Monday, November 7, 2011

Nobody Asked FLG

...but he'll respond anyway.

As FLG has mentioned before, he attended a flagship state school, a community college, and then an elite, private university. Not just that, but he went from being an engineering student to what FLG would consider a pretty rigorous liberal arts core curriculum. Now, in fairness, FLG did major in International Economics, which is probably perceived as being on the more practical or useful side of the liberal arts/social sciences, but it was nevertheless a major and conscious change.

So, what if any problems are there with the schools FLG attended and higher ed broadly? Well, FLG would actually like to begin with his second favorite Tocqueville quotation:
It is evident that in democratic communities the interest of individuals as well as the security of the commonwealth demands that the education of the greater number should be scientific, commercial, and industrial rather than literary. Greek and Latin should not be taught in all the schools; but it is important that those who, by their natural disposition or their fortune, are destined to cultivate letters or prepared to relish them should find schools where a complete knowledge of ancient literature may be acquired and where the true scholar may be formed. A few excellent universities would do more towards the attainment of this object than a multitude of bad grammar-schools, where superfluous matters, badly learned, stand in the way of sound instruction in necessary studies.

Replace Greek and Latin with humanities and Tocqueville saw this coming.

A brief digression via another quotation given the Occupy Wall Street crowd's large number of liberal arts and humanities students:
It is important that this point should be clearly understood. A particular study may be useful to the literature of a people without being appropriate to its social and political wants. If men were to persist in teaching nothing but the literature of the dead languages in a community where everyone is habitually led to make vehement exertions to augment or to maintain his fortune, the result would be a very polished, but a very dangerous set of citizens. For as their social and political condition would give them every day a sense of wants, which their education would never teach them to supply, they would perturb the state, in the name of the Greeks and Romans, instead of enriching it by their productive industry.

On one hand, perhaps FLG's somewhat aristocratic soul is what makes him so sanguine about the humanities and liberal arts as being intended for only the elite. We forget that liberal arts is the education of the free man. We forget that this is not only free in the sense of political freedom, but in a very real way the free man was also free from necessity. Which is to say that the liberal arts trains a person to live a life of Aristotlean Leisure - skhole. It makes sense that pre-GI bill and the democratization of higher education, back when just 6% of men and 4% of women had completed college, universities were primarily focused on the liberal arts. But this simply isn't fitting training for the vast majority of people.

Can everybody benefit from reading Plato? Absolutely. But there are two problems. First, just because everybody can benefit doesn't mean everything. We don't live in a world of infinite resources. We are constrained. Therefore, teaching students humanities and liberal arts comes at the expense of something else, both in terms of money and time. Second, like all liberal arts and humanities, the student has to be engaged. Forcing students who are simply trying to get a commercial or industrial, to use Tocqueville's language, credential to study Plato and Aristotle, or Shakespeare, Milton, Cervantes, Gibbon, Dostoevsky, without explicitly explaining how it will benefit them, can be, FLG thinks, like torture.

FLG is certainly not alone in thinking that those in humanities have done a pretty piss poor job of articulating why they are still relevant. Various technical or vocational skills whether they are taught in computer science or science or finance departments seem so much more relevant for finding a job. But FLG thinks this misses the bigger picture.

Almost everything we do in this world we do because of other people. What we where, where we go, what we say, etc, etc is because of our relations with other people. Sure, you can get paid to design a product or code a program, but the real insight comes from how things are meaningful to people. People who eventually pay for the product or service. This is why FLG firmly believes that innovation comes from the liberal arts, not STEM. (And, after being almost done with his MBA, FLG certainly doesn't believe it comes from business education.)

STEM graduates are good at doing things, but NOT at figuring out what things are meaningful to people. FLG likes to point to two examples of this. First, he's been using Steve Jobs' commencement speech to make that case for years. Second, open source software applications, which most of which are the product of STEM graduates left to their own devices, have awful user interfaces. In fact, UI is the last on the list of priorities, even though the entire purpose of software is to help human beings to accomplish some task. To oversimplify, liberal arts gets you Apple, STEM gets you Microsoft.

But even more broadly, humanities become even more important as people progress in their careers. Eventually, if and when, students become leaders, they will be responsible for formulating their own goals. They'll have to do this with incomplete information of a rather nebulous world. Once they have that goal, then they'll need to refine it and then communicate it to others. Finally, they'll have to work with other people to get it accomplished and deal with people trying to stop them. Again, liberal arts excels here.

Take Hamlet, certainly one of the richest if not the richest text in the Western canon. Hamlet alone could teach students massive amount about how to do these things. Is Polonius a nattering old fool or a sinister Svengali? Can how he acts in different contexts and in front of different people give us any insight toward the answer? Does the answer to that question matter to whether his advice to Laertes is trite or insightful? What can we learn about Hamlet from his interaction with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern? What does it say about Rosencrantz and Guildenstern? It's not a far stretch to see how these types of discussions could help with corporate politics. Or even dealing with people generally.

