A Simple Theory of Liberal Arts Education

Marginal Revolutionary and Inner Economist Tyler Cowen of George Mason University lays out some reasons to get a liberal arts education:

Information in the modern world is virtually free, and well-defined tasks can be outsourced very cheaply, if need be.  Don't specialize in those.

Bias is everywhere, and overcoming bias yields great gains.  Empirically, our biases stem strongly from our nationality, our language, and our cultural background.  (It is, by the way, remarkable how much libertarianism is an Anglo-American phenomenon.)

To overcome those biases we should travel, spend some time living in other countries, and learn other languages.  In other words, the more knowledge is held in the minds of other people, the more competent we wish to be in assessing who is right and who is wrong, and that requires exposure to lots of different points of view.

Judgment, judgment, judgment.  That's the scarce asset which most people underinvest in, and which yields especially high returns.  It can't be outsourced very well either.

Marketing is becoming all-important as well.  That also requires judgment and the ability to see things from other people's points of view.  Again, live abroad and learn other languages.

At the very least, date foreign women (or men).

More here. reason interviewed Cowen on his latest book, Discover Your Inner Economist (go here) and his most excellent Creative Destruction (go here). He's written for us over the years (not all his stuff is online, alas) and has had nice things to say about reason over the years, so you can benchmark his judgment, judgment, judgment based on all that.

I made the case for studying the arts here and, at longer length, here. That's not exactly the same as the liberal arts (though the overlap is significant) but the points are very similar.

Hat Tip: Saw Cowen's post first at the New York Sun's excellent Economics on the Web blog.

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  • Episiarch||

    Interesting. I have done or am in the process of doing all that he recommends.

  • ||

    A genuine liberal arts education may be a great idea, but what does that have to do with sitting in a chair at a public institution for four years, listening to some tenured hack drone about pet theories that have always failed when tested in the real world?

    What the State calls a 'liberal arts education' is neither liberal, nor artistic, nor educational.

    If you really want an educational exposure to a multicultural environment, McDonald's is hiring, and don't bother saving for tuition, they'll pay you.

  • ||

    Never stop learning

  • SugarFree||

    (It is, by the way, remarkable how much libertarianism is an Anglo-American phenomenon.)

    Why are we taking this racist windbag seriously? Let's laugh at him and move on.

  • ||

    Bah, Liberal Arts is a substitute for an education. Bias is everywhere and L.A. majors are the least able to find/filter their own. You want to learn about eliminating bias, take a science course with a lab.

  • ed||

    Oh, this is going to be good.
    (rubs hands in anticipation)

  • ||

    Liberal Arts is a substitute for an education.

    Liberal Arts is pretty vague. Care to narrow it down before I tear your argument to shreds?

  • Episiarch||

    Maybe he means a "classical" education? You know, Latin (and maybe Greek), Greek and Roman history, literature (from Homer on up), etc?

    I've had that and while it seems pretty useless, it actually has this very cool foundational effect. So much in Western culture is built off of that base that it helps in little ways all over the place.

  • carrick||

    BA Physics/CompSci . . technically a liberal arts degree

  • ||

    Oh, this is going to be good.
    (rubs hands in anticipation)



    In today's matinee performance, the role of Dan T. will be played by Nick Gillespie.

  • Cromwell||

    Sure, study some liberal arts. But keep your powder dry.

  • Hooter_Mcboob||

    I especially like the part about foreign women.
    I'm dating a smoking hot brown girl from Saudi Arabia. She gives me... knowledge.

  • Abdul||

    A Liberal Arts education is valuable. Where do you think baristas come from?

  • ed||

    Warren's posts aren't nearly as entertaining since he started spell-checking.

  • stephen the goldberger||

    This seems like an by an academic defending his career choice to become an academic.

  • stephen the goldberger||

    edit: This seems like a blog post by an academic defending his career choice to become an academic.

  • ||

    (It is, by the way, remarkable how much libertarianism is an Anglo-American phenomenon.)

    Why are we taking this racist windbag seriously? Let's laugh at him and move on.


    Sugar-Free, a couple of thoughts on your riposte.

    (1) Care to provide examples of libertarianism that do not arise from Anglo-American political culture?

    (2) "Anglo-American" is not a race, it is a culture. The "Anglosphere" encompasses such countries as India, and such individuals as Martin Luther King.

