Yes, But Which Arts?

liberalArtsNote: This post is part of our League Symposium on Higher Education in the 21st Century. You can read the introductory post for the Symposium here. To see a list of all posts in the Symposium so far, click here.

From a policy perspective, education is a confused mess. Everyone agrees education is good, but there’s no clear consensus on what is good about it. There are many proposed benefits, each with their proponents:

The one you hear most loudly these days that that STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects are the most important because of the economic value these majors bring. At the other end of the spectrum, you have the idea that education is an inherently pleasurable and worthy experience, aside from its instrumental value.

Second, there are those who see education as a way to instill “proper values”. Historically this has ranged from madrassas teaching the Koran and nothing else (note, I am not suggesting all madrassas are like this, merely that some of them are), to communist states using schooling to try to create the new Socialist Man, to the brand of Christian conservative that feels any education that isn’t all Jesus all the time is some kind of secular plot.

Finally, there’s the classic Liberal Arts justification for education – that it prepares people to fully participate as citizens.

Each of these goals (which I will give the short names of “Good Economy”, “Good Life, “Good Values” and “Good Society” respectively), implies different priorities for education. But the one I want to focus on is the last one because I think it’s the strongest justification for the public support of education:

You would think that an economist would be a fan of the “Good Economy” approach, but not at all. As I have noted previously, in the absence of a market failure, a job that contributes to the economy will be well-paid in proportion to its contribution. There is therefore no externality associated with pro-economy jobs. Not only shouldn’t the government be promoting STEM majors, they arguably shouldn’t even be subsidizing them much.

The same goes for “Good Life” education. There’s no externality here.

I’ll admit to being biased against “Good Values” education, but aside from my personal repugnance, I think this is a bad basis for education. For one thing, I see no way to establish a wide consensus on what values everyone should be taught, and even if there was, I’d be worried about tyranny of the majority. I’m not saying values should never be taught, but the teaching of values (or at least the extent to which the government promotes the teaching of values) needs to be carefully circumscribed.

This leaves us with “Good Society” education. It seems to me that this is where the externalities of education are clearest. Good quality civic engagement is not rewarded the same way good economic engagement is, so all things being equal you would expect there to be too little of it. Better educated voters (not just more educated, but better educated) make for better government policy, which benefits us all. This implies that education should be subsidized in proportion to how well it meets “Good Society” goals.

So, let us say that the primary reason to subsidize education is to improve civic engagement. If so, what specific subjects should we be promoting?

Traditionally, the liberal arts were the following subjects:

  • Grammar
  • Logic
  • Rhetoric
  • Arithmetic
  • Geometry
  • Music
  • Astronomy / Astrology (this was before they were separate subjects)

But are these the right subjects to teach? While any education will probably help a little, I’m not sure music and astronomy (don’t even get me started on astrology) are useful enough to be in the core curriculum. And geometry isn’t really the best mathematical discipline to improve civic engagement.

So what I want to do is get a discussion going on what should go into a Liberals Arts course for the 21st Century. Before I give you my thoughts, here are some thoughts to consider when compiling your list:

  • I think we can assume that education in pretty much any subject will have some benefit. The real question is, which subjects are of most value in enabling good citizenship?
  • I think domain relevance is important. People deal with familiar situations better than unfamiliar ones. Even if they’ve developed the skills they need to solve a problem, it really helps to have actually used them in that type of problem specifically.

With those thoughts in mind, here are the topics I think would be useful:

  • Fundamentals of science. Most science education is built around the body of facts science has discovered. While these are important, it’s not so important that everyone knows them. I mean, when was the last time you needed to know the molar mass of nitrogen? What people need to know is what the scientific method is, how it works and why it has allowed progress like nothing else conceived by the human mind. People need to know what hypothesis are, why it’s important to have them, and why it’s also important to test them and revise them if they’re wrong.
  • Statistics and Probability. Humans are terrible at assessing risk; this has been demonstrated by in-depth research. However, the same research also suggests people with education in statistics suffer less from the normal probability-related cognitive biases.
  •  History. This seems like a no-brainer to me, being doomed to repeat it is no fun at all.
  • Philosophy. I’m not really qualified to lay out what concepts are best learned from philosophy, apart from a working familiarity with logical fallacies (though I suppose that strictly more logic than philosophy per se). Perhaps Rose or another philosophical member of our community will take pity on my ignorance, and make some suggestions?
  •  Cognitive Psychology, especially cognitive biases. People should know the myriad ways in which their brain will screw up. In the fullness of time, I’d like to add training to overcome these biases, but that sort of thing is thin on the ground right now.
  •  Government. I’m not just talking about the sort of machinery of government stuff you might learn in civics (though that is important too) but also the basics of public policy theory, stuff that only public servants and a handful of specialized academics know about. I’m talking about things like Intervention Logic (a simple and useful enough concept that everyone should know it), and the basics of program evaluation. I want voters to understand how public policy can be evaluated, even if they can’t do it themselves.
  • Economics. Yeah, big surprise, the economist puts economics on the list. I’m really only talking about a small subset of economics, most intro to economics courses are made with future economists in mind, which is not what I’m after here. The big things I’d want to teach people are the basics of market failure (describing the features of each failure, and the best methods of dealing with each), as well as some fundamental government failure economics (public choice theory, as well as some of Bryan Caplan’s work on voter irrationality). Game theory would also be a good thing to explore.

So what about you? What topics should a modern Liberal Arts curriculum contain?


Please do be so kind as to share this post.
TwitterFacebookRedditEmailPrintFriendlyMore options

133 thoughts on “Yes, But Which Arts?

  1. I think grammar / rhetoric / some-kind-of-fine-art-education-and-music-does-a-lot-of-work-but-so-would-a-TRULY-robust-pleasure-reading-schedule are necessary educational underpinnings for most people to be able to learn most of what you have on your list.

    That said, it is a fine list.


    • Fine arts are something you simply have a talent for, or do not (although I don’t deny that even talented people have to work and train), and that you won’t get much out of if you don’t have a talent for it. I say this as someone who suffered through two years of grade 6 and 7 band without once coaxing a true note from my flute, and whose artistic abilities are challenged by stick figures.

      Courses on the history of art and music, the different great artists and styles, and some scientific/psychological/cognitive information on how art and music affect us and why would be interesting and valuable courses, but you can’t require everyone to do art. Anyone can love art, but not everyone can be an artist.


      • Hm. I don’t disagree? I probably shouldn’t have assumed that by saying that an intensive course of pleasure reading would suit the purposes I thought one would normally need music or other fine arts for, the “perform OR appreciate” part was understood.

        For me, playing was just one of the best ways out there to understand more, taste things more deeply.


      • No, not everyone can /do/ art. But everyone ought to understand the STRATEGY behind art, the fundamental principles that good art adheres to. And for gods sake, teach kids a bit of design.

        Can you do layers in GIMP? How about compositing? There’s plenty of art skills that don’t require a whit of motor skills (I know a guy who’s a damn fine artist, but he can’t draw anything).


  2. Game Theory (I’d take it well over history, as properly taught it provides a fantastic lens for both History and Economics, as well as a good deal of Psychology).

    Logistics and Strategy. The art of marshalling your resources, and reorganizing problems to suit your strengths.


  3. The basic idea, traditionally, of the academy as a place to teach you, The Individual, how to learn without requiring direction is the ideal I think we should aspire (back) to.

    But I look back on my college experience and there was a lot of courses in there where I was expected to come out with a POV rather than with a list of required reading.


    • Agreed that the point should be to teach your self how to learn, and indeed that is a large point of a PhD program, since you are venturing into areas where classes are not taught.


