The Value of Liberal Arts Colleges and Programs

Barry Schwartz offers his view on why liberal arts colleges are important.

“In my view, higher education should be equipping students to answer these four questions:

  • What is worth knowing?
  • What is worth doing?
  • What makes for a good human life?
  • What are my responsibilities to other people?”

If this were happening, than the value to a liberal arts education would be undisputed. What is actually happening on liberal arts campuses is far more directive than inquisitive.

  • We’ve already figured it out, here is what’s worth knowing.
  • We’ve already figured it out, here is what’s worth doing.
  • We’ve already figured it out, here is what makes for a good human life.
  • We’ve already figured it out, here are your responsibilities to other people.

Of course, the delivery isn’t quite so blunt. The selective presentation of information, leading lectures, grades, and in some cases outright bullying serve to shape the narrative. What Schwartz is lamenting in his column, with an awkwardly applied analogy from the 1960’s, is the approaching demise of a “broader” knowledge foundation about things not STEM.

“It was an axiom of the upheavals of the 1960’s and 1970’s that ‘you can’t take down the master’s house with the master’s tools.’ What this means to me in the context of higher education is that you can’t discover the deep limitations of economics by only studying economics. You can’t uncover the deep limitations of genetics or evolutionary biology by only studying genetics and evolutionary biology.”

Not surprisingly, we’re to take what the analogy means to Schwartz, not what it actually means. So, setting aside the destructive reference, it’s far more likely today’s students have better intel on what various college programs are offering. In the case of liberal arts colleges and programs, not only are they no longer offering any useful tools for thinking, those that are offered have vanishingly little applicability toward furthering personal or professional success. Graduates that do think such an education has somehow endowed them with special status as “important thinker” end up – surprise! – with Ph.D’s doing research that has Schwartz asking “why would anyone care about this?” Everyone else has been roughed up sufficiently by the post-academic world to realize they’ve been mostly unprepared for an unforgiving and uncaring world of adult expectations, a world not particularly interested in providing what the new graduates were taught was their “right” or “entitlement.”

The challenge for Schwartz is to look inward and notice how the very system in which he actively participates produces individuals bent on “running around in circles, and swallowing their own tails.”

The demise to liberal arts programs as Schwartz knows them may be due more to the increased awareness among young people that the product offers a false truth. At least with STEM and similar programs, two plus two equal four. A person can build a great deal of confidence and success – personal and professional – on a foundation like that.

Unconscious Unethical

The Johari window is well known in teaching and learning circles and can be a useful way to illustrate various cognitive limitations in thinking. Most frequently, it is used to show what attributes you and other may know about you (see Figure 1.)

Figure 1

Figure 1

An individual interested in personal growth would presumably work to shrink the size of their blind spot and the degree to which they are driven by unconscious behavior detrimental to their person – mental and physical. Over time, such an individual’s Johari window might look something like that shown in Figure 2.

Johari Window 2

Figure 2

So, what might one infer about one Mr. Brenden Buhl who sent me (and many others, it turns out) the email shown in Figure 3.

Figure 3 (Click for larger image)

Figure 3 (Click for larger image)

Mr. Buhl’s communication demonstrates a profound, even frightening, level of unconsciousness in a number of key ways.

By way of background, I contacted Mr. Buhl’s previous employer regarding this message as it was clear that Mr. Buhl had, against his previous employer’s policy, procured a personal copy of company data in the form of email addresses and names. I know this because I use a unique personal email address for virtually every vendor with whom I do business. (One of the many advantages of operating my own email server.) For example, if my domain were “myemaildomain.com”, I can set up an email account for “yourbusinessname@myemaildoamin.com” and route all our communication through that account. Stupid simple. Using this method allows me to quickly identify when something is amiss, like when a company has sold their email list (as was the case with the now nonexistent Aloha Airlines) or someone has stolen, hacked, or otherwise compromised the company’s data.

This would be the case with Mr. Buhl. His previous employer assures me that the only thing he had access to was email addresses and first names. I have no option but to trust this less than consoling claim. They also claim to have since sent a cease and desist order to Mr. Buhl and his current employer. Given the size of his previous employer, I’m confident this claim is true.

So, just how ethically unconscious does one have to be to…

  1. Boost the client email list of a major company before leaving.
  2. Use the now previous employer’s client list at the new employer.
  3. Acknowledge that you have done this in an email announcing your new career.
  4. Offer a confidential insurance review after having demonstrated a clear disregard for confidential information!

I’m imaging a Johari window something like that in Figure 4.

 

Figure 4

Figure 4

Is this the level of ethics the future holds? Was Mr. Buhl driven by a sense of entitlement? How many Brendan Buhl’s are out there poised to “manage” our soon-to-be government controlled heath records? It is difficult to remain optimistic about the future when a surveillance-addicted society is raft with ethically and morally cadaverous people like this. Is social or cultural implosion the only way to reset this?