  • ||

    His argument that knowledge is becoming cheaper and easier, so a science education is less valuable, so you should learn languages seems kinda odd. The reason is that learning languages outside of school has never been easier and we'll likely have real-time translation in my lifetime.

  • carrick||

    His argument is no different than the argument was 25 years ago: generalist versus specialist.

    Upon graduation, the specialist is more likely to be offered a job and typically at a much higher salary.

    After 10, 15, or 20 years, the generalist has overtaken the specialist, has greater opportunities, and greater earning potential.

    In my experience, sometimes the argument is true and sometimes it is false. In reality, it is the person that makes the difference, not the education.

  • Lance Braga||

    The apparent divide between science and "the arts" seems arbitrary to me. Weren't many of humanity's great minds (for example) writers and mathematicians?

  • Lance Braga||

    *Well, maybe some of humanity's great minds.

  • Jerry||

    Here in Europe, you are most likely to obtain a proficiency in a couple of languages when you exit high school. A "liberal arts" education does not really exist. When students enter university here, they are mostly likely to known already a lot more than a sophomore or junior in North America. The American high school curriculum is highly egalitarian, in Europe not necessarily so.

  • highnumber||

    VM just spooged in his pants.

  • carrick||

    Renaissance man

    n. A man who has broad intellectual interests and is accomplished in areas of both the arts and the sciences.

    A "liberal arts" education is supposed to be the road to the Renaissance man, but it has become the dumping ground for students that should have been weeded out of university.

  • VM||

    but it had nothing, absolutely NOTHING to do with this thread.

    you subscribe to my web cam, so you should know that!

    Jerry - errrrrr. Not necessarily about the level of students (probably certainly about languages, but LA is more than that).

  • GinSlinger||

    Good point re: highschool Jerry. Though it's interesting that in post-seconday education, the US takes the lead. (For just one example, when applying to Ph D programs, a BA from an American institution is the minimum, but from European institutions, one needs post-bacc work--true on both sides of the Atlantic in my application experience.)

    I have no idea why this may be. Any thoughts, Jerry?

  • ||

    Back when I was in high school in the 80's, my teachers told me that speaking a foreign language would be essential, that we'd all need to travel and converse with foreigners, etc...

    Fast forward twenty years and no one, NOT ONE, of my friends from high school can speak any foreign language and none of us pursued any sort of "liberal arts" education as described. We specialized in math, physics, engineering, computer science, economics, law... We're all stinkin' rich.

    I work at Microsoft, and I deal with people from all around the world every day - and guess what, they all speak English and they all have pretty much the exact same culture as me (ie, a specialist, educated human being).

    Who gives a fuck what they eat in China? What does that have to do with anything?

  • ||

    For a well rounded education, you could try curling up with good books and bad librarians.

  • Joe Slater||

    Dopey advice, but not surprising. Some blow-hard thinks that the way he lived his life is exactly how others should live theirs'. This is not exactly original thinking. Isn't that how just about every male over the age of 30 thinks? At least the ones I know.

    There are many paths to success. Liberal Arts education, engineering, finance, etc. The common trait among the people I know who are successful is that they are smart and work hard. What disqualifies a lot of liberal arts majors is that they neither smart nor hard-working, as their choice of study indicates. Who wants to study math, medicine or engineering (increasingly difficult, time-consuming and boring subjects), when they can argue the merits of the Warren Commission in their poli-sci class? Only a select few individuals can and want to make their way through a technical (for lack of a better word) education? The answer is very few. The information might be readily and cheaply available, but the costs of mastering the material, at least enough to work in the field, is extremely high.

    Take it from this blow-hard, the path to success follows a technical education.

  • Bernd||

    Lance Braga: Well, math is not a science, strictly speaking. Math isn't an art either.

    Math is basically pure abstract thought with the artifacts of our wetware filtered out as far as possible. Physics is applied math.

    So, I'd generally support the point of Cowen, which is that learning to think is better than learning skills; I'd just argue that math or physics teaches it better than the humanities &c.

    As for industry to apply good thinking in, nothing will ever beat software; software is "reason without the critique", as John Walker puts it, and he oughta know.

  • ||

    I'm a physics BS with an Eng Lit minor and a math minor from a liberal arts school. I get the value of technical education, but I think technical types are a bit dismissive of Tyler's argument.