Then there's the lessons about communication, storytelling, and language -- What insights can be gleaned from the scene with the gravedigger about when and how to introduce humor to a story? What can it tell us about making assumptions about the capabilities of people based upon their station? What does "To be or not to be" tell us about splitting infinitives? FLG could go on and on, but you get the idea.

None of this, at least so far, rules out liberal arts and humanities being limited to the elite. Not everybody has to be an innovator, nor a leader. Indeed, even one of the quotations that people often cite as an articulation for the democratization of education, and liberal arts in particular, the Preamble to Jefferson's Bill for the More General Diffusion of Knowledge doesn't preclude it:
it is generally true that that people will be happiest whose laws are best, and are best administered, and that laws will be wisely formed, and honestly administered, in proportion as those who form and administer them are wise and honest; whence it becomes expedient for promoting the publick happiness that those persons, whom nature hath endowed with genius and virtue, should be rendered by liberal education worthy to receive, and able to guard the sacred deposit of the rights and liberties of their fellow citizens, and that they should be called to that charge without regard to wealth, birth or other accidental condition or circumstance; but the indigence of the greater number disabling them from so educating, at their own expence, those of their children whom nature hath fitly formed and disposed to become useful instruments for the public, it is better that such should be sought for and educated at the common expence of all

Jefferson is explicitly saying to entrust the scared deposit to those endowed by nature with genius and virtue, which doesn't sound exactly like a democratic state of mind to FLG.

But Flavia brought up something in the discussion of the state of humanities education at here school that interested FLG:
those 1,200-odd English and history majors aren't majoring in our subjects because of a belief in the ennobling or civilizing virtues of the humanities, or even, in some cases, because they're voracious readers or innately curious or whatever else is alleged to bring students to the humanities. A large percentage of our majors have selected English or history because they want teaching jobs--which is partly to say, they want stable, unionized, middle-class jobs. (In my state, unlike many of its neighbors, students can't major in "education"; even students who want to teach kindergarten have to major in an actual academic subject.)

This is all well and good, but that description doesn't sound like a bunch of innovative aspiring leaders. Although, in complete fairness, FLG doesn't think the average business school student is either, despite the selfsame business schools' rhetoric.

Flavia recognizes this:
the humanities will never attract majors--and this is increasingly true, I think, even at elite schools--by blather about how these subjects allow us to think the greatest thoughts, engage with the greatest ideas, etc. Students may be compelled by those arguments once they are humanities majors, but it's not the way to attract first-generation college students or convince their parents. The humanities really need to sell themselves as a smart professional move. In my state, the teachers unions, like all the civil service unions, are still very powerful, so that's a draw. But we need to make a much more powerful and explicit case for the utility of a humanities major for careers in business and other professional fields (and not just by talking vaguely about "critical thinking skills"; our students are concerned about the bottom line, and that's not a failing on their part, but one we have to be able to address directly).

Five or six years ago, although it feels like five or six months ago, FLG and several of his coworkers were all working on finishing their degree. Most of the coworkers were taking business or technical courses online. FLG knew that he wanted a traditional liberal arts education, which is not only unavailable but FLG would argue impossible to deliver online. A few of FLG's coworkers thought he was crazy to quit work to follow a course of study that wasn't directly applicable to his current career path. But that's shortsighted.

Nobody is going to hire FLG because he read, discussed, and wrote about Plato. But the ability to analyze an abstract situation or topic, synthesize the information, and explain conclusions that FLG gained are valuable, even if that doesn't show up on job requirements listing. And will certainly be more valuable in twenty years than the course on Java programing that a coworker was taking. Given all this, there are two problems with higher ed, at least as far as FLG sees it.

First, most people just want immediately and directly applicable skills or a credential. Forcing them to take humanities classes because they are good for them, like their vitamin C or something, has never seemed like a good idea. Maybe, for a select few, the required humanities courses will kindle some flame of learning, but FLG doesn't think it's a very good use of society's resources to force all of them to take classes they think are irrelevant. As long as the option to take liberal arts is there for those who want and are capable, then FLG thinks that's fine. For example, FLG decided to go that route.

Second, liberal arts education is difficult to scale. The best experiences FLG has had were in small seminars with other engaged students and a good instructor, which resulted in a lively discussion of lots of reading and was followed by a lengthy paper.

This isn't how either the flagship state school nor the community college FLG attended went. At the state school, sure some classes were smaller, but even then many students weren't engaged, just fulfilling a requirement. Many introductory classes were in massive lectures and with multiple choice tests. These are far more conducive to proving a student has technical and vocational skills than a solid liberal arts training.

Classes at the community college were generally small and the professors were great, but FLG has only sympathy for his English 102 professor trying to teach A Doll's House and Hamlet to a class of 30 students, 28 of whose mother tongue was not English and were just trying to get an accounting credential. It was painful for FLG, he couldn't imagine how the professor felt. (BTW, FLG knew it was going to be tough when he used the word homage in a discussion and got blank stares and was eventually encouraged to explain the concept.) This isn't to say that FLG didn't learn anything in community college. Quite the contrary. In most classes, he did a goodly amount of reading. FLG isn't sure he had to learn that much though. The examinations were multiple choice and simple identification.

