Oh the Humanities

From BBC Capital:

Why ‘worthless’ humanities degrees may set you up for life

At university, when I told people I was studying for a history degree, the response was almost always the same: “You want to be a teacher?”. No, a journalist. “Oh. But you’re not majoring in communications?”

In the days when a university education was the purview of a privileged few, perhaps there wasn’t the assumption that a degree had to be a springboard directly into a career. Those days are long gone.

Today, a degree is all but a necessity for the job market, one that more than halves your chances of being unemployed. Still, that alone is no guarantee of a job – and yet we’re paying more and more for one. In the US, room, board and tuition at a private university costs an average of $48,510 a year; in the UK, tuition fees alone are £9,250 ($12,000) per year for home students; in Singapore, four years at a private university can cost up to SGD$69,336 (US$51,000).

Learning for the sake of learning is a beautiful thing. But given those costs, it’s no wonder that most of us need our degrees to pay off in a more concrete way. Broadly, they already do: in the US, for example, a bachelor’s degree holder earns $461 more each week than someone who never attended a university.

But most of us want to maximise that investment – and that can lead to a plug-and-play type of approach to higher education. Want to be a journalist? Study journalism, we’re told. A lawyer? Pursue pre-law. Not totally sure? Go into Stem (science, technology, engineering and maths) – that way, you can become an engineer or IT specialist. And no matter what you do, forget the liberal arts – non-vocational degrees that include natural and social sciences, mathematics and the humanities, such as history, philosophy and languages.

This has been echoed by statements and policies around the world. In the US, politicians from Senator Marco Rubio to former President Barack Obama have made the humanities a punch line. (Obama later apologised). In China, the government has unveiled plans to turn 42 universities into “world class” institutions of science and technology. In the UK, government focus on Stem has led to a nearly 20% drop in students taking A-levels in English and a 15% decline in the arts.

But there’s a problem with this approach. And it’s not just that we’re losing out on crucial ways to understand and improve both the world and ourselves – including enhancing personal wellbeing, sparking innovation and helping create tolerance, among other values.

It’s also that our assumptions about the market value of certain degrees – and the “worthlessness” of others – might be off. At best, that could be making some students unnecessarily stressed. At worst? Pushing people onto paths that set them up for less fulfilling lives. It also perpetuates the stereotype of liberal arts graduates, in particular, as an elite caste – something that can discourage underprivileged students, and anyone else who needs an immediate return on their university investment, from pursuing potentially rewarding disciplines.

I couldn’t agree more, and said as much in a piece that will be appearing later this summer (stay tuned).

Learning Styles

I confess that I have always been suspicious of the theory of learning styles. I’m sure you’ve heard it before: different people learn in different ways, generally designated “auditory,” “visual,” and “kinesthetic.” Apparently these three can overlap; here is a Venn diagram (helpfully labeled “Venn diagram”) illustrating this theory:

British Psychological Society.

The idea is that a teacher must differentiate her instruction in order to reach all of her charges, wherever they may be on the chart. So if you’re teaching (e.g.) math, you illustrate concepts with pictures for the visual learners, you make up a cutesy jingle about them for the auditory learners, and you come up with some actions to perform in the course of teaching about them, for the kinesthetic learners. Thus will everyone learn the concepts!

This sounds eminently reasonable. So why am I suspicious? Because it has always seemed to me that this theory is exactly what we want to believe, according to our liberal prejudices. That is, if a student isn’t doing well, it’s not the fault of the student, it’s the fault of the teacher, who is not teaching in the appropriate learning style. In other words, as far as academic ability goes, there is no vertical differentiation, only horizontal differentiation. Everyone is different in their own way, and ultimately no one is better than anyone else. (The Onion had an amusing story about this once: “Parents of nasal learners demand odor-based curriculum.”) But anyone who has spent any time at all in a classroom knows that some students are more intelligent and perform better than others, quite apart from any considerations of their unique learning style.

(This quite apart from the idea that I am teaching at a university, where it is not up to the professor to ensure that his students pass, but up to the students, who are legal adults, protected by FERPA, attending voluntarily, with at least twelve years of formal schooling already under their belts. Forcing them to take responsibility for their grades is itself a valuable life lesson! Alas, it is an occupational hazard of the caring professions – social work, nursing, teaching, religious ministry, etc. – to believe in their own indispensability, whose members will thus take on extra burdens for the sake of their own egos, even at the college level.*)

An article forwarded to me by Tim Furnish (from which the graphic above was taken) suggests that the reign of “learning styles” might be coming to an end, revealed to be just another educational fad based on wishful thinking and unreplicable research.

The idea that we learn better when taught via our preferred modality or “learning style” – such as visually, orally, or by doing – is not supported by evidence. Nonetheless the concept remains hugely popular, no doubt in part because learning via our preferred style can lead us to feel like we’ve learned more, even though we haven’t.

