirect effect of allocation of effort on courses for which the student expected higher grades. As the student in the advisory committee noted, without the extrinsic motivator of grades, it isn’t clear that attentional resources would be paid to courses at the same level.

The contrast to scholarly activities of faculty and those of students is sharp on the dimension of intrinsic-extrinsic motivation. Any discussion with an academic scholar about their research reveals motivational sources. Often their eyes light up, their bodies reveal a level of energy about challenges. It becomes crystal clear that they gain deep pleasure from conducting their scholarly work – so much that it is baffling to someone outside their field (often including their students).

A colleague of mine told me a story about his daughter in her first year of college. He, a political scientist, noted his daughter’s report that she was taking her first political science course and finding it interesting. He quickly got into his recruitment role. He started describing the importance of the questions being addressed, the impact the field can have on the world, and the career options it offered. She stopped him in mid-pitch. “Dad, all through high school, when I came home, you were in your office working; when I left the house on the weekends, you were working. Why would I ever want to live that way?”

She hadn’t yet experienced the intrinsic rewards of her study.

This move from extrinsic motivators to intrinsic motivators is also relevant to pedagogical goals of a modern university. We all seek to prepare students for their long lives after graduation. They will need to stay current with changing fields. They will need to adapt to new technologies. Some may see one occupation disappear, but the skills underlying work in the occupation reassembling into a new occupation. Their lives will be enriched by identifying the pleasures of their work and life activities, not the external rewards of prestige and money.

For many students the discovery of intrinsic motivators comes in being part of a research project or an experience-based learning project. Those activities often mimic the scholarly life of faculty. Indeed, that part of my colleague’s life was not yet revealed to his daughter, who saw the field as another graded course, albeit with some interesting concepts. We faculty succeed when we are able to help students experience the internal pleasure of learning.

A New Site for a Global Georgetown

Posted on

Since its foundation in 1789, Georgetown has aspired to foster dialogue and collaboration across different perspectives. In 1789, its unusual openness to students from different religious backgrounds was a significant foundational attribute. A partner attribute to this devotion was its global orientation, increasingly drawing on students from throughout the world. A global reach naturally fosters juxtaposition of different ways of thinking inherent in diverse cultures and thereby enhances the educational experiences of all students.

Of course, the Washington DC location of Georgetown, with its embassies, international multilateral institutions, and global nongovernmental organizations, aided the attraction of both faculty and students who thirsted for global focus. Our faculty are active in every region of the world, studying both the past and the present of societies and the natural world, and collaborating with scholars in many countries. While studying other cultures and consuming research in one’s field globally reinforces the value of such perspective among students, it admittedly remains one step removed from day-to-day life in another society.

Over the past few decades, with strong faculty leadership, Georgetown has established greater presence outside the US. For some years, our law school has participated in the Center for Transnational Legal Studies in London, exposing students to formal training in legal structures and processes across several countries. The Villa le Blaze in Florence has been a home for undergraduate courses taught by Georgetown Hilltop faculty for some years. Nearly twenty years ago, the School of Foreign Service established SFS-Q, a physical presence in Doha, Qatar, offering a BS in Foreign Service with a curriculum identical to that of the DC location. Over time, SFS-Q evolved to GU-Q, as the School of Business and the School of Continuing Studies offered other educational programs. The Georgetown Initiative on Innovation, Development and Evaluation (GUi2DE) supports a research office in Nairobi, Kenya, conducting research related to economic development, including novel randomized controlled trials of innovation in delivery of services. More recently, the Center for Global Health Practice and Impact has led innovative studies and interventions for health service delivery in the Africa, with hundreds of Georgetown employees executing its mission.

This post is being written in Dubai, fresh from a ribbon-cutting for the newest Georgetown program at a nonUS site – the McDonough School of Business Executive Master of Business Administration. The establishment of this site followed years of encouragement of Georgetown alumni to serve the educational needs of mid-career executives in the private, nonprofit, and government sectors in that part of the world.