  4. Foreign languages. I admire the European Union’s effort at mother tongue plus two foreign languages, though individual member states have a spotty record at seeing the idea through. The US could do a lot more on this front by beginning foreign language education far earlier.

    Literature. For all the same reasons history would be on the list.

    Also, liberal arts education, but no art? This seems an appropriate response.


  5. College Algebra at the least. If you can wrap your brain around Algebra, you can at least conceptually understand higher mathematical concepts, even if you have no idea how to work them.


      • I tend to think of algebra as more of a high school subject.

        So do I, although my undergraduate school keeps dumbing down the amount of math required to graduate from the College of Arts and Sciences. Stopping at algebra leaves you woefully short of an appreciation for just how powerful a set of tools math provides for thinking about the world. It’s pretty much a “Thursday night bar fight” topic for geeks, but interesting to think about what six topics you would cover in two three-hour classes for a humanities person to be well-rounded. Let’s see, a first cut, in no particular order…

        1) Enough probability to understand why my favorite bar bet* is for suckers.
        2) Enough statistics to understand why the fundamental questions you should always be asking are some variation of, “What’s the distribution look like?”
        3) Enough integral calculus to understand the “infinite summing up” concept.**
        4) Enough differential calculus to understand basic optimization concepts.**
        5) An introduction to something like discrete dynamic systems models, including feedback loops.
        6) Some graph theory, with an emphasis on algorithms.

        * We’ll go around the crowded bar here and ask 30 people at random what their birthday is (month and day, not year). I’ll bet that some two of them will have the same birthday. Loser buys the next round.
        ** I don’t care at all about the mechanics of taking derivatives or integrals. A personal license for Mathematica isn’t much more than a high-end graphing calculator, and is enormously better at those mechanics than you or I will ever be.


    • I’d teach just enough algebra, aiming at calculus. I’d integrate all those wretched science classes with elementary calculus, forming up real problems, most of them starting with the experiments of Galileo. Teaching science alongside mathematics keeps people engaged.

      All those wretched algebra story problems are just evil. The real world furnishes truly interesting problems by the dozen.


  6. What you call fundamentals of science is actually part of philosophy of science. IIRC not all the things on your list are uncontroversial. For example, how do we measure success in any field of enquiry. more radically (if controversially) can science claim success ony bcause of the way it has allied itself with the apparatus of the state and other structures of power? Is there any method to science? Or does each science have its own distinct methods?

    Our commonsesne answers are not as unproblematic as we think. In many ways, I think science has gotten to the extent where the only way to learn about the methods of science is to actually do it. Nothing you do in the classroom can prepare you for actually working in a lab on a research topic, and to get to the lab proper, you need about a year or 2 of the basic theory first.


  7. I like the list and am pleased you included Philosophy. Personally, tho, I’m not sure there’s much utility from a general educational standpoint in learning philosophy. But I do think that learning critical thinking in a philosophical context is very important, and to do that, you ought to use philosophical arguments. (So kids would be exposed to Hume and Kant – hell, include Aristotle and Plato in there as well! – as an ancillary benefit to shaping their general critical thinking skills.) When I was an undergrad critical thinking in the Phil. department was a required core course. The school subsequently dropped it as a requirement, and I think the reason was most students found it too difficult. Learning to distinguish the formal properties of a good argument from what someone psychologically wants to be a good argument made the kids really uncomfortable.


      • I think the question of a core curriculum is where the rubber meets the road in the debate over college as career training versus college as the creation of valuable citizens. It’s a difficult matter, because most professors don’t want to teach Intro classes. If a teacher would rather teach History of Comic Books over Introductory History of US, students can manage to get through their core classes without any classical learning. Also, if a department has any easy A classes, it’ll become common knowledge among the student body.

        One other point – I implied that core classes don’t contribute to a student’s future earning potential, but that’s not exactly right. A more-rounded thinker is going to advance faster, whether he’s a fry cook or a futures fund manager. For the life of me, I don’t see how a person can be called educated if he hasn’t studied Plato and Aristotle.


  8. History – definitely. Both history of your own country, and history of the world – not simply of the West. China, India, the Middle East, the Mayans, the Incas, Ethiopia, the kingdoms of Benin and Mali, Greece, Rome…history curricula are far too biased towards “western civilization”. (I’m not sure if philosophy has the same problem. My knowledge of it is scanty, but I have the sense that China and India at least deserve equal coverage with Rome in philosophical history.) The rise of the West is a very recent phenomenon, and if there’s one thing history should give us, it’s perspective. For most of the last several thousand years, Europe was a backwater.

    Political science – simple civics should be covered in high school, but a liberal arts education should give a deeper knowledge of how government functions. That means not just the three branches of gov’t, etc., but public policy. (As a side note – I wish civics would drop the “the legislature’s function is to make laws” mantra. When people think “laws”, they think criminal statutes. The main thing legislatures actually do is decide how money is to be spent. And on that topic, a course on government should provide knowledge of what the main areas of government spending are, and what things are peripheral – at least we’d have fewer people thinking the solution to the deficit is to cut foreign aid and PBS.) The role and actions of the civil service, and the way government actually makes decisions, is of high importance to any course in government. The central liberal arts poli sci courses should also include examination of central public policy issues (the health care system, the education system, foreign policy) and comparisons between the policies chosen by different countries, to avoid insularity.

    As a variation on your “fundamentals of science” suggestion, I’d recommend a History of Science course – or multiple such courses. This can cover the development and use of the scientific method, the achievements of science, and also the errors of science and what produced them, as well as current issues in bioethics. People should understand what science is capable of – in both the positive and negative senses – and its uses and misuses. “Science”, as a concept, may be dedicated to the unbiased determination of truths; scientists, as human beings, often are not. Also, the history of science is incredibly interesting if well-taught (I took a wonderful History of Biology course in undergrad, and an equally wonderful, or better, course on the history of epidemics).

    Rhetoric and logic. This should still exist. Anyone who’s read debates from the 18th and 19th centuries can see how far people’s ability to use language effectively has degenerated. There’s a value in knowing how to make an eloquent and convincing argument. There’s definitely value in knowing how to speak before an audience with confidence. Knowing how to think on your feet is a valuable skill across the board. Rhetoric and debate can teach all of these things. This class should also include material on the identification of logical fallacies.

    Writing. Everyone should be able to write well by the time they graduate from university, and sadly at present that is far from being the case. This doesn’t need to be a separate course from all of the above – it can be integrated into many of them – but it should be a priority in every course.

    Economics – my issue with this is that it is highly ideological, especially at an introductory level. I spent first-year economics being told about models that showed how the world worked, when I could easily look at the world around me, and at any news story, and see that the models didn’t match the reality. Economics tells us free trade is invariably the best policy, when every country that’s developed has done so by controlling and strategically managing their trade relationships. Economics tells us that the right amount of everything will be produced through supply and demand, by assuming that someone who doesn’t have enough money to purchase a thing simply doesn’t want (ie: demand) or need it. Economics tells us everyone behaves rationally, when psychology is telling us more and more of the ways that they don’t. Economics is throwing a lot of math at people who aren’t familiar with it, and claiming that the math tells them things about the world that contradict their own experiences and observations, and getting them to believe it.

    When people get to the higher levels of economics, maybe they start deconstructing this, but the above describes first-year economics fairly accurately.


    • Economics – my issue with this is that it is highly ideological, especially at an introductory level. I spent first-year economics being told about models that showed how the world worked, when I could easily look at the world around me, and at any news story, and see that the models didn’t match the reality.

      Agreed. The concept of how the world works does a whole lot of work in economic theory.


    • Economics – my issue with this is that it is highly ideological, especially at an introductory level.

      I’m not sure if ideological is the right word, “badly-constructed” might be closer to the mark.