    As I suggested in the MR thread, I suspect that the value of a diverse education at the 4 year degree mark (which is what we mean by liberal arts) is higher than what is commonly understood. India is cranking out some 700,000 technical graduates per year. Skills that are in high demand in many parts of the economy relate to sales of technically sophisticated products, product development informed by a deep knowledge of customers, getting customer buy in to cost saving technologies, etc. You know, those sorts of things where it is advantageous to have a foot in both camps.

    Of course there is no guarantee that liberal arts exposure will make one a better person, but there are opportunities there you just don't get sitting in a lab. Your exposure to perspective is broader, your exposure to different types of good communicators is better, and you get a taste for a broader range of subjects that may pique your interests far down the road. Philosophy was like that for me. So was Romantic lit.

  • VM||

    Hay dog -

    math, economics, etc. are part of a liberal arts curriculum.

    and others know people who did happen to learn a language or two, and they're also rich working in financial services, law, pharma, advertising, management consulting. And they converse with people where the lingua franca isn't English.

    guess what? there are many paths to success. This is America. You can do many, many things and be successful. There isn't a formula. There isn't one way.

  • ||

    R C Dean,

    Your points are quite valid, and I will admit the history of libertarianism is quite Euro-centric...

    But I don't think he was using the term "Anglo-American" to imply the English speaking world or former British colonies. He was using academic-sprache for "white people" and anyone else dismissing a philosophy or a set of principles based solely on the race of the people mostly likely to hold would be dismissed as a racist. I just extended the same courtesy to him.

    Also, he was being fairly insulting to the non-Anglo-American libertarians found on this very comment board.

  • highnumber||

    SugarFree,
    How familiar are you with the work of Tyler Cowen?

  • Kolohe||

    As long as "liberal arts" = "strong foundation in mathematics" I have no problem with a 'liberal arts education.'

    But if liberal arts = 'because math/science is to hard for me' you'd better either have a natural talent for an art, or a natural talent for leadership, for your liberal arts degree to be worth anything.

  • carrick||

    We specialized in math, physics, engineering, computer science, economics, law...

    Math: liberal arts
    Physics: liberal arts
    Engineering: not liberal arts
    CompSci: depends on the school
    Economics: liberal arts
    Law: Instrument of the devil

  • ed||

    I pity all those economics majors who never experienced the joy of trying to
    figure out what the fuck Ezra Pound was really trying to say.

  • Lance Braga||

    Bernd,

    A friend of mine graduated from GA Tech last year with a BS in applied mathematics. While I am not very good at math, we would talk at length about the classes he was taking. Anyway, he said more than a few times that he believes mathematics is both a science and an art; he found the elegance of pure mathematics as aesthetically pleasing as I find, say, Shakespeare or a painting by Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres.

    I realize that is just an anecdote of one man's opinion, but I thought it was relevant.

    I do agree that learning math and physics (or science in general) is a good way to develop faculties of analytic thinking. I also feel that studying the humanities makes life richer, and can also improve analytical and critical thinking skills. One of my favorite classes in college was critical thinking, taught under the philosophy department; even though we were dealing with language sometimes I felt like I was in a math class. It was definitely an eye-opener.

    On the other hand, I suppose, are people who major in feminist philosophy or French literature and then wonder why they're not very appealing to some employers. That I guess I can understand.

  • ||

    highnumber,

    Barely at all. If I wrong, I'm wrong. I'm comfortable with that.

    But, in the excerpt above he seems to be playing the white guilt "if only you knew more about other people you'd think just like me" card. If he's being taken out of context, then I withdraw my objection.

    (Hint: I don't care if he's really a racist -- he's almost assuredly not -- but my gorge rises a little more every time it's suggested that only white people are interested in human liberty...)

  • ||

    "Law: Instrument of the devil"

    This is a common misperception. The correct translation, from the original Aramaic, is member of the devil.

  • Hooter_McBoob||

    You mean people go to college to learn? Here I thought it was all about cheap beer, cheap drugs, cheap food, ugly easy girls, hot easy girls and sucking up to teachers to get C-'s instead of D's.

  • ||

    Liberal arts is the new high school diploma. Of course, it's way more expensive, and just as useless. As a piece of paper, it doesn't get you anything, but chances are you will have a broader base of knowledge, better ability to reject bullshit (and sling convincing bullshit), and better ability to draw analogies or distinctions than somebody with a high school diploma. Of course, that's not always true.

