How Do You Know You Have Been “Educated”?

Following on my previous post on the “We are the 99%” people who seem to view education as more ritual than the acquisition of practical skills or knowledge, it occurred to me that many of these young people may not understand that they aren’t really, despite the time and money spent, actually educated.

The liberal arts of today are those fields with little or no empiricism. In other words, if the field doesn’t have a lot of math, the information it deals with is subjective and untestable. Even supposed “soft” sciences in the liberal arts like sociology or psychology lack true scientific rigor. Given that, how do liberal-arts graduates know that they’ve really been taught something worthwhile? How do they know they haven’t been loaded up with gibberish?

For example, I don’t know much about music, so someday I want to take some courses about music. How would I know whether any particular instructor was teaching me anything valid? Since I have no real knowledge about music, how would I know if I was paying someone to fill my head with nonsense?

Some music education would teach concrete skills, e.g., reading music or learning to play an instrument, so I could evaluate whether I had been educated by my ability to read music or play an instrument.

However, what if I spend $50,000 being taught “Music Theory” or “The Sociology of Music“.

How would I ever know whether I was taught anything remotely true and, more important, of practical use? If I want to be a musician will a degree in either actually help my career or am I better off spending more time practicing in the garage studio?

Most of what is taught in the liberal arts does not equip the student with objective skills. Instead, most of what students learn are elaborate hypotheses validated only by a popularity contest among the professors themselves. Most of those hypotheses will end up judged by history to be gibberish — e.g., Marxism.

Most degrees in the liberal arts, especially the advanced degrees, really just equip the student to become a liberal-arts professor. Given how few professorships open up, most liberal-arts graduates don’t actually end up with marketable skills.

I think a lot of liberal-arts graduates have been convinced they have learned something of great value. Why should they believe otherwise? We are taught since childhood how wise and wonderful all our teachers are. We are told how uplifting and ennobling education is. Why would students question whether their trusted professors are teaching them anything true and/or valuable in the future workplace?

What a horrible realization to find out that you haven’t actually been educated. What a horrible realization to find out you owe tens of thousands of dollars and you don’t have any skills to compensate. What a horrible realization to find out you are no more employable than someone who never went to college in the first place.

These kids feel cheated and they are right. They were told they were actually getting “educated” but they weren’t. They borrowed tens of thousands of dollars for nothing.

27 thoughts on “How Do You Know You Have Been “Educated”?”

  1. Shannon,

    A quibble, Music is Fine Arts, not Liberal Arts. It may seem odd, but I think Fine Arts bears more similarity to the engineering/science end of things than it at first appears.

    As a first approximation, a fine arts education requires the student to learn what has been done in the field in the past and master the current “state of the art” while also practicing the technical skills needed to produce the artistic works at a professional level. Music Theory could certainly help with that for a musician, and also be very useful in carrying on professional conversations in the field. For a composer it would be essential.

    It is true that fine arts doesn’t usually require the math you’re talking about, but that doesn’t mean you can’t tell if you were educated. For another person to tell may sometimes be difficult. *I* think most contemporary visual artists got robbed. But I could be wrong. *They* know because they know if they have the skills to produce what they intend and whether they’re making educated decisions about *what* to intend or just guessing.

    The thing is that for whatever reason and economically speaking, we need fewer artists than engineers, therefore on average artists are paid less. There’s also the very odd dynamic of “lottery ticket” careers which seem to be very common in the arts but turn up in some other areas as well. Most people scrape by, a few big stars become very wealthy.

    We ought to know this and start responding to demand by producing fewer artists but we don’t. Maybe the lottery ticket dynamic is involved in that.

    I’d also contend that some liberal arts fields do teach skills which can be observed and/or measured, but the trouble there is, again, that demand for those skills is low, and/or the degree is not seen as a signal that the skills are present.

    Another issue is “transferability” most employers don’t recognize this even in science/engineering, but most liberal arts boosters expect them to… Did you know that the skills required to host a call-in radio talk show overlap about 80% with those required to take technical support calls?

  2. “Education is what remains after one has forgotten what one has learned in school.”

    Albert Einstein

    I believe there are a lot of people far more educated – who haven’t attended college – than many college graduates.

    There are a lot of people who know how to memorize – and pass tests = by rote memory.

    And, i am told, cheating is near epidemic in schools these days – making me wonder just what they are getting from that very expensive education.

    We all know about Gates, but how about Bill Lear? He had a formal 8th grade education, if memory serves me, yet during the very short incubation time of the Lear 23 – if memory serves me – 6 months from prototype to certification – he was known to help engineers stumped over a problem – all figured out in his head.

    I think too often students are indoctrinated – rather than learning to think – in college these days.