      Economic theory is built up in layers. You start with the stupid stuff that basically just says “under these conditions, everything works perfectly”. It is the foundation of economics, but you can’t live in a foundation.

      The second layer is when stuff gets interesting. That’s market failure economics, which says “layer one doesn’t describe the real world, so lets look at the ways the real world is different to layer one”. This is where policy economics starts, looking at the ways the market goes wrong, and what can be done about it.

      Above that we have layer 3, which is government failure economics. This layer looks at the ways governmental decision-making falls short of its theoretical ideals.

      What I want is very different from a standard intro to economics course, those are designed with future economists in mind. What I want is a course that glosses over layer one, spends a lot of time on layer 2, with a capper of level 3 economics. This should be kept math-light, which is entirely possible. You need the math if you want to be an economist, but it’s not so important otherwise.

      Honestly, the only issue I take with your comment al all is the point about free trade and development, but going into more depth would divert the conversation and spoil the next part of my trade sequence.


  9. I’d actually avoid philosophy in creating a liberal arts education. I loved reading philosophy in high school and college but a lot of people are going to find it to be naval gazing. A safer bet would be to replace philosophy with literature. Literature touches a lot on the human condition like philosophy, although it doesn’t ask all of the same questions, but the narrative format of much literature would make it more captivating for students. Literature should be added regardless of whether philosophy is taught or not. I’d focus on relatively short works that ask a lot of deep questions like the works of Hesse plus the foundational stuff.


    • Yes. I see what you’re sayin. Hesse is great. There are a lot of other great writers who delve into deeply philosophical issues without getting overtly philosophical.

      I’m not sure that works with Russell, Frege, LVW, Kripke, Putnam and Quine, of course. But who needs em?


        • Of course! He was a Major Figure in late 20th century thought.

          I just don’t know that understanding the Major Figures in 20th century thought are all the important for a liberal arts education. I think you can focus on where those guys led us, and not on those guys themselves.

          I might be completely wrong about that!


        • Or put another way: My life has been changed by reading Quine. I just don’t know that other people’s lives would be similarly changed. Or that they need to be so changed.


          • I came at Quine from an odd angle, linguistics. Chomsky and Universal Language was then the hot thing, we were all quite sure computers were going to be able to become babelfish. I was working on lexicons of creole and demotic languages, where languages rub up against each other.

            Strongly suspecting Chomsky was wrong, I befriended a professor of philosophy. I hadn’t then taken any philosophy, beyond a History of Philosophy course. He threw me into the deep end with WVO Quine’s Word and Object and it did change my life. Chomsky was absolutely wrong about the Universal Grammar, though I kept this to myself, mostly. My linguistics professors were sure computer translation could be done at the time and thought very highly of what I was doing. They also wanted me to become a missionary: that didn’t happen. Computers would never adequately translate beyond the most rudimentary compositional phrases, not for centuries, if ever.

            Computers have evolved, advanced beyond my wildest dreams. But computers are still producing wretched translations, even with the titanic forces of Google Translate behind the best efforts.


            • I think computers do a pretty good job at translation, myself. And the reason they’re so effective (I think, correct me if I’m wrong) is the Wittgenstienian notion that a words meaning is it’s use in a language. Once you enter in enough particular uses of a word and become fine grained enough in it’s use, accurate translation is a matter of probabilities. Sure, there will be some poetic losses. And irony. (I’d love to see a computer translation that could capture the humorous irony of Quine’s writing. It’b be both fun and mind-boggling).

              But from my pov, Quine was getting at a lot of the same major themes as LVW, just coming at them from a different angle. For Ludwig, meaning wasn’t determinate because there aren’t necessary and sufficient conditions on the appropriate use of a term. For Quine, it was inscrutability of reference. At their core, both of those views were similar: they were rejecting the prevailing conception of semantics and meaning accepted at the time. Personally, I think LVW had the more compelling description of the problem as well as the more compelling answer to it. But they both were onto something important.

              At least, that’s my take on those guys. Other folks will undoubtedly disagree.


              • Words move, music moves
                Only in time; but that which is only living
                Can only die. Words, after speech, reach
                Into the silence. Only by the form, the pattern,
                Can words or music reach
                The stillness, as a Chinese jar still
                Moves perpetually in its stillness.
                Not the stillness of the violin, while the note lasts,
                Not that only, but the co-existence,
                Or say that the end precedes the beginning,
                And the end and the beginning were always there
                Before the beginning and after the end.
                And all is always now. Words strain,
                Crack and sometimes break, under the burden,
                Under the tension, slip, slide, perish,
                Will not stay still. Shrieking voices
                Scolding, mocking, or merely chattering,
                Always assail them.

                Computers produce horrible translations. The only way Google Translate makes it work is to surreptitiously compare originals to human translations where it can find both. Every time I turn up there, and they seem to know who I am, I get asked to answer some “which is better” sentences, mostly in German.

                Language doesn’t subsume into probabilities. Translation is full of dead ends, historical usages, grammatical oddities. We use the phrase “tone-deaf” to describe someone who says bumptious and awkward things. French, for example, is heavy on the correct verb. When Americans start in on French, they make word-word-word translations, not whole-sentence translations. And since English is noun-heavy, verb-light, what comes out is gibberish, things French people would never say.

                And this weirdness crops up in Google Translate. Let me show you how. Famous sentence from The Little Prince:

                J’aurais dû ne pas l’écouter, me confia-t-il un jour, il ne faut jamais écouter les fleurs. Il faut les regarder et les respirer.

                Google Translation: I should not listen to him, told me he one day, you should never listen to the flowers. We must look at them and breathe.

                First, and most obviously, the flower is female. We might forgive the translation software for not knowing the story, but “told me he one day” but the “you should never” is in the wrong person, though we say it in English all the time, confusing the rhetorical “you” with the second person you. Causes trouble, even here, we’ve both seen it — oh, sorry, not You, offended person, the rhetorical you.

                Now here’s my translation:

                “I should never have listened to her,” he confided to me one time, “One should never listen to flowers. One should just look at them and breathe in their fragrances.”

                The Quine-ian would know there’s an insufficiency, first in pulling one lovely quote out of a book. Quine reduces language to blah-blah, knowing what a wriggly old snake it is. Wittgenstein — and here I veer off into the Dangerous Thing that is a Little Knowledge — seems to think there’s something redeemable about the problem of language. I don’t see it. I love translating precisely because Quine’s dispensed with all this fatuousness about how Language Shall Save Us.


                • Wittgen.stein — and here I veer off into the Dangerous Thing that is a Little Knowledge — seems to think there’s something redeemable about the problem of language.

                  Yes he does. And bless his heart and mind for believing that. I think it’s the most significant individual contribution to language-related thought anyone has ever made. Except perhaps the earlier Tractatus views of Wittgen.stein. He had it coming and going!

                  Seems like you’re talking about esoterica here. Subtleties that only human experience and intuition can get right. I agree with that, to some extent. But probabilities ought not be discounted off hand. When I speak to another person, there’s a certain (probabilistic) chance that they will understand the words I’m using in the ways I intend, and a certain chance they won’t. This is one of the big barriers to communication, I think. We all use words in different ways, and nobody’s use perfectly maps onto another’s unless we’re talking about highly techincal, formal language.

                  And even that earlier statement about intentions presumes that I can intend to use words in a univocal, unambiguous way. It’s a murky business, really, the more you dig into it.

                  But getting back to Quine a bit, he was instrumental in the mid-century demise of metaphysics in analytic philosophy. The fashion was to reduce philosophical problems to language – or linguistic – problems. I think Putnam and Kripke, along with Goodman and a few others, resurrected metaphysics from the burning ashes of Quinean empiricism and behaviorism.

                  Chris needs to chime in here. I’m in way over my head.