  • carrick||

    The physics major says "why does that work that way"

    The engineering major says "what can I do with that"

    The general studies major says "would you like frys with that"

  • Egosumabbas||

    Tyler Cowen: OUTSOURCE EVERYTHING! That way all the 300 million people in this country can be multilingual dilettantes judging other countries' merits. That'll be a BOON to the economy.


    In reality, if nobody specializes, all the LAS majors will be ending up flipping burgers or wiping Baby Boomer butts at the old folks' home. Maybe a handful of them will be able to lie themselves into a high-paying corporate job.

    My advice? Get a masters degree while you still can.

  • Bill C.||

    Cowen is full of it. I spent two years in a foreign country. Graduated there and I speak a second language and have a history degree and it hasn't gotten me crap. Still waiting for these intangible benefits to come through. Waiting to find my skill that can't be outsourced. BULLSHIT!!!

  • Lance Braga||

    Of course, the general studies major can also probably spell the plural of "fry" correctly.

  • Jerry||

    GinSlinger,

    Seems like a preventive measure.

  • carrick||

    spell the plural of "fry"

    You say catsup, I say ketchup.

  • Egosumabbas||

    To avert any accusations that I'm a heartless technical major SOB who speaks no foreign languages, I dual-degreed in French and Computer Engineering, so neener neener.

    And no I haven't read Ulysses.

  • Lance Braga||

    You say catsup, I say ketchup.

    Actually, I say "mustard."

  • ||

    To be fair, I think the general studies major is more likely to say, "Stacy, you're on register, Ronnie, you're on drive-thru, Bill take burger board, Frank take the broiler and Janet, come in at 5 for the dinner rush...."

  • carrick||

    I dual-degreed in French and Computer Engineering,

    WHY?!?!?!?!

  • Egosumabbas||

    Oh and I *do* tip my waitress, and give money to the LAS major who plays guitar in the subway, so I'm not a complete prick. Cowan is a lying sack of soiled cat litter.

  • hick||

    "frys"

    It ain't proper, but I seen it many times at the joints I hangs out in.

  • ||

    Egosumabbas,

    And no I haven't read Ulysses.

    It's OK. 9 out of 10 people who say they have, haven't either.

  • Egosumabbas||

    WHY?!?!?!?!

    J'aime bien lire Baudelaire, c'est pas mal. Apart de ça, ça ne sert a rien.

  • ||

    Egosumabbas,

    For the chicks then?

  • dhex||

    man this fucking thread again. jeeze. the blowjob deficit rides again.

    i'm just kidding; it's really about status. that's why you have a small but definitely non-imaginary streak of "cultural studies" types running up the "science is socially constructed flag." (i am firm in my conviction that kuhn is the second most mis-read or quoted but unread author since the alien overlords who wrote the bible)

    why would they bother with such a thing, outside of pique? that's always confused me. while i don't see the value in, say, lacan, (if you must go french, foucault is the way to go, with baudrillard a distant second) i do see the value in cross-cultural literary studies, or primary source work with writers and personal papers, drafts, etc. the word is quite important, and a tremendous part of being human.

    and obviously the sciences are important. given a good cornering, even the most marxy of marks would 'fess up to this. even the poor bastards who go to work for weapons manufacturers are contributing to technologies that will - if past performance is any indication - filter into the mainstream in dozens of unpredictable and largely beneficial ways.

    me, personally, i respect folks who can do stuff well, especially stuff i can't get (like math in general). speaking second and third languages well, or understanding study construction, or being real good at statistics, being able to boil down complex ideas and teach them to others. (that last bit might be the most difficult of all)

    i think a secondary thing here is people don't like hearing opinions outside of their own viewpoints, either due to brittle convictions or just being easily riled up (i think the second is more likely than the first). so this way the cult-studs can continue on thinking anyone who likes math is some kinda weird conservative machine and the engineers can continue thinking of non-engineers as commie scum.

    why anyone would spend much time making broad general charges - beyond a search for status, real or imagined - about such wide and varied fields is beyond me.

    even lawyers, may god have mercy on their blackguard souls.

  • Moneo||

    I am discomforted by his anti-intellectual demeanor.

  • Egosumabbas||

    For the chicks then?

