Think right, not deep

By Razib Khan | October 24, 2011 2:19 am

Over the past few weeks I’ve been observing the response to Rick Scott’s suggestion that Florida public universities focus on STEM, rather than disciplines such as anthropology. You can start with John Hawks, and follow his links. More recently I notice a piece in Slate, America Needs Broadly Educated Citizens, Even Anthropologists. There several separate issues here. Superficial concerns of money going to your political antagonists, commonsense considerations of the best utilization of public educational resources, and broader reflections upon the nature of a ‘liberal’ education.

First, there’s the plain issue that anthropologists have a reputation for being Left-liberals, and Rick Scott is a conservative Republican. Here’s some ratios from Dan Klein:

As you can see, the ratio of Democrats to Republicans in anthropology is about 30:1. This obviously has an effect in the orientation of the discipline in terms of the values which they impart to their students. A substantial number of anthropologists don’t consider themselves scientists. Quite often they’re clearly activists, and you know very well what direction their activism is going to go. As one of five non-progressive people involved in science communication I have seen firsthand how narrow-minded and partisan people who come out of the social sciences aside from economics can be. While a liberal biologist is strongly influenced by their political outlook and will defend it forcefully, anthropologists seem trained to throw around scurrilous terms and associations as if that was the ultimate training of their profession. While normal people believe that their ideological opponents are wrong, it seems that many anthropologists as activists believe that their political enemies are malevolent demons. Who wants to continue funding wannabe-kommissars?

Of course as I can admit academics in general are liberal. But a major difference between anthropologists and physicists is that the benefits conferred by physics are clear and distinct. Even a field as non-scientific as law can be acknowledged to have necessary utility in an advanced society. In contrast, though anthropology is edifying and sharpens our perceptions of the state of human affairs it is a new discipline which is not necessary for a modern society. In a straightened fiscal environment I think it’s reasonable to suppose that public education should be focused on fields which have a practical import. Honestly I think that an elaborated land-grant attitude should suffuse more public universities. I emphasize public, because private universities can continue to cherish the idea of a liberal education. And the reality is that the wealthy and upper middle class who tend to attend these private colleges (only 25% of American college students are at private universities, many at relatively non-selective religious institutions) can afford a liberal education because their connections will guarantee them a good job after graduation. In contrast, working class students are unlikely to be approached by any investment banks after getting a degree in history at a public university. The American elite is highly stratified, and the chances are going to be that the top echelons will come from private universities. No surprise that Harvard, Stanford, and Yale are the top three feeder universities for Congress. There shouldn’t be a worry that the American elite is not sufficiently liberally educated, that elite is drawn from a set of top-tier universities where the student body is elite in class and intellectual aptitudes. Social capital and prestige of their institution are such that a degree in English or or history can still go a long way.

Finally, there’s the issue about whether people in the humanities and liberal arts are broadly educated. I don’t think they really are. My undergraduate degrees are in biology and biochemistry. Since I went to a non-elite public university I saw the full range of students, and those who were not science majors were often quite academically unmotivated and passed their classes through bursts of cramming. In the sciences the situation was different because failing was a much more clear and present option. Many people switched out of science majors when they hit organic chemistry or physical chemistry, because they failed them or knew they could not pass the courses.

When I met history or political science majors there were sometimes awkward moments because it was clear I knew more history and political science than they did. I have a strong interest in these areas, and in my naive youth I thought that someone majoring in history or political science would wish to discuss these topics. But usually the reality was that they’d rather drink a beer.

But is it better with genuinely smart students who went to the top schools? Unfortunately that hasn’t been my experience. As a specific example years ago I ran into someone at a party who turned out to have a background in classical Roman history from an Ivy League university. As a Roman history buff I was excited to talk to them about various issues, but I quickly realized that this individual was more interested in seeming smart than saying anything substantive (I wanted to discuss Bryce Ward-Perkins’ revisionist How Rome Fell, and my interlocutor seemed to lose all interest when I was not sufficiently impressed by their name-checking of scholars in the “Rome did not fall, it evolved” school of thought. They were not even prepared from what I could gather to defend that position on empirical grounds).

Too many smart liberal arts graduates remind me of the blonde douche in Good Will Hunting:

This is not to say that STEM graduates don’t lack something. They are no paragons of enlightenment. There’s often a certain inflexibility and lack of creativity which is encouraged by a STEM background, especially one rooted in the physical or mathematical sciences. It is well known that high level terrorists and intellectual Creationists disproportionately come from an engineering background. A broad knowledge of history, literature, and the arts, does build character, and gives those who are focused on narrow technical details something more to grasp upon when they feel without purpose. The economic plentitude due to the productivity driven by STEM fields is at the end of the day at the service of the finer aspects of culture. Modern engineering means that we can produce music much more efficiently than in the past, but without music there would be no point in the engineering in the first place.

To recap, here is my main issue with the current proponents of the liberal arts:

1 – The professoriate seems inordinately hostile to half the political spectrum. That’s fine if you’re drawing from private resources, but this is not usually the case.

2 – Those without social capital derived from family connections need to accrue specialized technical skills to compensate for their deficit. Upper class and upper middle class individuals with an entree into white collar jobs by virtue of their class status can afford to focus on becoming more polished. Everyone should not be given the same advice, because not everyone starts from the same life circumstances.

3 – The average American college student doesn’t learn much, because they aren’t that bright or intellectually oriented. They don’t do their reading until the last second, and have only marginal passion for the books which they purchase. Your mind can’t be broadened if you barely use it.

4 – Those liberal arts graduates who are very bright are too often enamored of the latest intellectual fashion, and are keener upon signalling their ideological purity and intellectual superiority than actually understanding anything.

All that being said, I do believe that a pure technical education, as one might receive in certain university systems, is not optimal. There are diminishing marginal returns on the frontiers of hours invested in any given discipline, and complementation when you alternate across very different domains. But just as Rick Scott was being overly simplistic when denying the importance of majors outside of STEM, his critics need to remember that not everyone has the same aptitudes and options.


Comments (55)

  1. Karl Zimmerman

    Hrrm, there’s a lot to unpack here.