The degree is identical to the Hilltop Executive MBA program, with both US and Emirati accreditation, with four-days of face-to-face meeting per month and ongoing work remotely. The two-year program involves residencies in multiple locations, during which student teams work on consulting projects solving real problems in real-time for Fortune 500 and other enterprises.

The physical site of the program lies within the Dubai International Financial Centre, a legal entity within Dubai that permitted Georgetown to build its educational program without an Emirati sponsor. There was strong support from Dubai partners in the Ministry of Cabinet Affairs and the DIFC leadership.

This week’s opening session introduced the founding cohort of Dubai EMBA students. As with the best EMBA programs, the students occupy influential levels of authority in their organizations; they are successes already. Some are CEO’s; some, COO’s; some lead important divisions of global firms. They represent almost all sectors of the economy. As was expected in the first cohort, most students are Emirati, but some are not. A key notion of the cohort model is that students work together in teams as part of the active learning design. Early evidence suggests this group will bond in a way that will enhance their learning.

Over the years, Georgetown’s aspiration is that the Dubai program will educate professionals throughout that part of the world, expanding the Georgetown community to populations that cannot be served well with a DC-location alone.

This new Georgetown program adds to the ways Georgetown seeks to build a better world. Congratulations to the McDonough School of Business for this innovation!

Does the Public See the Benefits of Higher Education?

Posted on

Scarcely a day goes by without another media report about higher education in the United States. For the casual reader, it can be confusing.

Some articles note that trust and confidence of the American public in higher education has declined. But other readings remind us that trust is declining for most major institutions in the US. Indeed, in comparison to other institutions, higher education, albeit falling in trust, remains on the higher end of reported trust, along with the military and scientists. Higher education garners more trust than than business, banks, law, religion, and labor. Other articles point out these cross-institutions’ comparisons.

Other discussions focus on the economic rewards of higher education. There is pretty strong agreement on income advantages of completing degree programs. But then other reports find that the economic benefits of education are eroding over time. The accumulation of wealth shows lower educational advantage, but such analysis might be clarified by additional considerations of changing housing prices over regions and time. (House equity is generally the largest single source of wealth accumulation for Americans.)

Depending on the current job market, there are either articles on poor prospects for college graduates or inadequate supply of graduates. Looking forward, most all of the projections of labor market needs suggest that the wage premium for college graduates will increase over time. US universities are not producing enough of a supply to fit the demand, if the projections are correct.

There are many articles about student debt. Outside the US the cost of education is more fully borne by central governments for most universities. Some decades ago, the US Federal government provided generous scholarships to students, some that exceeded the full costs of their education. Both state legislatures’ and US government support for students have not stayed current. The lack of government support has led both state and private universities to place the burden on students. For example, the selective state flagships have tuitions for out-of-state students that rival those of private institutions.

There are fewer articles that reveal that student debt is a much larger problem among those who don’t complete a degree, and subsequently are deprived of the income benefits of the degree.

With such a noisy environment of commentary on higher education, confusion is understandable for the casual reader, not fully aware of all the diversity of types of colleges, variation in majors, real rice versus sticker price, and other important drivers of college outcomes. So the question arises about the net effects of all these different messages to the general public.

In this vein, a new survey asked the question of what were the outputs of education on the lives of individuals. Some of the findings fit prior surveys, more education brings self-reported better health, income, voter participation, social support networks, charitable and volunteer activity.

In addition, the survey also measured opinions of the sample household members about various outcomes of education. This was a more elaborated set of views of higher education than short questions on trust and return on investment that appear in other surveys.

The survey measured agreements or disagreements about potential outcomes of postsecondary education. The vast majority of respondents agree that various positive outcomes come from such education: Greater innovation, including scientific, medical and technological discoveries (81% of the respondents), higher incomes (73%), a more knowledgeable population (71%), more entrepreneurship and business creation (62%), more productive businesses and organizations (61%). The least agreement concerns whether such education leads to more government representatives working in the best interests of the public (35%), better mental health among Americans (40%), improved workplace satisfaction (45%), better physical health among Americans (45%). In short, most of these opinions of the public map well into actual findings of the effects of education.

