That’s a picture of a building at Harvard up above.
Tuesday, June 14, 2011


Glenn Reynolds over at Instapundit, and a few others have periodic posts about the education bubble. What’s happened is that the cost of college has outpace the overall inflation index, and increases in wages. I’ve already blogged about the fact that the increase in tuition is 7 times greater than overall inflation. Since wages have not kept up with the cost of a college education this means that there is a necessary disparity between the cost of college and initial earning power. Prolonging the stay in college makes the matter worse.

Part of the complaint also stems from the implied promise that was contained in all of those ads that said, “If you want a good job, get a good education.” That’s not as true as it once was, and so the consumers are dissatisfied.

There are a couple of ways around this. The first one is to stop pumping money into colleges. Starve them. Cut off federal funding and federal loans, and let the commercial sector take over. In order to sell prices will have to fall. This will gradually bring college tuition back into line with the current wage level, and with overall inflation.

Another way is to ask why you’re going to college. If it’s just to get a job in a bank or in a brokerage house, or even a law firm, find the equivalent of a trade school, or find a firm that trains in-house, and go that route.

Unfortunately, people who know only one thing, who have no interest in anything outside of their jobs are ἰδιώτης.

The humanities get denigrated in this process, since they don’t contribute to the job getting process. They are important for another reason though, and it has nothing to do with “critical thinking,” whatever that is. The humanities, or the liberal arts are liberal because they are education befitting a free man, one who is capable of governing himself and others.

Let’s look at the seven traditional liberal arts. These were broken into a set of three, the trivium, and a set of four, the quadrivium. The trivium was the undergraduate portion, and consisted of logic, grammar, and rhetoric. The quadrivium was the graduate portion and consisted of arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music.

There is a formulation that goes:

Logic is concerned with the thing as-it-is-known, Grammar is concerned with the thing as-it-is-symbolized, and Rhetoric is concerned with the thing as-it-is-communicated.

Logic is fundamental to reasoning. By saying that it is reasoning about the thing as it is known, the reality of the object is emphasized. So you have to deal with the facticity of the thing. There is for the citizen or the legislator considering a proposal a correspondence between the proposal, his knowledge of reality, and his decision. Take as an example the consideration of a minimum wage bill. The legislator knows that at any given moment there will be a market wage, a wage at which a balance is struck between workers and employers. There is also 1 equality, the proposed wage is equal to the market wage, and two inequalities, greater than or less than market wage. He can then reason whether the minimum wage will be harmful or helpful.

It needs to be emphasized that logic is a tool. It is not a value. When Mr. Spock, in Star Trek, tells Jim or Bones “it is not logical,” he may be making a judgement, and the Vulcan culture does value logic over emotion, but the judgement that logic is better than emotion is itself an emotional one.

Logic may go to the formal validity of an argument, but it does not go to its morality. For example, in this syllogism:

Every X is bad, and should be destroyed. Y is X. Y should be destroyed.

It matters a great deal whether X is a species of virus or bacteria, or a group of men. In the first case the result might be beneficent, and in the second case the result would be evil.

Grammar gets a bad rap as dull. Whenever you tell someone that you’re an English teacher, the usual response is to tell you that they hated in English in school, and could never get the grasp of all that grammar and punctuation. Many people, including myself, have bad memories of diagramming sentences on the blackboard, or at home. It is dull, but it is helpful in understanding the relations of one part of a sentence to another, and, in the case of some sentences in understanding them.

Grammar is more than diagramming sentences, or memorizing rules against ending sentences with prepositions. (Although that is better than ending, as one person did, your sentence with a proposition.) Grammar explores the relations of words to each other, and aids in understanding the meaning of sentences. It’s part of how you think.

Rhetoric is something else that gets a bad rap. Spiro Agnew was advised to “tone down the rhetoric.” What rhetoric actually is, however, is, as Aristotle says, the study of the available means of persuasion. As such it involves the linguistic means of persuasion, as well as non-linguistic means. A well dressed defendant who is sober and well behaved during a murder trial, and who looks repentant, is perceived better than a defendant who is laughing, looking around the courtroom, and carrying on. Charlie Manson’s antics during his trial did nothing to deter a jury from sentencing him and his followers to death. Rhetoric has also been extended to other forms of communication. Look at the poster to the left. It says that Lenin is looking into the future, a future of military might as suggested by the ship, and that the 1917 revolution was the path to that future. It thus serves to promote the feelings of solidarity, party unity, and so forth. The poster makes an emotional appeal, and it also makes an appeal that says that Lenin is the person to lead the country.

