Note: 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:
- 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?