Studying one Thing to Learn Another

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Rufus F.

Rufus is an American curmudgeon in Canada. He has a PhD in History, sings in a garage rock band, and does a bunch of other stuff.

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  1. Avatar Aaron W
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    says:

    It’s always strange to hear people talk about the humanities in terms of usefulness. What use is beauty? Or ugly for that matter?Report

  2. Avatar Kyle Cupp
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    Yay knowledge for its own sake!Report

  3. Avatar Thad Harroun
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    I’ve been addressing a similar question in Physics when talking to recruits. Why shouldn’t I take Applied Something or Other? I dazzle them and their parents with data that show Physics undergrads are perennially tops on MCAT, LSAT, and GMAT exams. But look who else is there, Mathematics and,at least for the LSAT and GMAT, Philosphy. Humanities majors have a higher acceptance rate to medical school than pre-med majors.

    “Reading the Iliad teaches you about the Archaic age and Homeric epics; yet, it also talks to you about what men do when their own desires come into conflict with those of the larger society.”

    Learning quantum mechanics teaches you about the sub-atomic world; yet, it also talks to you about the real limits of knowledge of the world, and what it means to be properly quantitative in your understanding (or lack thereof).Report

    • Avatar Rufus F. in reply to Thad Harroun
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      I never had time to take physics as an undergrad, although one of my oldest friends studies “quantum electronics” and has attempted to teach me the basics. He has also given me a sense of the sheer wonder of the topic. I would say though that all the math, geology and biology courses I took as an undergrad have been invaluable for me in understanding the world, as well as enriching many of my studies in the humanities.Report

  4. Avatar E.C. Gach
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    I think in part because of the current university system in which undergrads spend much of their first two years (since most are undecided) taking many different intro coursed to satisfy different requirements/explore their interests, data mining is one of the skills now taught.

    If you apply the medium is the message to universities, you look at how the university functions to find out what it teaches.

    The recent post on bullshitting and paying others to do your papers attests to this fact. So much of the university is now taken up with quickly absorbing tons of information from random topics and fields and turning in dumbed down “lit reviews” or regurgitating on a test.

    As a result, I am confident in my ability to walk into a random class, be handed the the syllabus and texts, and figure out a way to find the information and compile it in such a way as to achieve a certain goal, for instance, a good grade.

    So even if the “humanities” in their idealized form aren’t teaching “skills” the way in which the humanities are taught does encourage the attainment of a pretty specific skill set.Report

  5. Avatar nadezhda
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    I think of the value of the humanities as a “both”, not an “either/or”, discussion. I agree that those who are in some fashion or another public “spokesmen” for the humanities shouldn’t be copping out by framing their justifications purely in terms of a narrowly-defined notion of utility. However, an effective advocacy is not simply a matter of tossing utility out of the calculus and embracing “knowledge for its own sake” (not that there’s anything wrong with that). It’s challenging the values our culture implicitly affirms (or fails to).

    Rufus significantly expands the utility argument with his example of the value (indeed necessity) of having some historical perspective in order to understand the world in which we live and act. And he suggests there are a range of other effective “utility” arguments that apply to students (or the scholars who can keep the humanities alive and teach those students) that extend beyond the need for some folks in our culture to be “less-than-useful” for today’s immediate needs or interests.

    But in addition to changing the standards against which we measure utility, when we’re talking about students, I think there’s quite a bit to the arguments in favor of a humanities-focused education that fits within the more narrowly-defined career-oriented utility standard. I’ve frequently had discussions with kids talking about choosing majors and thinking that more vocationally-oriented majors like “pre-law” or economics or business will be more valuable than a humanities major. That they’ll have a leg-up when they go on to law or business school to get their credential, etc. And I always tell them they’re making a big mistake. If you want to be well-prepared for professional school and for the practice of that profession afterwards, major in history or French lit or philosophy. Find an area that turns you on and that’s got a big range to explore but also allows you to dig in. You’ll learn how to find and assess “evidence”, to pull things apart and put them back together, to compare and contrast, to subject your own thoughts to some criticism, and to narrow the distance between what’s in your head and communicating it in writing. Those are skills you often won’t even know you’ve acquired — you’ll just take them for granted — but they’re essential in most knowledge-economy careers.