    I’ve thought and read a lot about the status of higher education in America, in part due to interest in public policy, in part due to familial interest (my older brother made a failed run at being an English professor, making me thankful I kept my own interest in political theory at the undergraduate level).

    U.S. higher education is, in most fields, not very useful for job training, particularly at the undergraduate level. Engineers come out of undergrad with specific training for their job. A Bachelors in the sciences prepares you for an entry-level technical job (say, something like quality-control testing), but outside of perhaps chemistry really doesn’t leave you with the skills or credentials to advance far in your selected field. And that’s about it.

    For the most part, higher education is merely about credentialing. Far too many people apply for any particular job for employers to weed through a systematic manner, so the presence of post-secondary degrees, as well as the GPA, provides some manner for bosses to sort the wheat from the chaff before they even get started. As a personal example, a few years back one of my friends was working in New York for a small social research firm. A position opened up for a very low-level research position (essentially glorified googling), and over one hundred applications came in. Her boss told her to throw every one which did not have a Masters at minimum in the trash.

    Quite honestly, I think that while degrees in the social science and humanities are highly guilty of this, they aren’t the main problem. You should take a look some time, if you haven’t, at NCES statistics about broad academic fields by degree since 1970. The amount of undergraduates with degrees in the social sciences has risen by 8.5%. The amount with English and related literature degrees has actually fallen by 13.2%. But the amount with degrees in business has risen by 201%. On the masters level, degrees in business have increased 535% over the same period. Or look at Masters degrees in health-related fields, which increased an astounding 1075% over hat same period.

    One of the most classic examples, however, is journalism. Journalism was historically a mainly working-class job which was thought to acquire more intelligence, but little more credentialing, than a carpenter. It was a job that you took out of high school through apprenticing, and if you were good enough you eventually worked your way up at the paper or the magazine which had you in employ. However, as the cache of journalists grew, particularly in the post-Watergate era, it became a desirable job for the upper-middle class, and the idea that you needed an actual academic background in journalism, preferably at an elite school like Columbia, became the social norm. From 1970 to 2009, the number of undergraduate degrees in journalism and related fields rose by…656%.

    Why do these professions need this added education, when for years they got by with minimal to no background before beginning the profession, and on-the-job training worked just fine? Yes there have been productivity increases, but these have mostly been due to innovations of a very small cadre, not the fields as a whole. It seems to be mainly an educational arms race, where each student (or their parents) spend an ever-escalating amount of money “job training” which actually achieves comparably little except perhaps to give them an edge on the competition. And, as someone on the left, albeit someone with somewhat unorthodox politics, it irks me, because it’s a tremendous swindle on the American people – in certain ways analogous to a cartel or a protection racket, although the fault mainly of a market with open supply and unconstrained demand.

    It’s unclear to me if undergraduate education is even needed at all. In the mid 19th century, it was on its way out in the U.S. People were successfully applying to law school, medical school, and other professional degrees with a mere high school education. The idea of undergraduate education as a prerequisite was invented by the Ivies in order to stay relevant as something other than finishing schools for old money.

    Still, if I were to redo higher education, I’d argue for two years of universal education in the liberal arts and sciences, and leave it at that. This is more than enough to provide a civic education, understanding of the scientific method, and a taste of the “college experience” so that academically-minded students can consider further what they want to do. Education beyond this should be restricted in terms of supply, similar to the case in much of Europe. Over time, this would help to “de-credentialize” the labor market, and I think would actually make social mobility easier rather than harder.

    As to your particular point about the attitudes of students and graduates in the core of “soft academics,” I think there’s a relatively simple reason for the left dominance. In my experience, people gravitate towards academia who hate private corporations, and at least publicly equate going to work for one, in an often melodramatic manner, with slashing their wrists. Underneath this is a fear, after committing so much to academia, they aren’t qualified to do anything in the private sector. Still, it is often this loathing of the idea of working for business, or even more broadly, having a nine-to-five job, which compels them on to the (generally hopeless) quest for a professorship. Given those on the right don’t have major issues with working in the private sector, I don’t think we should expect that those with a different ideological disposition, but essentially similar skills, would ever make the same value judgements.

    Whew. I think I typed enough here.

  2. marcel

    @Karl Zimmerman:

    Your 2nd to the last paragraph, about redoing higher education, suggests broad agreement with Robert Hutchins and the old U. of Chicago approach (see paragraph just above this link.

  3. Charles Nydorf

    I think of the problems of anthropology as prone to be misunderstood in the same way that the problems of the Balkans are. People see the Balkan nations as particularly fractious when the underlying problem is that they are situated on the borders between three competing religions. Conflicts between these great religions show up overtly in the Balkans. Anthropology is on the borderline between the sciences and the humanities. As the cultures of these two great academic blocs diverge, anthropology is in danger of being torn apart. On the positive side, anthropology has the potential to develop unifying models that can bring the sciences and the humanities back into harmony. The work of anthropologists like Franz Boas and Claude Levi-Strauss point the way towards a re-conception of humanity within the context of modern science.

  4. juan

    How much of the variance in ideological purity between econ and anthro, for example, is due to the nature of the field vs the career prospects in the field?

    Economics is vastly more technical and objective than anthro, so a right-leaning individual can succeed even if 80% of his peers believe he has immoral political beliefs.

    But there is also a market for economists outside of academia. Working and consulting for corporate America, as well as being thought leaders and govt appointees for the Republican Party. The Republicans will control govt roughly half the time and have many well-paid, high profile positions to fill.

    In contrast, there are few opportunities in anthro outside of academia, so perhaps the extreme ideological bias we see there is the result of anthro PhDs and profs competing for a very small # of positions by being more ideologically pure than each other. Are we seeing the end result of a purity arms race in anthro?