  3. Worth noting is that these are not the first students and aligned to “occupy”. This was of course done in their hollowed golden age of 1965-75. Except then they were “occupying” the offices of their campuses largely (where they arguably damn sure belong right now).

    So in said “occupations”, while Vietnam and racism were primary issues, the students also had many specific demands about the campuses and ciriculum themselves. And history shows that, more often than not, administrators showed all the spine of washed-up jellyfish.

    So the “occupiers” got many demands: A ciriculum loaded with social-justicey classes, a down-playing of Western Civilization, deconstructions of capitalism, etc etc. And lo and behold, we now have a whole generation coming out of these schools with virtually nothing valuable to add to the economy and society. Unfortunately, self-regard and self-righteousness does not add to the GNP – if it did, we’d be booming like never before.

    I do have fears. Quite simply, I genuinely believe that some, maybe a lot, of these people would literally die, literally die, before they would ever target their ire at the real culprits, their 60’s forbears, their ideologically left-rigid universities, and the very politicians they are most likely to vote for who ar products of both.

    “The bloodletting is not working, the patient gets worse. There can be only one answer: more bloodletting.” Theodoric of York, Medieval Barber

  4. As for your question of where to seek an education, as contrasted with a credential, many people are paying good money for “Learning Company ” courses and, I believe are satisfied.

    I have a daughter working on her PhD in Spanish history. The difference may be that she speaks four languages, all pertinent for her subject (Arabic, Spanish Portuguese, etc) and she has a full time job in that field plus a full scholarship with a good stipend. Her sister has been trying to recruit her for the FBI (Arabic), so she has a fallback plan.

  5. John,

    I chose music precisely because it is one field that combines real skills with theories that could well be nonsense. The ability to play or compose music is an objective skill. The theories that explain how doing so works is more subjective. Theories that try to explain things like the sociology of music are probably nonsense.

    I also chose it as an example because of my personal ignorance on the subject. My point was that I, personally, with the knowledge I have now, could not judge whether the “theory” components of such an education had any value or utility. After taking just the theory components of such an education, I would have no clue as to whether I had wasted my time or money.

    As any field of study moves aways from empiricism and becomes more and more subjective, then the assessment of the value/utility/quality of an education in the field likewise becomes more and more subjective. People who go wildly into debt to get degrees in highly subjective fields never know if they’ve learned anything of real value.

    Again, a music education offers a stark contrast all within one field. We need musicians of all kinds. We need people who know the history and science of music. We need people who can teach music. We probably don’t need people who spend years studying subjective theories that might well be gibberish.

    Music, like a lot of other appealing fields, also suffers from the problem that a lot more people want to be musicians than society is willing to pay for. Most people who study music won’t find good jobs. If they go heavily into debt to do so, their education won’t play a big role in paying that debt off.

  6. I think it’s still true that a good liberal education prepares you for many different careers. However, 1) not all liberal educations are good and 2) once you have that good liberal education you still need to learn your chosen career. There are plenty of people with degrees in English or whatever who are doing well as computer programmers, entrepreneurs, lawyers, commodity traders, etc. Nobody is forcing you to become an English professor or museum curator. The problem is that some people think that formal education is adequate career preparation, or lack the initiative and drive to make a career outside of their nominal field if that is where the best opportunities are.

  7. Jonathan,

    There are plenty of people with degrees in English or whatever who are doing well as computer programmers, entrepreneurs, lawyers, commodity traders, etc.

    Well, yes, arguably my spouse and I could be classified as just such people. I started in computer science but switched to biology. I ended up in computers. My spouse had a history degree and now works in finance. We do all right.

    However, it’s rather clear that we would mostly be just as good at our jobs had we never gone to college. My spouse learned business accounting as a teenager in her grandfather’s business. Most of what I have learned about computers was self-taught. Anything I did learn in comp-sci was obsolete within 5-10 years anyway.

    My problem with a modern education in a subjective field is that the student can’t tell if they learned $50k worth of knowledge. If you go heavily into debt to learn something, that something should equip you with skills to earn at least $50k extra in the 5-10 years after you leave college.

    I’m sure a lot of these kids can and will eventually find middle-class jobs. However, I seriously doubt they will find jobs in the fields they were educated for. Instead, they will use their innate intelligence to learn some skill when they are tossed in creek and forced to sink or swim.

    The money they borrowed will prove to be wasted.

  8. The problem with mainstream education (and most of government) is that it is measured by inputs, not output.

    No one asks what practical difference the input of 4 years of classes (at $100-$200,000 cost) makes to future ability to produce something. Even if the output is supposed to be “satisfaction with your understanding of life”, that output is not measured.