    On a bit of a tangent, it seems to me that the current focus on trying to measure different types of education in terms of return on investment (whether “effectiveness” of inputs or “usefulness” of outputs) misses what the French much more explicitly acknowledge in their concept of “formation” (which is broader than the more narrowly academic “discipline”). It’s not just about the content being transmitted to a student and whether the student has sufficiently mastered the content to be able to apply it appropriately. It’s the absorption of distinctive modes of knowing, thought and communication styles particular to a segment of social life in which the acquisition and application of knowledge is important. Returning to professional schools, law schools don’t just teach “the law” — much course content is irrelevant or the practical stuff has to be learned when it comes time to actually practice law. They teach how to “think” like a lawyer, which is different from how research scientists or doctors, engineers, bankers, clergy, journalists or CEOs “think” when they have their professional hats on.

    The humanities aren’t a “formation professionelle” in this narrow sense. Rather, they provide the broader, or more fundamental, “formation” for an intelligent and informed participant and consumer of Western culture that, among other things, underwrites the particularism of professions. So lawyers can learn, think and communicate in modes other than “like a lawyer” (or for other professions “like a pastor” or “like a research scientist” or “like a banker”) and appreciate how and when to shift from one mode to another. A sort of common cultural glue that helps offset the fragmentation of specialized technologies and expertise, or if you prefer, segregated epistemological communities.

    I suppose this gets back to the sort of broader notions of utility that Rufus was exploring. It’s part of what used to be known as “the value of a liberal arts education”. And the challenges to that model aren’t just coming from a culture focused on the here-and-now or that equates merit with wealth rather than with arete. The economics of higher education have been inexorably pushing the “consumer” groups (students, parents, states as funders) to question what they’re getting for all this money. And despite all the broader values of the humanities that Rufus champions, those narrow “usefulness” questions can’t be ignored. The challenge is to keep the discussion from focusing exclusively on those narrow questions, which seems to produce a sort of dialogue de sourds.Report

    • Avatar Rufus F. in reply to nadezhda
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      says:

      Nadezhda, it’s good to hear from you again. This is an excellent point:
      “The economics of higher education have been inexorably pushing the “consumer” groups (students, parents, states as funders) to question what they’re getting for all this money. And despite all the broader values of the humanities that Rufus champions, those narrow “usefulness” questions can’t be ignored.”

      I’d considered discussing this in the post, but figured I was getting too wordy as is and could probably do a follow-up post on the topic. You’re entirely right though- when working class families go into years of debt to put their kids through college, questions of utility become more pressing- people want to know what justifies taking on that debt. I’ve talked a bit about it before, but my strong belief is that academia has no way of justifying the current rate of tuition and will soon reach a tipping point in which tuition will go up and enrollment will go way down. It’s what they call “unsustainable”- actually, maybe the more honest term is “highway robbery”. I will have plenty to say about this in the future, but the short version is that universities would find much less anger from the public if they cut down their overhead, reduced their tuition rates substantially, and stopped trying to justify that highway robbery by constantly adding on perquisites of ambiguous “value”. So, absolutely, defending the humanities needs to go hand-in-hand with the much needed belt-tightening that has been put off for far too long.Report

      • Avatar nadezhda in reply to Rufus F.
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        It’s what they call “unsustainable”- actually, maybe the more honest term is “highway robbery”. I will have plenty to say about this in the future… Please do! I’ve been out of the academic world for awhile, but I’ve been following various recent brouhahas with some interest, and I’ve been gobsmacked by the cost structure that seems to have grown like Topsy over the past decade or so.

