Jane Haddam’s WordPress weblog

I Know, I Know

with 4 comments

I disappear for a week, then I post twice in one day, then…

But this


is Thomas Sowell’s column on Townhall this morning.

I’d be interested in reactions…

Written by janeh

May 11th, 2011 at 9:53 am

Posted in Uncategorized

4 Responses to 'I Know, I Know'

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  1. Yeah, I read the Sowell earlier, but it’s sideways to your concerns. Sowell is concerned with vocational training where you’re concerned with traditional liberal arts education. Where you almost meet is that he’s concerned with majors with no job skills who have decided manual labor is beneath them, and you’re convinced that liberal arts education IS a job skill–which is only true if there aren’t very many of them.

    Me? I don’t think “liberal arts” or even “humanities” vs “vocational” is an adequate division. Majors are either vocationally oriented or otherwise, and they’re either courses in which schmoozing the prof is at least a possibility, and courses involving the rules of the universe, which can’t be schmoozed.

    That yields four sets. Classics is liberal arts and inherently rigorous: nobody gets out without Greek and Latin and serious history. Biochemistry and Engineering are vocational and rigorous. Degrees in business administration, hotel management or education are vocational without being inherently rigorous. Philosophy, Political Science, Sociology and the grievance studies majors are, sadly, neither meal tickets nor inherently difficult. A good teacher can teach them well, but the poorly taught student still has a degree. English and History are right on the edge.

    Vocational training is a necessary and honorable activity. It’s not clear to me that it always and everywhere requires a college or university setting. We may be overdoing this a bit.

    Truly rigorous learning not related to employment is inherently self-limiting, regardless of the major. (There are a few places where African Studies majors have to learn Swahili and Arabic. Those departments are NOT where the students go who find Sociology too difficult.) These students may really have learned how to learn. Certainly they’ve learned how to work, and I have every confidence they’ll wind up productive citizens.

    What we really have to worry about is the number of college students who have drifted from one soft course to another and finish their time with a degree, no professional skills, no trust fund, and a fixed conviction that they’re above pouring cement and gardening. Below a certain level of difficulty, colleges really ought to require either verified wealth or skills training on the side.

    Sadly, they do neither, and we’re turning out the people Sowell worries about by the millions. The law schools can’t absorb them all.


    11 May 11 at 4:32 pm

  2. Just one comment about Jane’s proposal that people should be able to become radiologists or (presumably) engineers without having to wade through a liberal arts education – I understand that and agree for the most part.

    And yet…there’s something to be said for a real liberal arts education. There’s a guy on one of the online discussion groups that I keep up with who is a retired geologist. He attended the Colorado School of Mines back when they required their geologists and mining engineers to actually take and pass a real liberal arts course of study. And he’s continually surprising me with the things that he knows. People get so narrowly focused now – you take engineering, and really, the English classes you take, or history, you take them because you have to, and then you forget about them.

    But Charles retained it, and the breadth of what he knows is really impressive. Not everyone can do that, I guess, but it’s too bad that it appears to be going away as everything gets more vocational.


    11 May 11 at 6:28 pm

  3. Mary, I agree–but the desireability of a liberal arts education isn’t the point. It’s whether we as a society should insist the fellow operating the X-Ray machine has to get one to be professionally qualified. When you keep insisting people must take courses in order to work which they don’t want and which aren’t necessary for that work–well, you get some pretty strange courses and classes, not the liberal arts ideal.

    Jane did this herself, by the way, when she explained that no one should have a PhD in History without qualifying on dance and art. Some subjects ARE linked, which is why there is a sequence in math, English and History–and why no one gets marksmanship without getting range safety. But a traditional linkage is not necessarily a logical one.

    There is a LOT to be said for a treaditional liberal arts education. But volunteers only, if you please.


    12 May 11 at 5:20 am

  4. Robert –

    I agree with your point that the poorly taught student gets the same degree as the student who has taken a more ‘rigorous’ course of study. However, I don’t necessarily agree with your definitions of ‘rigor’. I think that rigor has less to do with the subject being taught than with the manner in which it is taught.

    I think that part of the way we define rigor internally is based upon what is ‘difficult’ for us and part of that has to do with what I would call ‘wiring’. As an example I’ll compare myself to my colleague in the office next to mine who has a PhD in math. I’ll out myself here and freely admit that math is difficult for me. I was very purposeful in taking Bachelor of ARTS and Master of ARTS degrees. The choice between Math and 4 years of a Foreign Language was an easy choice for me to make.

    My colleague though, with her rigorous math degree, has difficultly writing in words of more than one syllable. The courses that she struggled through in her program were the, as you call them, ‘soft courses’ like Philosophy and Sociology and English and History which required her to analyze and then cogently synthesize multiple points of view. I sailed through those courses, minoring in English and History as an undergrad and History as a grad student. Those courses were comparatively ‘easy’ for me, but I would never call them soft. They demanded higher order thinking and analysis skills and massive amounts of critical writing. But for me, writing is ‘easy.’ For me, that was FUN. Math was hard. For my colleague, Math was fun and the writing was hard.

    I admit that you can move through college without encountering much rigor if that’s what you’re looking for. But I don’t agree that a degree that is made up of the soft courses automatically produces someone with no professional skills. The skills I learned and refined in those courses have served me well in terms of my employment. I learned to look at issues from multiple perspectives, consider ramifications of different choices, analyze the validity of evidence and logic, synthesize information from diverse sources and communicate my ideas in ways that are clear and effective as well as respectful. I compare that to my Math colleague, who looks at issues from one perspective only, is dogmatic in the assertion that there is a ‘right’ answer to all problems, and in that manages to alienate and offend most everyone she winds up working with. In the overall scheme of things, I think I was better served by my degree than she has been by hers.


    12 May 11 at 10:45 am

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