    Oui, ça aide un peu ;)

  • dhex||

    and seriously don't you motherfuckers get me started on ulysses again. it totally rawks.

    and before you get all fancy prancy about how no one actually reads it, read this:

    http://www.reason.com/news/show/29196.html

  • ||

    dhex,

    My data for the rate of people who actually read it comes from the fact that I am one of the few. I don't care for it much, but that is neither here nor there...

    We don't have to start with the fussin' and the feudin' do we?

  • GinSlinger||

    dhex,

    me, personally, i respect folks who can do stuff well, especially stuff i can't get (like math in general). speaking second and third languages well, or understanding study construction, or being real good at statistics, being able to boil down complex ideas and teach them to others. (that last bit might be the most difficult of all)


    QFMFT!

  • Ben Rast||

    An emphasis on scientific knowledge at the expense of the liberal arts leads to mis-guided attempts to apply scientific terminology and methods to social problems. The results are a tragic waste of time, money and lives.

  • Egosumabbas||

    i think a secondary thing here is people don't like hearing opinions outside of their own viewpoints, either due to brittle convictions or just being easily riled up (i think the second is more likely than the first). so this way the cult-studs can continue on thinking anyone who likes math is some kinda weird conservative machine and the engineers can continue thinking of non-engineers as commie scum.

    I think this is really sad, because the whole point of a classical education (the precursor to the now watered-down LAS tradition) was that you'd get a balanced yet thorough education about the world - hence the term university. In the past 100 years or so maybe a wedge has been driven between technical and artistic disciplines. I can tell you right now, as a programmer, 80% of what I do is *art*. It's all about making an aesthetically pleasing product, and writing aesthetically pleasing code to make the life easier on my co-workers. LAS students aren't even required to know algebra or the scientific method, and conversely, engineering students aren't expected to take English Literature or Philosophy. A lot of the LAS students I knew could barely get a grasp on European History. (To be fair, a lot of engineering students just copied people's homework and labs, and just coasted along the curve during finals). I think we need LESS people in the universities; have a higher portion people who actually care about educated. A good chunk of people were there because mommy and daddy told them so and couldn't wait to stumble off to the next party.

    That Cowan is is trying to pump up the deflated "do you want fries with that" egos of LAS generalists is disingenuous. You absolutely MUST specialize in the 21st century, and fortunately, LAS degrees, while limited, open the door. Getting a masters or other specialized degree is paramount.

    /rant off

  • ||

    He was using academic-sprache for "white people"

    SF, I am impressed by your powers of telepathy, able to discern what he was thinking in spite of his use of other words.

    anyone else dismissing a philosophy or a set of principles based solely on the race of the people mostly likely to hold would be dismissed as a racist.

    I missed the part where he was dumping on authoritarianism because of skin color. Could you point that out to me?

    I will admit the history of libertarianism is quite Euro-centric

    Quite the opposite. The Euros have been noted mainly for pushing various flavors of authoritarianism. Even the French Enlightenment experiment with la liberte' was quickly swamped by the egalite' and fraternite' bits of the agenda, and spawned instead a monstrous convulsion of authoritarianism and nationalism.

    What we consider to be libertarian thought is almost exclusively the product of a specific cultural tradition originating on an island that has been at pains to distance itself from the Continent, and on a different continent altogether.

  • ||

    Clicked too soon.

    Anyone who lumps English political philosophy with Continental political philosophy is most likely doing so because of the shared skin color of people from that part of the world. That, my friend, is racism.

  • ||

    Cowen is full of it. I spent two years in a foreign country. Graduated there and I speak a second language and have a history degree and it hasn't gotten me crap. Still waiting for these intangible benefits to come through. Waiting to find my skill that can't be outsourced. BULLSHIT!!!

    Tuscaloosa Barber College is looking for you.

  • Egosumabbas||

    Tuscaloosa Barber College is looking for you.

    Don't mean to threadjack here, but did you know they have so regulated the barber industry now that the only place in Illinois I can get a shave is in downtown Chicago? No joke. On my wedding day I could not find ANYBODY who could give me a shave in Springfield, and it's a decent sized town.

  • ||

    R C Dean,

    We are not in any disagreement on the origins of libertarianism.

    I, myself, was using Euro-centric as code for Caucasian... not catching your meaning...

    I just took exception at Cowen's way of expressing himself and his whole multiculti-tude. (Read the thread. Am I the only one?)

  • ||

    Education is a lifelong quest, task, pleasure, responsibility ... I expect to be crenated the day after I stop trying to expand my knowledge.

