Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Sunday, March 25, 2018

The Arts, Liberal and Servile

Economist Bryan Caplan definitely deserves points for being an interesting and provocative intellectual voice. His proposal for ideological Turing Tests is one of the best recommendations for understanding across divisive issues that I've heard, and inspired Leah Libresco's series of religious Turing Tests between Christians and atheists. Several years back he wrote the book Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids: Why Being a Great Parent is Less Work and More Fun Than You Think, which was an interesting run at some sacred cows of current US upper middle class culture. His latest book is also provocative in its approach: The Case against Education: Why the Education System Is a Waste of Time and Money. To quote the blurb:

Despite being immensely popular--and immensely lucrative―education is grossly overrated. In this explosive book, Bryan Caplan argues that the primary function of education is not to enhance students' skill but to certify their intelligence, work ethic, and conformity―in other words, to signal the qualities of a good employee. Learn why students hunt for easy As and casually forget most of what they learn after the final exam, why decades of growing access to education have not resulted in better jobs for the average worker but instead in runaway credential inflation, how employers reward workers for costly schooling they rarely if ever use, and why cutting education spending is the best remedy.

This is the sort of thing which is likely to draw multiple conflicting opinions out of me, so I've been following coverage with interest. Yesterday I ran into an interesting interview with Caplan which was posted at the American Enterprise Institute. If you want to get a sense of where he's coming from, it's a worthwhile read.

Obviously, Caplan's issue is not with education as a whole. He highlights basic skills like math and reading as essential to getting along in life. However, he contends that much of the content included in the K-12 curriculum is not actually necessary. For example, he points out that most high schoolers in the US are required to study two years of foreign language, and yet although people are put into classes that allegedly teach language, there's clearly little real concern about people learning it. The classes themselves do not in fact get people to reach fluency in the language being studied, and colleges generally make no effort to establish that students actually speak or read the language which their transcripts say they studied.

Here's an exchange on what he'd like to see change in regards to pre-college education:
Question: Let’s say policymakers have really bought into your thesis and made big changes. What is the education system, the work-training system, however you want to describe it? What does that look like?

Caplan: So the main difference is just that people spend fewer years in school. And when you are a little kid you learn the stuff that you need like reading, writing, literacy, numeracy but you have a lot more free time to enjoy your childhood. But then anyways the people who are going to be doing cognitively demanding jobs, they are going to be needing to do something similar to at least high school. I think for a lot of other people they are just going to get vocational education when they are in their mid-teens like countries like Germany and Switzerland often do. And then finally of course there is always going to be a small number of people who are going and doing your very traditional college education, you know especially people that are going to be doing vocational majors, or if you have parents who just want to go and spend an enormous pile of money for you to go and have a hobby for a few years. There are some people like that; that was true in the 19th century.

Basically the main picture is that people start adult life at a much earlier age and parents do not have to support people until they are 30.

There's an extent to which I can agree with this. One of the things which has struck me, given that my own primary education was half in normal schools and half homeschooled, and now guiding my children through homeschooling while many of their friends are in public or parochial schools, is that there's not actually massive amounts that one needs to teach in the younger years. Learning to read, write, and do arithmetic only takes an hour or two a day for kids in the first half of their school careers. The sorts of history and science which are learned in K-5 or so are also very basic and perhaps best taught informally.

And yet, as we start to deal with older students, my views begin to diverge from Caplan's quite a bit. He has this to say about history and literature in college:
Question: I feel like, for instance, English literature has made me a better writer. Therefore my writing is better today because I read all that, and poetry too I imagine would have helped in some fashion. Maybe it’s hard to figure out the exact chain of the relationship but I feel like if I had not taken those classes I would not be as good a writer.

Caplan: So here is what I say: Most professors, when they go through their educational career, are able to take a lot of classes where not only do they not use them but it’s pretty foreseeable that you would never use things like Latin. And the thing to remember is that if you are a professor or are working at a think tank, you do have a job that’s much more closely tied to what you learned in school than most people. So again if you work at a think tank or are a professor, maybe you do use history on the job. But if you are a business person the odds that you would ever rely upon history to make a business decision in any way that would be useful is very slim. And the same goes for so much of the academic curriculum. So you have to learn Shakespeare, the English that was spoken 500 years ago, and you have foreign language. Even higher mathematics is useful only in a narrow range of jobs. For most people, they never use what they study after the final exam, yet employers care, and that’s the key part.
This reminds me a bit of the Sherlock Holmes story in which Holmes tells Watson that his memory is so valuable that me makes an effort never to learn anything he won't need for his profession. Watson is shocked to learn that Holmes does not realize that the Earth orbits around the Sun, while far from valuing this information Holmes tells Watson he'll endeavor to forget the fact as quickly as possible so it won't take up space that could be used for some more valuable fact.

