Jane Haddam’s WordPress weblog

The Bee’s Nest

with 12 comments

Okay.  It’s going to take me a couple of days to get back to where I started, which was about the aspiration to virtue.

And which, in spite of the fact that I used the word “education,” was not really about what goes on in schools.

The question is:  where to start on all this.

And I think that what I want to do is to get to Charlou’s concerns next time, and do the sort of boilerplate stuff with AB first.

So–to being.

I went to college for the education, not the credential.

AB says he’s never heard anyone include the sciences in the liberal arts.  I think he also said he’d only been out of college for a couple of years.

The two things go together.

Before 1980, it was automatically understood that “the liberal arts” included what we now call the sciences, and mathematics, as well as history, philosophy and literature.

It’s a very new thing to use “liberal arts” to mean “humanities.” 

I got a liberal arts bachelor’s degree in 1973.  In order to earn that degree I had to take:

1) Freshman composition

2) Three semesters in the Humanities, including one at the 200 level or above, NOT in the major.  (So, for me, none of these could be English courses.)

3) Three semesters of a foreign language at the 200 level or above, NOT in the major.  (So, if you were majoring in French, you had to take three semesters courses ABOVE the intro level in another language.  I did Latin.)

4) Three semesters of mathematics, including calculus 1, calculus 2, and a 200 level course above that.  (In that era, nobody taught calculus in high school.  It was the standard Freshman math course.  And there was no “math for idiots” available as an alternative.)

5) Three semester of lab science, including one at the 200 level or above.  (No “science for nonscience majors.”  Most people not in the sciences took intro bio, intro chem, and then a biology higher course, because everybody was afraid of the math in physics.  Once again, though.  These three could NOT be in your major, so if you were a bio major you had to take chem and physics or astronomy at the very least to fulfill this.)

6) Three semesters of social science, including one course at the 200 level or above, all NOT in the major. 

7) A set of courses for your major, which included a senior thesis–and they weren’t joking about the thesis.

8) A set of courses for a minor that related to your major (I did literature for a major and philosophy for a minor.)

That’s a liberal arts college education.  The “liberal” in liberal arts means “free.”   The liberal arts are those things we study for themselves, and not as a means to some other end.  They’re knowledge pursued for the sake of knowledge itself.  So chemistry is one of the liberal arts, but engineering is not.

Oh, and my college did not offer business of any kind, or education, or nursing.

And I believe you when you say that you took humanities courses to have an easy semester and raise you GPA. 

But had you taken a literature course at Vassar in the early seventies, you’d have been in for a lot of work.

For instance, in my 19th Century British Novel course, we were required to read complete novels by Jane Austen (Sense and Sensibility and Emma), George Eliot (Middlemarch), Anthony Trollope (Barchester Towers), Charles Dickens (Bleak House and Our Mutual Friend), Thomas Hardy( Jude the Obscure and Tess of the d’Urbervilles)–and I’ve forgotten the other two.  Ten in total over the course of a 16 week semester.

On top of that there was critical reading in scholarly journals in the discipline, and two short papers (10-15 pages) and one long one (20 minimum), plus a final exam.

The papers, by the way, couldn’t be blathering on about your opinions about what the novels meant “to you.” 

One of the papers I was assigned for that course was “the foundation of evil in the novels of Dickens, Eliot and Hardy.” 

Nobody came to the English department for easy courses with not much work and lax grading standards so they could bring up their GPA

For that, there was, at least theoretically, the Sociology Department.  I don’t know, because I never took a sociology course.  I stuck to Economics for my social sciences distribution.

When I talk about the humanities properly taught, I’m not talking about teaching methods–which I presume means things like lecture vs. interactive and that kind of thing.

I’m talking about focus, depth and approach.

The humanities properly taught are taught in a way that makes clear their part in the whole of liberal learning, how it all hangs together, and taught with enough rigor so that students know what the academic field is all about.

