A simple theory of liberal arts education

by on December 17, 2007 at 7:34 am in Education | Permalink

At the margin, that is.

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).

It is in contrast a common presumption that learning other languages, for English speakers, is becoming obsolete, if only because so many other people speak English.  I would think this raises rather than lowers the return to learning other languages.  Last fall, while visiting at Middlebury economics, I voiced these opinions and encountered little agreement.

Addendum: Here is commentary from Ed Lopez.

DK December 17, 2007 at 8:07 am

If the goal is to overcome bias, wouldn’t a math/physics education accomplish more? or at least be a fundamental component?

Very smart people with liberal arts educations are often easily biased and even defrauded on technical and scientific subjects — the pointy-headed bosses, the dot-com promoting stock analysts, WMD intelligence users, politicians ignoring bird flu, not to mention the ability of politicians to sell budgets that don’t add up.

And, one of the worst biases i’ve encountered is the idea among many well-educated ivy-league liberal arts people that math is somehow monolithic and straight jacketed. In reality, the difference between the ways of thinking of two randomly chosen math professors is often greater than the difference in the ways of thinking of two randomly chosen professors from humanities and social science departments. And your world view has to be shaken a bit when you first truly understand uncountability, or the mapping between R^1 and R^2, or the axiom of choice. And that’s not to mention how much more variety you get when you include physics or biology or Robin Hanson.

Amber December 17, 2007 at 8:22 am

libertarianism is an Anglo-American phenomenon

And yet within America, it is a disproportionately Eastern-European immigrant phenomenon. Is this true in Eastern Europe as well or do all the classical liberals in the region emigrate? My travels have not yielded an answer.

DRDR December 17, 2007 at 8:52 am

Why should you have to date the foreign women (men)? Wouldn’t close yet platonic friendships be sufficient or even preferable?

GreatZamfir December 17, 2007 at 9:19 am

If the goal is to overcome bias, wouldn’t a math/physics education accomplish more? or at least be a fundamental component?

I am not sure of I understand your point. I would agree that most liberal arts people could use more ‘exact sciences’ knowledge, but I don’t see why this has much to do with bias. In my experience exact people are not particularly unbiased on subjects outside of their own field, and if they are can often be more a sign of lack of interest in the topic than real neutrality.

On top of that, I doubt TC was arguing that liberal arts students need more liberal arts education, more that most other people, and perhaps economists in particular, would benefit from it.

About your point on the difference between math professors, it might be possible that is just the effect of zooming in: the more you about a subject and its subtleties, the larger difference in opinon between people seem. And while the mapping between R1 and R2 is in some sense amazing, it is not a topic many people have a vested interest in. It is simply easier to be unbiased on unpolitical subjects where the consequenses of having a certain opinion do not translate to large consequenses for many people.

MH's shadow December 17, 2007 at 9:29 am

Oh, and to quickly dispose of an obvious exception to the above suggestion, allow me:

“M. Hodak, you’re wrong.”

JasonL December 17, 2007 at 9:36 am

I’m a believer in the liberal arts education at the undergraduate level. I am personally the product of a BS in physics at a liberal arts school, and have found that background useful to me over and over again. I’d add two other points in favor of the liberal arts education:

1) The economy is increasingly dynamic. A specialized undergraduate experience may not prepare the average student for the diversity of their own probably carreer paths. I personally have done a spot of techinical writing, taught English in Osaka, and worked in finance in both technical and client facing roles. Beware of over specializing.

2) The 4 year degree isn’t good at providing specialization in any particular field anyway. As a way to leverage your time, it is better to build a broad base at the 4 year mark and spend the next 2-4 specializing if that is your want.

JasonL December 17, 2007 at 9:44 am

Regarding languages. I’ve tried two times, and consistently find that it is a time intensive skill that quickly deteriorates for lack of use. My wife has a high degree of fluency in Spanish, and I, after 6 years of study earlier in my life, have almost no ability to generate Spanish sentences and an only slightly better ability with passive comprehension. She is more adept than I at the skill of language acquisition, but she also had a job in which she could speak on a regular basis.

We both spent two years in Japan, and what I acquired there was gone two years after I returned to the states.

I guess I’m saying that the cost of language acquisition is very high once maintenance is taken into account, and I’m dubious about it’s practical use for the average American. This is not my predisposition, by the way. I would rather be on board with Tyler here.

Jeff H. December 17, 2007 at 10:04 am

I couldn’t agree with Tyler’s point more, but I fear it’s a point those who’ve never integrated into a foreign culture will never quite grasp.