Despite all the attention to distrust in institutions and student debt, on one hand, and the mixed messages about educational outcome, it is surprising, and heartening, that large portions of the public continue to see the personal and societal benefits of higher education. I trust that their real-life experiences support their positive assessments of higher education’s effects.

New Ways to Support Graduate Education at Georgetown

Posted on

Graduate education has undergone important changes over the past decades. The growth of interdisciplinary and professional Masters’ programs has been notable. They offer career preparation and advancement opportunities that cannot be achieved with on-the-job training. PhD programs expand to incorporate new research thrusts and support new research career options.

A ongoing discussion in all research universities is how much of the administration and oversight of graduate programs should be centralized in a unit that is often called a “graduate school” and how much should be dispersed to the faculty running graduate programs and the deans of their schools. Thus, many universities discuss what are the benefits of uniform practices and what are the benefits of variation across programs serving different needs.

In February, 2022, President DeGioia charged a Task Force on the Future of Graduate Studies. Its task was to evaluate the current state of responsibilities of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences (GSAS) on one hand and those of other schools in overseeing graduate education at Georgetown. Of special focus was were fellowships and other means of supporting students, academic oversight of progress toward degree, authority over budget matters. Finally, the task force addressed issues of overall strategic leadership regarding graduate education.

The members of the task force included Alexander Sens, Reena Aggarwal, Leticia Bode, Daniel Byman, Dayo F. Gore, Mary Haras, Jessica Jones, George Luta, Chandra Manning, Steven Metallo, Caleb McKinney, Peter C. Pfeiffer, Nicoletta Pireddu, Shenita Ray, Anna Riegel, Steven Singer, Frank Vella, and Nitin Vaidya.

After months of work, for which we should all be thankful, the task force forwarded a set of recommendations. These were then reviewed by the President. He approved a key set of those recommendations and has asked for faculty input on how best to implement the recommendations.

A short version of the recommendations are that some basic academic decision-making and the authority and responsibility to admit, monitor, and confer degrees on students would be delegated to the schools; the current position of the dean of GSAS would be converted to a new one with enhanced authority over a more restricted set of issues and with responsibility for larger strategic planning around graduate issues; funding and control of PhD stipends would be moved to the schools of the programs; and a new unit would be formed to incubate or permanently house cross-school and cross-campus programs. Finally, the central unit would provide the principal support for student government, clubs, events, DEI initiatives, career services and adjudication of alleged violations of academic integrity for PhD students.

All of this needs extensive input from faculty groups, including the Main Campus Executive Faculty, the GUMC faculty caucus, faculty of the Biomedical Graduate Education program, the current Executive Committee of the Graduate School, and the School deans. Final approval of the Board of Directors will be required.

The task force foresees a future in which Georgetown increases its impact through Masters and PhD degree programs, especially those that represent new combinations of knowledge permitting new discoveries and new ways of serving the world. We thank the task force for their commitment to this goal.

Long-Run in a Short-Run World

Posted on

At the new student convocation each year, we acknowledge that the content presented to students in any given year will be replaced by new understanding in later years. Hence, if they are to prepare themselves for the long life ahead they need to learn how to self-teach. Our goal is not to prep them for their first job, but to prepare them for a life.

There is currently a large mismatch between much public discourse about higher education and the discussions within universities about their roles in the society. The public discourse is influenced by legislatures and elected government officials intervening in university organization, the lack of economic rewards of various college majors, and the lack of immediate applicability of various research products. The internal discussions within universities focus on supporting faculty scholarship, refreshing curricula to reflect the synthesis of various knowledge domains, innovating in pedagogical approaches using new technologies, and aligning research programs to pressing global problems. In an important way, external vs. internal discussions clash on short-run and long-run perspectives.