                  • I ended up in software and drifted into AI, mostly because parts of language can be saved. But they do have to pass through the Quine-an wringer. Surprisingly little survives the trip.

                    Doesn’t matter, really. Mathematics is descriptive, language is descriptive. But let’s not put much stock in either as if the model was the thing itself, or even that the model was much of a thing. Quine has not yet been gainsaid: if language is redeemable, its soteriology arises from a doctrine of grace, an admission that language might be redeemed from itself, that redemption is even a goal worth pursuing, that language might at some point carry a freight of logic without running off the road and into the wilderness with the philosopher/explorer in hot pursuit. We will not be redeemed by language.

                    Language is an imperfect thing, spoken by imperfect and often illogical people: it is a reflection of those imperfections. Best to start there, with the understanding language will betray the philosopher at the earliest possible opportunity and at the worst possible time.


                    • Blaise, I think you’d really like some of the critiques of LVW, as well as his own work. Philosophical Investigations is one of the most revolutionary, insightful, thought-proviking books you will ever read. It’s f**king hard to understand, but the payoff is worth it. If you like Quine’s views on language, you’ll probably like LVW’s as well.

                      And if you do read that book, I cannot recommend Krikpe’s book Wittgen.stein On Rules and Private Language enough. For my money, Kripke breaks the Wittgen.steinian code better than any other writer and presents his argument(s) in a pretty accessible way. Maybe even start with Kripke and move on to LVW. It’s a wild ride and a worthwhile journey.


                  • It’s not necessarily about better computers, tho. It’s about better input. That can take things to a certain level, it seems to me, but will cap out at an important, even crucial, barrier: the creative use of language. That means no poetry!


            • And with respect to Chomsky, I don’t think Quine ever had a good answer for him. Chomsky’s criticism of Quine was always based on the Behaviorism that Quine accepted as a theory approaching (if not arriving at) the analytical limits of language use. Chomsky destroyed behaviorism in a series of papers that the theory never recovered from. So even if Quine was right about certain conclusion, his argument were dependent upon behaviorism being true.

              Points for Chomsky!


              • Nunc dimittis, that I should live to see the day someone I rather like and respect, who actually know what he’s talking about — validate what I thought back then, though I was never a philosophy student by any stretch.


                • Hey, thanks for that.

                  But of course, the story doesn’t end there. As stories never really do.

                  From the burning ashes of behaviorism functionalism emerged, which captured most of the Quinean notions about empiricism with a concession to internal properties. So the Quinean legacy lives on, even tho his arguments strictly speaking don’t.


    • I’d actually avoid philosophy in creating a liberal arts education. I loved reading philosophy in high school and college but a lot of people are going to find it to be naval gazing.

      There will always be folks who read philosophy who view it as some ilk of naval gazing. Why? Because a lot of it is. And so what? Philosophy’s not meant to be specifically applicable learning, it’s meant to be instructive. Informative.

      A robust higher ed liberal arts program should include both philosophy and literature. I struggle to find a compelling reason why either should be compromised for the sake of the other.


  10. I am consistently amazed how STEM majors are portrayed as less well rounded than Liberal Art students.

    We take the same general courses. I took a foreign language, art, English, Social Studies, etc.\

    The only difference is that the standards for non-STEM majors are pathetic.


    • I am constantly amazed at how STEM majors arrive in the workplace, thinking they’re All That. They aren’t as well-rounded as they think they are, at least the ones I’ve seen. They’re good test takers, what the British call Grinds. They’re not especially good problem solvers.

      And they can’t write. That’s a big problem, bigger than you might think. I can teach a gibbon to code. I can’t teach him to write. I can’t teach him to get along with people and work on a team and respect the worker bees. But I can knock the chip off his shoulder pretty fast and I have no hesitation about doing it.


      • And [STEM majors] can’t write. That’s a big problem, bigger than you might think … I can’t teach him to get along with people and work on a team

        And there ya go. Near as I can tell, the staunchest STEM advocates are folks who, for whatever varied reasons, are burdened with the limitations of a seriously handicapped imagination.

        That said, STEM studies will indeed be greatly enhanced with the continued influx of women. And Science is actively recruiting women. But women have ever been smart multi-taskers which, sorry, means they’re often easily bored. Lest anyone think this kind of interesting outreach is actually targeted for dudes? Think again.


        • STEM needs better communicators. It’s been my considered opinion, after all these years, that the only reason women haven’t completely dominated the tech space is because they haven’t been given sufficient assertiveness training. I have conducted just such training, for Indian women I was supervising at the time. It was a wrench, too: women just haven’t been trained to say No, That’s Impossible And Here’s Why.

          Women build consensus. It’s the only sane strategy in software and I suspect other market spaces. The world is changing too fast for any one person to have all the bright ideas and everyone else is going to follow him over the cliff.

          Oh, by the way, my girlfriend was just hired as a software engineer, even before she’s finished with school. I couldn’t be prouder.


          • Women are indeed better equipped to build consensus. Maybe we’re wired for it, or simply conditioned to it. Does it really matter which?

            After all, it’s not like women can’t handle the big job of science/tech advancement. We’ve been wrestling with the tough jobs since the dawn of time! It’s patriarchal institutional discrimination that has ever thrown up barriers.

            Break down those barriers? Science and Tech advancement benefits, exponentially. There isn’t much credible argument about this even among leading scientists, so I don’t really hang a lot of my own time on it.

            Politics is another beast. Personally, my activism strongly leans toward infusing more more women into politics. Even when some of their positions might differ from my own, it’s long past time to break up those goddam old boys clubs.


            • Just wanted to note that a good deal of guys actually have a “female brain” — just as wired for consensus as the next girl down the street. Also, some people have brains that are part male and part female.


              • All of what you said might be true, Kimmi. But to my knowledge, none of what you said reflects what we know, scientifically, to be true about the brain. Because really, we don’t know jack.

                Sure, modern advancements in neuroscience and brain-imaging tech make us feel like we know a thing or two about how our brains work, and I agree the info so far is useful, but the reality is this: what we know today is only a teeny tiny sliver of what we don’t yet know. We do not yet know the big picture. So far, we’re only slogging around sans context and, hence, infomercials are thriving.

                Conversely, socially and culturally speaking we have many centuries of data that speak to the differences between how men and women, er, operate. Which is more or less what informed the point I was trying to make.


          • STEM needs better communicators.

            One of the truly fortuitous things in my life was attending a high school that offered really good speech and composition classes. My degree programs in college never offered the same opportunities. To have a semester-long class where at least every other week you’re going to stand in front of a group of people and speak in some structured fashion is valuable by itself. To get positive feedback on that speaking is better. And the opportunity to watch other people screw it up so you learn things that don’t work without having to make all the mistakes yourself is nice. Ditto for the composition class. More than once per week you turned in something you had written — some of it informative, some of it creative — and got feedback on it.

            I suspect that such classes were hard to find in college because of the enormous effort that teachers have to put in to make them work well. If you were going to run all of the freshmen through such an experience, I’m sure the English Dept would balk.


      • I beg to differ. In my experience, math and science majors were, in general, far better writers than humanities and (God help us) social science majors: better able to organize their thoughts logically, omit what’s irrelevant, and thus construct something that’s concise, intelligible, and useful.


        • It depends.

          Math is a unique major. It really does draw the smartest students. So, in general, lots of good math students are often really good writers, just because smart people are often good writers.

          But poorer math students, not so much. IMO, they’re often worse writers than the worst humanities students, in the aggregate. And there are schools where students with a really weak grasp of English somehow squeak through GE’s and do okay (or just make it) as math majors. They can’t write for crud. So, on average, maybe it’s a wash.

          I also think Math is best seen as a humanity, as extremely abstract knowledge, much of which has few practical applications. That is exactly why it is the best kind of education for everyone.

