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Thursday, April 03, 2014

What does "liberal arts education" mean in the 21st century?

The President of the University of Toronto recently published an article about undergraduate education. I questioned whether my university really is committed to the ideals of undergraduate education (critical thinking etc.) [Does the University of Toronto really care about undergraduate education?]. The answer, IMHO, is "no."

Now I want to bring up something else from the article by President Meric Gertler. It's not a major point—more like a motherhood throwaway line—but I think it raises an interesting question. Gertler said,
U of T reaffirms the value of a broad liberal arts education at the undergraduate level, and we are working to help our graduates extract the full benefit from that education.
I suppose there are as many definitions of "liberal arts education" as there are teachers but I think we can agree on a few points. A "liberal arts education" does not put much emphasis on math and science courses. In fact, I'm pretty sure that there are many who would be happy with a "liberal arts education" that didn't include a single math or science course.

I think that there are some extremely important humanities courses that every student should take. Philosophy (logic and reasoning) is the most obvious one but there's also history and maybe even sociology. I think university students should be familiar with great literature and many other topics in the humanities programs. But I also think that every single university student needs to take (and pass) some math and science courses in order to call themselves university-educated.

This is the 21st century. Surely we can agree that science is at least as important as "liberal arts"? Maybe we should be talking about a "broad science and humanities" education as the important value that we are trying to achieve?1

I'm not sure where that leaves the thousands of students who are getting degrees in commerce and business. Perhaps we should admit that those undergraduate programs, like engineering, are not really education programs. They are job training programs.

1. I'm not talking about "astronomy for poets" and other watered-down science courses. Humanities majors should take the same courses that science majors take just as science majors take the same courses that humanities students take.


  1. I still take the term "liberal arts" in it's original and literal meaning -- the education for free men, as opposed to the "servile arts" (the trades, essentially) meant for slaves. In that sense, certainly math and science should be an integral part of liberal arts, because without them it is impossible to understand the world and our place in it.

  2. The liberal arts include the natural sciences and mathematics. The key is whether your school allows you to get away with trivial courses instead of a core, serious curriculum.

    If you're a literature major and haven't taken at least two semesters of calculus, organic chemistry and etc. then you didn't get a liberal arts education. Similarly, if you're a chem major and didn't take philosophy, literature, history and a language courses.

  3. Gratuitous swipe at engineering noted. Larry, you seem to be basing your opinion on graduates of the worst kind of engineering program (those that fail to teach critical thinking etc - we can find them in any discipline). Or perhaps you are expecting the average level of education of people with just a 4-year engineering degree to be comparable to that of people who have done graduate study on top of their first degrees.

    1. Do you disagree with my claim that engineering is primarily a job training program?

    2. Some are. The good ones are not.

    3. "Engineering" (as a field of study, rather than as a profession) refers to several branches of science that study ways of doing things (in other words, they study methodologies). It has this in common with several other disciplines, including Applied Mathematics, Computer Science, Statistics and Operational Research, and indeed overlaps with all of these disciplines (other than historically, there are no clear boundaries between them). As in any other branch of science, it proceeds by applying the scientific method (observation and reasoning), and the primary focus of any decent engineering programme is to teach scientific method, with particular emphasis on critical and creative thinking.

      A typical engineering PhD involves developing a new way to do something and demonstrating that it does so more successfully than existing methodologies. Both of these activities (developing new methodologies and investigating existing methodologies) are based on the scientific method.

      Engineering as a profession is entirely different: in many cases it only involves recipe-style application of existing methodologies. This is not the focus of a good engineering training program.

  4. All university programs are (and quite rightly for public universities) "job training programs". We are not living in the 18th century where universities were for aristocrats to go to for their own amusement, but rather to create useful workers to serve society. The real question is whether a broader education makes better workers or not. I happen to think it does, but the idea that universities are not about job training completely ignores why governments fund universities.

  5. They are all job training programs. the kids go into them for job training and have no other interests.
    High school should be where kids are taught general ideas on things of man and nature.
    University should just be for their job. Reduce the time and speed things up.
    Unrelated subjects easily could hurt students with a fixed attention. Kids with general ability for subjects would wrongly prevail over the kids with sincere interst in their subject.
    Higher education in canada is bad for many other reasons anyways.
    I see all higher education as just finishing schools for high school.
    only a few subjects need careful student learning.
    Otherwise courses on the internet do the trick. Its a new civilization on getting educated.
    Now getting smart THATS a different matter.
    No creationism in science class equals no smarter kids coming out of that class. Just clones with memory's.

