Tuesday, January 10, 2012

A defense of studies in the arts and humanities

Virginia Postrel says below that even courses in the arts and humanities can lead to a job and that only about 12% of tertiary students do such courses anyway. I think she sees that those are rather weak defenses so she trots out the old chestnut that such courses teach you how to think critically. I don't think there is good evidence for that. All the research on transfer of training that I have seen shows that transfer is either weak or rare.

Curiously she says: "My biggest regret isn’t that I didn’t learn Fortran, but that I didn’t study Dante". I didn't study Dante either (though I read a fair bit of Petrach in the original Italian) but I did learn and greatly enjoy writing FORTRAN. And of all the things I studied I think that had the biggest transfer. Programming in FORTRAN requires relentless logic, precision and consistency. And those are very constructive and generalizable habits and abilities indeed.

The only humanities subject I know that offers transferrable skills is Latin. The next most transferable skills I got were from learning Latin. Latin also teaches how to think and write in a clear and orderly way. It's the FORTRAN of the ancient world, if you like.

But in the end, why do you need to go to university to study arts and humanities subjects? Anybody who loves high culture -- as I do -- can find it in lots of places. I can (and sometimes do) recite from memory a couple of hundred lines of Chaucer in the correct Middle English pronunciation. But I didn't learn that in any course. I learnt it off a gramophone record. I learnt it because I enjoyed it. And if you don't enjoy such things you are wasting your time studying them -- JR

There’s nothing like a bunch of unemployed recent college graduates to bring out the central planner in parent-aged pundits.

In a recent column for Real Clear Markets, Bill Frezza of the Competitive Enterprise Institute lauded the Chinese government’s policy of cutting financing for any educational program for which 60 percent of graduates can’t find work within two years. His assumption is that, because of government education subsidies, the U.S. is full of liberal-arts programs that couldn’t meet that test.

“Too many aspiring young museum curators can’t find jobs?” he writes. “The pragmatic Chinese solution is to cut public subsidies used to train museum curators. The free market solution is that only the rich would be indulgent enough to buy their kids an education that left them economically dependent on Mommy and Daddy after graduation.” But, alas, the U.S. has no such correction mechanism, so “unemployable college graduates pile up as fast as unsold electric cars.”

Bill Gross, the founder of the world’s largest bond fund, Pacific Investment Management Co., has put forth a less free- market (and less coherently argued) version of the same viewpoint. “Philosophy, sociology and liberal arts agendas will no longer suffice,” he declared. “Skill-based education is a must, as is science and math.”

There are many problems with this simplistic prescription, but the most basic is that it ignores what American college students actually study.

Punching-Bag Disciplines

Take Frezza’s punching bag, the effete would-be museum curator. It would be only a slight exaggeration to say that no such student exists.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, humanities majors account for about 12 percent of recent graduates, and art history majors are so rare they’re lost in the noise. They account for less than 0.2 percent of working adults with college degrees, a number that is probably about right for recent graduates, too. Yet somehow art history has become the go-to example for people bemoaning the state of higher education.

A longtime acquaintance perfectly captured the dominant Internet memes in an e-mail he sent me after my last column, which was on rising tuitions. “Many people that go to college lack the smarts and/or the tenacity to benefit in any real sense,” he wrote. “Many of these people would be much better off becoming plumbers -- including financially. (No shame in that, who’re you gonna call when your pipes freeze in the middle of the night? An M.A. in Italian art?)”

While government subsidies may indeed distort the choice to go to college in the first place, it’s simply not the case that students are blissfully ignoring the job market in choosing majors. Contrary to what critics imagine, most Americans in fact go to college for what they believe to be “skill-based education.”

A quarter of them study business, by far the most popular field, and 16 percent major in one of the so-called Stem (science, technology, engineering and math) fields. Throw in economics, and you have nearly half of all graduates studying the only subjects such contemptuous pundits recognize as respectable.

The rest, however, aren’t sitting around discussing Aristotle and Foucault.

Most are studying things that sound like job preparation, including all sorts of subjects related to health and education. Even the degree with the highest rate of unemployment -- architecture, whose 13.9 percent jobless rate reflects the current construction bust -- is a pre-professional major.