    Of course, I don't have a college degree so I'm probably talking out of my ass.

  • ||

    "Anyone who lumps English political philosophy with Continental political philosophy is most likely doing so because of ..."

    Lack of a liberal arts education?

  • highnumber||

    I neither speak nor read French, but I have understood every one of Egosumabbas' French posts.

    I haven't read the English ones.

  • ||

    Education is the key....but the door might not be locked, and even if it is, you can break in cheaper.

  • ||

    Lamar,

    I have a Creative Writing degree, I'll have you know!

    (No. I'm not kidding. I always win the "Most Useless Undergrad Degree" bar bet.)

  • Egosumabbas||

    Lamar,

    I have a Creative Writing degree, I'll have you know!

    (No. I'm not kidding. I always win the "Most Useless Undergrad Degree" bar bet.)


    Nah, you could write for Little Green Footballs.

  • ||

    Nope. Philosophy minor. They probably think I'm gay.

  • ||

    There's nothing wrong with a hackey-sack degree.

  • ||

    @8)-

  • ||

    You must be thinking of communication minors... philosophy is all about should-have been art school kids with no hand-eye coordination. Brooding and little eye contact. And lot's of cigarettes. I justed liked arguing...

  • ||

    I justed typed sumting worng.

  • ||

    Everything I learned in Journalism School I could have learned in a month at a newspaper.
    In fact, everything I learned in college -- two degrees, mind you: history and journalism, with a music minor -- I could have learned all by my lonesome.
    I just needed those years in college to fuck everything with two legs. That's what I don't regret about dropping $15k.

  • robc||

    [input my commments from that thread from last week here]

  • I Guess the Entire Reason Staf||

    Nick Gillespie-English major

    Jessee Walker-History major

    Radley Balko-Journalism major

    Brian Doherty-Journalism major

    Kerry Howley-Philosophy/English major

    Jacob Sullum-Economics/Psychology major

    Katherine Mangu-Ward-Political Science/Philosophy major

    Michael C. Moynihan-History major

    David Weigel-Journalism/Political Science major

    Yup, all drive-thru workers. Those degrees sure are useless!

  • Mike Laursen||

    You forgot Ronald Bailey, reason's go-to guy for scientific subjects, and shill for Big Evil Corporations.

    His wikipedia entry says: "attended the University of Virginia, where he earned a B.A. in philosophy and economics in 1976. He attended the University of Virginia School of Law for three semesters."

  • carrick||

    Yup, all drive-thru workers. Those degrees sure are useless!

    Well, it's not like they're doing something useful like building rocket ships.

  • ||

    I'm waiting for Mr. Cowen to explain how we're going to ship the entire water and wastewater infrastructure of central Florida overseas so that an engineer can recommend upgrades and maintenance.

  • dhex||

    the general flavor i get from people on the outside, as it were, is that libertarianism = rich white guys. which may or may not be a way to deflect dealing with it, or dealing with the whole ron paul phenomenon (i.e. see any recent wonkette posting re: "paultards")

    My data for the rate of people who actually read it comes from the fact that I am one of the few.

    i don't know if it's really that few, actually. compared to dan brown, probably...and most undergrads would have to seek it out. though it be canon (and legend) it's not really required in most places (unless you're taking a 20th century english/irish moderism course, that is.)

    but most of the folks i come in contact with pretend to have read and understand lacan, or some really opaque writer like judith butler. (that woman is incomprehensibly vague, especially as she's gotten older.)

    We don't have to start with the fussin' and the feudin' do we?

    ok no fussin' or feudin, but i got dibs on wrasslin'!!!

    one thing i think we could all agree upon - possibly? - is that there isn't enough of a classical focus on rhetoric. cable news "debate" shows don't exactly teach good argumentation skills, and as we've seen from the interwebs...well...yeaaaaaaaaaah.

    ps: guilty as charged.

    pps: fags!

  • ||

    "see any recent wonkette posting"

    That site is the flagship for self-loathing wannabes who make themselves feel better by making fun of other people.

  • ||

    dhex,

    You said the D and B-words. That is beyond the pale for a comment board frequented by women and the mentally-enfeebled. Horrors!