At Georgetown, FLG got tons of reading and papers assigned. Exams were initially tough. For example, one exam said to discuss two sentences Vladimir Putin had said. That's it.

To get full credit, if FLG remembers correctly, a student had to identify the assumption behind Putin's statement was classical realism, mention Morgenthau, detail those assumptions, and spell out the implications of classical realism/Putin's statement. Whatever it was exactly, it was a hell of a lot more complicated than multiple choice. That's great insofar as it sets high standards and demonstrates advanced knowledge of the topic and analytical skills, but it's difficult and expensive to do that.

Given unlimited time and resources, FLG would be fine with forcing everybody to take a liberal arts curriculum. Disproving the Big Assumption is hugely beneficial both for the individual and society, but maybe it's not so important if a person just wants to be a system administrator or an accountant. Maybe they just need vocational and technical training. Forget the liberal arts.

But isn't there a risk that the liberal arts could light a fire of intellectual curiosity in that aspiring accountant? Wouldn't that be a tragedy? FLG thinks yes. But, again, here's the thing - limited time and resources.

FLG has long advocated a three year sort of BA lite that incorporates one year of liberal arts core, instead of the current two, and two toward more technical or vocational. This, FLG guesses, is splitting the difference, but thinks it makes sense. Students who want a vocational or technical training and a credential would flock to a school with a three year BA. Capable and interested students could still do a traditional four year liberal arts curriculum, but that would mostly be reserved for selective schools.

This does bring up the issue of cost. FLG's decision to attend Georgetown was a very costly one, but he did it anyway and made/is making it work. FLG would certainly admit that he has greater than average social, economic, and intellectual capital (well not so much intellecutal), but, in most cases, FLG thinks the elite schools do a good job of getting together financial aid for needy students. If the schools that currently offer four year degrees broke out into two tiers, one consisting of elite schools that offered the four year liberal arts and a second offering three year degrees consisting primarily of vocational training, then the system would work better.

By the way, when FLG says elite universities, he doesn't only mean the Ivies. He also means flagship state schools. They should shift to a more liberal arts focused curriculum. Maybe even drop undergraduate business schools. The State university systems provide the three year degrees. Right now, whether the student just wants the credential or not, all other things being equal, it's generally better to attend the U of Whatever than Whatever State because U of Whatever is more prestigious. When this means an additional year of schooling and cost, and the major offerings are less vocationally oriented, then there's a differentiation. Three years to a credential in a vocationally- or technically-oriented field versus four in a liberal arts environment is a stark difference. Moreover, it would both force the humanities and liberal arts to make the case for relevance and, after a few years of graduating students, provide demonstrable proof of the value of a liberal arts education.

So, in conclusion, while liberal arts and humanities are important, not everybody is cut out for or interesting in liberal arts. By forcing all students into a liberal arts-ish model, even those who are not interested or motivated, both muddies and dilutes the value of liberal arts. Plus, it ignores that society and individuals have limited time and resources. So, break the entire thing up and we should be offering a lot of 3 year BA lites where 4 year degrees are currently required.


Withywindle said...

Excellent post, btw.

Flavia said...

I'll just add this:

At fancier schools, where students enter with lots of cultural capital, there will always be a lot more students who are predisposed to want to study the humanities. At a school like mine, the fact that many of our English majors are, in some sense, "pre-professional," is a way of getting into the major students who have the capacity for deep, nuanced, analytical thought, and some aesthetic sensibility, who might otherwise be majoring in business or education or whatever. It's the same reason that we require Shakespeare for English majors: Harvard doesn't have to require Shakespeare, because English majors will take it anyway. Most of our students wouldn't take it if it weren't required--but my Shakespeare class is, almost without fail, my best class every semester because once students are in the class, they really groove on it. (And our major is, I think, tough enough that students who can't hack it or really aren't suited for it switch out.)

But although I would never say that THE MASS of college students should be forced through humanities classes, much less that they should be forced to major in the liberal arts, I do think that intelligently-designed curricula, and well-conceived distribution requirements are an important way of introducing students to disciplines and habits of thinking that they wouldn't know about or explore on their own. And this is all the more vital for students who are first-generation college students and who may have very little idea of what college can offer them.

It's all very well to say that some people just want a vocational education, or a piece of paper that will entitle them to a pencil-pushing white-collar job, but students who simply aren't aware that they can do better/different shouldn't be forced to settle for that--for whatever their dumb uncle or high school guidance counselor told them was their best course.

In short, tracking students--especially if we're talking about 18-20 year-olds--into two different kinds of degree, one of them a "lite" degree meant for students of more modest ability or ambition, seems to be to be saying that kids who went to crappy high schools, or who were academic screw-ups or just immature in high school, aren't capable of intellectual change and growth in college. And my experience (and I think your own?) suggests otherwise.

FLG said...


That's why I am not advocating purely vocational. If a student discovers during that first year that liberal arts is for them, if it kindles a burning desire for knowledge, etc, then they'll have to transfer.

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