In most of the colleges I see, the humanities aren’t taught at all.  “English” is either straight composition with no literature, or, if literature is on offer, it’s an in coherent smattering–a couple of short stories by Hemingway, a poem by Matthew Arnold and another by Robert Frost, a really modern something about eating disorders or racial profiling, all mushed together, without there being much of it, and requirements limited to a couple of 5 page papers where the student is urged to explain “what this means to me.”

Is this a waste of time?  You bet it is.  Is the ACTUAL study of the liberal arts a waste of time?  No.  It’s one of the most valuable ways you can spend any of your time at all.

This is an approach I like, existing now:


It’s not perfect, and I’ve got my quibbles with some of the sequences, especially in the sciences–but they’re at least attempting to do it right.

By the way–the people I went to college with were not, by and large, trust fund babies.  Over 70% of them were on financial aid.  And yet they all graduated and either entered professional schools (law was a biggie) or got jobs, and the vast majority of them are doing better than four-fifths of their fellow citizens. 

Then, on a note–yes, as a matter of fact, assuming that both parties to the transaction are engaging in the trade without compulsion–that is, that the surgeon is making his money because individual people are individually willing to pay  him, and not because I’m being taxed to pay for Joe’s liver–then as far as I’m concerned, there is no reason why the amount of money he makes shouldn’t be infinitely higher than anybody else’s.

I do think, however, that this is rather a straw man–for a number of reasons, no such infinite difference can ever occur.

I’ll get to high schools, grammar schools, and who gets the “opportunity to go to college” later.

Written by janeh

September 16th, 2011 at 11:10 am

Posted in Uncategorized

12 Responses to 'The Bee’s Nest'

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  1. Yes!! That’s a clear, comprehensible program, and I would expect the graduates to benefit greatly from it. (For the record, it’s pretty similar to what I was taking at Purdue and IU 1970-75. Somewhat more rigorous, I think, but then again most of us were working around 20 hours a week and full time in summer.) Two hedges:

    1) I WAS a liberal arts major in those years, and none of us spoke of liberal arts as including the physical sciences, so there was some slippage in vocabulary even then.

    2) Sadly, the subsequent success of the graduates does not prove the utility of the curriculum. Only a bright, hard-working young person will get through that program, and I’d expect bright, hard-working young people to do well regardless. For that matter, I’d expect the graduates of the top 10 or 20 schools in the country to go to top graduate schools or prestige jobs regardless.

    Again, I do not doubt that this program would serve the students well: I am saying we have not established this. To demonstrate that it’s true, we need to establish that students who completed a classic liberal arts program do better–or behave differently–than, say, graduates of those same schools once they abandoned the program, or than those slacker Sociology majors. I think they should–but my opinion is not proof. It is not even evidence.

    We need evidence.


    16 Sep 11 at 5:57 pm

  2. My undergraduate college (in the Midwest) was primarily a teacher’s college, but it did offer a B.A., which was similar (although not as rigorous) as what Jane described. I remember the panic that ensued every year when the seniors who were graduating with a “liberal arts” degree discovered they couldn’t get a job, and they didn’t have any money to go on to graduate school. Those of us in teacher’s education were at a loss to understand how they had made it through nearly four years of schooling without noticing that the people three, two, and one years ahead of them were having trouble finding jobs.

    And speaking of jobs and the lack thereof, I had a good friend who got an undergraduate degree from the University of Missouri-Columbia School of Journalism (ranked one of the top in the country), complete with straight A’s, summer internships, and excellent recommendations, then discovered that all she could expect to get in the way of a job was working for a small-town newspaper at minimum wage. For the students with lower grades there were no jobs at all. Since this lack of jobs had been the case for many, many years, she thought it was deliberate deception on the part of her professors to have continued to urge students to major in journalism when there was already a glut of journalism graduates unable to find jobs, i.e. they were protecting their jobs as university professors by encouraging students to take their courses, even while they knew the students wouldn’t be able to get jobs in journalism when they graduated.

    In an ideal world, Jane, where everyone could afford as many years of schooling as they wanted, I’d agree that a liberal arts degree would be a wonderful thing. Unfortunately, the majority of students who make it through college and graduate with a bachelor’s degree need to be able to earn some money — to pay off their student loans if for no other reason.