  5. omar

    What are they teaching in China?
    Several years ago, one of my friends decamped from the Pakistani foreign service (which had taught him to read and write Chinese) and “jumped into the ocean” by joining a top Shanghai Business school. He claimed that the Chinese were building 100 “world class Universities” (they must all be built by now, this was 1999 or so) and they were not going to waste money on bullshit fields like the Americans (like most Chinese capitalists, he wanted to be American, but looked down upon their softer liberal side with contempt).
    Is that how it turned out? or did the lure of copying the Ivy Leagues manage to infiltrate the hypercapitalists? ..or did they truly feel that anthropology is a useful field and they must have it because its important, not just because Harvard has it?
    Does anyone have any figures?
    I agree with Karl that Business school seems a good target for cost-cutting in a tight economy. There is definitely a B-school bubble out there…

  6. So who are the four other non-progressives in science writing? I suppose I could search myself, but I’m a lazy liberal arts grad.

  7. #6, that was just a funny line by the guy who runs science 2.0. though derek lowe, ron bailey, and michael shermer come to mind. also, john derbyshire has written two math books. and there are a few bloggers out there too, matt springer at built on facts, david bacon at quantum pontiff.

  8. Zora

    The existence of anthropology as a separate field is an accident of history. But now that there are departments of anthropology, the professoriate will fight tooth and nail to retain their positions.

    Ideally, you’d have a spectrum of human science:

    Human evolution
    Human biology and psychology
    History (taking into account genetic info, archaeology, linguistics, written documents)
    Anthropology/sociology/social psychology/poli sci/economics (unified! with attention to questions of verifiability and universality)
    … and a brief glance at the philosophy of the human sciences, emphasizing how hard it is to be sure that your methods and results are valid and useful.

    Students would have to have a basic mastery of the rudiments of ALL fields before specializing in one. Anthropology, rather than being confined to its own disciplinary silo, would mingle with the other human sciences.

  9. #8, specialization is an unfortunate but necessary aspect of many of the natural sciences. it’s a bug, not a feature. it’s lame that more humanistic fields seem to have started to ape this tendency, because as you imply it’s a lot less necessary. granted, economists come close insofar as they’re mathematical techniques to a great extent differentiate them from other social scientists, who use more simple statistics and models when they’re being formal (this isn’t necessarily to economic’s benefit IMO in all cases).

  10. S.J. Esposito

    I’m an anthropology major in a large public university system. I was previously a mathematics major and made the switch because of my interest in human evolution and human origins.

    Luckily for me, I’m at a school where we are encouraged to form tracks of study within the anthropology major. So really, I’ve only taken one class in cultural anthropology, one in archaeology and the rest have been all biologically oriented. Of course, human cultural practices are integrated into the biological anthropology courses, but it’s done so in a manner that emphasizes the confluence of society, culture and biology.

    Further specializing things, I’m interested in anthropological genetics (hence the reason I visit this blog everyday). To my advantage, I have opportunities to study such a topic, even when it might be something most anthropology majors never want to learn.

    Because of my interests and the course of study that I’ve been encouraged to follow over the years, I very much consider biological anthropology a science, however I’m not so sure about cultural anthropology or even archaeology. For me, anthropology is a way for me to study human evolutionary biology, and while I realize other schools may require their anthropology majors to take on a much less focused program of study, I think I’m lucky to be able to study what I want (to a certain extent). I think this principle can be — and should be — applied to many disciplines both in the humanities and the sciences. I should hope that every student is able to tailor his or her education to their interests.

  11. #10, i was thinking of double majoring in anthro and bio once. i went to the anthro dept. and when i made my interest in bio anthro known to the woman who was the faculty adviser or whatever she kind of made it seem like it was going to really hard to do both. i was skeptical, but later i talked to a friend who was an archaeology concentration in anthro, and he said that there was some politics and a lot of the cultural ppl didn’t care for bio anthro, and were not always keen on having too many students with that focus (they might have to alter their course proportions depending on the student input). i figured i didn’t want to be involved in such bullshit, so never majored in anthro. obviously experiences differ, and it’s nice that you found a functional and well-adjusted department.

  12. S.J. Esposito


    It’s funny… I was going to major in biology when I decided to leave mathematics behind; anthropology didn’t even cross my mind. I came across biological anthropology by chance just before I put the paperwork in for the switch and realized that the courses that my school offered were all very much geared to what I was interested in. I did some talking between the departments and I just figured that anthro was the way to go. I will admit that it is my impression that my college has a faculty strong in biological anthropology and there is — or seems to be — a decent amount of communication and shared philosphy between the biology and anthropology departments. I’m quite happy with the way my degree has mapped out thus far.

  13. I coined the phrase, “Education Bubble,” (unless you can show me someone who said it before 2006). I obtained STEM undergraduate and graduate degrees because I am good at math and because I hate the way liberal arts and social sciences professors propagandize and sometimes grade by ideology. However, a professor in high school told me to go into advertising because I have a creative, bohemian personality. I think that education is not well suited for representing either kind of thinking ability, and I wrote a blog post about it. STEM majors do tend to be smarter, but skills learned in college can become obsolete. A college degree needs to represent something valuable that endures. Using IQ tests and knowledge tests in employment would serve that purpose better and cheaper.

  14. As an student of History in a public school (in México) i think that your ideas are wrong, altough I admit that you got some right points.

    First of all, Antropology, History, Sociology and all of those things are real Science, if you publish a history work that doesn’t coincide with the facts, then you are gonna be laugh at.

    Second, I Agree with you when you say that there are radical and close-minded antropologist, but they are not a mayority.

    Third, knowing how society works is really important for a society, as Biersted once said: Thinking about own civilization is the real indices of civilization.

    Fourth, sadly a lot of “social” scientist are complete ignorants about “natural” sciences, but also there’s a big number of scientist and engeeniers that are completely ignorant about History, Antropology and Sociology.

    Fifth, most of the engineers I have met doesn’t study science because they are curious, but because they are a “guaranteed” way to make money (wich they are not necessarily).

    Sixth: You said: “When I met history or political science majors there were sometimes awkward moments because it was clear I knew more history and political science than they did.” I don’t know how much history you know, but I have met a lot of engineers that know very little about the other areas of science and about scientific and critic thinking. Anyway, historians are not supposed to know all history… that whould be an impossible task, rather, we are thought to investigate.