        It’s not just jettisoning low-enrollment language or philosophy programs. There have been a couple of international causes celebres in Britain — proposals to reassess the “contribution” (to the bottom-line) by faculty, which would result in turfing truly unique, world-class scholars in critical humanities fields on which a whole series of disciplines around the world rely, since few institutions could replicate that level of expertise in-house. A sort of Republique de lettres model of a global community of cooperative scholars centered on a few critical nodes in the network, and the suits were going to willy-nilly dismantle the nodes without understanding the consequences for either the global networks or their own institution’s global brand.

        Anyway, in the process of fighting the cuts, those who were screaming bloody murder started looking at trends in those same university administrators’ budgets, which appear to have been exploding. Because, don’t you know, you have to have managers who understand accounting and fund-raising and building plans and PR and “value-propositions” and mission statements and HR who know that “people are our core assets”, yada yada….

        Now, I’m the first to acknowledge that the non-profit sector could often do with some basic organization management and finance skills, and that faculty committees aren’t always the most effective way to decide or execute. But, seriously. Between huge construction commitments that will be hanging over these institutions for decades to come (the higher-education sector equivalent of MacMansions, I suppose) and the bloated administrative structures in the name of efficiency, there’s a huge hole for these schools to dig out of. And tuition and faculty (and grad students!!) seem to be the main places where the shovels are poised to get to work.

        I’d be quite interested in your thoughts.Report

        • Avatar Rufus F. in reply to nadezhda
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          says:

          Actually, I just remembered that I posted a bit on this topic here:
          http://www.ordinary-gentlemen.com/2010/03/we-dont-need-no-overpriced-education/

          Part of the problem is the very top-heavy administrative structure at many universities, which indeed seems to have sprung up in the last decade or so. A second problem is that they all seem to be spending a fortune on unneccessary perqs in order to “compete” in the market, which is more than a bit stupid because enrollment levels are at an all-time high in every sector of academia, and the arms race only serves to drive up tuition rates, while turning universities into luxury resorts or a four year booze cruise. Finally, the administrators and their consultants who drive these trends seem to have no concept of what a university education actually is, and instead focus on the “experience” they’re offering their “consumers”. It’s just a short-sighted and stupid way of doing business.

          Which brings me to this:
          “It’s not just jettisoning low-enrollment language or philosophy programs. There have been a couple of international causes celebres in Britain — proposals to reassess the “contribution” (to the bottom-line) by faculty, which would result in turfing truly unique, world-class scholars in critical humanities fields on which a whole series of disciplines around the world rely, since few institutions could replicate that level of expertise in-house. A sort of Republique de lettres model of a global community of cooperative scholars centered on a few critical nodes in the network, and the suits were going to willy-nilly dismantle the nodes without understanding the consequences for either the global networks or their own institution’s global brand.”

          That’s exactly it. I think that sometimes, when I talk about this subject, I come off as “anti-business”, but I’m actually quite fond of free enterprise. What I object to is this very stupid way of doing business- focusing on maximizing profits in the short-term by throwing all of your resources at whatever segment of the market is currently buying the mostest, while alienating everyone else, and without any long-term strategy for creating a strong and enduring brand. A number of universities are making themselves into laughing stocks among people who actually have a sense of university education, while claiming to be “paying attention to what the market’s telling us”, and it’s no way to run a business. (On this theme, see also: the American auto industry, film industry and music industry.)Report

  6. Avatar Mark
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    >> … critics of America might be surprised to hear that academic historians claim this instrumentalization of the humanities (skills over knowledge) goes back directly to the German university model. The pressure on American universities increased, not surprisingly, after WWII.

    But the strong German influence on American academies began after the rise of Imperial Germany in the later 19th century. But maybe you meant the pressure increased yet again after WWII. I believe the first American to get a German Phd was Edward Everett -the guy who rattled on for two forgettable hours before Lincoln spoke the few memorable lines at Gettysburg.

    I wonder why some ordinary citizen non-academics have a powerful drive to understand their culture and nation’s history, while others do not. In other words, what sensibility is there that allows some to know what you’re saying about the importance of knowing history, and others won’t be convinced for love or money.