          There is one problem in many humanities programs: not enough Math. That is the one complaint that really is legitimate about a lot of the humanities.

          NB: Many philosophy programs require the students to study some advanced logic. Econ and psych obviously require some formal stuff too. All humanities majors should be more like this. Math is the heart of all of the humanities, and has been since the time of the Ancient Greeks.

          The problem with recommending math as a major is that not all of us are cut out for studying it all the time or at the highest levels. Some of us are better at reasoning using natural language. Some of us are more interested in ethics, society, the mind, or our past, than the abstractions of math, and so we should study those things, while also picking up some math as we go.


        • I’ve seen what math and science majors write. It’s not a pretty picture. It reads like man grep. All quite logical, omitting what’s irrelevant (such extras as working examples), all quite concise and intelligible — to the person who wrote it — and perfectly useless to the ordinary mortal.


        • If we’re gonna talk personal experience, then my personal experience is very different from yours. Perhaps we might retreat to the smokey salon of aggregated data, but I’m pretty sure I’m not allowed there.

          Aw, crap.

          Mike, you’ve long been one of a very few tethers I’ve long clung to in belief that not all STEM geeks are absurdly full of their geeky selves. Your comment leaves me shattered.

          Anyhoo, surely you’re right. No one can write a more organized, logical, relevant, concise, intelligible, and useful bit of commentary than a STEM major.


      • STEM majors know how to edit. You can write jack shit, and I can teach you how to make it good. And I’m not the best as a writer, neither.

        Now, to make it entertaining? that’s harder. But I don’t think most humanities majors manage that one well, either.


        • Writing effective use cases is a paramount skill these days. Nothing gets done without use cases. Turn a STEM major loose on business analysis and writing use cases, he will instantly resort to a diagram of some sort or lapse into pseudocode.

          That’s not writing an effective use case. STEM folks never had to write for ordinary non-technical people. It’s not like they can’t, or can’t be pushed into it. Give them an example and some of them will do fine. And some won’t do fine, in which case, they’re never going to advance in my craft.


        • You STEM geeks infuriate me at times when you choose to wallow in silly delusions. Christ. You think you can do anything, even when it comes to expertise that is surely out of your ballpark.

          There’s a reason why the literary industry — publishers, journalists, editors, writers, technical writers et al — has not been completely usurped by STEMs magical literati. If you genuinely believe you have such magical powers, do something about our educational textbooks already.

          The hubris. It fishing hurts.


          • I tell people “You don’t cut your own hair so don’t edit your own writing. Take your time writing the manual, STEM-type person. But you’d better know I’m going over this with the people who are going to use it, without you in the room — and they’d better damned well understand it or I’m sending it back. Best you run it by one of them before you turn it in.”


              • It’s hard – dern near impossible – to be on the inside viewing content and the outside viewing the presentation at the same time.

                Blaise is actually better at that than most of the so-called “professional” writers I’ve ever read. {{IMO, of course!}}


            • Indeed.

              But only someone charged with tech editing in a professional capacity might deign to suggest such a thing. Meanwhile, STEM writers are generally convinced they have everything under control because, after all, they are awesome writers by virtue of their awesome intellect. Anyone who doesn’t get it? Idiots. They deserve the consequences.

              It’s all just so much hubris.
              In my later years, I’ve found I can forgive almost any manner of sin, in context. After all, we humans are generally f**ked up on one level or another. But hubris crawls under my skin and infects my psyche. Perhaps I’ll feel more forgiving of it in my 90s, assuming I make it there.


  11. there are those who see education as a way to instill “proper values”.

    To my mind, this point really only has relevance when we’re talking about primary education. (Stories? Omg. I have so many stories.)

    Then again, I’m reminded that one of my son’s best childhood friends attended public school K-12 (Character Counts only so far, apparently) but when it came to college? Only Bob Jones U would do. So much so that he put off college for two years until he could fully pay for BJU, because BJU had zero scholarship aide to offer. This got under my skin a bit, because I’m pretty sure he could have gotten scholarships and grants to attend other Universities. Meanwhile, my son who is two years older, has his MA. His friend? Still working his way through BJU. His grades are excellent. His funds? Not so much.

    Anyhoo. Yeah, lots of head scratching on both mine and my son’s part. I met the kids’s Ps natch, and they were lovely. Their kid was geeky but, hey, so was my kid. Both kids were awesome in so many ways, especially in the fact that my kid was a UU, and their kid was some ilk of born-again Christian. Talk about detente! This was as good as it ever gets. Warmed every cockle my cranky old heart ever possessed.


    • When I think of the “Good Values” education at the tertiary level, I think of all the concerns some conservatives raise about colleges being hotbeds of liberal propaganda. They see education as a values-inculcation tool more than anything else.


      • Here’s where I stand, based upon my own personal experience as a parent and whatever academic/professional impetus has informed my thought. Quick disclaimer, I am totally open to any legit evidence that proves me wrong, I simply haven’t found, thus far, any evidence that convinces me otherwise.

        While the particularly political partisan likes of Santorum waste their breath on excoriating the “liberal” evils of higher education, the fact is that prior to college, education of our children is totally in the hands of State and local guv. Period. Whatever it is that higher ed institutions are doing, they’re largely doing via both a national and world view that, like it or not, has little or nothing to do with whatever local preferences one might have.

        But this is exactly why Santorum et al are so gung ho on the voucher system. A system too many otherwise conscientious libertarians are, imho, too quick to embrace.

        If we’re agreed that tax dollars should be funneled toward public education, then surely libertarians, if no one else, should agree that our tax dollars should not be available to pseudo-charter schools.

        Yet, near as I can tell, conscientious libertarians are more concerned with drug legalization issues. Near as I can tell, when it come to public education, even conscientious libertarians remain largely uninvested. Am I wrong?


  12. All gather round Shazbot to hear his unassailable wisdom on choice of majors and the silliness about STEM vs. other majors. (I couldn’t wait a fortnight to post.)

    There are two sorts of majors. One sort certifies (or nearly ceritifies you) for a specific career. This sort includes Engineering, Nursing, Education, and Accounting. Let us call these “Certifying Majors,” just to give them a crazy, off-the-wall name.

    The second sort of major does not certify you to do any specific thing. This list includes Physics, Mathematics, Chemistry, Philosophy, Psychology, LGBT Studies, Applied Library Assistant Sociology and Technology Study, and Astrology and all the other things encompassing the sum total of useless things that they call human wisdom. Let us go nuts and call these non-certifying majors.

    If a student wants to be and has it in them to be a teacher, nurse, engineer, or accountant, then they should take the proper Certifying Major.

    However, many people do not have it in them to do any or all of these careers. Some people cannot deal with children. They should not study education. Some people do not have a knack for anything technical or mathematical. They should definitely not become engineering students.

    Moreover, it doesn’t solve any problems to shove more people into the certifying majors, past a certain point. A bunch of new nursing majors drives down nurses wages and may result in higher unemployment amongst nurses, but it doesn’t solve problems, unless there is a clear shortage of nurses compared to the demand for nurses.

    Thus, I conclude that no social or economic problems would be solved by telling more kids to go into engineering. There may be a small benefit for the economy as a whole, but we import talented engineers, and if we pushed more kids who aren’t already in love with engineering to increase the domestically raised stock of engineers, all we’d do is probably make the average engineer into a more crappy engineer, and I don’t see what good comes from that.

    (IMO, none of the certifying majors should be thought of as bachelors degrees. I think we should’ve conceived of those educations as graduate education like medical school, i.e. first you would get a philosophy degree, and then you would get a masters that would allow you to teach, as is the case in Finland, I think. Or, first you would get a math degree, and then you would get a Masters degree that would qualify you for, say, certain types of computer engineering. But we have the system we have.)

