Friday, January 15, 2016

On the (false) significance of a liberal arts education

Joshua Kim posted an article on Inside Higher Education last month (Dec. 8, 2015). The article described his answers to some questions he was being asked in a interview [How Would You Answer These 9 Reimagine Education Questions?].

Here's one of the questions and his answer ...
Question 4: Is there an innovation/idea/movement/methodology that excites you in terms of the future of education?

Yes. A liberal arts education.

A liberal arts education is based on the idea that the most important part of an education is learning how to learn.

In our liberal arts schools we explicitly focus on developing skills in communication and collaboration. Integrity, self-reliance, and independence of thought are all essential elements to a liberal arts education. A comfort with risk taking, and the ability to make a positive impact on our community’s and the world.

These will be the skills that will be essential in the cognitive economy of the 21st century.
I'm all in favor of teaching critical thinking and learning how to learn.

I see no evidence that liberal arts schools are doing a better job of this than other universities and there's certainly no evidence that you can learn these skills as a history major but not as a physics major. Same applies to communication, integrity, self-reliance, and independence of thought. It's silly to imply that these skills can only be developed in a liberal arts program. (C.P. Snow is still right after all these years.)

The "innovation" applies to all disciplines in a university. Every student should be taught how to learn whether they are in engineering, science, liberal arts, or (gasp!) business & commerce. The fact that it's considered to be an "innovation" is what disturbs me the most.

Here's the second question & answer that I want to address ...

Question 5: The world is changing fast with new careers being created every day. Most students will change jobs multiple times throughout their careers. What advice do you have for the current and next generation ? what should students do to remain competitive in an increasingly complex global economy?

Same answer as the previous question. Get a liberal arts education.

I worry that both the market and our culture is pushing students away from a liberal arts education.

There is too much of a focus on the income of a first job, and not enough focus on lifetime economic and social outcomes.

When we take a long view, liberal arts graduates excel at every measure of economic and personal success.

I also worry that a quality liberal arts degree is increasingly out of reach for all but the most talented and privileged in our society.

We need to do whatever we can to increase access to a liberal arts education.
There's nothing at all wrong with a liberal arts education as long as it includes a lot of science. Ivy League schools—like Dartmouth where Josh Kim teaches—cannot continue to graduate students who don't understand basic concepts about the natural world.

Students who learn how to learn and learn how to think critically will be well-prepared to enter the real world after graduation. However, in today's society it's not enough to be able to discourse on the difference between Charlotte and Emily Bronte or whether barbarians caused the fall of the Roman Empire.

That may have worked in the past but at today's social gatherings you better know something about vaccines, evolution, climate change, algorithms, genetically modified foods, solar energy, eclipses, plate tectonics, and the Higgs boson or you are going to look like a fool.1 If you're visiting a psychic or a homeopath then your liberal education was worthless.

The implication that only a liberal education, not a science-based education, will properly prepare you for the workplace is absurd. In an ideal world, all types of university education will do the job as long as the program doesn't ignore the fundamentals of science and scientific thinking.

Are you curious about what a liberal arts education really means? Watch this discussion about "The Liberal Arts at Dartmouth: What Lies Ahead?" You can hear five professors and one dean at Dartmouth talk about why the liberal arts is so important but at the end you probably still won't have any idea what they're talking about. That's what a liberal arts education does for you! It teaches you how to obfuscate and sound intelligent. Above all, it teaches you the importance of anecdotes as a substitute for facts and data.

1. Perhaps this is wishful thinking. For my generation, it's still acceptable to proclaim loudly that you know nothing at all about science and math—dropped them in high school—and still be respected.


  1. I am extremely puzzled by your removal of the natural sciences and mathematics from the liberal arts, of which they are historically a part, and then your proceeding to complain about what is left after their removal.

    1. The only time I've ever seen the real sciences mixed with liberal arts is when liberal arts people het upset.

    2. @James McGrath

      Okay, I may have exaggerated the distinction but there's no escaping the fact that the biochemistry major at my university would not qualify as "liberal arts" under any reasonable definition.

      Science students often take 16/20 courses in the sciences and maths and only three or four courses in the traditional arts and humanities department. Three of these are required.

