Jane Haddam’s WordPress weblog


with 5 comments

So I get up this morning, and I get some work done, and then I look at the comments–and sometimes it seems to me that I go around and around the same things, over and over again, without anything ever sinking in.

But it’s Saturday  morning, and I have a class to teach in a few hours.  So I’m going to try to address the side issues, and then I’ll get to a defense of a liberal education, and then I’ll get to primary and secondary education, and then I’ll get to that thing about living more fully and nobly human.  That last thing is where I started.  It isn’t even about school.

First, to the vocational business–Charlou remembers a girl she knew who got a degree in journalism and–shock! horror!–couldn’t find a good job in journalism.

So I’ll say it once again–the dirty little secret of American higher education is that “practical” degrees are not practical.

There are certainly fields–certification for public education teaching, or nursing, for instance–where there is a set vocational path without which you can’t get hired to do the job, and wi th which you can.

But by and large, “practical” degrees are a trap.

I know more than a dozen people who worked at The New York Times, including three senior editors.  None of them–not a single one–has an undergraduate journalism degree. 

In fact, if you have an undergraduate journalism degree, the chances are that the Times won’t even bother to interview you, never mind hire you.  And that goes for the rest of the national news media.

What do they have?  Most of them have degrees in English.  The rest range from history to philosophy to economics. 

A couple of them did graduate work in journalism at Columbia–but only AFTER they’d been hired by a good newspaper, and then only when their employer was willing to pay for it.

In publishing, in journalism, in national magazines, in television, in radio, in movies–to the extent that you’re dealing with people who have degrees at all, they’re NOT “journalism” or “broadcasting” or “film” degrees.  They’re those useless ones you don’t see how anybody gets a job from.

The same is true, by the way, in business.  Companies do indeed hire undergraduate “business” majors–for middle management jobs that are dead ends in terms of going any higher.

When they hire for their promotional tracks, the ones that give you a shot of ending up CEO, they hire English, history, philosophy, sociology,  psychology, whatever.

This does not, by the way, have anything to do with the value of a liberal education.

It’s an artefact of the truth–which is that what matters in terms of a job after graduation is not WHAT you study but WHERE you study it.

The Ivy League/Seven Sisters/Little Three/Top Tier colleges and universities often do not offer “practical” majors.  At my old college, as I said, you couldn’t study business, engineering, nursing, or education.  You can do an MBA at Harvard–but there is no undergraduate business major at Harvard.

The national and international companies want to hire off the top tier, and they don’t really care what you’ve studied there if you studied THERE.

A major in Slavic Languages and Literatures at Yale will get a better job at General Motors than a major in business at SUNY-New Paltz.    And once those two get those jobs, the Yalie will have a shot at being promoted all the way to the top, and the guy from New Paltz will be slated to get stalled before he ever leaves his cubicle.

As to AB’s demand that I justify liberal studies–but not the math and science, because they could be remunerative–and Charlou’s complaint that we’re learning new things all the time and times change so you can’t have the same kind of education now as you did even 50 years ago–

Both comments misunderstand the nature and purpose of liberal education.

AB’s is the equivalent of demanding that I explain how to bake a cake, but leave out the butter and sugar, because those can be used for other things.

The underlying assumption of all liberal education is that all knowledge is part of a single whole–that each of the disparate parts hang together and cannot be without doing damage to your ability to understand any of it.  The point is not to study literature, it’s to study literature AND science AND mathematics AND history AND philosophy TOGETHER. 

If you’re not going to understand how all these things make one single whole and how each of the parts interacts with all the others–there’s no point in studying any of it, including the chemistry.

As for Charlou’s suggestion that this is all supposed to “enrich your life” or “make you a better person”–no, on both counts, although it might do either or both, and that wouldn’t be a bad thing.

Nor is the point to try to stuff the student full of little facts, so that they know all about what chemistry has discovered up to now!  and physics!  and…

No, that couldn’t be done, and there would be no point to it.  When you demand that a literature major, or a philosophy major, or a psychology major study chemistry or physics beyond the introductory level, you don’t do it so that they know what cosmologists are thinking about the curved universe this week, and you don’t do it because they’re going to “use” differential equations in the grocery store. 

In a way, the St. John’s approach makes sense the IMPORTANT thing to know about the hard sciences was discovered by the time of Francis Bacon, and none of the progress on the ground since then has changed that one important thing. 

In the rest of the fields, however, the idea that we’ve made so much progress that everything is changing all the time is, simply, untrue.

Charlou tells me that we know a lot more now about HOW CHILDREN LEARN. 

Do we?

Are you sure?

I’m reading, at the moment, an excerpt from a long book about education by the Roman orator Quintillian (35-100).

 In the section I’m looking at, he’s discussing the theory that children should not be taught to read until they are seven, because before that their minds have not developed to the point where learning to read will be anything but a misery.

It seems I read an article about that–last week.  Same theory.  Coming up again.

Ah, you say, but now we have SCIENTIFIC proof of whether it’s right or wrong!

Do you?

I wouldn’t count on it.

What I would do is go off and give this lecture.  I’ll get back to this tomorrow.

Written by janeh

September 17th, 2011 at 8:47 am

Posted in Uncategorized

5 Responses to 'Sidetracked'

Subscribe to comments with RSS or TrackBack to 'Sidetracked'.

  1. Well, we may have established why GM has already gone bankrupt once and why the New York Times enjoys its current reputation.