    Sorry for my bad english

  15. I think it’s worth pointing out though, that something on the order of 70-80% of Economists are Democrats. You obviously know that, but the graph sort of obscures that. (That isn’t a critique of the graph!)

    yes, but liberal economists can concede that conservatives exist, and their existence is not illegitimate and immoral. similarly, academics in the natural sciences and engineering tend to be on the moderately liberal side, but their objection to conservative politics tends to be rather conventional. in contrast, some sociologists and anthropologists exhibit stances which are inversions of the kind of stuff you see among conservative protestants who believe that their ideological opponents are literal tools of satan.

  16. <i.First of all, Antropology, History, Sociology and all of those things are real Science, if you publish a history work that doesn’t coincide with the facts, then you are gonna be laugh at.

    i don’t think we agree on definitions in the first place.

  17. #19, liberal and conservative economists share a common language, though they might think the other does violence to that language. to give you a non-political example, i’ve encountered people from cultural anthropological backgrounds who react in revulsion when i try and exposit on a boyd-richerson paradigm of cultural evolution. they just don’t like to “break it down” like that.

  18. I wanted to point out that The Douche in Good Will Hunting is now doing Goldline commercials.

  19. Thaddeus

    What a strange subject matter. At first glance it seemed to all make sense in a way, but why not peer into why conservatives aren’t becoming anthropologists?

    Anthropology is a science, thus there is exploration, examination, theory and all else that makes it a science. In science, no best conclusion is invulnerable. Sounds a little like politics but science is supposed to be science… scientific… NOT political.

    Why not poll race car drivers to see where they lean? Librarians? Barristas? Pro Volleyball players? WTF is the point?

    I give this an “F”. Try to make sense next time you’re being creative.

  20. It won’t help much to advise a STEM major to a college freshman whose C in calculus was the result of grueling effort and memorized method rather than understanding, and who experiences an inner trembling at the thought of any math beyond that. There is a mathematical turn of mind that people either make or not, before they reach college. Admittedly, it is a matter of degree. I’ve known many engineers who were not the most mathematically adept. There are the ones who love learning about integral transforms. And the ones who struggled in any math or theory course.

    Still, mathematical aptitude is a substantive filter on students’ choices of major and career. And it is largely set by the time a student reaches college. Those who see a long-run need for more students having STEM majors should be concerned about how to inculcate that in our youth, before they reach college.

    Of course, any suggestion that our public schools get more funding for math teachers marks one as a dread progressive.

  21. JS

    First, there’s the plain issue that anthropologists …

    And right off the bat, you’ve shown me that you don’t know anything about education.

    In the Liberal Arts, the name of the degree is not the name of the job, because not everyone is academic track. Anthropology students don’t necessarily become anthropologists. History students don’t necessarily become historians, or even history teachers in secondary schools. Economics students don’t become economists, necessarily, etc.

    A liberal arts degree is not job training. How could it be, since the structure of departments was set decades ago, and the job market continues to change? Liberal Arts programs know this, and teach their majors to market their skill sets, as well as to seek out internships that will provide them with practical experience in the general career direction of their choice.

    Mr. Khan’s evidence for the uselessness of a Liberal Arts education, as opposed to one in STEM fields, consists of … a clip from a movie and his own representation of some personal conflicts in college? Really? This is in Discover Magazine?

    Where is the kind of technical and scientific expertise that Mr. Khan says is so valuable? Is this some kind of joke?

    Mr. Khan is barking up the wrong tree, apparently for the sake of venting his ideological grievances, but in the process he demonstrates a catastrophic ignorance. A debate about education is no place for ignorant people.

  22. Alex


    I’m currently finishing up an Anthro-oriented PhD and also teach a couple of undergraduate classes at a public university undergoing harsh budget cuts. Needless to say I started writing my response as soon as I read this piece.

    First, I think you are right that the political biases in the humanities are a malignant part of modern university systems, because IMO it can lead to both sloppy thinking and unchallenged assumptions. However, despite your obvious good sense this post is mostly dreck, unfortunately for the same reasons. Just look at your language:

    “anthropologists seem…”
    “it seems that many anthropologists…”
    “I saw the full range of students…”
    “Many people…”
    “When I met history or political science majors….”
    “I ran into someone at a party…”
    “[with STEM majors] There’s often…”
    “Too many smart liberal arts graduates remind me of…”

    There’s no actual evidence here; it’s just your own anecdotal impressions. You could do a DOZEN four-year stints in college over and over with a different major each time and impressions of people you meet at parties or fictional characters you see in movies will still not rise to the level of real evidence we can use to develop our thinking on this subject. As a STEM advocate, you should know better.

    Speaking of which, look at this claim: anthropology “is not necessary for a modern society”. How do you know this? Guessing, based on talking to people at parties, apparently. So here’s where I’m supposed to mention the value of Anthropology education building up people’s ethical senses and their empathy for different ways of living across the spectrum of humanity. That’s all true, of course, but the fact is I don’t know if Anthro is necessary or not for maintaining a peaceful, prosperous society, just like you don’t. We have to think carefully about these things, which is why I don’t have a blog, I guess.

  23. omar

    #12: I was thinking more on the lines of: are some of the postmodern fashions that provide such an easy target for jokes in the US also present in Chinese universities? their anthropologists and professors of modern languages get together to look down upon capitalism and dead White males in a sometimes extreme and narrow-minded fashion? and do universities willingly pay them to do so? Do Chinese liberals take the same categories for granted?
    Something like that. Behind the question was a vague notion that the Chinese are probably not as taken with “cultural studies” and Gyatri Chakraborty Spivak as top tier schools in the US…or are they? I was fishing for anecdotes and “thick description”..
    For example, our friend Wikipedia has a list of universities with programs in “cultural studies”. It includes a program in Pakistan and several in India (less than I expected, given my social circle and its population of South Asian upper class cultural studies enthusiasts) but NO Chinese University..

  24. Glenn

    #22, your identification of anti-empirical ‘studies’ seems to get to the heart of the matter.

    Biology, Mathematics, and squishier things like Economics, History and Archaeology are built upon empirical evidence. Their ideas can (or ought) be tested by empirical evidence. In contrast, too much higher education feels like the art of bullshit. Its accuracy is untestable in any real sense but rests upon the validation of those within the academic guild. Even the skill of bull-shitting (so tailored to the very narrow field of ‘academic bullshit’) seems unlikely to be of much use outside the academies’ walls.