    Like an expensive wristwatch, the quality of the education is supposed to be its cost. Mainstream education vigorously opposes cheaper methods of learning, and any measure of improved output.

    Mainstream schools recognize a need to promise an output. They have spread the myth that a college degree increases average lifetime earnings by a million dollars, at first glance a 5-10 times return on the college investment. This is intellectual and material fraud, averaging results for some lawyers and doctors into the results for liberal arts majors.

    // Barack Obama repeated the common statistic, “On average during your lifetime you will earn a million dollars more if you get a bachelor’s degree.” //

    // But: The bachelor’s degree is America’s most overrated product. The million dollar increase in earnings is a misleading statistic. It includes billionaire super-earners who raise the average. //

    College is an expensive IQ test – Earnings

  9. Music education… I would HAVE to be interested in music more than just listening to the radio. Maybe I would sing in the church choir(no skill necessary). I start to wonder what else I might learn that would make my singing better, or more enjoyable. I just can’t HIT this particular note. MY friends can sing better than I can. One talks about the upper voice & lower voice. What’s that all about? Maybe I’ll be able to hit higher notes if I took some lessons.

    I can’t read music. Maybe I should take that Music Theory class & understand what 3ds & 5ths are, etc, etc. Most Music theory classes are taught with the aid of a piano. I guess I better learn how to play the piano in order to really understand what’s happening here…
    This is how my college education actually DID progress..step by step. If you aren’t curious, you aren’t learning.

    Susan Lee

  10. John,

    I chose music precisely because it is one field that combines real skills with theories that could well be nonsense.

    He might not thank me for using his name so I will just use his last initial, but my room mate in college was a Music major who never went to class. Pete H is a musical genius. He father was a songwriter with a couple of major hits. Pete would roll out of bed at noon and go downstairs in the fraternity house for lunch. He would spend the afternoon noodling on his bass viol. One day, he found an old cornet in the fraternity house attic. He had never played a wind instrument, I believe. In a couple of hours, he had figured out how to play it and by evening he was playing it well.

    He graduated in four years with a straight A average. I'm not sure he ever went to class but he did meet some cute girlfriends. After that, he kind of fooled around with a career, playing for a while with the New Christy Minstrels. He and his high school buddy (another musical genius) were featured with the group for a while.

    If they’re in Wikipedia, I guess Pete won’t mind

    He is an example of Shannon’s point. College was something for him to do while he grew up a bit. He is also a great guy. I used to go see his show whenever I could. He was also a comic genius but that’s 100 other stories. I haven’t seen him in years.

  11. This is a little off topic, but:

    I got an English degree in ’90 because a)I was terrible at math and b) I loved reading and writing and most importantly c) I had no idea what I wanted to do with myself.

    As it happens, the bulk of my adult working career has ended up involving a lot of writing and analysis, all in the private sector. So even lacking direction, an English degree was probably a wise choice.

    Nonetheless, I distinctly remember turning over in my head the risk I was was taking by dedicating college to an English degree rather than something more practical.* Even my academic adviser made sure I knew what the pros and cons were!! Do they not do that any more?

    Anyway. For some reason I’m no longer bad at math. Partly because of the various “analysis” parts of my various jobs, partly because I’m now a lawyer who does a lot of business oriented work & I have been beholden to get with the program.

    But I think the thing that really made me wise up math wise was that I’ve been playing music since before high school, and well after college I finally learned how to read music. As others have alluded to above, music is innately though not overtly mathematical. I could play by ear & basically knew what I was doing, musically, but I was winging it; learning the theory strengthened me in every way.** I think that bled over crabwise into my capacity for doing math.***

    Somewhere I’ve seen a list of prominent mathematicians who were also accomplished musicians; it was an extensive list.

    *My high school had a vocational education program. It still irks me that I was not allowed to take welding classes because I was on the “college track”. Even though I worked in a hardware store, the welding teacher was a good friend of my boss, and the class wasn’t even full, and the welding teacher asked that I be allowed to take it.

    **I’m actually glad I learned to play (guitar and saxophone) by ear before the theory. I learned a lot of technique, fast, trying to make my instruments sound like the recorded tunes I was trying to copy.

    ***Various retail jobs I had also forced me to do math in my head; it’s embarrassing to count on your fingers in front of customers when you’re making change.

  12. Shannon,

    You are more ignorant of music than you realize. Sure, you can find exceptions especially in the sociology end, but isn’t that true of sociology-and-anything?

    Meanwhile, in general Music Theory:Music::Physics:Engineering. Or perhaps the situation would be clearer if they called it “Physics Theory”, as that’s mostly what it is at the secondary and undergraduate levels.

  13. The question, “How does one know he or she has been educated,” is an excellent example of the principle of falsifiability.

