The value of a liberal arts education

by on September 21, 2010 at 7:33 am in Education, Philosophy | Permalink

Seth Roberts writes:

…is “liberal education” so hard to defend that no one can coherently defend it?

Bryan Caplan also seems skeptical, although I do not recall if he has tackled liberal arts education per se.

A liberal arts education helps us think with greater subtlety, even if it does not improve our performance on subsequent standardized tests.  I see an impact here even on the lesser students in state universities.  It also helps explain how the U.S. so suddenly leaps from having so-so high schools to outstanding graduate schools; how many other countries emphasize liberal arts education in between?

Liberal arts education forces us to decode systems of symbols.  We learn how complex systems of symbols can be and what is required to decode them and why that can be a pleasurable process.  That skill will come in handy for a large number of future career paths.  It will even help you enjoy TV shows more.

For related reasons, I believe that people who learn a second language as adults are especially good at understanding how other people might see things differently.

I am interested in food (among other topics), not only because of the food itself.  I also view it as an investment in understanding symbolic meaning, cultural codes of excellence, the transmission of ideas, and also how the details of an area fit together to form a coherent whole.  I believe this knowledge makes me smarter and wiser, although I am not sure which mass-produced formal test would pick up any effects.  I view this interest as continuing my liberal arts education, albeit through self-education.  

Up close, I see Yana getting four years of a liberal arts education and I believe that her school is a very good one.  I have not seriously flirted with the idea that she is learning nothing important.  

Scott September 21, 2010 at 7:40 am

Robert Paul Wolff gave an unorthodox defense of a liberal education a little while ago: http://darwin.marist.edu/Lectures/pwolfffeb3.mov

lbj September 21, 2010 at 8:05 am

Is it truly a liberal arts education if it’s just a bunch of weak distribution requirements? Most liberal arts degrees are disparate majors plus a few introductory courses which can be chosen from such a wide range of disciplines that it’s not clear that any two students in the same college can even be said to have had a similar college experience.

Chris September 21, 2010 at 8:06 am

I think crappy high schools and great graduate schools has more to do with the latter being private and having deregulated prices, rather than anything to do with what people learn here as undergrads. Remember — many of the grad students in this country (maybe *most* in the sciences) didn’t even go to undergrad in the US.

Liberal arts education is its own reward, but it has very little to do with US performance in high-level sciences. Arguably it diverts great numbers of high-IQ American students into the humanities.

rhodium September 21, 2010 at 8:14 am

I think it is not just liberal arts but a good US college education in general. In science (at least the chemistry courses I know) even kids with good AP or IB high school chem have a plug in the formula mentality that our first semester college chem tears down. Then, if they keep with it, comes orgo and suddenly there is a hard science course with no math, just pattern recognition. Students have to radically change their study strategies. The folks from China take literally twice the number of science courses and arrive in grad school with better standardized test taking ability but no greater research ability than US students. In fact, the Chinese kids generally love the chance to think critically after 16 years of memorization.

Alex September 21, 2010 at 8:34 am

Sentence to ponder: “It will even help you enjoy TV shows more.”

farmer September 21, 2010 at 9:05 am

it’s silly to say “what will get me a job” and equate that with “what is good”. most people switch career fields (not jobs, entire fields) several times throughout their careers. “gettign a job” (which i assume means “entering a career field”) is temporal.

Kevin K September 21, 2010 at 9:13 am

Getting on a good career track really does improve your quality of life. Its really difficult to switch to a good track once your on a lower status one.

Ivy league people encouraging state school people to get liberal arts education is a bad idea. Ivy league graduates have all sorts of options that state school kids do not.

George September 21, 2010 at 9:20 am

Patrick Deneen (http://patrickdeneen.blogspot.com/2010/03/science-and-decline-of-liberal-arts.html) offers a different defense of liberal arts education, specifically referring to the science/math issue. He says that STEM fields ultimately teach control and manipulation (of the world around us), the idea that we can fill our desires with more, more, more. On the other hand, the liberal arts teach self-control. “The liberal arts recognized that submission to these limitless appetites would result in the loss of our liberty and reflect our enslavement to desire. To be free — liberal — was itself an art, something that was learned not by nature or instinct, but by refinement and education. I’m grateful for all the things STEM graduates have done for us, but at the same time, what I see in the news makes me wonder if we wouldn’t all benefit from a bit more self-control, too.

