Liberal Arts 2.0! New! Improved! Unbiased and free of any knowledge of Liberal Arts 1.0!

Permit me a little grumpiness and snark.  Pieces like this recent one in Wired, 7 Essential Skills You Didn’t Learn In College (look, now with list-power, and SEO-bait!) drive me a little crazy.  They are part of a recent trend in some corners of the smart set to suppose that college needs a complete reinvention.  Look, the New Liberal Arts.  These starry-eyed future watchers operate under the very old assumption that higher education is outdated, outmoded and not preparing our students for their lives in the future.   I am a big fan of, one of the seed beds of this idea, and I am generally sympathetic to the idea that higher education needs to take the modern world into account, but journalistic forays into telling higher education how to do its job don’t sit well with me.  
Rather than provocative prognosticating about jobs or skills of the future, this strikes me as a few journalists and social media mavens looking at the world of education (actually, introspecting at their memory of life as a student) and supposing that they have a better idea of how to organize it.  Many academics give a lot of thought to what a liberal arts education means in the modern world, and most try to design their classes to be interesting and applicable to their students lives.  There are arguments within the academic community (for example, around Mark Taylor’s provocative proposal to “End the University as We Know It” and Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus’ book review) that are worth having, and many informed voices weigh in.  Simply ignoring those and saying “It’s the 21st Century, knowing how to read a novel, craft an essay, or calculate the slope of a tangent isn’t enough anymore,” doesn’t serve anybody.  I’ll outline what in particular bothers me about this article below, but these concerns also apply to some of the other recent criticisms of higher education curricula.

First, the “skills” offered by these “out-of-the-box” thinkers achieve their apparent novelty by simply being overly broad or overly narrow conceptions of current skills and knowledge.  It would no doubt be totally awesome to be skilled at “Finding” (an actual chapter in this book) just as it would be awesome to be the hitchhiking fingersmith from Roald Dahl’s Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar and Six more.  Unfortunately, in the real world, magicians have to learn every trick that they do independently, musicians have to learn each instrument, and I can beat the best squash player in the world in ping pong (or at least I could in college).  Because even the skill of “hitting a small ball with a racquet” is too general.

However, just because magicians have to learn each trick separately, does not mean that there aren’t some general rules and principles (Like Penn and Teller’s Principles of Sleight of Hand).  For example, in any given  introductory composition class, or in most writing classes across the curriculum, one learns rules of expressing oneself clearly and directly… or … Writing classes teach you how to write.  You don’t need a separate class on “Brevity” or “Writing for New Forms” (Wired Skill #6).  Take a non-fiction writing class, take a creative writing class, take a poetry class, they will put you on your way to making your tweets and your blog posts clear, direct, and interesting.

Second, all of the wonder at the networked world can make us lose sight of the fact that most knowledge has a structure.  Knowledge is not a stream to be poured into a waiting mind, but rather, a building to be constructed.  To teach my students about how the eye works, I need to first teach them a little bit about the nature of light.  And how neural transmission works, and how the two lenses of the eye bend light.  To understand how the brain works, it helps to know what the amygdala, hippocampus, cingulate gyrus, basal ganglia, etc are.   We have prerequisites in the college curriculum not just to limit class size, but because it is the nature of certain knowledge to be dependent on other knowledge.   We might desire to jump right into “Applied Cognition,” or an interdisciplinary program about “Water” (one suggestion from Taylor’s op-ed), but it makes little sense to talk about water systems engineering without some knowledge of basic principles of physics and engineering.  It makes little sense to talk about Applied Cognition without any knowledge of how and why psychology is a science, and some background facts of cognitive psychology.

Here are a few point-by-point take-downs

Wired Skill #1: Statistical Literacy
(Quotes from the original Wired article are indented)

Why take this course?  We are misled by numbers and our misunderstanding of probability.

What will you learn?  How to parse polls, play the odds, and embrace uncertainty.  