  • thoreau||

    Late to the thread, but a few things:

    1) I'll start with the people who say that natural sciences = liberal arts. It may be true as a matter of traditional definitions that the natural sciences and mathematics are grouped in with the liberal arts, but the differences between the natural sciences and the other liberal arts fields (humanities and social sciences) are pretty substantial. In our research, we are more likely to collaborate with people from professional schools (engineering, medicine, etc.) than the humanities or social sciences.

    Also, in my (admittedly anecdotal) experiences, science students tend not to self-identify as liberal arts majors. Take it for what it's worth. To me, it means that the common usage today does not match up with the older usage. I'll let the pedants fight it out over which definition is right.

    2) That said, as a faculty member, I find that I have a lot in common with faculty from just about every discipline, whether it's categorized as a professional major, a liberal arts major, or whatever. We seem to want a lot of the same things for our students, believe it or not.

    3) To me, what matters most is the thinking skills acquired from science classes, not the mastery of the particular topic. I don't really give a damn if my students master the subtleties of magnetic fields or Newton's Laws or perturbation theory in quantum mechanics (or perturbatin' theory in URKOBOLD mechanics) or whatever. I'm more interested in the skill in setting up a problem, solving it, and checking it. And the skill of writing a good lab report, as well as trouble-shooting your apparatus or your computer code. Whether you go into industrial R&D, academia, or some completely different field, I think those skills will carry over.

    I find that a lot of my colleagues in other disciplines (liberal arts or otherwise) feel the same way. I can't speak for all schools, however. Maybe we're just special here.

    4) In college, I minored in economics, and I felt the same way about that education: What I retained was some overall intellectual skills, rather than the particulars of any topic. If you ask me to manipulate the cost curves and explain how a per-unit tax will shift the supply or demand curves and change the equilibrium, I'll have to strain to remember how that's done. But my overall ability to understand and interpret graphs and data and models is something I've retained, even if I only have mastery of it in contexts where I use those skills.

    5) I'm a big believer in science GE classes, and classes that combine science with liberal arts. For liberal arts majors, I don't see much point in having them take the specialized, technical classes that we teach for science majors. They'll never retain any of it. But they might retain what they learn in a class on, say, ethics and technology, or the economic impacts of materials science, or whatever. For science majors, the higher-level skills that you can get from liberal arts classes will not be retained if these classes are never taught in the context of science and technology. If all of your long writing assignments prior to senior year are in literature and history classes, except for a few short lab reports, we shouldn't be shocked if your senior project report sucks.

    6) Finally, I used to have a big bias against liberal arts. Then I mellowed out.

  • thoreau||

    Two more things:

    1) Some of you are probably aghast that I don't care whether my students master physics, just the skills. Well, I do care that they get some competence in physics. However, the only topics that you master are the ones you use repeatedly. I don't know all that much about magnetism. I don't even know much about topics in optics, materials, or biophysics that are outside my immediate research. But I know a lot about how to solve a problem, and so do all of my colleagues. So I value those skills.

    2) Having spoken in favor of a generalist approach to education (valuing intellectual skills over specific content), I don't think every high school graduate should be encouraged to pursue that sort of education. It depends on what you want and what you're interested in. Some people may prefer a focused, technical education. More power to them. I'm not interested in teaching people who really don't want to be there. They'll learn more if they take a class that interests them. Later on, if they feel that they should have taken more classes with a generalist focus, they can always go back to school. I have relatives who did that, and some of my best students are older students.

    Study what you want, I say. If you don't like the way I approach education, don't take my class. It will be a waste of your time and my time.

  • dhex||

    thoreau, if i had to take a fizziks class i would totally take yours, and not just 'cause you'd have to pass me since i'm so awesome.

    That site is the flagship for self-loathing wannabes who make themselves feel better by making fun of other people.

    this has nothing to do with urkobold!

    har har, no seriously...wonkette gets pretty angry about the whole ron paul thing that is out of proportion to - at least they seem to put it - his chances of winning. i presume much of that is due to the automatic "libertarian = slavestate" connection they seem to make.

    You said the D and B-words. That is beyond the pale for a comment board frequented by women and the mentally-enfeebled. Horrors!

    dan and brown?

    i'm more of a holy blood, holy grail man myself. (well if you want to genuinely learn, you're best off reading elaine pagels, but if you want to laugh holy blood holy grail is your book.)

  • Clemsonuee||

    I'd have to say the best thing about getting a technical education is the risk mitigation. I knew I'd get a good paying job out of school and that was nice. Basically the reason I chose engineering over history was that fact.