    16 Sep 11 at 7:42 pm

  3. Thank you for your response, Ms. Haddam, but may I ask that in the future, if possible, when referencing my statements, they be represented accurately? I never said that I took humanities courses in order to have an easy A or to raise my GPA; I explicitly stated that this a behavior I observed.

    Also, for what it’s worth, English classes do /not/ fall into that category; the “freebies” are the freshman level courses in philosophy, sociology, various arts, psychology, etc., and not always then – but it’s the “freebies” that fill the 300-seat lecture halls. Composition classes are about as popular on college campuses as herpes.

    It would be interesting if you could explain the “value” you find in the liberal arts (/not/ including math and hard science, which can be remunerative) in a way that would make sense to someone who does not enjoy them for their own sake. I read history, psychology, economics and the like for enjoyment or curiousity, but I cannot see how they have any other value. The large majority of my fellow citizens, who have little or no comprehension of the world they live in or the civilization that created it, are manifestly happier than me. My most recent ex-girlfriend, though very well read by American standards, scorned any actual interest in such irrelevancies, or any attempt to assemble the pieces into a whole. Her whole Weltanschauung could be summed as, “Who cares?” – and that’s from a highly intelligent English major. She’s perfectly happy with this, and I can’t see why she wouldn’t be. So tell me – where is the value? Being a better person? What’s the value in /that/?

    On the other topic: if you think that medical incomes can’t rise indefinitely, and indefinitely high, you must not be getting medical care in the U.S. And – if you remember this much from economics – you haven’t considered the consequences of a negative price elasticity for supply.


    16 Sep 11 at 7:48 pm

  4. There’s some interesting takes on these issues here:


    including the link to Piereson’s article.


    16 Sep 11 at 9:24 pm

  5. It seems to me that what you want, Jane, is the “Renaissance man/woman” or whatever you want to call him/her — the person who is well versed in all branches of knowledge.

    The problem is that knowledge has been expanding exponentially (or even faster) so that even just since you were an undergraduate, the fields of knowledge have expanded at such a rate that what you learned is such a tiny corner of knowledge, I really see no reason to say that that tiny corner is better than some other tiny corner. That it has traditionally been the center of learning hardly seems to me a solid reason to insist that it be treated as the most important of the tiny corners of knowledge today.

    An analogy comes to mind, namely the teaching of foreign languages. Traditionally colleges (and any high schools of a decent size) taught Latin, German, and French, since they were the “most important” languages for an educated person to know.

    As a German major, I cannot think of a good reason for an American student today to learn German rather than Chinese, or to learn French rather than Spanish. In fact, I’d have to say that learning just about any Asian language has more value today than learning German.

    Sure, it makes more sense to learn German than, say, Danish, and French is probably marginally more useful than Italian… although maybe not.

    Times change. Holding onto a curriculum that was useful 30, 40, or 100 years ago doesn’t really make sense.

    And yes, I use the term “useful,” not to mean “qualifying one to make lots of money,” but useful in the sense of allowing one to live a better life.

    Frankly, the thought of “enriching my life” by taking calculus makes me want to gag. And while I see a benefit in knowing chemistry and physics and biology, I had all three of those in high school, and the college chemistry course I took did not add enough to what I learned in college to justify it on the grounds that it “enriched my life.” Yes, I have used some of the algebra I learned in high school — but only what I learned in, say, the first month of first year algebra.

    I have had a lot of history courses. One of them was taught “as it should be taught,” and it was a fantastic course. The rest of them were complete and utter wastes of my time.

    Oddly enough, I can remember a lot of things I learned in grade school (besides the basic reading, writing, and arithmetic) that have been extremely useful as a sound basis for further knowledge gained on my own in later life.


    16 Sep 11 at 9:59 pm

  6. Charlou, surely it’s the responsibility of the students – or their parents, if they are paying – to examine what they are buying before they plunk down their money? Certainly when I was finishing up high school and planning my post-secondary education, I was warned that I’d need to be self-supporting at the end, so did I think I’d be likely to get a job if I got a degree in X or Y? I tended not to be attracted to the most obvious not-a-career majors, but one of my sisters was, and defied the odds by succeeding in making a living in her field.

    abgrund, you seem to think that the only value of importance is happiness. That’s quite an individual value, and naturally not all individuals are happiest when studying history.