[PS: No I'm not saying things like "women's studies" instill self-control, and like commenter thehova, my liberal arts education forced me to take advanced calc and probability, so be careful making assumptions about a liberal arts education]

farmer September 21, 2010 at 9:27 am

my main gripe with STEM, emphasis on the “e” part, is the impartation of a worldview that suggests life if full of problems which can (and ought?) be solved. And solved in a way that is active, measuable, and (ideally) involving shit-tons of gizmos. Which is how we end up with a drone army and satellite guided bombs but a going-nowhere presence in afghanistan being thwarted by illiterates on donkeys (to make a topical reference)

Jim September 21, 2010 at 9:31 am

A simple “yes” would have sufficed.

Nylund September 21, 2010 at 9:37 am

“It also helps explain how the U.S. so suddenly leaps from having so-so high schools to outstanding graduate schools.”

I’m a grad student in economics. Out of the 30 of us in the program, I think only 3 of us are from the US. My cousin is in grad school at Stanford and has similar observations. We both joke that the only reason we got in due to some form of “affirmative action” for Americans. We have two theories: first, American schools are a bit embarrassed to have no American grad students, and second, they want at least a couple native-speakers for certain TA duties. Undergrads routinely complain that they cannot understand their TAs and professors due to bad English and/or strong accents.

US grad schools are still attracting the best and the brightest students in the world, but increasingly these students did not do their undergraduate work in the US, much less attend US high schools.

My observations of recent hires at my school (and at the Fed where I spent my summer) are similar. Nearly all of the new hires attended US grad schools, but very few of them are American.

Nylund September 21, 2010 at 9:42 am

To make my above point, here is a list of grad students in the econ department at Princeton (not my school, randomly chosen):

http://www.princeton.edu/economics/graduate/graduate_student_director/

The Job Market Candidate page has CV’s so one can see where undergrad work was done. You’ll find very few with BA’s from American schools:

http://www.princeton.edu/economics/graduate/job_market_candidates/

Jim September 21, 2010 at 9:47 am

Sorry, couldn’t resist. A more serious response…

You were asked an uncomfortable question and chose to answer a different one. The question is: Is a liberal arts degree worth it? And the answer is:

No, it is not worth $50-$250K, plus 4 prime years of your life, to be “taught to think with greater subtlety” and “understand how others might see things differently.” Yes, those are valuable skills, which is why they would make a fantastic weekend seminar for those incapable of learning them all on their own by merely talking with other human beings, often by age 12, which is what most people do.

Although, if your income depends on selling this charade, I completely understand how you would answer differently.

thehova September 21, 2010 at 10:03 am

I think Ryan Vann made a good point above. This debate is kind of messy and silly. A liberal arts education is attached to a student’s specialization. It does NOT prevent a student from making a specialized course of study.

I think Seth Roberts really believes that it shouldn’t be mandatory for students to take history, philosophy, biology, etc… courses along with their specialized courses.

A quick answer is that our high school eduction system is awful compared to the strength of our college system (even top level, prestigious high schools don’t compare to average colleges). IMHO, it makes sense for students to take a broad range of courses to build a foundation for their later specialization.

Independent George September 21, 2010 at 10:09 am

But those excellent grad schools are increasingly populated by foreigners who didn’t attend our crappy high schools.

I, too, support liberal arts educations (Chicago AB Economics ’00), but think that the overwhelming majority of liberal arts programs fail to provide it, particularly for the price that is charged. A rigorous liberal arts education can be a wonderful thing; a watered-down, mile-wide-inch-deep curricula on whatever is currently fashionable in academia is less than worthless. The trend in liberal arts education is towards the latter.

thehova September 21, 2010 at 10:14 am

Just wanted to add that the idea that there’s a great need in this country for engineers, scientist, and R&D is fashionable but largely false.

Ed September 21, 2010 at 10:23 am

I agree with the defense of liberal education, but I think it runs into several hard realities of American life in 2010, among others:

1. We use college, as far as undergraduates are concerned, primarily for job training and employment screening, eg career development. Liberal education doesn’t fit well with this model, and if done right, may be antithetical to it.