    I’m a new reader (since last night). I compliment you on a truly fantastic article and look forward to continued reading.Report

    • Avatar Rufus F. in reply to Mark
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      says:

      Thank you very much!

      Yeah, that was what I meant- the German model had an influence from the 19th century and carried with it the objective of imparting skills through subjects. So, it was already there by the turn of the century, and American industrialists were already taking an active interest in the universities by that time, although, indeed, the pressure increased in America with the post-war mass enrollment and industrial boom.

      Sometimes, I try to edit these posts down a bit and lose the sense of certain paragraphs. So thanks for the note.Report

  7. Avatar Mike Schilling
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    says:

    My degree is in mathematics, and at one time I had a pretty good grasp of such arcana as complex analysis, metric spaces [1], infinite cardinals, and differential topology. It’s all gone now, but the skills learned to master all of that stuff, and in particular, to construct proofs about them, are invaluable in software development, which is how I make my living.

    And, of course, I know what’s purple and commutes.

    1. E.g it was obvious to me that a set that’s both closed and totally bounded is also compact.Report

    • Avatar David in reply to Mike Schilling
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      says:

      Cardinalities of infinite sets are one of my absolute favorites among everything I’ve ever learned. The only practical good I can think of is that it reminds me that truth can be stranger than fiction, but looking for practical good there is like looking for practical good in the sunrise. (Yeah, ok, warmth, light, life on earth continues, yadda yadda, but screw it — it’s beautiful.)Report

      • Avatar Mike Schilling in reply to David
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        It’s a fascinating illustration of how one’s intuition can be trained. When I first saw Cantor’s diagonal proof that the real are larger than the rationals, I was convinced that this was nonsense: one infinity was clearly the same size as another: infinite, and the proof was just word-chasing, as idiotic as trying to prove the existence of God from word definitions. [1] Since then, the idea of using 1-1 correspondences as a substitute for counting has become second nature, so that greater and lesser infinities make perfect sense.

        Q. What’s big and gray and undecidable?
        A. The continuum hippopotamus.

        1. No offense meant to our favorite Blue Jay.Report

        • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Mike Schilling
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          says:

          For the record, I wasn’t trying to prove (or disprove, for that matter) God from definitions.

          I just thought that if we were having an argument over whether or not God existed, it might be helpful to define what we were talking about beforehand. When the conversation turned toward the whole “God is not a this nor that” thing, I came to the conclusion that, yeah, I wasn’t about to be confronted with new evidence that would require me to change my position.Report

  8. Avatar Mark
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    says:

    >> My degree is in mathematics … It’s all gone now, but the skills learned … are invaluable in software development, which is how I make my living.

    I had the impression that studying mathematics was done in the distant past not to equip people to build bridges and such (when there was not enough of that work to do) so much as to inculcate abstract reasoning skills. Or maybe that is part of the “learn one thing to learn another” paradigm that is relatively modern that Rufus wrote about. If so, then did people study math for the sake of it once upon a time?

    At any rate, there is no doubt that people that can master higher mathematics do excel at any number of technical vocations. You see this all the time.Report

  9. Avatar Mark
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    says:

    On the topic of history, I have to say I’m quite ambivalent about learning it formally. I had two classes as an undergrad and hated each one and learned quite by accident later that I did in fact love history. Though I think people are greatly impoverished without historical understandings, I’m with Steven Davies about how it may not be so bad after all. See his lecture “Visions of History: Ways of Seeing the Past” for his view on the importance of one’s view on history and the average person’s lack of historical knowledge (starting at the 42:30 point) http://mercatus.org/video/visions-history-ways-seeing-past I’ve paraphrased some relevant parts below:

    “… bad news sells … being told that things are in a desperate state … is more interesting and exciting, not least because it typically makes your own generation historically very significant in a unique way … people are interested in thinking their own immediate lifetime is going to be the pivotal culminating event in world history, and so there is an enormous interest in what is called the “Apocalyptic Narrative” – the idea that we’re living in the end times, that things have never been worse and that they are about to go completely … “pear shaped”. There is something about human psychology that leads people to be receptive to this.