Also, there are plenty of opportunities for (young) Americans in every socio-economic strata to live abroad–all it takes is five minutes on the internet to find them.

mike December 17, 2007 at 10:18 am

Miss Belgium could have benefitted from this post.

See here

JasonL December 17, 2007 at 10:22 am

“Anecdotally, I find that _usually_ travel narrows the mind.”

I have seen this as well, though I’m less of a cynic than the rest of Bruce’s comment suggests he is. In our trip to Nepal, we were horrified at the backpacker culture we kept encountering. They really didn’t seem to get it. Faced with the stark poverty of Kathmandu, they’d say things like “It’s so nice to see a place Nike hasn’t spoiled yet! These people are in touch with nature!”

One of the missions of a study abroad program should be ‘how to travel’.

John S. December 17, 2007 at 11:07 am

Learning another language is great for personal satisfaction, but as a professional tool I think it is vastly overrated. As an engineer who is fluent in Spanish and French, i speak from experience. I can count on one hand the number of times these languages have been useful to me in a professional setting — and I’ve traveled a lot in Europe and Latin America in my job.

Most Europeans, and most educated Latin Americans, speak excellent English. The fact is that most international meetings are held in English. If they were held in Finnish or Urdu, I would be happy to learn those languages. But they’re not. So my limited time is much better spent learning more about my profession than in learning other languages.

Some reasons to learn another language: ordering in a restaurant, dating local women, reading their literature in the vernacular. All excellent reasons, but unlikely to impact your professional life, unless you are a translator.

8 December 17, 2007 at 11:23 am

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.

You know your own culture best; what you need is to view it objectively. The best place to do that is in the opposite hemisphere. You don’t necessarily need to learn the language if you are immersed in learning the history, philosophy, and culture. Also, after a period of time, turn back to your own culture and study it from abroad.

Robin Hanson December 17, 2007 at 11:42 am

What does the title of this post have to do with the body? That is, what does traveling and mixing with other cultures have to do with a “liberal arts education”? Do people and elite liberal colleges really believe they are exposing themselves to diversity?

Bartman December 17, 2007 at 12:13 pm

I’ve traveled around the world quite a bit, and I have discovered that I (often) enjoy having traveled after the fact more than the actual travels themselves. That is, the memeories ot the experiences are better than the actual experiences. Memories of the plane delays, boorish mobs, disconcertingly unfamiliar food and scary toilets fade much faster than those of the interactions with the people, places and cultures.

Incidentally, the more I travel, the more convinced I become of the superiority of the US as a place to live (and I’m not an American.)

Chaps December 17, 2007 at 12:52 pm

I don’t think TC meant travel as tourism, but rather to live in a different culture and adapt, therefore understanding and acquiring a different, more cosmopolitan point of view; which is what the entire post is about.

anon December 17, 2007 at 1:00 pm

why didn’t you just cut to the chase and title this piece “how to act like you’re more important/cultured/intelligent than those around you”?

what do any of these things accomplish other than allowing you to hold your nose higher in the company of others?

apostate December 17, 2007 at 1:11 pm

I have to agree with John S.

Because English has become the de facto international language there is very little incentive for english speakers to learn other languages unless they want to be a translator.

Also english speakers are faced with a problem most non-english speakers aren’t. That being what language should I study? Everybody else can pretty much work to get fluent in english since that’s what everyone else is doing. While a native english speaker has to choose what language they want to study. I think this contributes to the fact that knowing a different language in this country (unless of course you are a translator) is seen as more of an affectation or hobby given the limited utility mentioned above.

LemmusLemmus December 17, 2007 at 1:17 pm

A good reason to learn a foreign language is that it makes you humble. I like to think that my English is pretty good, but I will never be able to master its subtleties in a way a native speaker can.

To illustrate, I read Moby Dick in English (pretty hard), then read it again in German (my mother tongue) to get everything I missed the first time around.

Oh, speaking about it, another good reason, as mentioned by a commenter above, is being able to read fiction in the original language. Richard Brautigan in English and German are two different authors, and that’s not because the translations are crap.

Bruce G Charlton December 17, 2007 at 1:56 pm

Opportunity costs are the problem with furrin’ langwijes – if you learn a language then you are not learning something else which might be a better use of your time.

Also, I spent hundreds of hours not-learning French. I almost certainly could have learned French if these hours had been concentrated into 5 months – but spread over 5 years they were almost useless.

On the other hand, if I _had_ done an immersion course in French then I wouldn’t have had time for maths, science, geography and history.