    – a liberal empiricist

  25. Erin McJ

    A provocative post. I agree in the main with one of your theses — that education-as-enrichment is an expensive perspective best suited for the wealthy. But some of your other ideas could, I think, use some complication.

    Part of what you’re saying seems to me a rehash of the tired humanist-vs-scientist culture war I remember so well from my undergrad days at a mostly-techie school. As someone majoring in psychology and music, it was hard not to take offense when people assumed that I was dumb and technically incapable. At the same time, I had to admit that my psychology coursework was mostly neither challenging nor comprehensive; and the things that were challenging in music were challenging in a different way that was largely about discipline and physical skill development — almost like trade school.

    I went on to get a Ph.D. in psychology, so I feel pretty qualified to talk about how this particular social science works. For me, the most frustrating thing about psychology is its lack of an agreed-on corpus of ideas providing any kind of central core. You can see this in how the undergraduate degree is structured: often the requirements are simply intro, stats, and research methods, plus a grab bag of whatever else sounds interesting from the catalog. Graduate school, weirdly, was not much different in this respect. A loose system like this allows strong, entrepreneurial minds to thrive, but it also allows students to avoid encountering real challenge, and it presents a strong risk of disciplinary incoherency. Further, the freewheeling nature of my undergrad degree had given me enriching experiences, like astronomy for non-majors, but I’d missed out on some of the basic tools that other STEM folks had in their toolbox, like intro chem, bio, and physics, which I felt made me a much *weaker* intellectual entrepreneur. Whenever I wanted to understand a tool or idea more deeply, I first had to spend a couple of hours on Wikipedia.

    Disillusioned, I decided against pursuing a postdoc or professorship, and now have a regular job using one of the technical skills I did develop — statistical analysis — and have embarked on degree #3 to fill in some of the gaps in my statistical knowledge. It is an entirely different experience: there is a rigid core of techniques I must master; there is more work, and concomitantly more forced practice with the ideas; and it is much harder. I don’t like to give that old culture war more credit than it deserves, and I maintain that there is nothing inherent to social sciences that makes them less worthy of study. But if I were Supreme Provost of the World, I’d consider reforming the social sciences to include, at minimum, a common STEM base. Freedom of choice is nice, but it’s hard to use it effectively when your toolbox is empty.

  26. Matt C

    Razib – great post.

    I think Charles Murray has written the quintessential essay on the need to eliminate the B.A. requirement in most job disciplines. He does not favor the elimination of the B.S. per se, but certainly believes that the number of students studying technical disciplines such as engineering could be reduced by transitioning to a model of apprenticeships and entrance exams.

    If I could restructure higher education, I would start first by reforming our student loan qualification criteria. I think we are making a terrible mistake by, essentially, federally subsidizing student debt (and writing it off after two decades.) If you want to ensure that even more students will take on 4-to-5 year liberal arts educations that have very little market value, that’st the way to go. Instead, we should be restricting access to credit in the student loan market to those who have demonstrated an aptitude for higher learning. If you are an average high school student, we should be adult enough to tell you that you can’t have $50k to go to college. Instead, we are designing policies that all but guarantees future financial problems for these type of students.

  27. Carlos from shwi

    Oh, Razib. I don’t have much more to say in this forum, but has it really come to this? You just look silly at this point.

  28. Clark

    The main problem is that college degrees are a signal businesses use for hiring. The major is rarely needed except in narrow technical fields. But we’re stuck with it. The problem is that the last 50 years we’ve treated college like vocational training rather than a liberal education. There’s nothing wrong with someone rich spending time studying poems or getting caught up in some largely fashionable way of viewing the world. That’s what college used to primarily be about. It’s just that we’re trying to have it be two things and it doesn’t work.

    What happens is you get kids going to college studying what they like with no real thought to long term employment. (Heck, I was like that) I really like the idea of true liberal arts colleges where “useless” things can be studied. But let’s be honest – it’s a resource for the rich and not a training facility for the general populace. That said I think there are huge societal benefits to a certain level of liberal arts education given to all. Many universities have a certain requirement to study so much history, literature and so forth for graduation. If high school wasn’t so bad ideally many would learn this stuff there.

    The big problem is that I don’t see anyway to really change the current system which has slowly developed into its current form over 100 years with no central planning. It’s partially due to universities and their incentives. It’s partially due to students. And it’s partially due to business.

  29. Tim

    As a professor at a second-tier state university, I found this to be a really interesting point of view. While some of my experience confirms what you say about leftism in academia, I think it is important to mention that not all professors who identify as leftist see their classrooms as a space for leftist indoctrination. Many in fact try to check their biases at the door. So there’s a difference between identifying as leftist and being a quote-unquote activist.

    Also, I think you present something of a caricature of liberal arts graduates, for which your main evidence is anecdotal (or based on movies you’ve seen). Some of my best friends are liberal arts graduates, and (anecdotally on my part) what distinguishes them is they have a passion for and an ability to think deeply about the Enduring Questions. I can’t say the same of people I meet in business fields or (for the most part, and again anecdotally) those I meet in STEM-fields. (You yourself seem to be the sort of well-rounded student we are trying to produce: someone trained in the sciences who can write, examine arguments on both sides of an issue, read broadly outside his field of expertise, and so on. Tell us more about what your own educational background was like!)

    Finally, I agree with your idea the fields like engineering and music should be at the service of one another. But I’m not sure if this jibes with the four points at the end, and particularly with #2. If you are right in your first claim, then it doesn’t matter what field young people enter into, since ultimately they will be advancing the whole realm of human endeavor.

  30. Anne

    @nooffensebut wrote: “Using IQ tests and knowledge tests in employment would serve that purpose better and cheaper.”

    @nooffensebut and @Clark: It’s not just the “perfidy” of business which has created this situation. The US Supreme Court ruled in Griggs v. Duke Power (1971) that any IQ test or other hiring-related test which produced a “disparate racial impact” in hiring results was forbidden.

    Businesses began to use bachelors’ degrees and now use masters’ degrees to screen candidates. It’s cost-effective and lawsuit-free.