Diversity of Jobs

The students who come out of school without jobs aren’t, for the most part, starry-eyed liberal arts majors but rather people who thought a degree in business, graphic design or nursing was a practical, job-oriented credential. Even the latest target of Internet mockery, a young woman the New York Times recently described as studying for a master’s in communication with hopes of doing public relations for a nonprofit, is in what she perceives as a job-training program.

The higher-education system does have real problems, including rising tuition prices that may not pay off in higher earnings. But those problems won’t be solved by assuming that if American students would just stop studying stupid subjects like philosophy and art history and buckle down and major in petroleum engineering (the highest-paid major), the economy would flourish and everyone would have lucrative careers.

That message not only ignores what students actually study. It also disregards the diversity and dynamism of the economy, in good times as well as bad.

Chemists Struggle Too

The commentators excoriating today’s students for studying the wrong subjects are pursuing certainty where none exists. Like the health fanatics convinced that every case of cancer must be caused by smoking or a bad diet, they want to believe that good people, people like them, will always have good jobs and that today’s unemployed college grads are suffering because they were self-indulgent or stupid. But plenty of organic chemists can testify that the mere fact that you pursued a technical career that was practical two or three decades ago doesn’t mean you have job security today.

I was lucky to graduate from high school in the late 1970s, when the best research said that going to college was an economically losing proposition. You would be better off just getting a job out of high school -- or so it appeared at the time. Such studies are always backward-looking.

I thus entered college to pursue learning for its own sake. As an English major determined not to be a lawyer, I also made sure I graduated with not one but two practical trades --neither learned in the college classroom. At the depths of the previous worst recession since the Great Depression, I had no problem getting a job as a rookie journalist and, as an emergency backup, I knew I could always fall back on my excellent typing skills. Three decades later, nobody needs typists, and journalists are almost as obsolete.

The skills that still matter are the habits of mind I honed in the classroom: how to analyze texts carefully, how to craft and evaluate arguments, and how to apply microeconomic reasoning, along with basic literacy in accounting and statistics. My biggest regret isn’t that I didn’t learn Fortran, but that I didn’t study Dante.

The most valuable skill anyone can learn in college is how to learn efficiently -- how to figure out what you don’t know and build on what you do know to adapt to new situations and new problems. Liberal-arts advocates like this argument, but it applies to any field. In the three decades since we graduated, my college friend David Bernstein has gone from computing the speed at which signals travel through silicon chips to being an entrepreneur whose work includes specifying, designing and developing a consumer-oriented smart-phone app.

Learning to Learn

When he was an undergraduate, he wrote in an e-mail, his professors “stressed that they weren’t there to teach us a soon-to-be obsolete skill or two about a specific language or operating system ... but rather the foundations of the field, for example: characteristics of languages and operating systems, how one deals with complex projects and works with others, what is actually computable, the analysis of algorithms, and the mathematical and theoretical foundations of the field, to pick just a few among many. That education has held me in good stead and I’ve often pitied the folks who try to compete during a lifetime of constant technological change without it.” Whether you learn how to learn is more a question of how fundamental and rigorous your education is than of what specific subject you study.

The argument that public policy should herd students into Stem fields is as wrong-headed as the notion that industrial policy should drive investment into manufacturing or “green” industries. It’s just the old technocratic central planning impulse in a new guise. It misses the complexity and diversity of occupations in a modern economy, forgets the dispersed knowledge of aptitudes, preferences and job requirements that makes labor markets work, and ignores the profound uncertainty about what skills will be valuable not just next year but decades in the future.

Pundits are entitled to their hypotheses, of course, and if they’re footing the bill they can experiment on their children. But they shouldn’t try to use the rest of the population as lab mice.


First new British selective school in 50 years on the way: Tory council takes advantage of official rule changes

The first new grammar school for 50 years could soon be opening its doors thanks to changes introduced by Education Secretary Michael Gove. Tory-controlled Kent County Council wants to set up the school in response to demands for more selective places in the Sevenoaks area of the county.

Mr Gove’s rules do not allow for the creation of entirely new grammar schools, but they do enable existing selective schools to set up satellite sites to cater for extra demand in areas of rising population. Kent is one of the few areas in the country to retain a state selective system, but Sevenoaks does not have one of its own.

