Quote, November 29 2011 — Thoughts on school

‘What the STEM [Science, Technology, Engineering, Math] classes and the classic humanities have in common is this: they require students to master a coherent body of knowledge and learn clear thinking and accurate expression.  There are many ‘disciplines’ that don’t do any of that; they encourage mushy thinking about mushy fields.

But something else emerges from this important study that students and parents need to keep in mind.  What you study is more important than where you study it; students who take solid courses at solid schools will often learn more and do better than students who take empty classes as flashy name schools.’

– Walter Rusell Mead, “Stemming the Tide”, in his ‘Via Meadia’ column in The American Interest, October 27 2011 (site last accessed on November 29 2011)

Mead bases his article “Stemming the Tide” in part on a study by Georgetown University which showed in recent graduats, STEM degrees were in higher demand and STEM majors made approximately 50% more than non-STEM majors.

Mead (who is a college professor himself, teaching foreign affairs and the humanities at Bard College) also has a good post with advice for students starting their college classes. The full essay is at “Back to School”. In summary, his recommendations are:

  1. The real world does not work like school.
  2. Most of your elders know very little about the world into which you are headed.
  3. You are going to have to work much, much harder than you probably expect.
  4. Choosing the right courses is more important than choosing the right college.
  5. Get a traditional liberal education; it is the only thing that will do you any good.
  6. Character counts; so do good habits.
  7. Relax.

Point number 5 above would seem to be in conflict with his article about STEM fields, but for him the two articles are complimentary. Science, technology, engineering and math are all fields where the fundamental precepts stay the same (Newton’s Laws of Physics are still Newton’s Laws of Physics, water is still made up of two hydrogen molecules & one oxygen molecule, and sum of the current going into a single node must always be zero), but the methods & technology used can change fast. So, the liberal education would help a STEM student pick out what were fundamental precepts & what were contemporary techniques, and would also help the student with the thinking, persuading, communicating, and analytical thinking that are needed to work in any field where you work with others — and no matter what field you’re in, you will most likely be working with others at one point or another.

His full recommendation under point #5 is as follows (better yeat, read the whole essay, it’s all good advice):

5.  Get a traditional liberal education; it is the only thing that will do you any good.

Following this advice will be hard; a liberal education is no easy thing to get, and not everybody wants you to have one.  However, in times of rapid change, it is paradoxically more useful to immerse yourself in the basics and the classics than to try to keep up with the latest developments and hottest trends.  You can be almost 100% sure that the hot theories making waves in academia today will be forgotten or superseded in twenty years — but fifty years from now people will still be reading and thinking about the classic texts that have shaped our world.  Use your college years to ground yourself in the basic great books and key ideas and values that will last.

For the same reason, don’t worry too much about getting specific skills at this stage.  You are going to keep learning new skills all your life and you are going to find many of your skills obsolete as time goes on (when I was a kid I was very good at operating something called a mimeograph machine).  What you want to do now is to develop your ability to learn.

It’s a lot of work, but don’t panic; you are not going to get this all done in four years.  Becoming educated is a lifelong project; you can’t turn your mind off and stop reading books when you finish college and expect to get anywhere.  Here are some tips to help you get started.

First, getting a liberal education means you have to achieve literacy in math and at least in one science – and come to grips with the scientific method.  I’d recommend biology as the science you should spend the most time with; this is probably the science that’s going to be changing the world most radically during much of your life — and since you need some chemistry to make sense of it, you will be getting a grounding in two disciplines rather than just one.

Second, study the basic ideas, debates, books, people and events of the western world – with special attention to the Anglo-American subset of the western tradition.  You can’t understand other people’s cultures and traditions until you understand the one that surrounds you.  Art, literature and music are part of this.  Don’t neglect them.

Third, study the United States: its history, regions, culture, politics, literature and economy.  You would be surprised how many highly educated people have never seriously studied (or traveled much in) their own country.  Don’t make that mistake – and study the parts of the US you don’t know.  If you are a southerner, study the north.  If you are from the Midwest, study the two coasts; if you are coastal, study the interior.  If you are white, study African-American history.  Don’t just study this in class.  Seek people out in your school from different backgrounds and get to know them.

Fourth, study at least one language and at least one culture that is alien to you.  Pick a language that opens the door to a big world: Mandarin, Hindi, Arabic, German, the Romance languages (if you get really good in one of these last you will have a surprisingly easy time dealing with others).  Beyond the language study, take a cluster of courses that give you at least an overview of one non-western civilization.  (This works better than taking a scattering of unrelated electives on many different cultures.)  The purpose of taking a language today has less to do with learning to talk to foreigners than it used to; foreigners seem to be learning English faster than we are learning their languages and computer translation software is likely to make reading texts in other languages much easier in your time.  But learning a foreign language is still a great way to explore another world: different languages organize the world differently and to learn a language is to learn a new mental map.

Fifth, learn to write well.  This paradoxically is going to be more important than ever for the next generation.  I can’t tell you how many editors at how many famous magazines have told me over the years that most professors and academics simply cannot write, and bemoan the immense amount of time they must devote to impose some kind of intellectual structure and comprehensible prose on the crabbed drafts they get from, often, fairly well known people.

This will not last.  Publications are not going to be able to continue paying editors to spin straw into gold; if you want to have a public voice in the next generation you are going to have to learn to write well.  This is a hard skill to acquire, but it can be taught.  Most schools don’t do this well; it is expensive and academics generally don’t value clear and attractive prose writing as much as they should.  This is important enough that I would recommend you use it as a factor in choosing a college, but for those of you already enrolled, make a point of seeing what your school offers in this area.

Finally, unless you are following up on an interest that is already a deep and passionate one, try to take courses taught by great teachers.  The main purpose of an undergraduate education isn’t to polish up your knowledge and finish your learning.  It is to launch you on a lifetime quest for wisdom and understanding.  You want professors who can help you fall in love with new subjects, new ideas, new ways of investigating the world.  The courses that end up mattering the most to you will be the ones that start you on a lifetime of reading and reflection.

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