    So testing would be a great idea, except that businesses can’t do it in a widespread manner. Until Griggs v. Duke Power is overturned in some way, the “education bubble” will not pop.

  31. Chuck Kaplan

    Which is most leftist?

    African American Studies
    Gender Studies


  32. homer

    My worthless anthropology degrees have resulted in my working for the same consulting firm for 19.5 years, doing challenging and interesting projects, frequently being asked to present talks to the public, and using the writing and analyses skills that I learned at the University of Michigan and Arizona State University on a daily basis. Those fellow students I have kept track with work as university professors, consultants, for the US Army, for non-profits, and so on. Those who left anthropology will tell you that doing fieldwork was rewarding and interesting and that they miss that aspect in their current careers.

    You want to know why there aren’t more conservatives in anthropology? It “seems” to me that conservative people want a world without surprises, where everyone knows their place in life, and no one asks annoying, pesky questions that threaten the views of the establishment (something that anthropologists invariably do).

  33. Anthropology as an academic discipline is different in Europe and the US, so let me first say that my point of view is European. I assume you target only Cultural Anthropology (~Ethnology) in your post. What is true is that much of it is descriptive (think, researcher spending years with a tribe and publishing 500-pages book on their burial practices). I find that knowledge highly valuable even if descriptive (just see how much of your recent discussion about Madagascar depends on meticulously recorded observations of linguistic and other cultural practices). Clifford Geertz (a first-class thinker and a wonderful writer) even argued that ‘thick description’ is all anthropologists can hope for. Whether that makes cultural anthropology nonscientific is difficult to answer and also a bit beside the point – it can still produce insight and ‘understanding’. Just dont ask what is the difference between understanding and explanation. One example – money and debt – I have read a lot of economic literature (which you seem to place higher than anthropology) and still the most profound insights about the nature of exchange, money and debt I have encountered come from anthropologists (e.g. Marcel Mauss’ The Gift), historians and comparative linguists (e.g. Emile Benveniste). A great recent example is David Graeber’s book on Debt – check here for a taste:–-notes-on-sex-adventure-monomaniacal-sociopathy-and-the-true-function-of-economics.html
    Unfortunately, very little anthropological work is that good (make that ‘any good at all’). the discipline’s greatest service and perhaps mission is to constantly remind the rest of us that much of what we take for granted (as ‘natural’ and objective) is in fact heavily subjective, culturally-bounded and socially-constructed. But this obsession with relativism doesnt make for a great foundation of an academic discipline. as a result, much of what is published (and taught) is plain gibberish.
    as to the political preferences – liberal or conservative they shouldnt matter in the classroom, full stop.

  34. Barbara Piper

    I was especially struck by your comment that the benefits conferred by physics are clear and distinct. Most of the physics done by my university colleagues in that department, including particle physics and string theory, offer rather murky benefits at best. Similarly, the anthropologists in my department — I have joint training in anthropology and law — work on practical and applied issues globally, using anthropological perspectives and methods to improve lives, solve problems, etc. There’s plenty of useful work in many disciplines, and plenty of nonsense. And no one is doing much of “clear and distinct” benefit with only an undergraduate degree, which is where Rick Scott’s perspective is as damaging for physics as for anthropology. The real issue is whether a state wants to use its resources to provide job training for college students. If so, fine. But a whole lot of kids will migrate to other states for their education because they simply don’t want to be engineers or don’t have an aptitude for math or computer science, or they get brilliant grades in political science and struggle to pass organic chemistry.

  35. Anthony

    Tim – it’s my experience that my friends who have graduated in technical fields are generally as conversant with recent history, economics, and the social sciences are those who graduated in liberal arts/humanities and in social sciences, and the technical people are generally more broadly intellectually curious than the non-technical people. I also find that those with technical degrees, especially the computer people, are able to approach the Enduring Questions from more different angles, as the technical fields have generated their own questions *and techniques for answering those questions*, which give them more tools than the typical liberal arts grad who may not have heard of those problems, and who can’t follow them due to their lack of math.

    I believe that one reason for this is that ABET used to require (things changed in 2001) engineering students to take at least 6 social science or humanities courses, not including basic language or skill courses, at least one (or two) of which had to be *upper division*. A friend of mine at Berkeley created a parody “Math, Science, or Engineering Requirement” for humanities and social science majors which I suspect even the more mathematical economists would have had trouble meeting.

  36. GoBlueInSF

    Right-wing blogger bashed liberal academics. Dog bites man. News at 11. *yawn* Wake me up when you get a new schtick.

  37. Jeffrey Ellis

    Razib, I find your essay quite intriguing, and you bring up some excellent points. I also believe that your critique runs a rather narrow course, and — based on your own writing — comes more from anecdotal and personal experience, rather than a broader objective survey across a wide range of schools and academic disciplines.
    Do you really believe “liberals” are more narrow-minded than “conservatives”? Do you distinguish between applied sciences such as engineering and theoretical sciences such as mathematics and physics? How do you account for the demonstrated historical documentation that conservatives have generally opposed the scientific process and denied virtually every major advance in human knowledge from the way our solar system works to biological evolution and — currently — global climate change? These denials continue, despite overwhelming scientific consensus. What role does religion play in molding political attitudes and academic choices?
    I could go on forever citing my own and my children’s experiences dealing with narrow minded conservatives. My own personal experience with scientists is that they tend more toward the “liberal” side of the political equation, unless influence strongly by religion or personal interest (such as working for an oil company). Conservatives I’ve known tend to come from fields such as business, criminology, petroleum engineering and agriculture/farming schools.
    Finally, it appears you are advancing two separate arguments. The first being that we need to rethink the purpose of a university education, and reconsider its purpose to become that of teaching a trade or profession, rather that develop a well rounded citizen capable of independent analytical thinking and contributing to civic life. Your second argument appears to be that the liberal arts and humanities have been overrun by narrow minded and often ignorant liberals. I’m not certain that there’s any reason to believe the two arguments are that strongly related. I believe that they are completely separate and each should be judged on its own individual merits.