I'm sure there's a great deal that I've learned which I have never and will never use in my job. However, even if my employer has not particular reason to care whether I learned about the Peloponnesian War or read War & Peace, I think that it's very good for me as a person that I did.

When writing about education, classical and medieval authors talked about the "liberal arts", by which they meant the studies which were appropriate to a free man. While in modern usage "liberal arts" includes 'soft' subjects such as literature, history, and languages as compared to fields such as math, science, and engineering, the traditional seven subjects of liberal education were: the Trivium (grammar, logic, and rhetoric), the Quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy) and finally at the top of the educational pyramid philosophy and theology.

The point of the label 'liberal' was not to distinguish one set of academic subjects from another, but to distinguish the tools of knowledge with general application which a free man ought to know in order to prepare him for all endeavors in life from servile arts, what we might think of as job training. I wrote a set of three posts dealing with the liberal versus servile arts and a rough attempt at updating the concept a few years ago: one, two, three.

We live in an age of specialists. Perhaps this is why, while up until the 1800s there was still some credibility to the idea of a liberally educated person making real contributions to multiple different fields as his interests drew him, in our modern world were most advances are made by people who are specialists in sub-fields within fields the idea of the liberal arts has fallen on hard times. And while many of the people seeking a university education a couple hundred years ago came from a class which did not really expect to maintain themselves by labor, today we have a majority of Americans at least attempting college (though the number who finish a four year degree or a more advanced degree is only around 35%.) While I'd argue that the reason why someone ought to go to college is to get a liberal education, the reason that most people actually go is "to get a good job".

If that's the reason for getting a college degree, is Caplan right that we should turn our focus away from getting more people to go to college and more towards job training programs that could get people ready for a career more quickly and at lower cost?


I might try to make a pragmatic argument for the liberal arts, saying that flexibility and the ability to learn new systems of thought is both valuable on the job and also imparted by the traditional fields of liberal arts. But I'd at the same time have to admit that studying many of the fields often derided for impracticality does not necessarily get one the sort of broad liberal arts education which I would tend to advocate. In modern America, sectors of many academic fields have worked hard to make themselves irrelevant, at times even attacking the old categories of knowledge on which the classical liberal arts centered.

The interviewer does a good job of asking Caplan what he thinks the world should look like, and he describes one that, while utilitarian, is not necessarily unreasonable. What would my own suggestion for changes in the world look like?

I do think it would be good employers stopped the credential arms race, first expecting everyone to have a four year degree, and then increasingly expecting them to have a masters degree. I think that some sort of much more focused practical training in various job related areas would be a faster and cheaper way to meet the needs of work than the inflation of fields like "business administration" into a four year college degree and a two year graduate degree.

And perhaps, with people no longer using "you need it to get a job" as an excuse to constantly inflate the cost of a college education (a cost which to a great extent is not going to the actual teachers, libraries, labs, and classrooms which are actually essential to the theoretical educational mission of a college) it would become less of a financial obstacle for a person who has the interest and aptitude to pursue an education in the traditional liberal arts or one of the modern fields that are their successors to do so without incurring ruinous amounts of debt.

In the meantime, I'll continue to be a proud Classics Major turned Director of Pricing Analytics. And even if there is no direct path from mastering Greek and Latin grammar to being the person willing to build databases and teach myself machine learning while others who took the MBA route complain to me "numbers make my head hurt", I think that at some level the mental habits and abilities I learned back in college have allowed me to become the self-taught analytics person that I am today.


mandamum said...

My sister the computer programmer who went to UofPortland (Holy Cross, so still has some "core" curricula) quoted a fellow alum who reflected that at the time, he couldn't see the point of all the non-major classes he was having to take, but now he sees they prepared him to better think through things he wasn't specifically prepared for by the major classes and solve new-to-him problems. Interesting (and reflective of the effect of the core curric?) that he recognizes it.

Jenny said...

Since my husband has a degree in one of the original liberal arts, but makes income from an entirely different field, this topic arises periodically at home. Music for music's sake and all that jazz, but the value of the degree goes so far beyond the money that can be made from it. You learn a way to think and work that can be applied to any field. Our music degrees are extremely valuable in the work ethic and expectations of performance they instilled in us. My husband learned more durably valuable skills in music than he would have coasting through a BS in Business, even though the Business degree is superficially more applicable to his job.

Son Mom said...

Great analysis!

The other issue I don’t see addressed often in essays that advocate a vocational track such as many European countries have is that we had vocational tracks in the past in this country - and one of the reasons we did away with them is that they were often an essentially racist system, in which students of color were disproportionately deemed to be not college material. You would have to carefully address issues of bias based on race and social class before attempting to establish such a system again, I think.