Then again the choice of a second language is almost arbitrary for an English speaker. None of them give an edge, with the possible exception of Mandarin Chinese – but that would take thousands (not hundreds) of hours of study.

No – the only way to learn a foreign language (other than English) is before the age of 7 or simply because you enjoy it for personal reasons.

I semi-learned the dialect of Middle English (eg. Chaucer and the Gawaine poet) in my own spare time aged 15-18 for that reason. In my twenties I did the same for Inglis (medieval Scottish).

anon December 17, 2007 at 3:35 pm

Easiest way to learn a language? Ensure your parents gave birth in a polylingual metropolis. Or relocate. Grow up in urban switzerland and you will pick up a smattering of French or German. Settle in Singapore ==> Malay or Mandarin will be imbibed by osmosis. I grew up in Bombay and was fluent in 4 languages by the time I was 18. Inherent problem: mainland US does not have many such geographical opportunities. Can’t change geography!

anon December 17, 2007 at 4:10 pm

“….Will living abroad and knowing other languages really make you a better marketeer…”

What if a substantial portion of your market IS ABROAD? Think globalization.

GunnerUnit December 17, 2007 at 5:42 pm

“If the goal is to overcome bias, wouldn’t a math/physics education accomplish more? or at least be a fundamental component?”

When I hear “liberal arts education” I think it implies “liberal arts AND sciences”. At most universities the english department is in the same college as the physics department. I know that science majors often believe they are superior to humanities and social science majors, usually based on their programs being on average more difficult. However, all “liberal arts” majors are given a chance to develop their critical thinking skills. In fact, humanities/social science majors, since they often have more room for electives, get to branch out more in the way that Tyler is describing. Hard science majors often have no room in their schedule for anything other than req’s & pre-req’s. This could hinder “hard” science majors’ ability to overcome bias.

Believing one is superior to another based on their major in college is a form of bias.

Riemannian December 17, 2007 at 6:24 pm

GunnerUnit, indeed. The amount contempt shown towards rural and the non-cosmopolitan populace is shocking, especially when castigating the liberal specter of the “South”. I say this as someone decidedly sympathetic to urban life.

Pearl Alexander December 17, 2007 at 6:41 pm

I verily agree. And Ted Craig has it half right. Unfortunately brushing off learning a language as non-essential to learning a culture is probably one of the most idiotic statements I’ve ever heard.

I know a lot of foreigners in Japan who are living in an entirely different country than I am. They don’t speak Japanese or understand what is going on around them, they don’t understand to what extent Japanese people are xenophobic, they don’t have the same repetitive conversations debunking stereotypes about their country that I do. They can’t read the packages of the food they eat, they don’t understand Japanese rules, they don’t realize what their logic is based on. They are still tourists.

I am saddened when people see learning another language as a sign of cultural hubris. America has an enormous amount of power over the rest of the world. And yet its citizens take no responsibility to really understand the cultures with which they have ties. They brush off language as unimportant, when it is the essential fiber of human communication.

Learning Japanese has given me more respect for English and for communication between humans of all gender and age.

Monolingual speakers are a global minority. Americans are living in a poor mindset.

Yan Li December 17, 2007 at 9:44 pm

I agree with everything said here, but wonder how evolutionarily sustainable this “stragety” is. There seems a negative correlation between one’s willingness to explore (beyond traditional school education) and his/her willingness to reproduce. What will happen many generations later? On a different note, but along a similar line of thought, I have been wondering whether one should care about global warming at all if he/she does not have children. None of these is directly related to liberal arts education. But they do make me ponder the purpose of education, and on which level (gene, individual, family, society, nation, etc.) and for how long (a life time, generations, etc.) we are to measure its effect.

GunnerUnit December 17, 2007 at 10:06 pm

“At what point does an truthfully observed correlation qualify to be labeled a “bias”?”

Good question, I don’t have an answer. However, I would just like to say that in university settings, people have general license to make insulting “blanket” comments about non-city folks, but if you were to say the same thing about a minority group or women, you’d be burned at the stake.

Many so-called skeptical, critical-thinking people scoff at racial or sexual stereotypes, but find rural stereotypes perfectly acceptable. Since, in my experience, there is no more reason to accept the rural stereotypes than the racial or sexual ones (or more cynically, no more reason to disbelieve stereotypes about any of these groups), I would say that such people have an anti-rural bias.

Barkley Rosser December 17, 2007 at 11:51 pm

What is with this carrying on about universities having anti-rural
bias? Do any of you know how many of our universities and colleges
are in rural areas? Heck, Middlebury College is in a rural area.
Do they sit around making anti-rural statements at Middlebury? The
idea that anti-rural bias is some major issue in general or in academia
in particular, strikes me as ridiculous, although I am not surprised if
one finds it in certain big cities. But then, some of the most provincial
people I know come from New York.