    But if you hold different values – perhaps you value the modern democratic system, and you put happiness below the ability to contribute to the running of a democratic society, everyone who votes needs to know the basics of history. They all need to lots of other stuff as well, and some of it – like judgement of character – won’t come from formal education. A lot will.

    Mique, I admire people who go for what they love as the father advised in the essay, but some part of me formed years ago says you have to be practical, too. There will be student loans. You will be self-supporting – you have to be, there are younger siblings coming along who also get parental support through their first post-secondary program, whatever they choose.


    17 Sep 11 at 7:54 am

  7. Charlou, I think you’re letting Jane’s comments about how well graduates of these programs do in later life obscure the basic point: this is not a jobs training course. This is about understanding your culture and the wider world. And, s I’ve said before, unless you’re going to a top 20 school, you’d best have a plan for supporting yourself as well. The two are not incompatible. There’s no reason the liberal arts student’s major shouldn’t be Chemistry, for instance, or Foreign Area Studies. And as Jane points out, this was frequently the entry degree for someone who would study law or medicine in graduate school.

    But its “practical” aspect comes in when things go wrong. I would expect the graduate to be a better-informed voter, less vulnerable to Ponzi schemes, and far less inclined to demand the impossible of someone because he simply doesn’t understand the math or science limiting his options. My point earlier is that I have not seen these expected benefits demonstrated, not that I don’t thik they exist. I think the classical Greeks and the Renaissance established between them that expectations MUST be tested against reality. Too many things sound plausible which turn out not to be so.

    For the rest, backed into a corner I’d concede that I find the math requirement excessive–but I didn’t regard that as worthy of discussion. Assemble 50 adults and ask them to design a core curriculum, and you’ll get 60-75 answers. In broad principles, I think this sounds like an excellent university education.

    Now I’d like to see its virtues verified.


    17 Sep 11 at 8:19 am

  8. There were no such things as student loans when I was a student. What we had in Australia at that time was a wonderful system where people who graduated from high school with a sufficiently high standard were able to compete for, and mostly to gain, what were known as Commonwealth Scholarships which covered tuition and a means tested living allowance. Students were free to choose their own academic streams and all they had to do to retain the scholarships was to pass each year. There were no loans to repay and once graduated the scholarship holder was a free agent. (I can’t recall if the scholarships went beyond the baccalaureate level into post-grad degrees.)

    Alternatively, there were a range of cadetships available sponsored by various government instrumentalities and corporations. The sting in the tail for those was that graduates had to agree to be bonded for a certain amount to work for the sponsoring organisation for a set period or to repay the costs or unexpired portion of the costs if they left to go elsewhere during that period.

    A third option available, and frequently a safety net for those whose high school graduation results were not good enough to compete for the above schemes, was to apply for a state teachers college scholarship. There were a couple of sub-options there. Those with better results could undertake a normal Arts or Science degree course under the scholarship with an additional year of teacher training. This would qualify them to be high school teachers, or they could do a two-year teaching certificate course which limited them to primary schools. Once again there was a requirement under these schemes to work for the education department for a set period of time which varied with the length of training undertaken.

    A few years later somebody challenged the bonding system which was found by the courts to be somehow unlawful, so it was abandoned. Around about the same time, a Labor Party federal government with stars in its eyes after 20+ years out of power and a penchant for “reform” repealed the Commonwealth Scholarship scheme replacing it with a system of “free” universities and other tertiary institutions. Of course, this scheme almost immediately came to be totally unaffordable, particularly as credentialism came to be fashionable here, with every kid graduating from high school being encouraged to go on to university or other colleges whether they needed or were capable or not.
    So, after the Labor Party government was tossed out a few years later for that and other gross stupidity economic stupidity that sent inflation into the 20s (aggravated by the world wide economic oil shoku), free tertiary education was abandoned.