Universities are one of the few institutions in a society whose sole function is the ongoing search for truth. “Truth” refers to the discovery of the mechanisms underlying the natural world, the understanding of social and psychological influences on human behavior and organization, and the creation of new text, objects, and performances that unlock insights into humanity. These are all unceasing quests. The destination is never fully reached. Each development builds on prior ones. While the goal is to get closer to the truth, we are fully aware that it may fully be revealed.

The short-run, long-run conflict might be most obvious in external discussions of the arts and humanities. Some politicians deride various majors. Several institutions are planning to cut whole departments or programs. First-job income level appears to be the single most important criterion of evaluation. But from the university perspective, colleges, especially liberal arts institutions, are more than just prep schools for the first job.

In several studies, the skills that employers value from humanities graduates have been found to include the ability to communicate both in oral and written presentation, to synthesize complex information, to critically assess alternatives interpretations; to creatively solve problems, and to feel genuine empathy for others. Many of these are capacities are indirect effects of the scholarly methods of the humanities, probably derived from deep reading, entertaining different interpretations of the texts and objects, and production of text offering persuasive arguments.

But how does this translate into income? Here, too, the short-run, long-run contrast is huge. One report, about liberal arts undergraduate experiences, defines the “return on investment” as a function of the net price of college compared to post-graduation earnings. In the first ten years after graduation, graduates of liberal arts colleges do indeed earn less than those from other schools (relative to their total education costs). However, over a forty year period after graduation, they make more. Of course, there remain differences among majors in a liberal arts in lifetime earnings, but the short-run focus seems to ignore the value of liberal education’s expose students from all majors to the ways of thinking of the arts and humanities. That is, in the long-run the society rewards the capacities that result from the rigor of the arts and humanities. It is an easy hypothesis that these skills are those that make for a good manager and strategic leader. These are jobs that require both the skills of the first job and the skills that are less job specific, but important for the productivity of groups.

Why is long-run perspectives appropriate in higher education? Current entering students are likely to live to be over 100 years. They will experience not just multiple jobs, but multiple careers, as societal and technological change disrupt occupational families. They will need to retool. The critical thinking and synthesis-making capacities inherent in the humanities can facilitate that retooling.

Working at home

Posted on

As I was walking on campus to my office today, I encountered one of our school deans. We talked for maybe 3 minutes or so. No particular topic. Conducting no real business. But a renewal and strengthening of a small bond between colleagues.

There are many features of daily life that have yet not returned to a pre-pandemic state. Among those is the lack of stability in the size of the remote work force, the work-at-home population. We are approaching four years into this phenomenon, and most of us are disappointed in the lack of useful evidence of the pro’s and con’s of remote work.

In terms of the extent of remote work, a scientific survey of businesses by the Bureau of Labor Statistics is now little old but still relevant. It shows that, between August and October 2022, 25.5% of US business establishments had workers who teleworked all or part of the time, compared to 23.3% in February, 2020, before the pandemic hit. In short, despite all of the media about large permanent changes in work styles, the prevalence was not dramatically different before and after the pandemic.

However, the relative frequency of remote work does seem to be highly variable over occupational groupings. Staff in IT, finance and accounting, and sales and marketing appear to have higher fully remote prevalence. More prevalent than remote workers are hybrid workers, present at the workplace 1-3 days a week, each week. These tend to be knowledge workers, who part of their work is creation of written or other products and part is group work. A common occurrence is work at the office Tues, Wednesday, and/or Thursday, for days filled with group work and meetings. The other days are used for solitary work. More highly educated workers and staff with small children tend to exhibit more at-home work than others. At-home work is more common to urban areas than to rural areas.

The least likely to perform at-home work are those in food services, cleaning, security, building maintenance, transportation, and other roles that require at-site job duties irreplaceable by zoom or internet-assisted media.

A large amount of commentary addresses whether at-home work is more or less productive than work on the employer’s site. First, the word, ”productivity,” is a bit slippery across different fields. Economists have the notion of product (goods or services) produced per hour of labor. Obviously, this is most easily measured with countable products (e.g., number of calls taken by a service center, number of widgets produced). Such work organizations appear to have lower productivity with remote workers. Knowledge workers don’t have easily measured products. However, one randomized experiment did find that remote teams produced fewer creative uses of a product than did teams interacting face-to-face.