Ross December 18, 2007 at 1:15 am

Gunner unit:

I totally see your point. Actually I’ve nothing anti-rural. My point is broader and this: the stifling atmosphere of political correctness has made saying anything uncomplimentary that can be correlated with a minority group (sex, race, rural/urban, disabled, immigrant) suicidal.

Genuine correlations get labeled as “biases” or “stereotypes”. This hinders progress.

The New York City High School Math Teacher December 18, 2007 at 11:20 am

There are textures of culture and psychology that become perceptible to the polyglot, and to which the monoglot is insensible. So I wholeheartedly agree that learning a foreign language – several – is far better than not learning any.

On the other hand, the only formal language training that did me any good (stuck) were my primary school Hebrew classes and my middle and high school French classes. At home, German was our Exilsprache für Umkindernebelsammlung, and doomed to generational diminuendo, and for me it joined Russian and Italian in my Young Werther literature swots and cultural immersion.

And I didn’t keep the Russian because I didn’t practice it enough. Practice through repeated regular exposure to foreign languages by deliberate consumption of culture only available in those languages is essential.

And that texture – so rewarding to appreciate it, and to perform one’s cultural dance acknowledging it.

The New York City High School Math Teacher December 18, 2007 at 1:10 pm

[The brown-crested idjit, au nature!]

Herkimer — I’m sure that your POD-personally printed edition of “The Golden Treasury of Art History” is on nice, soft, absorbent paper, because it appears that that would be the only use you would have for such a thing.

If I had a penny for every mentally-stunted, commonsenseless, and socially- maladroit engineer I’ve met, I’d have a few dollars. (Funny how they all congregate on the Internet. It was true in 1993, and it’s true now.)

And for me, it is so satisfying to call myself Dr. Pangloss, to whistle a melody from Bernstein’s Candide (yeah, that one), while simultaneously correcting Young Slan’s integrals, grammar, and spelling. Which otherwise would have cost $12,000 in extra tooling, and convince J. Random Consumer Products Company of our illiteracy.

(Ivy Liberal Arts Major)

anon December 18, 2007 at 2:43 pm

Pearl Alexander,

Your comment expresses more hubris than you could possibly fathom. It’s nice to think of yourself as the champion and saviour of American humility though, isn’t it? Good for you, going somewhere else and learning a language to “understand” people and their eccentricities.

Please tell me why Americans have a “responsibility to really understand the cultures with which they have ties”. Do other peoples have that responsibility as well? Or just those of us who happened to grow up speaking English?

Let’s face it, you’re just proud of the fact that you think you’re more clever than the other Americans where you live. Would you really find yourself so fascinating if all the other gaijin fit in as well?

John S. December 18, 2007 at 7:07 pm

To me, the height of American arrogance is to observe some trait that is universally human, and ascribe it solely to Americans. This attitude — illustrated perfectly by Pearl Alexander’s post — implies that only Americans can be held responsible for their behavior. The same behavior by individuals from other countries can be excused by the fact that they are … well, they are not Americans. So they really can’t help it. Americans, however, should know better.

Pearl, are you so wrapped up in yourself that you can’t see that that is exactly what you’re saying? Case in point: the California Secretary of State provides voter information in seven languages (one of them is Japanese by the way). There seem to be a whole lot of people — in California anyway — who can’t speak the language of the country they live in. My mother-in-law is one of them. She says she is too old to learn English. She has a bunch of friends who speak Spanish, and she gets all the soap operas she wants on Univision.

Are you saddened by this fact? Do you think it is hubris that prevents my mother-in-law from learning English?

I think you judge Americans by higher standards than the rest of the world because you think Americans are somehow better.

Herkimer December 20, 2007 at 8:40 am

Sorry to be back so soon, folks, but that “Teacher” has really pissed me off with his “mentally-stunted, commonsenseless, and socially-maladroit engineer” comment. Beyond academia, I’m a veteran and currently president of a 2,500 man reunion association. I’ve also coached little league, been a Cub Scout leader, served 6 years on a large union district school board, taught physics, advanced algebra and calculus, parachuted into the arctic circle, and climbed and skied the highest active volcano in the world. I’m well known and highly respected in my community, have served 6 terms as a justice of the peace and on my town’s board of civil authority. I was also a national team pistol champion along the way and hold a commercial single and multi-engine land pilot’s license with flight instructor endorsement. In short, my experience base is well beyond most, I’m pretty well integrated into my community, and one doesn’t get there by being “socially-maladroit”.