2. Liberal education could still be valuable, just not as valuable as what colleges today are providing. Its not even clear to what exact even more practical, well career enhancing, disciplines are worth these prices.

Its probably impolite to suggest to academics that our system now uses college primarily for career development (also research for the government and private agencies), and I don’t even think it is a good idea, but that is the reality. I think it is cruel to suggest to undergraduates that college has as different purpose than what its become. Especially at these prices.

Edward Burke September 21, 2010 at 10:30 am

And this question: how comparable is the “reading versatility” conferred by any sound liberal arts education (general ability to read and comprehend texts across disciplines as distinct as literature, history, or political science in a given language, apart from gaining fluency in two or more non-native languages) with the “math versatility” that ostensibly comes with STEM education–id est, the specific math competencies of economists do not translate well to astrophysics, true? the math abilities employed by civil engineers are not those of forensic accountants, correck? –This question may be unwieldy but my sympathies are obvious, although I do not fail to sympathize with specialists.

Sleepy_Commentator September 21, 2010 at 10:34 am

I would recommend the following two articles, if one was looking for indications of a possibly quantifiable value to the humanities, from a scientific perspective:

Bill September 21, 2010 at 10:35 am

Perhaps one should ask a different question: How much liberal education should be required to obtain an engineering and science degree or any hard science. Having a well balanced engineer or scientist is good for both.

That goes for professional degrees also: maybe a doctor’s program needs a psych course; maybe legal education needs rudimentary accounting, economics and finance.

Some people have love of learning. So long as they do not hurt others, they should be left alone. There is a market. Just not one that pays much.

jimi September 21, 2010 at 11:03 am

@liberalarts

In any university I’m familiar with, Math, Chemistry, and Physics are administered in by the School of Science. Econ generally falls under the School of LA.

BTW- Econ is were all the engineering majors go when they flunk Thermodynamics in their Sophomore year.

Jonathan Willner September 21, 2010 at 11:25 am

I’m fascinated. Those who suggest that a liberal arts education is not worth the money generally equate education spending is justified strictly by potential future income. If we lived in an environment where markets for all products and services existed, were complete and were perfectly competitive then this might be consistent. Unfortunately, this is not the case. Of particular concern to me is the role of externalities associated with living in a social context. An absence of understanding of the structure of society on the part of one person is probably of little consequence to the whole. However, mass ignorance of same would likely reduce our material well-being as well as those things that we don’t count very well. Fallacy of composition anyone?

Kevin K September 21, 2010 at 11:26 am

“US grad schools are still attracting the best and the brightest students in the world, but increasingly these students did not do their undergraduate work in the US, much less attend US high schools.”

Let’s be clear as to why this is. When a field because a path for foreigners to get green cards it gets flooded with applicants, based on solely as a path to a job in the US and nothing to do with the field itself. When that happens the field is “foreignized” and domestic students with half a brain will avoid those fields at all costs, because there will be too many people in the field working for peanuts.

This is my experience in physics and it applies to more and more fields as time goes by. This is also why there won’t be a shortage of engineers and scientists, as long as that is a path to US jobs.

a leap at the wheel September 21, 2010 at 11:29 am

“Liberal arts education forces us to decode systems of symbols. We learn how complex systems of symbols can be and what is required to decode them and why that can be a pleasurable process. That skill will come in handy for a large number of future career paths.”

This quote seems very silly to me, having gone through a hard science education (and I’m not pidgin holing symbols to mathematical symbols). A huge part of the engineering process, for good engineers, is recognizing and reusing design patterns.

Ted September 21, 2010 at 11:47 am

Judging from the reflexive dismissal of Tyler Cowen’s arguments by so many commenters, I think he must be onto something. Why is it this website is so popular? In part, its because his research and blog posts often talk about the kids of things liberal arts educations focus on, yes from an economic POV, but that too is a part of liberal arts. Tyler Cowen is, IMHO, as much an anthropologist as he is an economist. People in general are interested in the arts, literature, other cultures and all they produce — these are all topics of liberal arts study, not STEM.