More than 1,000 pupils who have passed the 11-plus have to travel to Tonbridge, Tunbridge Wells and even Folkestone – 50 miles away – to attend a state grammar. The situation will get worse because of a large growth in the number of school-age children over the next few years.

A petition demanding a new grammar has now garnered 1,300 signatures. The only Sevenoaks alternatives are a private grammar school, although this costs £17,388 a year, and a non-selective state academy school.

Campaigning parent Caroline Watson said: ‘It’s ludicrous you have to put your child through the tests with no guarantee of a place and even then if they get one, they have to travel 12 or 15 miles every day.’

Her son Patrick, 11, has to travel ten miles to Tunbridge Wells Grammar School. ‘It is a wonderful school, but he has been taken away from his friendship groups and has to travel nearly an hour each way by bus,’ she said. ‘My hope is by the time my daughter Emily is 11 she will be able to walk to a school in Sevenoaks.’

Derry Wiltshire, head of the local Amherst primary school, said: ‘The popularity of Kent grammars means that Sevenoaks children compete for places with children in comprehensive systems as far away as Brighton, Eastbourne or London.’

Councillor Mike Whiting, Kent’s education spokesman, said he would meet the headmasters of the county’s selective schools this week to discuss which would be willing to open an annexe, which could cater for 120 pupils a year.

Michael Fallon, a former education minister and Tory MP for Sevenoaks, said: ‘This is not an ideological issue. Kent has a duty to provide enough secondary places.’

But opponents of selection criticised the plans. Michael Pyke, of the Campaign for State Education, said: ‘Parents in Sevenoaks should be campaigning for an end to selection so their children can go to a local school. ‘The ones signing the petition are the ones who think their children will benefit by getting grammar places. What about the ones who don’t?

‘They should bear in mind that Kent does not do as well as comparable authorities such as Cheshire, which is totally comprehensive.’

Another group, which includes a local priest, is trying to set up a Christian comprehensive in the town under Mr Gove’s free schools initiative.


Military-style cadet forces to be introduced in all British High schools

Military-style cadet forces are to be introduced in every secondary school in Britain, it emerged today. Education Secretary Michael Gove believes the Combined Cadet Force could bring a major improvement in standards of classroom discipline.

Today more than 200 independent schools, but only around 60 state, have CCF units, according to the Ministry of Defence, which sponsors the organisation.

Teenagers, aged 13 to 18, learn drill and are trained to fire weapons. Among its famous former members is Prince Harry, who was the most senior cadet in Eton's 140-strong volunteer force.

Mr Gove told the Sunday Express that the CCF would 'build patriotism' in the country’s troubled youngsters, giving them skills to succeed later in life. He recently attended a cadet awards ceremony at the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst, where he met a 17-year-old Afro-Caribbean who had joined the CCF. He said:'I met this amazing guy who told me how it had transformed his life. He was just the perfect advertisement for what it can do.

Mr Gove has asked the Childrens Minister Tim Loughton and the MoD to 'roll it out' at all schools

More than 300,000 pupils are suspended each year for violence and bad behaviour and police are called to violent incidents more than 40 times each day.

Mr Gove's move was backed by one of his senior advisers, Schools Commissioner Dr Elizabeth Sidwell, who is leading the expansion of the Government’s academy schools programme. She said that many extra-curricular activities like the CCF, debating societies and music tuition should no longer be the 'province of the middle classes'.

Dr Sidwell told the Sunday Telegraph: 'These wonderful extra-curriculum elements did originate in the independent sector but for a number of years they have been there in City Technology Colleges, strong comprehensives and grammars. 'Good state schools have these things. We must not say we can’t afford it, we'll find a way.'

In other proposals, she signalled schools could face much tougher academic targets, with 80 per cent of children in state primaries and secondaries expected to reach required scores in exams and tests. It would mean far more schools being classed as inadequate and subject to intervention from the Department of Education.

Meanwhile, Mr Gove wants children to learn history in class and be fluent in English. He said: 'It’s important that the sorts of activities that build the sense of togetherness, whether it be sport or the combined cadet force or orchestras and choirs, are encouraged in schools and help people feel part of one country.'


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