An important alternative viewpoint of productivity is more common among employees – it includes how many hours they devote to all job-related activities, including commuting from home to the work place. This more inclusive notion of work-related hours would obviously favor productivity advantages of at-home work.

Much of the research on at-home work is based on attitudinal reports. A common finding is that supervisors are less enamored with their staff working remotely than are the staff themselves. Some studies report greater “happiness” or satisfaction with work-life balance among at-home workers.

But as the trend to working at home stabilizes, there seems to be more commentary about attitudinal states that are negatively affected by at-home work. Much of it is related to a loss of social cohesion in remote-based work organizations in contrast to that arising from face-to-face work. Mentoring of new staff by more experienced staff seems to be a challenge remotely, as well as unintentional advantages for advancement that accrues to those who are in the office versus those remote, and difficulty with onboarding of remote employees. Some see a loss of social cohesion among remote co-workers. Isolation promotes an abundance of attention to oneself; zoom-limited interaction with others doesn’t reinforce empathy toward others. Some remote work organizations experience more interpersonal conflict among staff.

Computer-mediated communication strips many of the cues from people interacting with one another. Texts miss the inflection and emotion of a voice. Zoom strips out much of the body language so useful in understanding the intent of a speaker. Finally, chance encounters seem much rarer in computer-mediated interaction.

Bumping into a colleague walking across campus, having a 3 minute conversation, feeling reconnected, seems harder with colleagues linked only by the internet. It seems that institutions whose outcome requires group work will suffer more than those whose product is merely the sum of autonomous, individual staff members. It seems that each work organization needs to decide the relative importance of groups versus individuals for its outcomes.

Stay-at-Home Fathering

Posted on

A recent article noted that the percentage of “stay-at-home” fathers has increased over the past few years. Among families that have one parent in a “stay-at-home” status, men now represent 18% of those families versus 11% in 1989. Consistent with this, there has been an increase in the percentage of fathers not working for pay, and a small increase in mothers working for pay over the past decades. Higher proportions of stay-at-home fathers say that they are staying home to care for children than was true in earlier times (compared to inability to work because of some impairment, for example). Compared to fathers working for pay, stay-at-home dads are less likely to have a college degree, be less wealthy, somewhat older, and less likely to be married. This finding is compatible with growing gender differences in educational attainment, but from one perspective even the 18% figure seems unusually low.

For example, beginning in the late 1970’s women’s enrollments in colleges and universities exceeded that of males’. Since that time, each decade has seen higher and higher percentages of women attending and completing undergraduate degrees compared to men. For example, recent entering cohorts of first-year students at Georgetown are about 60% women. This is a long-term trend and shows no signs of changing. One might imagine that social norms surrounding gender roles would follow these continuing trends. If this trend started over forty years ago, why aren’t there more stay-at-home dads by now? It looks like there are several counteracting influences, some economic, some social.

First, the sorting of men and women into marriages does not match the higher percentages of women with college degrees. Consider the percentage of marriages in which the husband has less education than the wife compared to the percentage in which the husband has more education than the wife. Only in 2015 was parity attained in those two percentages. That’s the direction one would hypothesize from the enrollment data by gender, but one would have expected this earlier than 2015. This phenomenon is compatible with another—men with a college degree have higher marriage rates, probably having been disproportionately chosen by the college-educated women. So, in short, while the overall trend is for women to invest more in their postsecondary education, it has led much more slowly to the trend that women have more educational attainment than their spouses. This probably slowed the growth in stay-at-home fathers.