    Yes, we all know that graduating from a Top 20 school is a good career move. It’s even a good career move if they didn’t teach you anything at all. (If these schools cared at all for their reputations, they wouldn’t let certain of their graduates give interviews–tricky for famous politicians, I admit.)

    But Top 20 degrees are valuable, not for the rigor of the instruction, but for the competition to enter the school and the relatively small numbers of graduates. They are necessarily a tiny percentage of bright hard-working high school graduates, and a humanities program of equal rigor at, say, Miskatonic University, still wouldn’t get the graduate that interview with the TIMES.

    If your counsel is that anyone not accepted by Vassar or equivalent cannot reach the top of our major institutions, well and good. But I think it would still be useful to discuss what a bright young person ought to do who was not accepted by Princeton and who still must make his way in the world. “A Philosphy degree from Dartmouth would have worked out really well” is only an observation: it has no utility to that young person.


    17 Sep 11 at 11:43 am

  2. I wasn’t making any “demand”, I was hoping you would come through with your long-promised justification of liberal education.

    So far I’m unconvinced. I can’t imagine any significant way in which the work of an engineer, doctor, researcher, or lawyer would be enhanced by having a broad comprehension of the “big picture”. Hardly any of my professional colleagues have retained any of that portion of their education, and precious little of the “hard” portion of the curriculum, because that isn’t useful in the real world either. Most of them are poor conversation, but they do perfectly good engineering work.

    The most common deficiency I see is bad writing; one might hope that this would have been remedied by the many essays and reports I know they wrote in college, but it wasn’t. My assumption is that, like my classmates, they didn’t feel any need to improve their writing skills. In fact I think most people don’t even see writing as a skill; they just transfer words from thought to paper, and being able to form the letters and remember the spellings is the sum of the art.

    I would also disagree (if I read you correctly) that all the science necessary to grasp the “big picture” was known by the time of Francis Bacon. The Principia wasn’t even published until a half century after Bacon’s death; the structure (and very existence) of atoms was unknown; there was certainly no glimmering of nuclear technology. The true size and age of the universe was unsuspected and the whole of biology – let alone evolution – undiscovered.

    How is one to appreciate the implications of nanotechnology or nuclear power, or even to resist the deceits of Creationists, without some knowledge of these basics?


    17 Sep 11 at 1:23 pm

  3. Well, if in recent years (where ‘recent’ is at LEAST the last thirty or so) a solid grounding in the humanities hasn’t really been available in most North American universities, it’s hard to imagine that the experiences of graduates during that period have anything at all to say about whether or not a solid foundation in the humanities would be beneficial to engineers or doctors.

    “English for Engineers” is not the same as a “English Literature’ or even “English Composition”.

    I don’t know if they still do it, but they used to teach science students to write badly. Everything had to be in the passive voice and a very stilted style. That was supposed to make the writing appear more unbiased and scientific.


    17 Sep 11 at 2:44 pm

  4. AB, engineering is a practical profession where it might be possible to do “perfectly good engineering work” without knowledge or interest in the wider liberal arts. But only up to a very limited point, and that while all they are doing is hands on engineering work. At that point, an engineer is essentially a technician, a highly qualified mechanic with design skills. In the air force, I knew literally hundreds of engineers and worked closely with many of them. Those who rose to the higher ranks needed much less engineering and much more of the skills likely to be learnt from the liberal arts: critical thinking, the ability to write convincing rational arguments and to analyse complex philosophical ideas. Those who thought that all they needed were engineering technical skills were called “black handers” because they had mostly risen from the enlisted ranks and had no liberal education at all to speak of. With very rare exceptions, they topped out no higher than Major level.

    I had an uncle who was a mere tradesman – a fitter and turner who parlayed his technical and design skills into a multi-million dollar business without ever getting his hands clean or wearing a suit to anywhere other than church. At the scale of his operation, he never needed to employ more than two tradesmen. What might have he done if he’d had a liberal arts education to broaden his mind and his perspective?

    But do you really think it likely, or even possible, that a “doctor, researcher, or lawyer” could function at anything higher than the most basic technical level without at least an understanding of the “big picture”?

    Technical expertise can be, and is, hired as required by people who see the big picture, and those are more likely to be people with a broad generalist education – or just as often, I suspect, by intelligent people with open, inquiring minds and not much formal education at all.


    17 Sep 11 at 9:13 pm

  5. Can a “doctor, researcher, or lawyer” reach the height of his/her/its profession without an understanding of the “big picture”?


    You can be President of the United States of America without having a clue about the big picture. I once read a book by the most successful defense attorney in the city where I then lived; it wasn’t, but should have been, titled, “How to Get Away With It If You’re Caught Red-Handed,” and this guy had a well known ability to do just that for his clients. But he wrote at an eighth grade level, he misquoted the Constitution, and I’ll clean the floor of a chicken shed with my tongue if he knew Kant’s Categorical Imperative from a horse’s ass. I know engineers in management who aren’t any better in that regard, and I’d bet the same is true in all professions. I’ve met hobos (well, one at least) with a fuller understanding of the “big picture” than an average upper level manager.

    But that’s not really the point, because rising to the pinnacle of an esteemed profession or the upper management of a large organization is NOT the objective of 99% of college students, nor is it within their reach no matter how many books they read. The mere rank of Major is a pretty “major” achievement – how many spec5’s and sergeants do you think are needed for every Major?

    And if the people at “the top” are using their knowledge of the “big picture” to change the world, they are damn sure not using it for the better.


    17 Sep 11 at 10:17 pm

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.

Bad Behavior has blocked 241 access attempts in the last 7 days.