Another big factor is the huge inflation of college costs — 20 years ago when public university education was perhaps one-fourth as expensive, the focus did not have to be so much of future earning potential. Perhaps that in and of itself was a benefit of liberal arts education, people finding satisfying albeit perhaps not that renumerative of professions — I work in a field (cultural resource management) in which numerous PhD’s are employed making <$50K per year. I think most of these folks are satisfied at this level as well, frankly the idea that success=a salary at least 2x the median is a large part of what is wrong with the US.

IVV September 21, 2010 at 12:08 pm

Regarding the number of foreigners in US grad schools: The number of foreigners does not, in itself, indicate poor quality of undergraduate education in the US.

If American students are trying to go to grad school, but are denied access because they are outcompeted by foreigners, then yes, we can conclude that American undergraduate education is lacking. I do not think this is the case. As far as I can tell, American students trying to attend graduate school do, in fact, get in, and perform well. If this is true, then the pool of Americans interested in grad school remains lower than the supply of graduate education, leading to the importation of demand.

What we are actually seeing is a skewing of opportunities through grad school. If Americans felt that grad school would be a worthy investment, they would apply in droves. In many fields, the advantages that a graduate degree give you are small, outside of professional degrees like business, law and medicine. America has plenty of “best and brightest” people, and they flocked to Wall Street and away from engineering, because the quality of life is superior.

Returning to the liberal arts education, yes, all reasonable college graduates have a liberal arts education. Some have more on top of it, like engineering and finance students, and some have less, like English majors. However, since we’re entering a world in which a college degree is the cost of admission, you have a lot more people flocking to college than in the past. In the past, a lot of liberal arts people wouldn’t go to college at all, but join the workforce. That doesn’t work anymore. Yes, a lot of English majors get stuck in $30k drudgework after college, but the fact remains that without the degree, they wouldn’t get the $30k drudgework job. It’s usually the difference between working at a desk and working in a factory. This is not to say that the factory worker isn’t earning more or feels more fulfilled. But it is a very different career track.

razib September 21, 2010 at 12:10 pm

why can’t you get a liberal arts education through library fines? secondarily, a liberal arts education often teaches people to argue like morons. specifically, you have a thesis, and think five or six examples suffice to convince anyone of the validity of the thesis. third, lib arts majors get into the habit of problematizing and nuancing away any argument which they disagree with, while leaving their own prejudices free and clear.

scientists who just know science can be boring. but at least they’re clear.

Silas Barta September 21, 2010 at 12:18 pm

Jim (at Sep 21, 2010 9:47:09 AM) wins the thread. F’in *epic*.

el September 21, 2010 at 12:38 pm

I think a lot of people are using the term “a liberal arts education” when they really mean “a bad liberal arts education”, though it’s an understandable mistake as much of what’s offered in colleges these days is closer to the latter.

I also have doubts about the assertion that you can just go to the library if you want to “learn” liberal arts – I had the great fortune to be forced by my university program to take a world cultures class where the professor could show us primary and secondary texts, pluck a sentence out, and break down every word or phrase and its historical, religious, and cultural context. I know plenty of people who are voracious readers and are interested in subjects typically classified as liberal arts. They could not have done that. That said, I only had maybe two or three professors in my four years that were able to shed light on an alternative mental framework of the world in such a way.

On the other hand, I majored in business, so I guess I technically didn’t have a liberal arts or a STEM education…? Ironically, I chose business after reading a paper cited by the Chinese famine paper posted on MR today; I thought it’d be kind of like majoring in econ.

urbano September 21, 2010 at 12:59 pm

Assessing a ‘liberal arts’ education is difficult: does a toe-dip in a number of different pools confer the ability to swim? Yes, one is exposed to the symbolic nature of cultural experience(s), but often only just enough to be dangerous in one’s thinking: one learns to ‘deconstruct’, but rarely gets deep enough into a given subject to grasp the boundary between the universal and the particular (mind you, most grad students seem to be unclear on this as well….). Given that, in many arts faculties (social sciences in particular) one finds the final two years are spent undermining/contradicting much of the ‘gateway’ overstatements made in first and second year classes (anthropology, I’m looking at you…), a liberal arts degree might be little more than the ivory tower as tower of Babel: a lot of contradictory chatter, with little clarity, synthesis, or resolution. More noise than signal…

Kevin K September 21, 2010 at 1:14 pm

My experience is in physics and they definitely move to different fields to avoid the competitive job market. They may not say its because of foreign competition, but that’s what’s causing it. Its not because of their high school/undergrad education.