Incompatable Beliefs

An article on the Home School Legal Defense Association web site reports the following:

Professor Martha Albertson Fineman, from the Emory University School of Law, wrote in 2009 of her fear of parents with “oppressive, hierarchical belief systems.” She says,

Indeed, the long-term consequences for the child being home schooled or sent to a private school cannot be overstated. The total absence of regulation over what and how children are taught leaves the child vulnerable to gaining a sub-par or non-existent education from which they may never recover. Moreover, the risk that parents or private schools unfairly impose hierarchical or oppressive beliefs on their children is magnified by the absence of state oversight or the application of any particular educational standards.

Rather than leave a child “vulnerable to gaining a sub-par or non-existent education” via home schooling, perhaps it’s better to guarantee a sub-par or non-existent education by feeding children into the public education system. And as for “opressive, hierarchical belief systems,” to the extent they may exist at the level of a family or a private school, they are far easier to challenge and escape. Oppressive, hierarchical state belief systems are much less easy to challenge or escape. This is the probable goal of statements by academics such as Fineman. The unstated answer to “total absence of regulation over what and how children are taught” is “total regulation over what and how children are taught.”

Fundamentally, this reflects an incompatibility of beliefs with respect to individual human capabilities.  Stateism fundamentally distrusts The Individual. Indeed, in light of recent revelations involving the IRS and the NSA, adherents to stateism treat The Individual as an outright threat. A threat which in the mind of Prof. Fineman “cannot be overstated.”

The challenge to Prof. Fineman is to unpack what she means by “long-term consequences.” What, specifically, are the long-term consequences? Let’s examine them and have a reasoned dialog about consequences within the systemic context. This should be an easy essay to write. Unless, of course, those consequences are actually overstated.

Time To Build An Arc

We had monsoon-like rain yesterday. According to the weather experts, 1.6 inches of rain fell in 30 minutes. That may not sound like much to many parts of the country, but it’s a lot for the desert mid-west. Checking the weather on my tablet this morning, I saw the following alert for Monday:

AccuWeather Report

[Click image to enlarge.]

Looks like Monday may be not only a good day to work from home, but a good day to work from the roof-top.

Repeal the Wheel!

Writes Robert Samuelson in The Washington Post,

If I could, I would repeal the Internet. It is the technological marvel of the age, but it is not — as most people imagine — a symbol of progress. Just the opposite. We would be better off without it. I grant its astonishing capabilities: the instant access to vast amounts of information, the pleasures of YouTube and iTunes, the convenience of GPS and much more. But the Internet’s benefits are relatively modest compared with previous transformative technologies, and it brings with it a terrifying danger: cyberwar.

The trouble, it could be argued, began long before plumbers fit the first pipes together for the Intertubes. If it weren’t for the wheel, all those plumbers couldn’t roll about, fitting more and more Intertubes together. If it weren’t for the wheel, delivery trucks couldn’t deliver the digital weapons used by cyber-crackers to wage cyber-war. If it weren’t for the wheel, aircraft couldn’t roll down runways only to be weaponized by evil doers who got to the airport via the wheels on taxi cabs and rental cars. If it weren’t for the wheel, misuse of the very underpinnings of industry could be rolled back! Pushed back, that is, if we’d just REPEAL THE WHEEL!

Crikey. Rants like Samuelson’s are an insult to Luddites everywhere.

He lists a number of very real threats in the form of cyber-war targets, such as “power grids, pipelines, communication and financial systems, business record-keeping and supply-chain operations, railroads and airlines, databases of all types (from hospitals to government agencies).” But many of these would remain extremely vulnerable if the Internet were to magically evaporate tomorrow. Instead of imagining a world without the internet and the connectivity it provides, imagine a government that focuses more on hardening these infrastructure elements rather than criminalizing every aspect of behavior performed by it’s citizenry down to the level of an individual’s salt and soda intake.

Law Abiding Citizens Have Nothing to Fear

So says William Hague, England’s Foreign Secretary. “Only terrorists, criminals and spies should fear secret activities of the British and US intelligence agencies.”

I appreciate the challenge of collecting accurate intelligence and connecting the dots. It’s the 21st century and the bad guys no longer hang out in shadowed doorways and use dumpsters as drop boxes. Yet the laws and promises to prevent misuse are weak at best. With vast surveillance on citizens – including supposedly privileged communications between attorneys/clients and doctors/patients – having come to light, as well as the politically based targeting by the IRS, we now know that the stage has moved significantly closer toward being set in a way that will allow for a much larger threat to arise.

I can’t speak to how things are with our friends across the pond, but here in the States, it is impossible to get through the day without unwittingly going afoul of some law. Since there are no law abiding citizens – just those who haven’t been caught or are not yet “persons of interest” – we are all criminals. All of us have everything to fear.