      English majors, on the other hand, don't have to take a single science or math course and most people would still call that a liberal education.

      I recognize that "true" liberal arts schools will pay lip service to the maths and sciences but those courses are still thought to be second rate.

      I've added a video of a discussion on the liberal education at Dartmouth. The third speaker is a professor of physics & astronomy but he offers no insight at all to the role of science in the liberal arts other than mentioning that the liberal arts education might be "helpful" for scientists.

      The fourth speaker is a professor of chemical engineering and he makes it very clear that his field is complementary to, but not part of, the liberal education.

      All five professors are supposed to be excellent examples of what a liberal education can achieve but you can watch the entire discussion without having a clue about the meaning of a liberal arts education and why it so valuable.

      To me, that's an excellent example of the failure of a liberal arts education to teach critical thinking.

  2. Unfortunately, you're singularly uninformed about what constitutes a liberal arts education. The idea that the liberal arts are somehow mutually exclusive with the sciences is a false one, although regrettably a very common one.

    Indeed, from the inception of the liberal arts (i.e., the trivium and the quadrivium), a majority of the 7 liberal arts should arguably be counted as the precursors of scientific study. Those 4 would be logic, arithmetic, geometry, and astronomy (the remaining three are grammar, rhetoric, and music).

    In other words, you're correct to suggest that the sciences are crucial to critical thinking, etc., but you're just ignorant when you set up a dichotomy between the sciences and the liberal arts.

    1. Alas, that does not seem to be what is meant by liberal arts now. Most would assume that a liberal arts education excludes hard sciences, and concentrates instead on literature, economics, politics, social criticism, and the study of modern social trends and so forth.

    2. We could do a test. Let's take 1000 students who have graduated from a liberal arts program and test them on various fundamental concepts in mathematics and astronomy (and other sciences.)

      We'll ask them to describe evolution, explain a solar eclipse, and tell us how the Himalayas were formed.

      Any predictions?

    3. The liberal arts may not be mutually exclusive with the sciences in principle, but in practice one often has to chose one or the either (not exclusively but as a focus of studies). And there can be no argument what the choice should be.

      The famous anecdote in C.P. Snow's lecture is about the dinner table with highly "educated" people none of whom knows what the Second law of thermodynamics is while all of them would consider you less than a human if you had not read Shakespeare. As famous as it is, it in fact very often gets swept under the rug, because nobody wants to discuss it head on -- in the grand scheme of things Shakespeare is utterly insignificant, while thermodynamics is just as valid in the 21st century on Earth as it was 5 billion years ago on some planet in some distant galaxy, and as it will be as long as the universe exists. And it governs everything that happens inside and around us. So which one is it really important to know?

      Now you can argue that reading Shakespeare teaches you about human nature and human behavior, but that's utterly false too -- it does teach you a lot about those things, the problem is that what it teaches is wrong. As is true for the vast majority of what constitutes the cannon of classical and more modern literature as they are all based on the nonscientific and often ideological views of their authors. A good understanding of humans as biological and evolved creatures reveals a lot more about human behavior and human nature, and it also has the benefit of being correct.

      We can also go as far as arguing that one of the big reasons why we are not doing anything to address our global sustainability crisis (global warming, resource depletion, overpopulation, etc.) is precisely the content and worldviews expressed in our so called classics -- they all focus on the relationships between humans while the relationship between humans and the world around them is either absent or is derived from religion (i.e. completely wrong). As a result an objective ecological understanding of ourselves as part of the environment and dependent on material and energy flows from that environment is simply not something that features in our culture, so we re unable to properly understand the situation and act accordingly. A misunderstanding that gets propagated through repeated indoctrination into that same flawed worldview/ideology at the transition from one generation to the next, through the reading and detailed study of the "classics" and "humanities".

      That looks like quite a big problem to me.

      Let's face it -- there are only so many hours in a high school or a college program, while the amount of science one has to learn to function properly in the modern world is vast, and it has to also do feature a lot of unlearning of misconceptions and falsehoods, either intuitive in origin or imposed by the culture one lives in. So that limited time is much better spent studying more rigorous disciplines, especially given that a lot of the humanities make a negative contribution towards one's understanding of the real world as they teach you outright falsehoods.