Hey, guess what, we’ve got that.  You may have missed it, because it is called Statistics.  Statistics literacy is also offered in the Psychology Department and called Research Methods and Statistics.  It is also offered in the Sociology, Political Science, and Economics departments, where it can be called Research Methods.  Make no mistake, it is offering statistical literacy, albeit for that discipline.  Many of these courses use Darrell Huff’s How to Lie with Statistics, or one of the other books mentioned.  But actually, one of the best ways to get statistics knowledge and skills is to have a teacher skilled in statistics, design assignments and activities for students with your background knowledge, and goals.  Sometimes an experienced teacher will combine their expertise in the subject matter and their experience with how students learn the topics, and write a textbook (how terribly 20th century of them!  Why don’t they just do a wiki?).  Some of these textbooks are fantastic ways to learn about the subject (yes, some of them suck, but that is mostly because it is really hard to write a textbook, not because it is made of paper, and ruled by evil publishing companies)

We use only 10 percent of our brain! That familiar statement is false—there’s no evidence to support it. Still, something about it just sounds right, so we internalize it and repeat it. Such is the power—and danger—of statistics.

Agreed.  This statistic is false.  However, the reason it is false is not based on statistics, but on knowledge of the brain, the relationship between the white matter and the gray matter, etc.  There is an excellent discussion of this in 50 Myths of Popular Psychology, a book my students read in General Psychology.

Our world is shaped by widespread statistical illiteracy.  We fear things that probably won’t kill us (terrorist attacks) and ignore things that probably will (texting while driving)

No.  The reason that we fear terrorist attacks and not texting drivers is a well-known cognitive bias called the availability heuristic.  It has little to do with statistical illiteracy, and more to do with our natural mental tendencies and how we make decisions with emotions.  The natural resistance of our brains to making decisions based on statistics rather than emotions could be taught in a statistics course along with the difference between a mean, a median, and a mode, but cognitive biases are not the same as statistical illiteracy.

Also in this department: Personal Data: The self may be unknowable, but it is not untrackable.  It is now easier than ever to tap into a wealth of data – heart rate, caloric input and output, foot speed, sleep patterns, even your own genetic code – to glean new insights and make better decisions about your health and behavior.

This is on the surface, a wonderful idea, but silly.  Unfortunately, we no longer live in the age of the citizen scientist.  Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson could go into their backyards, observe the animals in the creek, and actually contribute to science.  But now, to “glean insight” into any single variable above, you need graduate education in that topic.  This is obviously true for the genetic code, but as someone who collected heart rate data for my dissertation, I can attest to the fact that it is not interpretable without significant training and guidance.  

Wired Skill # 4: Applied Cognition : How the Mind Works and How to Make it Work for You
In just about any college catalog I can find, there is a course (and I have taught it) called “Cognitive Psychology.”  This course teachers how the mind works, and how to apply this knowledge to your own life, like using the science of memory to make your studying more effective.  This course often assigns books such as Barry Schwartz’s Paradox of Choice (look, he teaches Introduction to Psychology) and Jonah Leher’s  How We Decide.  But often, to delve into the experiments themselves, and look at the data (this is science, after all) you need an experienced guide, and yes, sometimes a textbook, with questions, assignments, terms to know, etc.

So, what would I suggest to the authors of this article (hailing from planet Snarkmarket)?  Rather than arguing that the liberal arts are outdated, why not take a look at current liberal arts classes and curricula, and realize that you are actually arguing for their continued vitality in the modern world?  Read some of the academics who are struggling with keeping the liberal arts, rigorous and relevant, without turning them into vocational training programs.  Finally, consider that if we keep hyping the inadequacy of liberal arts 1.0 (are we really only at 1.0, after at least 100 years?) we may not end up with 2.0, but rather, just a lot less of 1.0.


About Cedar Riener

College psychology professor, husband, father.
This entry was posted in education. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Liberal Arts 2.0! New! Improved! Unbiased and free of any knowledge of Liberal Arts 1.0!

  1. >I would also add that "The reason that we fear terrorist attacks and not texting drivers" is because our public officials drive the fear of terrorism into us every chance they get. We study this in (you know this is coming) political science courses! Part of a liberal arts education! In other words: right on, man.

  2. >Actually this stuff doesn't make me froth at the mouth so much as very very resigned and sleepy.

  3. Cedar says:

    >That's good to hear, Dan. I wish it didn't bother me so much, but I have a sinking feeling my job depends on people finding value in a liberal arts education.

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