Outsider September 21, 2010 at 2:00 pm

99% of the stupidity we engage in as a society could be cured by a
good dose of high school history.

Not sure what the appropriate measure of value for any education would
be. This is not an easy question and cannot be answered in a neat
little package.

I would definately not underestimate the value of the ability to think
conceptually and communicate you get with a liberal arts education.

anon September 21, 2010 at 2:10 pm

@JAKE SPEED:

A CFA is a very poor example. Try sitting in a room for 18 months and teaching yourself quantum mechanics or chemical engineering. A CFA has very little of analysis or complex fundamentals. From what I hear CFA’s are more of “calculator monkeys” or “regulation look-up tables”. Ergo, even if a PhD in Physics were to take a crack at being a CFA he’d have to sit in a room for 18 months with the CFA prep material.

Buzzcut September 21, 2010 at 2:16 pm

Engineering is the new liberal arts. As the liberal arts has become politicized, it’s mission “to teach you how to learn” has been subsumed to political correctness.

But academic engineering, in its outright brutal emphasis on math and physics, does exactly that. You learn how to learn.

Then, in later years, with emphasis on projects, you learn how to work in teams, most often very diverse ones (because the engineering enrollment is so diverse).

I hated it while I was there, because it was so much work, but it really was an excellent experience, and I am much better off for it, in a way that I wouldn’t be if I had wimped out and done economics.

Troy Camplin September 21, 2010 at 3:00 pm

I have a B.A. in recombinant gene technology and two years of grad school in molecular biology. I dropped out because I was bored to tears. I needed and wanted something more complex, more difficult. I got a M.A. in English and a Ph.D. in the humanities. My dissertation, Evolutionary Aesthetics, integrated all my past education.

I have been through it all. Why is a liberal arts education important? Well, for one, it shows you the world is far more complex than math and the sciences have to date shown it to be. In fact knowledge increases in complexity as follows:

From simplest, to most complex:

1. math
2. physics
3. chemistry
4. biology
5. psychology/cognitive science
6. the social/humane sciences — sociology, economics, anthropology, etc.
7. philosophy
8. the arts and literature

The social sciences are sandwiched between psychology and philosophy — so it would behoove anyone studying the social sciences to know both psychology and philosophy very well. Psychologists should understand biology, but also all the levels of complexity above it, all being emergent from embodied human brains and their interactions.

The dominance of math and physics in the past has done immense damage to the study of everything from biology on up in complexity — and the farther away one gets from physics in complexity, the worse the “insights”. More, it tells you nothing about how to live a full life as a free human being — which is in fact what he liberal arts is all about.

IVV September 21, 2010 at 3:56 pm

I agree with Tim that it’s a good thing. The only issue is that ALL majors get that education. A liberal arts education is good. But a liberal arts degree is “how to think… and nothing else.” Engineering, physics, math, etc. all get the “how to think” part of the education, and it’s absolutely vital.

Mike Gibson September 21, 2010 at 6:25 pm

These are all persuasive arguments, Tyler, but not for the argument you are putting forward.

All of what you say is true when the liberal arts are construed as the study of symbolic meaning, the communication of ideas, understanding standards of excellence.

Of course, this is not what’s taught in the American BA.

Moreover, there are cheaper ways of obtaining these lessons than by paying over $200,000 across 4 years.

In fact, you should ask, “Why have we not seen improvements in obtaining these skills I myself have developed over my lifetime?”

It is telling that you talk about the benefits of a liberal arts education by appealing to your adult life and its curiosity, but you do not mention even once the actual course of study you undertook in the liberal arts.

Corcoran Cadet September 21, 2010 at 8:42 pm

The real problem, in my opinion, is that this argument is confounded by factors that aren’t directly addressed by it. Sure we can discuss liberal arts as a large scale idea, but the value of your degree is going to depend on many other factors. Getting a degree from Harvard, for instance, is still a good deal in the soft sciences and humanities as far as I know.