  38. Jeffrey Ellis

    Clark, I think that in the last three decades we have undergone a seismic shift in our nation’s sense of purpose, as well as its civic ethos. When growing up in the ’60s, the consensus of both liberals and conservative was that we were moving toward a society of full and well-paid employment. The college and university education was viewed as a stepping stone for creating well rounded and intellectually curious citizens who would help further our civic aims of democracy, domestic tranquility and economic productivity. The trend was toward shorter work weeks and higher salaries for workers. Businesses boasted about how many people they employed, and bragged about paying their employees as middle class wage. Economic goals fit hand in glove with the concept of higher education as a means to enlightenment and social purpose. It is no coincidence that public and private support for the arts and letters, historical and “pure” scientific research underwent stratospheric increases during this same period.
    Our culture has undergone a cataclysmic change. The business model now reverses the past equation, and channels financial gain to the top tier of often underperforming executives and seeks ways to reduce the workforce and lower wages and benefits. Culture is viewed by the wealthy elites as an optional luxury to be enjoyed only by those who have money; the idea of leisure and the pursuit of intellectual edification has become a casualty of the struggle for many two-income households just to find a few hours a week to catch up with their family members and run errands.
    The problem is not a lack of central planning, it’s our failure to reign in an economic elite that has subverted the American ideal.

  39. Charlotte

    There is an unexamined assumption in several posts here that I find fascinating. It is that liberal arts, and liberal arts majors, ought to be only for the children of the rich. Because I am old enough to remember when things were that way, before the meritocratic reforms of the 1950s and the large-scale expansion of state university systems in the 1960s, I’m not sure that we ought to bring back that state of affairs.

    In any case, it would be worthwhile, in the context of this discussion, to have a look at the state of higher education in the United States prior to the changes of the 1950s and 1960s, and the reasons higher education attempted to become a meritocratic system open to everyone of talent.

    At least then we could compare models, and ask ourselves whether we want to return to restricting the liberal arts education to people in (say) the top 5% of income distribution.

    Let’s also be clear-eyed about the consequences of doing so. Given that social mobility is far less common now in the United States than it used to be, we’d be perpetuating, across generations, restrictions in occupations as well. College professors would once again come exclusively from the upper social classes, as they once did. (Roger Rosenblatt has an amusing story in his memoir of Harvard in the 1960s, of trying to get a raise from his dean, because he found it impossible to live on his instructor’s salary. “These are hard times,” said the dean, “hard times. You may have to dip into principal.”) An enormous social divide would separate them from the glorified high school teachers who would take care of the two years of generalist studies that would be all the rest would get. Is this what we want?

    I have other thoughts, concerning the relationship between a rigorous, traditional liberal arts education and a capacity for critical thinking, which was demonstrated in the new book “Academically Adrift.” (Razib, that book is well worth a look.)

    It suggests to me that hidden within the traditional liberal arts curriculum is an effective training regimen for social leadership and high position. In fact, a liberal arts education was considered indispensable by the social elites in the ancient Greek and Roman worlds and in Renaissance Europe. The English aristocracy did not initially endorse humanistic education, preferring their traditional training in arms, hunting, and courtly service, but they became quickly persuaded of its value once they realized that humanistic training was the pathway to success at court and thus wealth and power. Then they rushed into schools like Winchester and St. Paul’s, crowding out the poor students they had been founded to educate. One could suggest the same is true of the New England prep schools and their upstart cousins, the International Baccalaureate schools.

    It may be that our new elites again want to be sure that this training for social leadership is restricted to their own ranks.

  40. “The economic plentitude due to the productivity driven by STEM fields is at the end of the day at the service of the finer aspects of culture. Modern engineering means that we can produce music much more efficiently than in the past, but without music there would be no point in the engineering in the first place.”

    I must respectfully disagree. The popularity of death metal over baroque is hardly indicative of technology being at the service of fine anything, and surely you must actually mean that modern engineering let’s us re-produce music more efficiently. In my experience electronics have diminished the practice and creation of music rather than enhanced it. Singing and playing of music by the general populace was a much more common practice in years past before the advent of TV and multiple radio stations.

  41. Do you really believe “liberals” are more narrow-minded than “conservatives”?

    i was going to take your comment seriously. but i had no idea where the above impression came from. so i went and reread my post, AND I SEE YOU JUST MADE UP A FUCKING PARAPHRASE FROM NOTHING. no, i don’t believe liberals are more narrow-minded, as might be implied by the fact that nothing i said above indicated that specific opinion. if you want to discuss something with someone, make sure to address what they’re saying, not your own interpretation of what they’re saying. you’re liable to be an imperfect mind reader.

  42. Chuck Kaplan


    I guess the irony of your comments will escape you.

  43. Jeffrey Ellis

    Razib, in addition to your utter rudeness and lack of class in your response, you fail to read your own essay thoroughly. Your set-up paragraphs establish, based on your charts, that the vast majority of anthropologist and liberal arts graduates are left of center, politically. You proceed to spend the next several paragraphs skewering anthropologists and liberal arts graduates as petty, intolerant of divergent points of view, and particularly in your points #3 and 4 of being either dumb and narrow minded — “your mind can’t be broadened if you barely use it” — or intelligent and narrow minded — “…keener upon signalling their ideological purity and intellectual superiority than actually understanding anything”. I don’t see anything in your essay that references conservatives or moderates in the same light. There’s no mind reading here — it’s all on the page.
    I thought that I was dealing with someone who was open minded and interested in a dialog, but I can see you are just another blogger in love with his own simplistic world view.

  44. exegesis will result in banning. as a point of fact i’m on record as thinking most of the human race isn’t too bright and that liberals probably have a higher average IQ.

  45. Erin McJ

    …”Exegesis will result in banning.” And here I thought this post was fulminating *against* anti-intellectualism. Clearly I have made at least one error.

  46. Ari

    As if this phenomenon is unidirectional? Can’t tell you how many bio/chem majors I’ve met who utterly lack interest in their chosen subject matter beyond the topic of the next test — no clue about or passion for neuropsychology, pharmacology, entheogens, etc.

  47. Spike Gomes


    I think one of the major issues, perhaps, with academics, is that preening and posturing is confused with “intellectualism”, and that anyone who tells all the naked emperors in the agora to put on clothes or GTFO is met with a “Well, I never!”