    If an education has any use or relevance, it will produce some sort of testable assertion: something that, if you don’t know it or can’t do it, will prove you don’t have that education. If you can do it, and do it repeatably, then you have evidence of possessing that education, even if you don’t have a degree.

    If the existence of an education can only be determined from the approval of other academics in that field, then that education has no meaning outside that academic realm. It literally doesn’t exist unless you are trying for a job as a Cultural Studies professor or whatever.

    How many of the 99%-er stories make any claim as to what they can actually do, how they can be of use to their fellow human beings? Yeah, I thought so.

  14. Just a note that I probably should have mentioned in the parent: I actually do understand rather a lot about the physics and neurophysiology of music. I just don’t know about the actual, well, musical parts.

    For example, I know (or know to look up) that the note “A” is always a multiple to 220 hertz e.g. 220, 440,880 etc. However, I have now idea what “A” sounds like or how to produce it with voice or any instrument. I don’t know the history of its use or any stylistic or emotional association it might have in any particular context.

    The more a music education moved away for the science, the less I can judge its veracity.

  15. I agree with the thrust of this post, but music theory is a bad example.

    Music theory, in the sense of the diatonic scale and temperaments, was independently discovered by the Greeks and the Chinese (and for all I know the Indians as well.) Since Greek, Chinese, and Arab theory all came up with the same concepts, we can infer that they were discovering psychoacoustic phenomena and creating the mathematical underpinnings necessary to exploit these phenomena. At this cut, it’s rather like geometric projection or the study of the optics of color.

    Moreover, “applied music theory” is exactly what professional musicians study in order to function as pros. How are you going to play three-chord rock unless you know what the three chords are? Some musicians have become successful playing solely by feel, but that doesn’t mean that music theory has no content, any more than the instinctive athleticism of a “natural” invalidates kinesiology.

    Musicology is another kettle of fish, though. It would be fair to say that musicology is in the same league as literary criticism. Perceptive, clever, erudite? Sometimes. A science? No way.

  16. How some conservatives view college is how some liberals view entrepreneurship: it’s all really just playing, while real folks take the safe-and-steady path.

    In fact, both are competitive world where there’s a lot of opportunities behind a lot of doors, but if you fail, it’s on you.

  17. Music, as many of the arts, is very faddish and cliqueish. I recommend a book by Alex Ross, “The Rest is Noise” which is essentially a history of 20th Century music. It is primarily about what we would call “classical” music but also contains some popular forms as well. In the book, Ross recounts a story about Pierre Boulez, along with some other music people, walking out on a premier performance of one of Stravinsky’s major works, I forget which one (The Rite of Spring?).

    In any case, the Stravinsky work has stood the test of time, unlike the works of Boulez. Boulez and his circle were devotees of twelve tone composition and declared anything else to be “kitsch”. I’m quite sure, they acquired this “taste” from their university education. It’s almost certainly the same today.

  18. As a historian I can tell you that nobody knows what actually happened in the past. It is constantly being rewritten. Right now the history of the Great Depression is being rewritten. Indeed the American history taught today is not the history I learned in school in the 40s. And the history of 1950 to 2000 is not the one I lived through. History is the mirror of the present. It is a blank slate.

    Now the reason tuitions have skyrocketed is that there is too much money chasing too few classroom seats. Government loan gaurantees and grants have flooded the market with money. Our schools have risen to the challenge and bravely responded by raising prices.

    An education is valuable if it enables you to think elevated thoughts while standing in the unemployment line or at the barricade.

  19. Indeed the American history taught today is not the history I learned in school in the 40s.

    That is no boast. My daughter was taught American History since 1877 that was provably false, as in lies. We are losing out history.

  20. The only reliably accurate subjects taught in college are the STEM subjects (excluding global warming whose principles are discovered by consensus). But there were 9 planets when I was young, and now there are only 8. And nuclear energy was safe under Eisenhower, and a car in every garage was called progress.

  21. Eisenhower was our last adult president. And the :”Silent Majority” was not that portion of the US public who refused to accept the 1964 Civil Rights Act, contrary to the teaching of the U of Arizona/.

  22. Don’t slight Reagan,who got the major premise right,which was that excessive gov’t was the enemy. Unfortunately he couldn’t roll it back-all he could was halt the juggernaut for a while. Eisenhower was an adult but there was no willingness to think outside the box.

    By the way the, comments on this website are generally excellent. This is a breath of fresh air compared to other sites.

  23. Too bad we paid for Shannon’s miseducation:

    Since I have no real knowledge about music, how would I know if I was paying someone to fill my head with nonsense?

    Proper English would require the subjunctive in the dependent clause:

    Since I have no real knowledge about music, how would I know if I were paying someone to fill my head with nonsense?

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