Beyond that, liberal arts doesn’t bar science or tech majors. If you major in CS at my institution then you still have to take a very liberal and broad curriculum outside of your CS courses. It seems to me that the rant most people are making is that students who major in subjects related to the humanities/arts/social sciences are making a bad decision. There might be some merit to that if we discount students who eventually go on to law school, finance, or business school. The liberal arts provide a solid foundation for most professional schools or business ventures.

I know a good many engineers and scientists that do not use the majority of what they learned in college in their work. They could probably have been trained to do these jobs without much of a college experience. Does this mean that majoring in the sciences is pointless? I don’t think so.

Susan de la Vergne September 21, 2010 at 10:59 pm

There’s a ridiculous notion that’s taken hold that either you knock down a vocational major (business, engineering, healthcare) or you wander aimlessly studying culture, society and language. And that anyone who pursues the latter is destined for a lifetime of noble poverty while the vocationally trained crowd will rake in the paychecks.

None of it is true. Young professionals who learn accounting get bored after three years of reviewing tax returns and wonder what the point is. Meanwhile, liberal arts majors spend three years trying out different jobs for which they’re not quite suited while they learn how businesses operate, what a “process” is, how technology functions. They learned, in their undergraduate years, how to learn and how not to approach the job market like they already have it all figured out. They’re prepared to be lifelong learners, and to apply the knowledge they amass in positions of leadership.

Liberal arts students are better prepared for positions in business than business majors are.

Rob September 22, 2010 at 3:39 am

What’s this nonsense I’m hearing about “being able to give yourself a liberal arts education”?

I can look up the answers to chemistry problems in the back of a book.

You can’t look up your comprehension of bio-ethics or US civil rights in the back of the book.

Clyde September 22, 2010 at 10:35 am

How about a show of hands from all of the above on who has actually hired a liberal arts grad……

Alger September 22, 2010 at 2:26 pm

I am baffled by anyone who claims that salaries for engineers, statisticians, and MBAs would stay so high if the number of graduates in those fields multiplied by five, ten, or twenty times.

I am even more baffled by how often this kind of thinking pops up in places where the writer should know better. As someone once pointed out: In a world of Einsteins an Einstein drives the garbage truck.

Jonathan Willner September 22, 2010 at 4:53 pm

Very strange. Seems like a collection of people who are very fammilier with the concept of probability are confusing it with certainty. This compounded by the notion that all people should follow the path which is certain in terms of higher income, as “proven” by simplistic probabilty. Last time I taught stats there was a thing called “error” involved. We also had this thing called “individual preferences” in microeconomics. I guess the “representative agent” model isn’t a model, it’s a fact. The “representative agent” has a certainty of higher utility with higher income and is risk neutral. My, how things have changed. No more error. No more different preference orderings. No more risk aversion or preference. So much easier to work with. So very unlike society as a whole.

Troy Camplin September 23, 2010 at 3:08 am

Liberal arts deals with the most complex phenomena known to man — the mind, the interactions of those minds, and the creations of those minds. Thus, it deals with what makes us most human. What could possibly be more important than that?

Something to consider:

In order of complexity:

1. math
2. physics
3. chemistry
4. biology
5. psychology
6. the social/humane sciences — including eocnomics, sociology, anthropology, etc.
7. philosophy
7. the arts and literature

Please note that the liberal arts deal with the last two, which are the most complex phenomena we study. When we focus on simple phenomena, such as physics, and simple methods, such as math, we make horrible mistakes when we try to understand complex phenomena, such as economies. The liberal arts thus not only help us to understand who we are as human beings, but also help keep our thinking sufficiently complex to keep our studies in all other fields sufficiently human.

Political Economics September 23, 2010 at 9:18 am

” . . . although I am not sure which mass-produced formal test would pick up any effects.” If memory serves–and it’s been a good 15 years–the AP American History and AP English exams should fit the bill mass-produced formal tests that pick up the effects of a liberal arts education at the HS level. The roughly 50 percent of each exam devoted to multiple choice questions notwithstanding, the remaining 50 percent (of the points; 2/3 of the time allotted is devoted to multiple choice) requires students to analyze text and visual analysis and compose 3 (3!) analytical or synthetic essays. And the AP courses at my HS were very writing intensive, focusing on expository writing. Is not writing which analyzes, explains, and argues the hallmark of a liberal arts education?