    Also, as great as the certifying degrees are for financial stability, they don’t necessarily offer the best option for big, big money, if that’s your thing. Engineers sometimes become super wealthy, but more commonly you have an excellent 6 figure income ahead of you, in exchange for some pretty tough work. But the real money is in management and networking with people and finance and being an entrepeneur.

    If you don’t want or don’t have the ability to be an engineer, nurse, teacher, or accountant, there is some suggestion that a Non-Certifying Degree is not worth much. This is woefully wrong. But there is the chance that you could get a Non-Certifying degree and end up with a job at Walmart. So how should you choose a Non-Certifying major? Should you always prefer a science-based Non-Certifying major?

    Well, “no” is the answer to the last question. If you look carefully at the data Will presented a while back in another OP, the 18 different kinds of engineers all do well, but Physics, Chem, and Bio don’t do much better than Economics, Poli Sci, and (I’m blanking here on the exact name) International Studies. I am also very certain that Philosophy does much better, like Poli Sci does, when abstracted away from Religious Studies, which averages a low income because clerical pay on earth is not so good.

    An I’m pretty sure that if you look a little closer at the data, the traditional sciences like Chem. only average better because more science majors go on to medical school, which isn’t a path that most students feel they can or that they want to take.

    Thus, I conclude that all of the Non-Certifying degrees are roughly equal at opening career doors in all of the following fields: managment, governent bureaucracy, corporate bureacracy, and non-profit bureaucracy. And those fields compose millions and jillions of pretty good (if sometimes a little boring) jobs.

    The fact is that you’re not going to be a branch manager at the local bank, a mayor’s assistant, a regional manager for a grocery chain, a HR worker at the local university, an office manager at the local worker’s comp board, a medical records keeper, or almost any non-menial, decent job unless you have a degree, and pretty much any bachelors degree will do.

    The key to thinking about which Non-Certifying Major you should pick is to realize that the name of the major on your degree, on its own, doesn’t matter at all, and the degree on its own is a necessary but not sufficient condition for attaining a cool job. What matters more is how you couple that degree with work and volunteer experience and shameless butt-kissing (what they call networking) to move up the management/bureacratic ladder in the field that you would like to work in.

    Thus speaketh Shazbot.


    • So people should study Philospophy or Econ or Psychology or Sociology or English Lit.

      But they should realize that they are pushing themselves toward a media (not 6 figure, likely) mid-level job. And they should realize that in addition to getting the degree, they need some menial work experience and volunteer work experience, AND they need to friggin network with other people.

      IMO, this is the real value of elite education where you get a non-certifying degree. You need to network while at Yale or Harvard or Cornell or Berkeley to get an in at a bigger company in an entry level managementy position and then move your way up. All the people who got a very expensive non-certifying degree and then no good job failed to network. (White people problems, amirite?) Don’t go to an expensive non-certifying degree program (including physics or chem) of that isn’t your aim to network your way up in a decent little bureacratic or management job. That is all.

      The last thing I’d say is that the other reason to get a non-certifying degree early is that you may decide later in life that you want to go to professional school, e.g. med. school, get a Psych degree to be a therapist, go to an elite law school, etc.


      • Seems to me that what you’re describing is basically rent-seeking. Make sure that, by virtue of personal connections, you get that job over someone more or less equally qualified. That’s a good case for going to college, but a pretty weak one for subsidizing it.


        • There is an ugly side to nepotism.

          But the Non-Certifying degree (regardless of focus: humanities, science, or social science) qualifies you minimally to compete with others for bureacratic and management jobs.

          Winning that competition is a matter of showing yourself to be more capable of dealing with customers or competitors, more energetic, more thoughtful, more communicative, a better teammate, etc.

          Ideally, you would show that by how well you did at school and how great your work looks on its own, but in the real world, you have to network and build your CV with volunteer stuff, etc. to convince people that you are better than your competitors who also have degrees.

          But you can’t compete for those jobs without a degree (presumably a non-certifying degree) except in very rare cases.


    • I’m pretty sure that a math or physics degree gives you a pretty solid background for actuarial work, which seems to pop up pretty consistently near the top on lists of the highest-paid jobs reliably attainable without an advanced degree. Economics, too, I’d think, although undergraduate economics programs may be a bit too light on math. You’re correct that it doesn’t, strictly speaking, certify you as such, but it’s silly to lump it in with humanities or _____ studies majors.


      • It’s weird to me that you seem to have an axe to grind about the sciences being better than the social sciences and the humanities.

        A humanities or social science BA is evidence that you have been trained in, have a higher level of abstract knowedge abput, and/or you have practiced all of the following (you could add to the list):

        Written explanations of very abstract concepts
        Oral explanations of very abstract concepts
        Presentations, speeches, and the art of rhetoric
        Research and presenting research in a variety of contexts
        Critical thinking, informal fallacies, and formal Logic
        Ethical principles and principles of Justice
        The history, culture , and polical systems of the US and the world
        The general rules and dispositions that govern human cognition

        The fact that a person has a degree in a non-Stem field is evidence that they are more likely to be stronger at the things on the list. Stem degrees do that too, but with different concentrations (e.g. less focus on presenting data, oral explanations, history, culture, human cognition, political systems, informal fallacies, etc.)

        Now it is true that you could have the skills without a degree. But they are harder to attain without a degree program. And you could have a degree without the skills. But the fact that X has a degree makes it more likely that X has these skills and bits of knowledge.

        This is why employers in mid-level (and higher) management and bureacuratic jobs often hire people with degrees, and with the exception of a small number of careers, they are fairly unlikely to care about majors.


    • Regardless of the intellectual merits of the degree, if you’re not cut out for a vocational degree (certification) I suspect you are probably better off getting a business degree than a liberal arts one. Unless you plan on going to law school.

      You are spot on about the cert/non-cert, though. We haven’t spent nearly enough time talking about that.


      • The numbers don’t make business degrees look much better than Poli Sci. Econ, Phil (abstracted away from Rel. Studies) or a whole bunch of other majors.

        This is only easonable because a business degree does not offer you any training for business that other degrees don’t also offer.

        Hanley and I agreed on this a long time back.


          • Have you studied much history of phil, Stillwater? In the Western canon, philosophy and theology spent a few hundred years intertwined tight, tight. (from Thomas Aquinas through Kierkegaard (and even Nietzsche), give or take). I still remember being stunned to study Hegel in the required history of Christian thought class I took for my religion minor, and even more stunned that he actually belonged there.

            Or if you’re asking for a more pragmatic answer, in the United States, state schools aren’t allowed to fund a religion department. Because of the whole separation of church and state thing. So they teach study-of-various-religion-classes as philosophy classes – even biblical exegesis. So it’s pretty hard to get accurate data without lumping them together.


            • Well that makes sense.

              I’ve read some of the old stuff, not too much. Enough to know religion blended with philosophy. But so did natural science. The main reason I find it surprising is that analytic philosophy, which is the dominant school of phil. taught in the US, runs pretty much orthogonal to religious studies. It seems like that distinction would have emerged in the way the disciplines are clumped. That’s all.

              It wasn’t too long ago that Linguistics was clumped with Philosophy too. Still is, I think, at some institutions.


                  • It’s more that they’re a crutch used to obfuscate as often as illuminate.

                    Big words tend to be fine, so long as they’re precise… but long sentences? If you need to take a breath before you get to the verb, you’ve got a problem and saying “no, the audience has a problem” doesn’t change that. Friggin’ Germans.


                    • A welldone long sentence is beautiful and simple, unfolding like a kite in a warm summer breeze.

                      A great way to compress a lot of information into relatively few words.


                • “The old stuff is the best stuff. Short declarative sentences, colorful examples, good morals.”

