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.