  6. In earlier times, say 40-50 years ago, to complete High School was a mark of achievement. Only a few did it and they went on, sometimes, to Universities, which were much smaller and more exclusive. Now colleges and universities not only provide education to the higher achievers but a completion of high school to the rest, as it has become an imperative that everyone should graduate HS, so it means little. Since there are few alternatives beyond HS except college and university in the way of training for work and life, universities must now fill that function, more than ever before. That is just how it is. The highest achievers will get an education as in the past, because they want it and they read and they actually seek understanding; the rest will get some training. That is my jaundiced view.

  7. Theology is called the queen of sciences for good reason. Theology should be taken in both liberal arts and sciences because it informs one so much. In evolutionary circles it explains why Larry calls ID'ers idiots and promotes his religious beliefs on a science blog. Likewise it explains why Cornelius Hunter is so skeptical about evolution without giving any evidence for a god.

    Theology is also important in understanding cosmology. It explains why Sean Carrol, an atheist cosmologist can say that every particle in the universe is subject to cause and effect, but when you add them all together cause and effect somehow disappears. It explains why he also says that we are all subject to the mechanics of the laws of physics but we still have free will. These two obvious contradictions can only come about because of his religious beliefs, atheism. Likewise theology explains why Willian Lane Craig argues so strenuously against beginningless coslmological models. Check out their debate on Youtube.

    Theology can explain a lot more too, not all of, but parts of: sociology, feminism, secularism, demography, and the rise and fall of the American empire. It think theology, properly taught is an essential part of any informed persons education.

    1. Re Wadeck

      Gee, why stop with theology courses. Why not require courses in Astrology? Theology is a set of beliefs without evidence, the very opposite of science.

      I'm not sure that I agree with Prof. Moran about philosophy. As Feynman once said, philosophy is as useful to scientists as ornithology is to birds.

    2. Calling atheism a religion is like calling "sober" a flavor of vodka. This asshole calls the absence of religion a religion, and then he accuses Sean Carroll of "contradictions"! Wow, someone's very angry that William "Kill the Canaanites" Craig got his ass kicked in his debate with Sean Carroll! Carroll exposed Craig's lying about scientific models during the debate, and Kill the Canaanites had no response.

      Religions believe in invisible spooks whose desires need to be propitiated. It's absurd to claim that the absence of religion is a religion, because the absence of spooks is not the presence of spooks. Some people want to opt out of your religion. Assholes show up and tell us we are not permitted to opt out. La de da.

      "It explains why he [Carroll] also says that we are all subject to the mechanics of the laws of physics but we still have free will."

      Right-- Carroll defined free will as a subjective experience, like "peanut butter tastes good." The notion that "we are all subject to the mechanics of the laws of physics" does not nullify subjective experiences. A shark, as it bites a surfer, may think "surfer tastes good" as a subjective experience. This does not prove the shark violates the laws of physics.

      But we will ask you the same question we ask all the assholes: if you think the laws of physics are being violated in the human brain, please tell us precisely which law is being violated, and where in the brain it happens. Conservation of energy? Second Law of Thermodynamics? Violations of those laws would have observable consequences, and if you observed them, you'd get the Nobel Prize. But you won't say which laws are being violated or where exactly that happens-- assholes never do. Sorry, Sweden doesn't award a Nobel for arrogant asshole.

    3. Wadeck: "It [theology] explains why Sean Carrol, an atheist cosmologist can say that every particle in the universe is subject to cause and effect, but when you add them all together cause and effect somehow disappears."

      No, that is not what Sean Carroll argued-- no one who knows quantum mechanics would say "every particle in the universe is subject to cause and effect", because we know from observation they're not-- but of course you can't challenge his actual argument, you have to substitute a dumber one.

      What you wrote is actually closer to the argument of his opponent, William "Kill the Canaanites" Craig, who said: forget quantum mechanics-- ignore that some things happen without causes-- pretend that every particle in the universe is subject to cause and effect -- and then claim the universe has a cause which is not subject to cause and effect. Kill the Canaanites presupposed that some things which exist have no cause and are immune to the law of cause and effect. He presupposed the law of Non-Causality. He cannot therefore assert that all things which exist are subject to the "law" of cause and effect and nothing that exists is immune to that "law" when he started out presupposing that some things that exist have no cause and are immune to the "law" of cause and effect.

      (A "law" which, by the way, can't be found in any physics textbook, because again, it's contradicted by observations in quantum mechanics.)

      What Carroll said was: in physics, if event E at time t2 has a cause, that cause must be another event C at time t1 where t1 < t2, and they (C and E) must be close enough together in space that a light signal could travel from C to E in travel time t2 - t1. But if the universe has an earliest time (which Craig calls a "beginning") t2, then there is no t1 < t2, so, for the universe as a whole, there cannot be any cause in any sense analogous to the causes of events within the universe.