Herkimer December 22, 2007 at 6:18 pm

Mensa’s sole requirement for membership is an I.Q. in the top 2% of the population. It does not consider race, age, sex, politics, religion or any other criteria.

Therefore, Mensa does not make “mistakes”, as they are 100% capable of accurately reading 3-digit I.Q. scores.

But of course, if you were a little smarter, you probably would have already known that.

Barkley Rosser December 23, 2007 at 1:57 am

Herkimer,

Yes, I knew about Mensa’s requirement. I was being sarcastic, in case
you were too stupid to figure that out. In the crowd I tend to hang out
with, 98th percentile is pretty far down the scale.

BTW, it is also known that intelligence and education among Dems tends to
be more bimodally distributed than among Republicans. So, most people with
undergrad degrees only are Republicans, while high school dropouts and those
with terminal graduate degrees are more likely to be Dems, with there being
more of the former than the latter, hence the outcome regarding means that
you cite.

Boss Hog December 31, 2007 at 1:28 am

Herkimer, please cut Professor Rosser a little slack. He is obviously quite upset with you and there is nothing more dangerous than a rabid Liberal being attacked by a Conservative in Independents’ clothing. You’re obviously very intelligent and very successful and I’m sure your shit doesn’t stink as well.

I will admit I liked your comment on the benefits of the Bush Tax Cut to small business. Most people do not know that the vast majority of small businesses such as Sole Proprietorships, Subchapter S Corporations, and other Mom ‘n Pop operations are taxed at the personal income tax rate, and thus any drop in the personal income tax rate is a boon to the small businesses which are the backbone of America. Like yourself, the unexpected tax cut allowed my small company to acquire a much needed piece of capital equipment, which subsequently increased productivity to the point that our bottom line improved about 22% overall. We were able to give a small Christmas bonus to our 12 employees – our first ever – and we owe it all to Bush’s “tax cut for the rich”.

Please note that the top 5% wage earners pay about 50% of all personal income taxes, and the top 50% wage earners pay about 95% of all personal income taxes. I’m no mathematician, but that suggests that about half of the country is paying little or no personal income tax at all. Thus, a “tax cut for the poor” doesn’t seem to be a mathematical probability, since you can’t give a tax cut to someone who is paying no taxes.

Boss Hog January 1, 2008 at 10:19 am

Herkimer, you tend to get your skivvies in a bunch over that insulting fellow, but answering insults with insult is no positive solution.

While it’s true that the liberal community doesn’t contribute much to the gross national product, in many ways they enrich all our lives with contributions in music, poetry, and the like. Yes, students often choose the liberal arts in college because it is far simpler academically, but many often choose that path simply because they genuinely enjoy history or African studies, or whatever.

Every person doesn’t need to be a rocket scientist or find a cure for cancer. There should be a place at the table for everyone, and if we working folks have to shell out a few extra bucks for entitlement programs so that liberals can feed their families, I’m more than willing to do so. What would you have them do, turn to knocking off convenience stores?

Boss Hog January 2, 2008 at 5:24 pm

OK, Herkimer, I’ve just re-read all of your posts. My summary judgment appears to be that you consider a liberal arts education a waste of time, because it does not prepare anyone for work in the “real world”. We should all major in something that prepares us for the world of industry and commerce, something “productive”. Then, presumably we have no need for music, art, poetry, literature, or just old-fashioned philosophy.

Did I get it right?

Boss Hog January 4, 2008 at 8:20 am

So, you advocate eliminating liberal arts from the college curriculum, since they all be easily learned “on the side”, as you say? How about sports? We can play football and baseball in the back yard just as well.

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Benjamin Beauford April 9, 2010 at 10:50 am

Which book stated that Jane? I can’t seem to recall which one it is. Warren Farrell often states in his books that although women have been crying foul when it comes to their treatment and privileges, men have been silently wailing helplessly like sacrificial lambs. Men may be given a bit more acceptance in certain things but most of those things are at a high price. I’m not saying Warren Farrell is anti-feminist, neither am I declaring that he’s pro-male, it seems to me he’s just pro-human. Some of Warren Farrell‘s statements may appear sexist to the biased eyes and ears, but if you carefully analyze it as I have, you will see that he’s just giving account as to what he had observed. History has also given his claim some factual credit. You may love or hate Warren Farrell, but the fact still remains that his influence on male and female issues have stirred up important matters that would have been ignored by others. I wasn’t aware of the whole language and culture matter until now. Thank you for educating me.

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