Updates

2013.06.10.1 – Ah, and then there is this little gem added to the stage from the SCOTUS: The Court upheld Maryland’s DNA Collection Act.

2013.06.10.2 – John Cook has the statistical perspective: A statistical problem with “nothing to hide”

One problem with the nothing-to-hide argument is that it assumes innocent people will be exonerated certainly and effortlessly. That is, it assumes that there are no errors, or if there are, they are resolved quickly and easily.

The argument also assumes that the falsely accused individual is made whole again. If this happens at all, it takes a very long time. The consequences of having one’s identity stolen, for example, are not washed away with a couple of phone calls. Imagine this when the stakes involve national security. The damage would likely be irreparable.

2013.06.10.3 – Using Metadata to Find Paul Revere – Interesting article that illustrates how this issue is less about the data and the analysis and more about the real potential for it’s misuse and abuse.

2013.06.11.1 – A clear example of the selective application of law: The IRS Can’t Plead Incompetence

For the next 14 months they heard nothing about an investigation. By August 2012, the NOM was filing Freedom of Information Act requests trying to find out if there was one. The IRS stonewalled. Their “latest nonresponse response,” said Mr. Eastman, claimed that the law prohibiting the disclosure of confidential tax returns also prevents disclosure of information about who disclosed them.

2013.06.11.2 – ‘I’ve Got Nothing to Hide’ and Other Misunderstandings of Privacy (H/T Instapundit)

In this short essay, written for a symposium in the San Diego Law Review, Professor Daniel Solove examines the nothing to hide argument. When asked about government surveillance and data mining, many people respond by declaring: “I’ve got nothing to hide.” According to the nothing to hide argument, there is no threat to privacy unless the government uncovers unlawful activity, in which case a person has no legitimate justification to claim that it remain private. The nothing to hide argument and its variants are quite prevalent, and thus are worth addressing. In this essay, Solove critiques the nothing to hide argument and exposes its faulty underpinnings.

Lessons from Katrina on the Hudson and Reynolds’ Second Law

Previously, I wrote how the government’s poor response to hurricane Sandy is a manifestation of decades worth of mission creep:

Micromanagement of the citizenry, on the other hand, is something that should unequivocally be outside the control or influence of governments, if for no other reason than it detracts from the organization’s ability to successfully implement the things it is good at organizing and controlling. Mandating the size of a soda drink or what kind of light bulb citizens are allowed to screw into their light sockets – clear examples of mission creep. Updating and maintaining the power gird – that’s another thing the scale and cost of which would lend itself well to government control and organization. And in the case of Big Acts of Nature, supplying and distributing the very basic necessities – food, water, shelter – for a large number of displaced citizens is another task sized for government control and organization.

Turns out, this has now been codified in Reynolds’ Second Law:

A good general rule is that the more a government wants to run its citizens’ lives, the worse job it will do at the most basic tasks of government.

Like the laws of gravity and the speed of light, such laws will be followed. It’s that simple.

Clean Energy Not So Clean

Sting operations reveal Mafia involvement in renewable energy

What does it say about your industry when the Mafia gets involved? That it’s above board, corruption-free, and legitimate?

How to Experience the Dark Ages Today

This unfortunate soul found out:

A man accused of desecrating the Koran was burned alive by a mob at a Pakistani police station, Reuters reported, citing police. The unnamed man was a traveller who spent Thursday night at a mosque in Seeta, in the southern Sindh province, local imam Maulvi Memon said. He claimed the charred remains of the Koran were found there the next morning, adding, “He was alone in the mosque during the night. There was no one else there to do this terrible thing”.

No word whether or not the man weighed the same as a duck.

Experts in a Time of Unreason

Sarah Hoyt has an interesting essay on her experience of becoming a United States citizen. This comment caught my eye:

Part of the thing with Europe is the worship of the “experts.”  “We’ll take it to the expert” or “We’ll have the expert do it.”

Yet, when the experts get it wrong, even when the expert opinion is that they cannot get it right all the time or even most of the time, they are vilified, scapegoated, and even convicted of manslaughter.

Claudio Eva, who was sentenced on Monday along with five other scientists and a government official over the earthquake in 2009 that killed more than 300 people and levelled the city of L’Aquila, said the verdict was an “eye for an eye”.

The ruling by a court in the shattered city, which defied the commonly held view that earthquakes cannot be predicted, has prompted outrage from the world’s scientific community.

More here: The deeper issues behind Italy’s conviction of earthquake scientists

Europe has a deep tradition for holding individuals responsible for things they themselves – as individuals – were incapable of influencing or avoiding. Likewise for “acts of God” events. If the sun were to be blotted out by the moon, a heretic must be burned. In America, this tradition is less ingrained, having been a country founded in large part by individuals seeking to escape such unreason. I fear, though, this is eroding and the euro-tradition of irresponsibility and blame while relying on Big Brother and The Nanny State is taking hold.