                  This is hilarious.

                  Yeah, Kant and Hegel and Aristotle and Aquinas and Duns Scotus and Eckhart write so simply and clearly.

                  Well snarked, sir. Well snarked.


        • Poli sci is at the upper end of liberal arts. Business still compares favorably to most. Regardless of what the students actually learn (and I think you’r uunderestimating what you *can* learn from a business degree) the working world seems to put more of a premium on it, it my experience.

          I need to see some actual numbers for a philosophy degree. I used to believe they did okay (those I know did fine) but I’ve seen numbers in a number of places that suggest otherwise.


          • See my link.

            Ally all of this data is a mess.

            We’re not even controlling for prestige of schools, IQ or socioeconomic status of students going into the program.

            Without that at least the data you’re talking about, which fluctuates from year to year, is pretty worthless, IMO.


            • One difference between the numbers I am looking at and the ones you refer to is that mine take into account unemployment rates.

              Regarding the confounding variables, I think if anything that would hurt business because there are so many business majors (Business Management is #1, General Business #2). I think a lot of people go into it by default. If I recall, the student profile of business majors going in is pretty weak. It’s one of the reasons that it’s placing surprising me (before compiling the list, I thought it would be lower).

              I can’t look at these numbers and be all that comfortable advising any kid of mine to major in a liberal arts major without some sort of post-college career plan (that hopefully does not involve a PhD).


              • What is the difference between the unemployment rate of Business majors and:

                Philosophy (without rel studies)
                Poli Sci
                The Avg Non-Science Degree

                Is it significant?

                Is it impossible that people with higher IQ’s scattering through different majors unevenly explain the unemployment rate differences?Is it impossible that elite colleges encourage different majors and it is the prestige effect of elite institutions that is scattered differently throughout the different majors explaining the difference in unemployment? (After all, Cornell grads may be less likely to go unemployed than CSU EastBay grads.) Maybe parents with connections in the business world who help their kids get jobs are more likely to keep their kids from getting unemployed.

                All sorts of things are possible. And we’re talking about fairly small shifts in average income and unemployment rates that might be causing the weak correlations that you’re seeing. Indeed, my worries about IQ distribution, prestige of degree via name of the college, parental effects, etc. are all very reasonable, plausible explanations for the data.


                • more significant is the number of “undecideds” pulled into your major, I’d say. I’m not saying that an undecided is more or less intelligent, but … the guy who majors in psych because he loves the teaching (something psych profs shoot for), may not actually be all that into the actual work.
                  And so may wind up doing “business” or something else instead.


                  • I sort of agree that this is plausible.

                    It may be that in people’s minds, or in reality, a non-certifying science degree requires a greater commitment of time and effort. And you may be seeing the causal effects on income and employment of just generally being a more committed person, not being a science or non-science major.

                    Very plausible.


              • The US History unemployment rates were really high. Poli sci & government was roughly the same. Humanities, philosophy & religion, and liberal arts were somewhat higher.

                Like I said, I would bet that if there’s an outside skew, it would probably be dragging business numbers down because of its status as a default major and fallback major. My guess is that people studying non-general liberal arts are generally better students attending better schools on the ehole. (This is one of the concerns I do have about business degrees and may be why I suggest something else like econ/business for fear the straight up business degree Signalling will become tainted)


                • I don’t think your claim about Business majors is true at all. Certainly it doesn’t justify your claims about business majors causing your expected earnings to change. (Correlation, not causation here.)

                  IMO, you are looking at a lot of noise in the data about on average who makes what and you think you are seeing signals.

                  It’s all noise.

                  Suppose having an attitude of money-grubbing is conducive to earning money, causally. (That’s plausible enough that people wanting more money would be caused to get more money.) Suppose money-grubbing students are more likely to go into business just because of some cultural belief (entriely unjustified, IMO) that it will lead to money. That would cause a correlation between high incomes (or low unemployment) and being a business major, but there would be no causal connection signalled by the correlation. You would be wrong, in that case, to tell someone that studying business (as opposed to Poli Sci or Philosophy) will cause them to be more likely to make more money. Rather, being money-grubbing, regardless of major is what is causing increased earnings in this plausible scenario. Let us call this the money-grubbing hypothesis for why we see such and such numbers. (And again Business majors don’t do even do that well in a lot of the surveys and payscales, but let’s assume they did well.)

                  So how do you know the data you are looking at isn’t best explained by the money-grubbing hypothesis, not your Business BA’s is make you better ar business than other majors hypothesis?

                  How do you rule out a host of competing hypothesis, including some involving IQ, prestige of degree, pressure from parents to follow certain degree paths where the pressure is causing financial success, etc.?

                  “My guess is that people studying non-general liberal arts are generally better students attending better schools on the ehole”

                  Who knows, I guess.

                  But anecdotally, I really doubt that this is true, if I’m understanding you correctly.

                  Certainly, I see no reason to think it is a factor in making the data look one way or the other.

                  The data doesn’t make a strong case for much of anything. It’s all noise. Or at least it needs to be looked at much more carefully.

                  I’d be open to being convinced that there are small causal differences between the different non-certifying degrees, but they are likely miniscule in comparsion to IQ, parental earnings, prestige of school, attitudes towards money. And there really isn’t much of a reason to think the is any causal connection here.


          • Here philosophy is above Biology, Chemistry, and way above business for mid-Career salary:


            Religion is way down at the bottom.

            BTW. this illustrates the problem. The average earnings for religion is drug down by eople who are living their life not trying to earn much in the clergy. Philosophy majors tend to do very well on the LSAT and go to elite law schools, dragging up the average.

            So the numbers are effected heavily by things other than what degree you have: i.e. whether you went on to other degrees, what you wanted when you went into school. We haven’t even discussed average IQ and socieconomic status of parents which are heavily determinative of a lot in future earnings.


        • a business degree does not offer you any training for business that other degrees don’t also offer.
          Hanley and I agreed on this a long time back.

          Not stated in that absolutist way we didn’t.


      • If you look at the link below, Business is below a fair number of the traditional humanities and social sciences and tied with a lot of others.

        These numbers might be slightly off, but the basic point stands.

        A Business degrees teaches you how to do a certain kind of abstract analysis of businesses, most of which is as useless to actual companies as the distinction between the Categorical Imperative and The Hypothetical Imperative.

        It isn’t an especially practical degree.

        IMO, Chem and Bio and Physics do better because MD’s are dragging up the average, I think.

        At any rate, the differences are small, except for Engineering, which is a Certifying Degree program, which is why the pay is so different.


        • Let me put it this way. The claim that there is a causal connection between what non Certifying degree program you choose and what your pay will be (in some signifcant difference between levels of pay) is not established by the evidence that we’re looking at.

          We need to look at whether the smarter students are picking certain degrees. We need to look to see if elite colleges push students away from certain degrees (or just don’t have them), we need to look at data abstracted away from further post-bachelors training like Med School and Law School.

          Correlation is weak here and there are a lot of confounding variables that we aren’t controlling for, and so the case for concluding that choice of non-certifying major causes a change in your lifetime earnings is pretty weak. Maybe you can make it for some majors being low, but in general, you can’t make the case very strongly.


  13. I’d love to hear more about economics for non-economists.

    It’s been brought up elsewhere that at some point, every academic field becomes less a study in that field and more a study in how to produce academic papers. In economics, that point comes early. The student is supposed to learn how to build a Keynesian macro model and a basic micro model in Econ 101/102. More advanced classes deal with different models – some graphic, some statistical or based in calculus. Grad school is a discussion of famous papers, not theories.