Some advocates of the learning styles approach argue that the reason for the lack of evidence to date is that students do so much of their learning outside of class. According to this view, psychologists have failed to find evidence for learning styles because they’ve focused too narrowly on whether it is beneficial to have congruence between teaching style and preferred learning style. Instead, they say psychologists should look for the beneficial effects of students studying outside of class in a manner that is consistent with their learning style.

For a new paper in Anatomical Sciences Education, a pair of researchers at Indiana University School of Medicine have conducted just such an investigation with hundreds of undergrads. Once again however the findings do not support the learning styles concept, reinforcing its reputation among mainstream psychologists as little more than a myth….

The results are bad news for advocates of the learning styles concept. Student grade performance was not correlated in any meaningful way with their dominant learning style or with any learning style(s) they scored highly on. Also, while most students (67 per cent) actually failed to study in a way consistent with their supposedly preferred learning style, those who did study in line with their dominant style did not achieve a better grade in their anatomy class than those who didn’t.

Charles Murray, in Real Education (2008), addressed the similar concept of multiple intelligences (29-30):

Empirically, it is not the case that we can expect a child who is below average in one ability to have a full and equal chance of being above average in the other abilities. Those chances are constrained by the observed relationship that links the abilities. In the case of bodily-kinesthetic and musical ability, those relationships are small enough that they don’t matter much. In the case of interpersonal and intrapersonal ability, the relationships are somewhat larger, and they have to be recognized. In the case of the three components of academic ability [spatial, logical-mathematical, and linguistic ability], the relationships are extremely close. It is a classic example of life not being fair. The child who knows all the answers in math class has a high probability of reading above grade level as well and what’s more, a higher than average chance of being industrious and determined.

That sounds about right, and it’s high time that we started talking again about differentiated ability in terms of how quickly, accurately, or creatively students can solve problems, not whether they do so through envisioning them, hearing them, or acting them out. We should also admit that, while intelligence is essential to academic success, it is not a moral quality, and you can lead a perfectly decent life with an IQ of less than 100, and no college degree. Alas, since we do think of it as a moral quality (“clever” as a term of praise; “stupid” as a grave insult) we don’t like talking about it, and are unwilling to acknowledge that some people have more of it through absolutely no merit of their own – and if they don’t have it, the solution is simply more education, in the hopes that they’ll acquire it eventually somehow. On the one level this keeps schools afloat, but on the other it is a profound waste of time and effort for everyone concerned.

* A priest friend of mine once wrote, in an exercise of self-examination:

It isn’t “love” which seeks to take on every problem… it’s ego. It’s ego that needs to be needed, thanked, and affirmed by all the people who are grateful for all that I’ve done for them. I will always have a “soft heart” that wants to do what it can to help. I like that about myself. But I need to start protecting that heart a bit more, so that it’s free to engage the people and problems it CAN help.

I do give a damn. That doesn’t always mean it’s my problem.

Ed. Schools

From the Chronicle of Higher Education:

Years ago, at the college where I teach, some graffiti on a restroom wall caught my eye. Inked into the tile grout was a swastika the size of a baby aspirin, and just above it, in a different hand, someone had written in large letters: “This says a lot about our community.” An arrow pointed to the offending sign.

I’d seen lots of responses to the odd swastika over the years — obscene remarks about the author’s anatomy, say, or humiliating additions to his family tree. But a claim that this itsy-bitsy spider of a swastika signaled a web of hatred permeating one of the most left-leaning colleges in the nation? That was a new one.

More evidence for this web was adduced a few months later when some racially charged fliers were posted anonymously around campus. Because the fliers offended people who failed to notice that they were meant as anti-racist satire, administrators punished the undergraduate who had put them up, even after it was discovered that he was a minority student with left-wing political leanings. Both the dean and the associate dean of students at the time gave voice to what has since become a mantra on college campuses — that the “impact” mattered more than the “intent.” But what if the “impact” is the result of flat-footed perceptions, or has been amplified by the administrators themselves? The case seemed so ill-conceived that faculty members from across the political spectrum worked for months to clear the student’s record. After all, the distinction between the letter and the spirit is hardly dispensable. Satire, irony, parody — these are things we teach. None exists without respect for intention.

Though I didn’t realize it at the time, those were my first encounters with an alternate curriculum that was being promoted on many campuses, a curriculum whose guiding principles seemed to be: 1) anything that could be construed as bigotry and hatred should be construed as bigotry and hatred; and 2) any such instance of bigotry and hatred should be considered part of an epidemic. These principles were being advanced primarily, though not exclusively, by college administrators, whose ranks had grown so remarkably since the early 1990s.

Everyone knows about the kudzu-like growth of the administrative bureaucracy in higher education over the past three decades. What most don’t know is that at many colleges, the majority of administrators directly involved in the lives of students — in dorms, conduct hearings, bias-response teams, freshmen “orientation” programs, and the like — got their graduate degrees from education schools.

Read the whole thing.