      That said, it is critical to understand the intellectual foundations of science and the history of intellectual thought, which means that everyone should study a bit of philosophy and know quite a lot about the topics that the humanities study. But that can and should be achieved without the indoctrination into the worldviews of the authors of those works and without wasting time on the kind of textual "analysis" and interpretation that is the core of many of those classes today.

    4. Georgi, you make a very fine point, but let me speak in defense of Shakespeare. :-)

      Discussing the accuracy of Shakespeare's portrayals of human interactions and historical events as the only good to be derived from his works is something like dismissing Picasso because his women aren't anatomically accurate. What Shakespeare, Picasso, and other great artists really teach us is that even in our deepest and most elemental thoughts and feelings we are all so much alike that another's words or paintings can move us to tears, bring smiles, give us a glimmer of the profound and marvelous.... In other words, it is proof, right there in your head, that we are all in this together. That's a very good lesson.

      As for acting on that lesson to help make us all better off, I agree a science education, or at least an education that makes one curious about science and equips one with the tools to learn something about it, is essential.

    5. Perhaps I should have been a little bit more clear - note that when I said "utterly insignificant" I did not mean "absolutely worthless".

    6. I've heard some rumors (unsubstantiated for now) that evolutionists of all sorts have finally come to some sort of an agreement regarding the mechanism of evolution... What are your thoughts on this issue? Do you think you can get some sort of an agreement before we run out oxygen on this poor planet?

  3. We'll ask them to describe evolution, explain a solar eclipse, and tell us how the Himilayas were formed.

    That's "Himalayas." See? The value of a liberal arts education!

    1. I was joking, as in "The total value of my liberal arts education is to make me a decent proofreader," but you're welcome. :-)

  4. When I was an engineering undergrad (a long time ago), we often said to each other that what we were learning now mostly wouldn't matter a few years after graduation; what would be important was knowing how to find out. So yeah, I think engineering students were taught how to learn.

    I currently hold Bachelors and Masters degrees in electrical/computer engineering. A few years from now I will have a B.A. in Philosophy. Will that count as finally having obtained a "liberal education"?

  5. In a high school English class, many years ago, we were reading a poem that contained the word "nightjars". The teacher and some of the more imaginative students immediately tarted "analyzing" this by saying that it was a reference to the image of "the jars of night", I guess because it would be dark inside of a jar.

    On the other side of the room I was spluttering and trying to get called on, to point out that "nightjar" was the name of a bird!.

    So a little natural history would have helped.

    1. Or the line in A Christmas Carol where a ghost is said to glow like a "bad lobster in a dark cellar". In Dickens' day, when seafood would be kept in a cellar rather than a refrigerator, photoluminescent bacteria would be a common occurrence on lobsters that had "gone off". But some people who don't get the microbial reference think Dickens was just being surreal.

  6. Some of my English teachers said things about science that would make Ken Ham giggle. On the other hand, writers and poets were frequently quite science literate.

  7. As a biologist who got my B.A. in a liberal arts school, I obviously value science (my life work!) but I also value the liberal arts. My exposure to art history expanded my personal world in a beneficial way. I learned to write reasonably well. I got some ideas about human history, which I've built on in my personal reading since. (I find knowing this stuff useful for understanding what's happening now.)

    Also, I was a nerd back when I'd never heard the word and it would only have been an insult. I didn't "get" people. I missed signals. I had no idea why people did what they did, and very little idea that I didn't know. My voracious reading of everything from classics (including Shakespeare) to throw-away mystery novels slowly helped me develop a useful theory of mind.

    Too often, it suffers from being taught by mathphobes and people who decided long ago that they couldn't do science and want to treat that as a good thing. At its best, though, a liberal arts education is truly beneficial.

    1. And I'm an engineer and general science geek, now in a philosophy department (note to Larry: it's partly talk.origin's fault. Wilkins' mostly). And cringing a bit at how some pre-Socratic wild-ass speculations are taken as anticipating atomic theory or evolution. No, not in any useful way it didn't -- it's not a whole lot better than Nostradamus' "predictions" about world history.