    The field has advanced a lot in recent decades, mostly mathematically, but it isn’t converging on a standard theory or on a methodology. Yet the basic econ course is a how-to in constructing 1930’s models. My thinking is, if economics isn’t a systematic field of study yet, it shouldn’t be taught as one. Think of biology 200 years ago versus now. It used to be a collection of oddities with the beginnings of a taxonomy. As conclusions were reached and agreed upon, it became a systematic field. Economics is pretending to be something it’s not yet, so programs should be teaching the Keynesian methods and theories alongside Monetarism, Marxism, and Mercantilism at the macro level, and at least hint at how microeconomics is evolving toward psychology – and how that affects macroeconomics.


  14. Speaking of taxonomy, I’m not crazy about your “Good Economy”, “Good Life, “Good Values” and “Good Society” split.

    First off, Good Economy has externalities. The economic value of improvements in technology aren’t simply captured by the individual worker, nor by the individual company. The guy who invented the mouse has increased output in the software, retail, governmental, and carpal tunnel surgery sectors. You’d have to assume complete isolation to have a lack of externalties.

    I’m ok with Good Life as you put it. There aren’t necessarily externalities there.

    But it seems like Good Values and Good Society are the same thing, if you take civics as a value. That’s not an abstraction, either: most educators have believed that civic responsibility is a virtue, and many have believed that virtue is a civic responsibility. If you define “good values” as indoctrination of stuff you don’t like, then yes, you’re going to see it as a negative, but is that a fair definition? Schools regularly express support for academic freedom and diversity. Even MBA programs have ethics classes that are supposed to teach more than how to avoid prosecution.

    One final note: history, taught properly, is philosophy and government and even the fundamentals of science. Just as memorizing atomic weights doesn’t teach kids science, so knowing the last names and dates of famous explorers doesn’t teach them history. History is about people and ideas. The average student may not be able to understand how the mind errs in matters of statistics or biases, but if he knows history he can internalize the lesson.


    • I elaborate a bit on the economics for non-economists in response to KatherineMW upthread.

      First off, Good Economy has externalities. The economic value of improvements in technology aren’t simply captured by the individual worker, nor by the individual company. The guy who invented the mouse has increased output in the software, retail, governmental, and carpal tunnel surgery sectors. You’d have to assume complete isolation to have a lack of externalties.

      That’s not an externality, it’s consumer surplus. Since the output of the invention is being sold in a market, the gains are being allocated through a market process there’s no reason to think they are being improperly allocated (unless there’s another market failure, but in that case tampering with the education market is probably the wrong way to go).

      But it seems like Good Values and Good Society are the same thing, if you take civics as a value.

      I see “Good Values” as teaching people to want, or not want certain things. I think of “Good Society” as giving people a set of conceptual tools that will let them participate in society effectively.


      • “That’s not an externality, it’s consumer surplus.”

        Really? That seems to be a classic example of an externality. Like pollution, it changes the quality of life for those who aren’t part of the transaction.


      • “I see “Good Values” as teaching people to want, or not want certain things. I think of “Good Society” as giving people a set of conceptual tools that will let them participate in society effectively.”

        It’s hard to see those distinctions holding up conceptually or practically. I’d need examples.


        • Perhaps it would help if I explained why I think public policy goes wrong.

          I don’t think the issue is that people don’t care, I think people lack the tools to turn that caring into useful action. Voters vote badly because they don’t know enough to demand policies that would actually make things better.

          That’s the key to “Good Society” education. I’m not teaching people to want good, I’m teaching them to do good.


            • Yeah, you could. That’s why James correctly points out that we need to understand government failure as well as market failure. The conversation has to go like this:

              A – “Let’s say that markets are perfect.”
              B – “But they’re not. So we need government to sort it all out.”
              A – “But government isn’t perfect either.”

              That’s the only way to proceed to an intelligent discussion of what externalities can/can’t/should/shouldn’t be addressed outside the market.


  15. Plato said “I would teach children music, physics, and philosophy; but most importantly music, for the patterns in music and all the arts are the keys to learning.”

    Yet my kid doesn’t have even one music class available in the local public school district, for all the STEM crap they are required to take instead.


    • It’s far more common for kids to get exposed to music at home (especially through private instrument lessons) than to STEM. I’ve never been to a church that has a math choir, and I’ve never heard a geology lecture blasting out of a car.


      • I’ve never been to a church that has a math choir

        My math teacher went to my church, and I can totally imagine him setting up one of these, and now I can’t stop imagining it. :D


      • Oh, and it just reminded me of a truly awesome Gordon Korman novel as well.

        “The area of circle equals pi times the square of the radius. *music notes*


    • Maybe part of the problem here, as well as part of a solution, has to do with externalized incentive structures. Focusing too much on external properties – incentives, objective measures of “progress”, testing, etc – can be counterproductive wrt learning since learning by definition is an internal property.


  16. Per the OP, here is a curriculum that I think we would be awesome for a general Bachelor of Arts Degree:

    Year One, GE:
    ENG: English Composition and Argumentative Writing about Ethical Disputes
    PHIL: Critical Thinking( Informal Fallacies, and Lots of Deductive Logic)
    POLI: US Government and Intro to Poli Sci
    COMM: Rhetoric and Basics of Speeches and Presentations
    ?: Foreign Language 1
    ?: Foreign Language 2, i.e, a single language for a second semester
    PHIl: Introduction to Philosophy, focusing on history of ideas
    MATH: Intro to University-Level Calculus
    MATH: Statistics
    Option: One of Intro to Physics, Chem, or Bio

    Oral And Written Exams of GE material that need to be passed to move on to year 2. Aim at 10% failure rate and help those who fail repeat key classes.

    Year 2: Experimenting with Upper Divisions to find a major and gain breadth

    Two Upper Division Classes From Classic Humanities: Philosophy, English Literature, Classics,
    Two Upper Division Classes From Hard Social Sciences: Psychology, Poli Sci, Econ,
    One Upper Division Fine Arts Class: Music, Art History, Maybe Visual Design
    Intro to Business Management or International Studies
    One More Intro to Hard Science Class
    Three Upper Division Math or Hard Science Classes:

    Year 3: Have to choose a specialty and no easy going back

    10 Classes in your specialty (or some in related majors) as your major sees fit

    Year 4:

    5 More Classes in Your Major (hopefully somewith graduate students in them)
    Pro-Seminar leading to work placement: Discussing internships, graduate placement, studying for GRE or MCAT, supervised volunteer experience, writing out career plans, resume building, working as a teaching assistant, etc.
    Final Thesis Project (Make it serious or the student has to come back for a semester)
    Preparation for Oral Exams and Written Comprehensive Exams on your major (maybe again 10% failure rate) that are hard and need to be passed before graduation or be retaken next semester.


    • A bit heavy on the math. I don’t know that most art students could get through calculus; I took Math 12 (which many students don’t have, and which is your first introduction to logarithms and some other concepts fairly foundational to higher-level math) and enjoyed most of my high-school math, and I still loathed university calculus.

      I like your idea for the English course.

      History should be an option in Classic Humanities. More history in general should be included; I’d consider a few good courses in history better than philosophy ones, and it would cover more of the world.

      I like your curriculum overall, though.


      • Yeah, I forgot history. (Doomed to repeat it now, I guess.) I meant to say something like History classes could be humanities and social science option classes in that second year.

        I get what you’re saying about the math classes. We don’t all have an aptitude for math. I sure don’t.

        I think there are ways, though, to teach math to those that don’t have the aptitude in a way that challenges them, but at a level they can manage with some real work. The curriculum would have to offer different tracks through the GE math courses for those who have a knack and those that don’t. (A similar track for ESL students or students with problems in written and oral communication would need to be created for the Eng Comp class and the Comm class amd maybe the other first year classes. You have to also have some standards though, maybe aiming at a certain fail rate.)


Comments are closed.