And I take rhodium’s point regarding the algorithmic nature of the AP Chemistry Exam (and the Calculus Exams). That said, one aspect of AP Chemistry exam that I remember being particularly difficult were questions that asked the student to evaluate the veracity of a statement and if the statement was false to explain why? Is not asking, “why,” the foundational motivation of a liberal arts education?

Perhaps the SAT, ACT and especially the graduate school exams—MCAT, LSAT, GMAT, and the GRE (the last of which has a writing component that sets an embarrassingly low bar—would do the students, universities, and society well to consider incorporating expository writing in their assessment of test takers.

liberal arts grad September 23, 2010 at 9:39 am

Re: the worth of a liberal arts education, it is not something that can be quantified (or given a value in USD). The main (qualitative) value I derived from my philosophy undergrad was cognitive freedom; the ability to interpret symbols, patterns, literature, science, history, art, and yes, even television. Hell, I even sleep better. But perhaps that’s more due to the subsiding of my late-teens/early-twenties angst.

Mark September 23, 2010 at 10:04 am

Why such anger at engineers here? If you’ve ever studied engineering beyond your sophomore year of college, you’ll know that there’s no right answer, only ambiguity driven by constraints like cost, weight, size, power. I wouldn’t advocate an education that consisted entirely of engineering classes, but neither would I recommend the modern liberal arts education that thinks a second course in calculus or introductory probability is exceedingly rigorous. You need breadth, but breadth across the humanities, social sciences and hard sciences – we need to reduce the number innumerate people out there!

Evan September 23, 2010 at 11:42 am

Since the focus of all the comments has been along the lines of employment (disregarding other considerations such as how I understand and interact with my culture, peers, media outlets, etc), I will make my case along those same lines.
A liberal arts education in most cases takes time away from the student’s primary focus of study. This can be negative in the fact that the student is unable to devote all efforts toward the “primary† goal. (1 point -> professional)
As a student of economics, I know that the different perspectives I acquire through varied study contributes beneficial perspective and insight toward understanding Economics. I understand the argument can be made (I disagree with it) that only certain fields (i.e. non-technical fields) benefit from these perspectives. (1/2 point -> Liberal arts)
Data from the Department of Labor (http://www.bls.gov/nls/y79r22jobsbyedu.pdf) shows that most workers in the U.S. switch employers very often. The rapid rate of technological change requires businesses to adapt rapidly, and what are businesses other than a group of employees trying to adapt to the change? (I know it’s a bit more complicated) Data further suggests that even now employers are advertising job openings but not hiring (http://sg.wsj.net/public/resources/images/P1-AW649A_HIRE__NS_20100808183616.gif). This can be interpreted in many ways but it does suggest that employers aren’t finding the skills they want (or it could mean their convention of tossing resumes of persons who have been unemployed eliminates most of the supply of labor). Regardless, the point is that employers as a whole like to flip employees like realtors flipped homes in 2003. Liberal arts education fosters an attitude of curiosity and an appreciation of learning in of itself. Continual learning implies continual adaptation. (1 point -> liberal arts)
I don’t care if you’re a Marxist, Friedmanite, Main street Joe, Wall Street pro: a flexible labor pool (flexible in terms of skills and abilities, not necessarily wages) is a good thing. The rate of change of innovation among the majority of businesses implies either constant training/re-tooling or constant “employee-flipping.† A liberal arts education encourages precisely the ability/proclivity that employers keep over time rather than flipping. (1 point -> liberal arts)
I’m not saying L.A. is the only way to get these abilities, but it encourages it over and above non-L.A. so what’s the problem in that?

Bernie September 23, 2010 at 7:03 pm

Ha ha ha, the value of a liberal education: It teaches you how to argue without facts allowing you to justify the value of a liberal education.

Rusticandus September 23, 2010 at 8:38 pm

I agree about using college to learn stuff you can’t do on your own.

I’ve actually found some STEM subjects (more in the math and physics direction) not too hard for leisure.

So, do something really challenging in college–learn to read Thucydides and Aeschylus in Greek. This, not being a “politics junkie” or taking a Shakespeare class, is the real standard for an educated citizen.

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