    Since then, graduated are charged a portion of the cost of their education under what is known as a Higher Education Charge System. The system is managed by the Federal government (the Tax Office collects it when kids start to earn above a certain minimum level). The feds also pay a means tested living allowance to needy students. This is no great generosity because they’d be paying them the dole if they weren’t studying.

    It’s a reasonably fair system from which both my sons benefited. On the downside, it has encouraged the education industry to lower standards to attract bulk student numbers, the better to keep the academics in the manner to which they have become accustomed, with a generally as disastrous effect here as much as there.


    17 Sep 11 at 8:28 am

  9. Cheryl: My point is not that there are no other possible values, but that it is individual values which motivate individuals. As I keep saying, people don’t really learn things unless they want to.

    It’s quite unusual for people to put a lot of effort into things that don’t actually benefit themselves or at least their family (or close associates who might return the favor). A liberal education is of no use to the /individual/ in improving the conduct of a democratic government, because that individual is outvoted by any two illiterate idiots. And the individual /without/ a liberal education is not in a position to realize that his contribution as a citizen could be thereby enhanced – you have to have it to value it, in this respect.


    17 Sep 11 at 12:24 pm

  10. Individual values do motivate individuals – that’s rather obvious – but I don’t quite see how you get from there to the conclusion that people don’t really learn things unless they want to.

    I seem to have learned a lot of things that benefitted neither me, nor anyone around me at the time, under the old claims that ‘you need to know this to pass’ or ‘you’ll benefit later’. Sometimes I believed the claims, sometimes I didn’t. Sometimes they were true, sometimes not. Of course, this isn’t hard evidence, and I suppose you could saw that in some sense I ‘wanted’ to learn geography just to shut up my teacher and my parents, but that’s not how I’d use ‘want to learn’. The outcome was useful in any cse – in spite of myself, I acquired the basics of geography.

    And when we move out of the classroom – I’ve learned a lot I didn’t want to, often from situations that injured or hurt me in some way. Learning from life, learning from experience, learning from loss…it’s all learning. Some people accept this so much that they express gratitude towards whatever it was in their lives that taught them such harsh lessons. I’m not that accepting yet, but I do recognize that sometimes I can learn things from terrible things that didn’t benefit me otherwise in the least.

    Your estimate of the proportion of illiterate idiots in the population is much higher than mine, and why do you leave out the literate ones? A real danger to my aims (assuming of course that my position is right and that I’m politically active) are the bright and well-educated people who disagree with me for perfectly good reasons. I’d hope that the intelligent and well-educated person would be capable of tailoring his or her arguments for all three audiences (although recent history is somewhat against this). That person might lose anyway. That’s the nature of a democracy. I never took the fact that I might be outvoted on some issue as an excuse not to participate.


    17 Sep 11 at 1:53 pm

  11. Cheryl, you may remember some (or all) of what you learned in (say) geography, but I know very few people who retain things for long that they don’t use or aren’t interested in. Perhaps, in the process of being forced or as a consequence of having the knowledge, you discovered an interest? I think that is more the exception than the rule.

    As for democracy, it is a civic religion; “Participate and change the world” has as much validity as, “Pray and it shall be granted.”


    17 Sep 11 at 2:26 pm

  12. I don’t think I’m unusual – or that I have any interest in geography, other than the usual ones of being able to find my way from point A to point B. Those lists of products from Grade 8 Geography were particularly uninteresting.

    As for your other points.

    I think praying does have validity.

    I don’t think democracy is a religion, although like many political movements some approaches to it can sometimes behave like a religion.

    Which makes people wonder sometimes whether we are hardwired to need something like religion in our lives and/or societies, and if we don’t believe in a god, we’ll find something else to worship.

    I think that the purpose of a democracy isn’t to change the world, but to have some control over some changes that happen to you and the people around you – local, not universal, that is.

    And most unfortunately at this interesting point in the discussion, I am probably going to be offline for a day, crazy busy when I’m back at the computer, and then off again for some days due to a combination of technical problems and work.


    17 Sep 11 at 3:15 pm

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