    … a lot of people, particularly intellectuals, do not like the modern world. … their ideal is that they live in a world where they enjoy the comforts and privileges of modernity, but they live in a world that is rather more like the past. Why is this? … I’m afraid intellectuals feel typically that they are undervalued … people who regard themselves as being an elite, superior to the common herd, find this infuriating … regard modernity as something to deplore

    … finally the role of government education … one of the purposes of which is to inculcate a particular vision of the past in the minds of students … the aims of which is to make them loyal subjects of the state … history is one of the most important ways in which ruling groups around the world build a mindset in the minds of many of their subjects that leads them to identify their own interests with the interests of the state that rules over them and the people that control that state … that’s why although I am a historian, I am not depressed or suicidal about the historical ignorance of the great mass of the public. Because given the kind of view of history they are supposed to have imbibed, I think it is actually good they haven’t, and I think it is a credit to their intellectual capacity for resistance.”Report

  10. Avatar David
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    says:

    Thanks for this essay. Here’s my two cents: I’m a (certified, practicing, published) historian, have been for some years, but only recently did I realize the real value of reading old-fashioned great-man history: You get a lot of good ideas that way on how to manipulate people. Er, um: I mean “leadership skills.” How to wield power (and yes, with apologies to Foucault: power can be wielded) or, conversely, how you might go about preventing other people from doing so. More broadly, and perhaps less cynically, I could say that history provides us with models for behavior (and lighthouses to warn us of rocky shoals), with stories that are more easily learned from and built upon than principles of management. So do literature and religion, for that matter, so one could broaden that to include all the humanities.

    And then of course history gives us perspective. Nothing lasts forever, and yet some things never change. It makes one less inclined to panic when, say, an election goes to the other guys or a couple of planes crash or the whole world seems to be going mad. It’s happened before. It will happen again. And, again, I could rephrase that to encompass the humanities as a whole.

    So there are two things the humanities can teach us: How to take action, and when to chill out. There’s some real practical value there.Report

  11. My anecdotal experience is this: I double-majored in history and anthropology because the fields fascinated me and i wanted to be an archaeologist. I was lucky enough to collect a paycheck doing just that for three years but found the travel demands and salary incompatible with raising a healthy family. Luckily I was also working part-time for a Fortune 500 company. I discovered, almost by accident, that a liberal arts degree was invaluable in my company. Most of my coworkers who have degrees went the Business Administration route. While they are very good at certain aspects of our business, they often lack a real ability to convey thoughts and ideas. I’ve been able to carve out a nice niche for myself writing proposals, contracts, etc and being the guy who researches company needs from odd angles that the business guys don’t think of. I love that i use certain aspects of my degree every day in ways i never expected in college.

    My advice to my kids is to get a degree you love first, plan for a dream career with it and have a couple of fallbacks where you can use your education and learn to like the job.Report

    • Avatar nadezhda in reply to Mike at The Big Stick
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      Bingo! The mantra that liberal arts or humanities teaches “critical thinking” skills isn’t a bunch of BS, though as your comment suggests, there’s a good deal more to it than just critical thinking.

      The one thing I typically add to your advice is not just to get a degree you love, but to keep learning. I’ve had a career that by most measures has been extremely successful. And there’s simply no way I could have ever planned it. A bunch of stuff I’ve done didn’t really exist when I started law school. And the way I got from one place to the next was totally serpentine. Yet looking back, it all makes sense. Few people could have done the stuff I’ve done, because few would have had the weird mix of experience and skills I picked up along the way.

      But the one thing that’s been common throughout was that I accepted opportunities when they came along if they presented interesting challenges and a lot of new learning about things I found interesting. And that old liberal arts education is a big part of my core skills that have made taking on new challenges relatively easy.Report

  12. Avatar sam
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    says:

    Well, maybe this argument could be made: Studying the humanities is a good thing because, you know, as a human being it’s a good thing to know what being a human being means. Oh, and you might also end up being a better writer and thinker.Report

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