Thursday, September 9, 2010

Depressing Comments

Megan McArdle has a post arguing that college doesn't teach skills, but really is about signaling to employers. FLG has never been as depressed by the comments on her site as he was with this post.

Some particularly upsetting examples:
many of the problems with higher education are only problems in that great swath of majors that don't teach their students anything. oh wait, they teach students 'how to think,' as if quantitatively rigorous training in science and engineering doesn't teach you 'how to think.'

leaving college with an actual set of marketable skills - accounting, science, programming, engineering, economics, etc - ought to be part of the goal of higher education. many of the graduates of the humanities and social sciences require further vocational training - teaching certification, law/med/business school, etc. - before they are employable. what the rest of the fuzzy majors do it totally beyond me.
I've been maintaining for a while now that physics is the new liberal arts.

You have to be able to build models, test them rigorously against reality, and use them to predict something or do something. Nothing beats that for 'how to think'.

As a former engineering student, FLG understands exactly where these people are coming from. As somebody who completed their degree in a liberal arts field, he feels sorry for them. This type of deterministic thinking is useful for interacting with the material world, like physicists and engineers ultimately do. However, as FLG has said time and again, it leaves a huge blind spot of how the more meaningful aspects of the world, the human relationships and institutions, work.

If FLG had to sum up what his concerns about science and engineering education versus liberal arts are, then it would be science and engineering develops a sort of arrogance derived from mastery over the material world (along with the deterministic thinking and all that FLG has articulated over the years). But it's a false arrogance. Ultimately what matters is what is meaningful to people. On that score, these students are lacking.

If you can build a bridge, then great. That's useful. I agree. However, it often, by virtue of the education you've received, means that you haven't studied what people have thought about what makes a good society or a good citizen. Indeed, whenever FLG hears techies and scientific types get into philosophy or politics he often cringes at their naivete.

However, comments like this almost made up for it:
There is no question that I use information I learned in school every day. Some of it is directly relevant, some of it is tangentially relevant, and some of it consists of an ability to search for and find the information I need and then fit it into a framework which was built by learning things that are, strictly speaking, irrelevant.

And of course, being in a human-contact profession, having taken things like Chinese Calligraphy can be advantageous even though I don't do much of that any more, because it lets me relate to people in a way that I might not have been able to if I were a rigid subject-matter specialist.

I appreciate that there are many jobs that can be done by smart high-school grads, and I agree that college is vastly oversold. I also appreciate that the interdisciplinary program in the history of feminist culinary studies may not give you everything you need to be hired at Burger King.

This does not mean that higher education doesn't actually teach you many useful things. Nor would I discount the value of learning "useless" things; the ability to converse fluently or argue extemporaneously, developed by construing Russian poetry, can come in awfully handy.


Tim Kowal said...

Nice post. I tend to agree. I'd also add that serious study of the humanities is one of the intangible pursuits that define and help perpetuate an advanced, enlightened nation. To belittle the entire field because it can't be understood through controlled experiments is to take a dangerously narrow view of the world.

profmondo said...

I started out as a triple major: Math/Physics/Computer Science, and wound up with 3 degrees in English. The sciences taught me the how, and the humanities teach me the why. Both are essential.

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