Another relevant potential influence on the proportion of stay-at-home dads may be income potentials of the two spouses. There are strong data showing that the investment in college portends higher lifetime earnings, in general, but more fine-grained analysis shows that choice of major greatly affects the college advantage. College majors traditionally chosen by women (e.g., nursing, education, fine arts, psychology) tend to offer lower incomes than those traditionally chosen by men (e.g., business, engineering, physical sciences). These traditions are self-reinforcing, as women may feel unwelcomed in majors dominated by men. But these traditions are too are changing but very gradually (e.g., the percentage of women majoring in biology has greatly increased).

But even finer-grain analysis shows other gender differences. Within a given college major, it appears that women graduates sort into occupations with lower incomes than those of men who pursued the same major. So the economic payoff of a given major varies by gender. Finally, some skilled trades not requiring a college degree garner incomes higher than those typical of some majors of college degree programs. Thus, college educated women do not necessarily have higher incomes than their husbands without a college degree.

Note that there is broad evidence that even within the same occupation, women tend to be paid less than men. Research that tried to “explain away” gender differences in salaries within occupations controlling on other attributes have failed. (The common finding is that women make roughly 80% of the income of men with common work attributes.) Thus, this fact, too, increases the likelihood that a college-educated wife may be less likely to have higher income prospects than her non-college-educated husband. In such cases, if one spouse chooses to stay-at-home, it might tend to be the wife.

Finally, sociologists and anthropologists teach us well that norms affecting roles in the family change very, very slowly in reaction to external influences. While stay-at-home fathering is growing more prevalent (i.e., the rise from 11% to 18% of stay-at-home parents are fathers), there probably remain stigmas perceived by stay-at-home fathers and their spouses.

In short, while the higher rates of educational investments by women are notable, their effects on the lives of graduates are dampened by all these other factors. But, after the more than 40 years of women’s educational achievements exceeding those of men, one still might have speculated that more social change would have occurred. The very slow increases in the rate of stay-at-home fathering is just one outcome of this inertia.

Curiosity vs. Problem-Solving: “The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge”

Posted on

In other posts, I have argued that Donald Stokes’ notion of “Pasteur’s Quadrant,” was a useful rubric to guide the selection of targets for one’s scholarship. The notion makes the point that when a scholar is motivated by solving a problem in the real world (e.g., an incomplete execution of an artistic thrust, an apparent anomaly in a manufacturing process), often the solution leads to some more fundamental principles that contribute to basic knowledge far away from the original problem. That is, sometimes practical solutions of one problem lead to new theories, applicable to whole hosts of other problems.

I recently came across a 1939 article entitled, “The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge” by Abraham Flexner, one of the founders of the Institute for Advanced Study. It employs a line of logic that is rarer today than perhaps in prior years. In short, through a set of examples, it notes the importance of the unfettered pursuit of knowledge. It applauds the curiosity- driven choice of activity of scholars. The creation of new forms of thinking are valued as their own end – the expansion of things that humans know.

We live in a time of rapid technological change. The rise of the internet has linked together vast parts of humanity globally. Miniaturization of silicon-chip circuitry permits computational feats unimaginable in smart phones. Artificial intelligence advances are in their exponential growth phase. Since these achievements have direct effect on the day-to-day lives of billions of people, they are the subject of much popular media. In contrast, media treatment of basic scholarship suffers the dual burden of not being well-understood by journalists and of not directly impacting the average person.

It remains an open question, however, what the fastest route to innovation that improves the lives of the maximum number of people. How much should a society support the curiosity-driven pursuit of knowledge for its own sake versus the application of knowledge in new inventions directly impacting persons?

The Flexner piece provides example after example of work driven by the passion of the scholar. Working at all hours of the day and night to perfect their insights into a puzzle they were trying to solve. For example, he mentions early work on the chemistry of carbon compounds leading to the creation of nitroglycerine, which much later led to application in the creation of dynamite. Or, more benignly, basic theories and mathematics of an “ideal gas” by Einstein in 1925, coming much later to explain why liquid helium at a very, very low temperature flows better, not worse than at higher temperatures, an unexplained exception to the rule of other liquids.