      Kill the Canaanites, in response, just equivocated as to the meaning of "cause." He wants God to be a cause in some kind of nether-time t1 before our time t2 (but if he's right, there was no time t1 < t2), and in a nether-space outside our space-- but of course that just expands the definition of "universe" to include another space-time realm (the Empyrean, say) that contains God-- and leaves us with no explanation for the cause of the new, expanded universe. Thus Craig presupposes that the new, expanded universe (the Empyrean) exists, but needs no cause; therefore, he cannot claim our present universe exists, but requires a cause. He contradicts himself.

      Carroll argued that different cosmological models make different assumptions and have different consequences: e.g. Hawkings' "no boundary theorem" (one model among many) has the consequence that the universe is self-contained and then it is meaningless to ask what was its cause. Again, other models have other consequences.

      On your claim atheism is a "religion", think of it this way: just because so many, many, many of your Christian leaders & authorities are child molesters, does not prove that everyone is a child molester. Will you argue that not molesting children is also a form of child molestation? No? Why then argue that the absence of religion is a religion? We want to opt out of your spooks and your child molesting authorities. You tell us we are not permitted to opt out! La de da! Well %&$# you and GOODBYE!

    4. Wadeck: "Theology can explain a lot more too, not all of, but parts of: sociology, feminism, secularism, demography, and the rise and fall of the American empire."

      Now this one I would really like to see expanded. Tell us, O sage, how theology explains feminism and "the rise and fall of the American empire."

      Lemme guess: do you, like Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell said, blame the feminists and gays for crashing those airplanes into the World Trade Center, while screaming at the top of their lungs, gayly and feministically, "God is Great!!"

      Does theology also explain the recent massive sexual assault and rape scandals at Pensacola Christian College, Bob Jones University, Patrick Henry College, and Bill Gothard's 50-year homeschooling/girl-molesting AIT corporate empire?

    5. Typo: ATI (Advanced Training Institute) not AIT.

  8. Larry wrote: " engineering, are not really education programs. There (sic) are job training programs."

    Why do you make it sound as if learning a profession would be a bad thing? Where would the world be without engineers?

    1. This is what we call an "own goal".

      Andy Wilberforce, self professed engineer who regurgitates creationist pap as the explanation for everything he doesn't understand (which appears to be pretty much everything) wonders why Larry is less than impressed by the education that engineers receive.

      Is it possible to be any more oblivious ?

      I'm sure this is confirmation bias on my part but the biggest creationist clowns out there appear to be engineers and doctors. Of course my sample set is heavily weighted by the biblical bozos that infest this blog.

      And speaking as a software "engineer", I have to agree with Larry's assessment, although back in the day when I took computer science the syllabus at least had a large mathematics component.

    2. What has changed in the last few days Steve? Just a few days ago you mentioned me as one of the top three most redoubtable opponents!
      I must say that I'm very disappointed and I did not sleep much last night after reading your comment...NOT...
      BTW I never said I had a degree in engineering. I may have said that engineering is my profession, which is slightly different.

  9. I have nothing against job training programs. Just don't confuse them with the main educational purpose of an undergraduate degree.

    If we decide that the goal of a university education is to teach critical thinking etc. then we might consider moving job training programs to another type of institution.

    1. Well, critical thinking is something you ought to have learned long before going to university. The university I studied at encourage you to take courses in different faculties, but in general it was hard to get them recognized as a part of your bachelor's or master's degree in Science. I later did some work at a university in Germany and I found that the boarders between the faculties were much sharper there. I think Germany has a top notch Science education and they have produced some of the best scientist. Therefore I'm not convinced that taking courses in history, modern languages, philosophy, etc. necessarily makes you a better scientist. I think it's something you should still do though, but just for fun.

  10. As Classical Languages and Literature grad, I was impressed when I saw a whole bookshelf full of red and green Loeb classics texts that belonged to Carl Sagan during a video interview with Ann Druyan.

  11. My computer Science degree included a year of literature, short story writing, two philosophy classes, multiple terms of foreign language ( in my case Spanish) etc. I am wondering what engineering degrees Larry is familiar with.

    1. Donald, don't take it personally. Larry has a massive chip on his shoulder. I haven't quite figured out why yet, but if you're: an engineer, an American and/or a creationist you'd better watch out and tread carefully.

    2. There are two kinds of computer science programs: those whose main objective is to train students to go directly into IT jobs, and those that teach computer science.

      Donald, which kind did you take? Did you take any science courses like biology, physics, or chemistry?

  12. I am definitely among those people who would be happy with a "liberal arts education" as I am awful at math. It is not a problem for me to write thousands of different essays (by the way you can see them here click here ) but all this science courses kill me. So I decided to choose some profession which is not connected with math and so on. However I am not sure yet what it can be, maybe someone here can recommend something. I know that it necessary to know different subjects as they give understanding of our world but you cannot be a professional everywhere