    Note that I’m not a STEM guy. My major was Religion.

    Also anyone who thinks that vast majority of people aren’t idiots has major blinders on. How many people watch NOVA versus how many watch The Jersey Shore?

  48. And here I thought this post was fulminating *against* anti-intellectualism.

    you think it’s intellectual to read-between-the-lines of your interlocutor’s argument so you can repackage it in a way so as to set up your own rhetorical jabs? that’s crap. a ‘close reading’ might be warranted when you read texts which are 2,500 years old and separated via several translations in dead languages, but it’s not warranted when you’re arguing with someone who actually knows what they think better than you know what they think.

    most of you are more interested in getting in jabs and winning arguments than actually learning.

    (in any case, i don’t think exegesis is much intellectual word, as can be made obvious by the fact that i insult cultural anthropologists as talmudicists)

  49. Can’t tell you how many bio/chem majors I’ve met who utterly lack interest in their chosen subject matter beyond the topic of the next test — no clue about or passion for neuropsychology, pharmacology, entheogens, etc.

    this is fair. but the key is that there is at least a minimum threshold of knowledge and skill inculcated by these tests.

  50. Anthony

    Those without social capital derived from family connections need to accrue specialized technical skills to compensate for their deficit. Upper class and upper middle class individuals with an entree into white collar jobs by virtue of their class status can afford to focus on becoming more polished. Everyone should not be given the same advice, because not everyone starts from the same life circumstances.

    In the 50s and 60s, when college education in the U.S. was becoming more meritocratic, but not yet very widespread, completion of pretty much any degree from any reasonably selective school sent the signal “I am smart, conscientious, and ambitious, and can learn new things”, which was enough to put a graduate on a career track where the essential job-related skills weren’t taught in college. As the availability of college education expanded, and “diversity” became almost as important as academic achievement, that signal got less clear, and thus a degree which didn’t impart technical skills became less and less of a guarantee of a decent career. Grade inflation and declining rigor in colleges didn’t help, either.

    That declining rigor has spread even to vocational education at the community college level, as more and more people (who are less and less qualified) end up in community colleges, because a high school diploma doesn’t reliably mean anything anymore. So now, it’s hard for an employer to trust that someone with a vocational degree from a community college actually knows anything useful. Some of them do, of course, but some of those skills aren’t very amenable to tests on paper. It’s unlikely that a bad salesman will actually damage their employer much, but a bad mechanic, or hospital orderly, or file clerk, can wreak havoc before their incompetence causes them to get fired.

    So – my advice would be: if you can hack a mathematical subject at college, do so. If you can’t, or really aren’t interested, but you can get into a very exclusive college, go for it. A BA History from Stanford or Hahvahd is worth something, even if you don’t go to grad school or law school. But if you can’t get into one of the very elite schools, or get a full ride at a less-elite school, major in something which ties *directly* into a career with a BS/BA. If you can get a full ride to a third-tier college, go for it, but don’t expect an amazing job because you went to college. Also, spend lots of your time socializing with the business students.

  51. Tony Rasmussen

    14 nooffensebut said: “I coined the phrase, “Education Bubble,” (unless you can show me someone who said it before 2006). ”

    For the record (and not to burst your bubble, etc. etc.), here’s an instance of the phrase being used in 2004:

    And references to an ‘Online Education Bubble’ go back at least to 2001:

  52. wow, that ended well.

    i signed in to make a rather minor point about anthropologists working with designers to create new products and services and so and so forth, which is on my blog, but am now leaving to escape the cross-fire. good luck!

  53. Victoria

    Several months ago I came across a post of yours concerning genetics (although I can’t recall the specific topic), and I became enamored with your blog. But during my voracious readings I discovered that your interest in anthropological issues was matched only by your “better than thou” attitude towards the discipline. It’s a bit appalling and rather surprising, but it’s mostly just disheartening.

    I’m not sure what legitimate issues you have with anthropology or liberal arts educations because, as many others have pointed out, the ‘evidence’ presented here is merely anecdotal. YES, there are some dumb anthropology majors, but there are also dumb engineering majors, mathematics majors or any of the other majors you deem worthy of study. But why defend yourself by reiterating that those other majors are inherently better because there’s a “minimum knowledge and threshold of skill inculcated in [those] tests”? How can you conclude there isn’t in any of the liberal arts? What would lead you to make such a claim without backing it up in any capacity?

    But more than being ridiculously off-mark, horribly offensive to research and applied anthropologists, and clearly uninformed, this article reeks of serious, unwarranted judgement. You have an audience here – one comprising of students and young people interested in learning more about the world, the well-educated and yes, the lesser-educated – and an opportunity to inspire others to pursue scientific inquiry and research. Why not instead offer some insight into how useful anthropology is? If you’re not familiar why not learn yourself, instead of accusing your readers – the very ones who read your blog and give you a measure of prominence- of not doing so? Please remember that this is not a personal blog. You represent a magazine directed to a general audience, and as such, have a responsibility to promote scientific inquiry as opposed to stifling it. There is no need to point fingers at what constitutes getting a more valid education. Use your smarts for good.

    P.S. You know those law students you deemed “to have necessary utility in an advanced society”? Chances are they majored in the liberal arts.

  54. victoria, you’re comment was stupid. for example:

    I’m not sure what legitimate issues you have with anthropology or liberal arts educations because, as many others have pointed out, the ‘evidence’ presented here is merely anecdotal. YES, there are some dumb anthropology majors, but there are also dumb engineering majors, mathematics majors or any of the other majors you deem worthy of study. But why defend yourself by reiterating that those other majors are inherently better because there’s a “minimum knowledge and threshold of skill inculcated in [those] tests”? How can you conclude there isn’t in any of the liberal arts? What would lead you to make such a claim without backing it up in any capacity?

    i didn’t make any of those categorical claims. no shit there are dumb engineering majors. what kind of moron would deny that? i’m talking averages. you just read into my post claims i didn’t make. take thee “close reading” of the text back to where you came from. i was very lax in the moderation of this thread because of the andrew sullivan link, which brought many newbies without an understanding of the parameters i normally set around here. but this is done.


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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at


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