    I did make sure to take courses from most of the other colleges at the university.

    I think the statement that there is no reason to specialize because of outsoursing is BS. There are certainly a lot of technical things that can be outsourced, but most technical work (that I've seen) invovles a good deal of on-site time and a good bit of it involves culteral understanding. If a techie makes something that is not comfortable or appealing to someone it's not of much use.

    Now I do totally agree that it is good to expand ones horizons, and that foriegn travel helps.

  • GILMORE||

    The simple fact is that undergraduate degrees dont mean shit compared to one's broader set of abilities/aptitude

    I work as an economic research analyst -and over half my co-workers never studied either economics or finance in school. The ones who did are invariably not quite as good at the job, often because they lack broader interpretive skills, or the ability to articulate themselves, to "tell the story" of the data.

    The best people I've ever met in this gig? an ex journalist, an ex food-scientist, a guy who studied creative writing for 8 years, a chick with a with a masters in Medieval Literature...

    Basically, the #1 skill is the ability to communicate. Most technical specialties can be resourced, but having the mind that can articulate goals and explain outputs is ultimately more valuable.

  • Someone Who Doesn\'t Want to L||

    I have a non-Liberal Arts background (in mathematics and engineering), but (I gather) like thoreau, I teach mathematics at a small private Liberal Arts college. There is a value to this sort of education, but too often the students are trying to find the path of least resistance through rather than gain something from every class. Also, far too often, the courses that they take to meet the general education requirements are too standardized and not able to give students what they are looking for, which doesn't really help them become well-rounded, or anything else.

    As others have said, mathematics is most definitely not a science; its ways of coming to answers and its standards of justification are completely different, whether you view the sciences in the empiricist mode as Hume (which I hope is pretty far out of favor) or the later Popperian view of falsification. However, saying it is an art is maybe a bit too strong a statement as well. There certainly is beauty in a clever and elegant proof, but it isn't quite the same as artistic beauty.

    GILMORE:

    Some technical specialties can be resourced, but certainly not all. As an engineering undergraduate, I didn't need to know all the various lists of physical constants, but I did need to know how they went together. At a certain level, the material gets too technical to just wing it without having a strong background. Maybe economics isn't one of those types of fields; I have only a little background in it.

    thoreau:

    I'd say the only topics you master are the ones that you have to teach. (I imagine that you might agree.) I suppose that constant use of something without teaching could do as well, but there's nothing like knowing that you have to be able to explain nearly every nuance of the subject to your students to make sure that you understand it.

    Also, my interest in teaching my students is similar to yours. I hope that even the general education students will come away with some basic competence in the methods they're taught, but the real goal is to get them to understand problem solving as a general task and how mathematics makes it possible. The beauty angle is another tactic, but it's hard to get that across to non-majors.

  • Ventifact||

    Liberal arts education is a wonderful thing, which many people claim to have (directly or by presenting credentials that claim as much), but which very few people actually attain. Like the "Someone" above, my experience is that the majority of the students and professors (and administrators, for that matter) did not realize what a liberal arts education was all about, much less have a desire to do it, much less do what it takes to actually go for it. It didn't figure out the real point of the liberal artiness of my own education until fairly late in the game, at least consciously; I had an intuitive sense of it from the start. It's really amazing how the whole system tends to funnel people away from a real liberal arts experience (and of course how people want to be funneled like that).

    Especially in the realm of math and science, liberal arts schools/programs are full of cop-outs so that students who claim to want to learn how to think in the range of intellectual disciplines can actually avoid doing any real mathematical thinking and can avoid extensive bodies of interdependent facts. For classes that count for math requirements, for example, kids at my school could (and very very often did) take classes in which you could earn an 'A' by knowing how to multiply fractions (uh, that's what, like, 5th-grade math, not college level?). Also, there is a perverse characteristic common to the trajectories of most folks' liberal arts studies: they start out thinking broad, but then focus in and eventually forget about most disciplines. This is the opposite of a liberal arts mentality (it is in fact how someone goes about getting a "technical" degree), wherein you study each realm of knowledge on its own terms and for its own sake and later begin to see different subjects interrelating.

  • MollyGreen||

    Unlike many of these readers, I agree COMPLETELY with the liberal arts education as a foundation before a speciality is pursued. You have to be able to think creatively and innovate!! Ask bussiness employers.

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