The arts of the quadrivium, arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music were conceived to be based on number. You may say that you’ll never need algebra in your life, and you may not know what a Diophantine equation is. If you wish to understand any of the problems set forth by topics such as climate change, taxation, or anything else, you need some understanding of mathematics.

That may be fine for simple numerical things, but where do geometry, astronomy, and music fit in? They fit in by helping people to think about the relations of things. Consider this example from American politics. What is the effect of the 3/5ths rule? Many people view it as increasing the power of the South while denigrating and devaluing Blacks. It does increase the power of the South, but race is not mentioned in the Constitution until after the Civil War. The effect was not simply to increase Southern power, it limited it to less the South wanted, which meant that the North had greater representation, and greater power, than it would have had under the Southern plan that counted slaves on a 1 to 1 basis.

Consider this example. Corn is raised for food. Someone decides to subsidize corn to put a floor on it. This raises the price of corn. Poor people cannot afford the corn, so they receive payments to enable them to buy the corn that has been artificially inflated. Mr. Spock would scratch his head, and say, “It is not logical.” In real life corn is not only used for human food, it is used for cattle and hog feed, and a good portion is diverted for ethanol production. Sugar cane, however, which is used primarily for sugar, and for the production of rum, and which could easily be a sideline for some rum producers, is neglected.

50% of all marriages end in divorce. Is that a true statement? In fact it’s not. The Center for Disease Control keeps track of a variety of statistics, including live births, marriages, and divorce. What they reported for 2009 was 2.279 million marriages per year, and 1.135 million divorces per year. While the smaller figure (divorces) is a bit less than 50% of the larger figure (marriages), it is notable that the figures come from different population pools. Marriage figures come from the pool of people who are single during the year. This includes the never marrieds, and the newly divorced. Divorce figures come exclusively from the pool of married people. In order to arrive at the percentage of marriages that end in divorce you must compute the percentage based on the total population of married couples and the total population either divorced, which will yield one figure, or the total population seeking and obtaining divorces during the year, which yields yet another number. The figure above shows the relative sizes of marriages and divorces. The large blue and the large red circles represent the total pool of marriageable people (blue) and the total pool of married people (red).

Arguments based on faulty numeric analysis, such as statements about the prevalence of divorce and the failure rates of marriages are faulty, and policies based on these arguments will necessarily be faulty.

You don’t need higher math to understand some of these things, but you do need to know how to reason, and how to think about mathematics, and its relation to policy.

You can find passages in various classical authors, such as Plato and Aristotle, on the role of music in training children, and I think there is no doubt that children raised on a diet of rap and hip hop are worse off, aesthetically, if not morally and spiritually, than children raised on classical or other kinds of music. That, no doubt, is my privileged white background showing through.

Now the point of the classical liberal arts curriculum was that it enabled you to be a free man in that you were capable of governing yourself, and of governing others. The man who was no notion that someone who says “this was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal” is, whether he knows it or not, invoking the story of King Canute, does not realize that the orator is someone to flee from as a dangerous megalomaniac.

The expansion of the classic curriculum into the various modern departments, English, French, Geology, Biology, Mathematics, and so on can be seen as a fragmentation of knowledge that prohibits anyone from ever gaining a comprehensive view of knowledge. Core curriculum programs, such as I had when I entered George Washington University, mandated that the student take classes in science and literature and that he or she master certain skills, such as writing. The fact that the geology I was taught has been updated by plate tectonics, and that the last book on geology that I read (Lyell’s three volumes on geology from the 1830s) is even more out of date, is irrelevant to the question of whether I understand the scientific process. The student who studies the liberal arts, and absorbs the understanding of the process of free inquiry, and the methodology of science and of reasoning, is more capable of intelligent governance than the person who knows one thing, whether it be plumbing, computer programming, English literature, or anything else.

Heinlein, in one of his short stories, has one of his characters declare that his specialty is that he is an encyclopedic generalist. He is not a specialist, but he knows enough about economics to understand arguments about minimum wage, tariffs, and other matters. He can think about global warming, and whether there is sufficient evidence to call for restrictions, and what those restrictions should be. He understands argumentation. Those are the qualifications that are needed for an individual to be capable of governance.

In his novel Starship Troopers Heinlein laid out a society in which citizenship was earned through service. Perhaps it is time to ask, if we are going to educate for jobs, for citizenship, or for both. Perhaps we should have two tiers, one system of education for those who are interested solely in jobs, and another for those who are interested in citizenship.