He asserts that the most important discoveries came by minds who were uninterested in any particular use of the discoveries but merely seeking the joy of seeing the discovery emerge. Flexner misses one opportunity for applying the argument to the humanities. First, the scholar of art or poetry or literature often has that essential thirst to build a new creation. Their creation, when absorbed by others, often lead to very practical outcomes – an emotion is evoked, an inference about one’s own life is made, an interpretation of others’ behaviors is crystallized. The applications of the basic work can be as varied as the number of observers of it. The power of the humanities is their ability to evoke a multitude of impacts. Second, some of the product of humanists is left underappreciated for time, just as basic findings in the sciences sometimes find no application for decades. In the same sense, the words or images of the scholar seem to be too far ahead of the society, but the society catches up and rediscovers the work, with deep appreciation rare at the time of its creation.

Flexner notes “a poem, a symphony, a painting, a mathematical truth, a new scientific fact, all bear in themselves all the justification that universities, colleges, and institutes of research need or require.” All of these observations beg a question: “If improvement to humankind is a goal, how should the scholar allocate their time between basic observations/creation and application of knowledge in direct service to others?”

Changes in Youth

Posted on

For some decades in the United States, there have been annual national surveys of high school seniors. One of them attempts to measure a set of attitudes and aspirations of the 12th grader respondents. This is, of course, a moment in life that precedes much change in the formation of one’s character. And, the surveys are, admittedly, a snapshot of a group of young people a specific moment in time. The fact that the measurements are consistent over years and are based on scientific samples of students make them useful to compare over time.

There are many repeated cross-sectional measurements that show little change over time. Every once in a while change is notable. The Monitoring the Future Survey asks whether the 12th grader agrees or disagrees with a statement that work will likely be a central part of their adult life. Between the mid-1970’s and the year 2000, there was a steady decline in the percentage agreeing that work would be a central part of their lives. Starting in 2000 through the seniors of 2020, there was a steady increase. Some of these students are now in college. So it appears that more and more look toward a career as a central feature of their adult life.

Other questions asked about what characteristics they thought were important in a job. One option was a job that “gave you an opportunity to be directly helpful to others.” Similar to the pattern on desired centrality of work, the time trends showed declining perceived importance of a job that directly helped others from the mid-1970’s to the year 2000. Since that time, however, that attribute of a job is judged by more 12th graders as important. Later cohorts value helping others more than earlier cohorts.

Another job attribute for the which the survey asked seniors to judge its importance was whether it was “worthwhile to society.” Again, falling percentages viewing that as important to around 2000, then an increase. Later cohorts of seniors value jobs that are worthwhile to society more than earlier cohorts.

Of course, these are rather simple questions about very complicated life values. They, as with all surveys, are blunt instruments. However, consistent measures over time deserve attention. These time trends raise both questions of the causes of the increasing orientation to helping society and their effects on the behavior of successive cohorts of young persons as they age.

With regard to the causes of these changes, there are too many possibilities to sort out. These 12th graders in recent years have seen many different events, from foreign wars, to financial crises, to terrorist events, to political polarization. In addition, there is well-documented increased prevalence of mental health concerns in these younger cohorts. But these trends are also consistent with other studies showing that younger generations are more focused on climate change impacts, racial/ethnic equality, and supporting a larger role of government in the societal wellbeing.

The surprise, perhaps, is that, despite the many negative forces affecting these later cohorts of students, they exude an external, not internal focus for their aspirations. There seems to be increasing attention to using their working lives to build a better society. It didn’t have to be so. The experiences of mental health challenges and negative societal events might have bred cohorts of complete ego-orientation. These survey data suggested otherwise, on the whole.

Turning to the effects of these changes — if the data are accurate, they suggest that the finest days are ahead for Georgetown, as a university that seeks to form “people for others” through research, education, and service activities. If the university is getting its fair share of incoming cohorts of students who share aspirations of helping others, our jobs will be enriched in manifold ways.

Office of the ProvostBox 571014 650 ICC37th and O Streets, N.W., Washington D.C. 20057Phone: (202) 687.6400Fax: (202)

Connect with us via: