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    What you will expect to see here are discussions of politics and tangentially economics. This blog will do its best to present a rational look at the world of today, how the modern world came into place, and the issues that are currently being discussed in the public realm.
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A Liberal Arts Education

Posted by publius2point0 on 2010/01/30

Unfortunately, this blog is an editorial rather than something with more research behind it. The reason for this failure will become clear, though.

As I brought up in a previous blog, it is a decently likely theory that the human brain can accomplish a higher average capability than we are getting today. And ultimately, in society, humanity’s greatest resource is our intellectual potential. Our inventions, philosophy, and actions are all limited to whatever level of intellect we have. If you can increase this, you have just accomplished the greatest good there is on the planet.

Obviously, the question is how does one do that?

Many people think that the general quality of education has been decreasing with time. President Bush II instituted the No Child Left Behind Act based largely on this belief. Bill Gates has been giving speeches and writing extensively on the topic, besides funding several private schools that run according to a methodology that he thinks will be beneficial.

Now, when I was only 8 or 9 years old, I had a chance to visit Japan. This would be in the mid-80s, at the peak of Japan’s prosperity. I remember being told that the children there would go to school, and then after school was done they would go to juku–which was essentially just more school. On the weekends, they would end up going to juku again. Your average Japanese child might have had double the amount of time in school as an American child.

I also remember, as a child, being informed that on standardized tests like the SAT, the Russians and the Japanese were both outperforming us. My teachers brought this up to instill some amount of competitive ire in us–which it did in me, at least.

But the thing to note is: Where are the Japanese and the Russians today? These super-children would be in their 30s and 40s today and seeing to the great conquest of the global economy. And yet they aren’t.

Measuring Intelligence

When the idea first came along to measure general intellect, these tests ended up asking questions like “What is the Latin root of ‘question’?” As time went on, the people who managed the testing of IQ saw that questions like these simply tested knowledge, not intelligence. You could stock up the greatest idiot of the world with facts and so long as his memory was decent, he’d be able to score highly. And yet everyone who knew him would quite decidedly opine that he was indeed an idiot. Eventually all these sorts of questions were removed, leaving behind puzzles and riddles and such. These don’t rely on knowledge, but do test a person’s ability to understand and solve problems–which is really what one is looking for when he is testing for intelligence.

Many argue that IQ still only measures certain, minor, points of general capability. Others will try and convince you that the whole thing is pseudo-science and you might as well roll a die. And while IQ certainly doesn’t seem to have much relevance on income–though it does establish a lower bound for a reasonable income–I would personally say that of people whose IQ I know, it has always matched up with about what I would guess, so I personally would say that it does seem to measure accurately. But I would agree that at higher levels its only value is to research and science, not general social interactions and politics.

It also happens that quite often you can still take a test like the SAT–which generally asks knowledge-based questions–and calculate from it the person’s probably IQ. This is possible because the sort of person who is naturally intelligent generally appreciates knowledge and its gathering, and is thus more likely to actually commit knowledge to memory. A person of more natural intelligence commits even more.

Teaching to the Test

A problem arises, which is what we see in Japan and Russia, that you can cram a person with random knowledge and you can force them to work over small little puzzles and riddles and they will end up being able to score higher on either sort of test. Perhaps this sort of training does have some positive points. The Japanese are credited with being skilled at finding ever better refinements of things. But they also tend to lack the desire to create entirely new products, or take on new markets. Puzzle solving might be there, but imagination and chutzpah are lacking.

But, for example, if you play puzzle games like these you’ll almost certainly be better the second time you play it, and even better the 100th time. Eventually it becomes all too easy and you have to expand the game field or otherwise make it harder to solve. If you’ve played lots of games of this ilk, you are probably going to do better at an entirely new game than someone to whom the whole realm of small puzzle-games is new. That other person might well be smarter but you’ll end up scoring higher simply because you have greater experience to draw from.

Or to put it another way, let’s say that we have a professional arm wrestler. If you establish a test of strength which, to make testing easy, requires you to simulate a move like arm wrestling, recording how much weight you can lift, this test will be effective for almost all of the population. How strong a person is, is generally a fairly well-balanced thing. When our arm wrestler comes in, however, he’s going to score particularly high even though his overall strength is rather poor.

Certainly if arm wrestling or puzzle solving is our very precise needs of the day, our test is all we ever need, but if we want something that’s generalized for all purposes, then we need better tests than what we have today or we need to ensure that people don’t teach to the test.

The problem is, once testing becomes the standard for success, teachers have a habit of teaching to the test–their livelihood and the demands of the parents require it–and this is what makes me fear both President Bush’s and Bill Gate’s attempts at reform, however well intentioned they may be.

Crazies among Giants

Within the hard sciences, it’s a fairly decent bet that the people at the top are going to have generally higher IQs. Ones level of chess, for all those of equal experience, is probably highly correlated with IQ as well. And note that I mean a properly tested IQ that’s going to be representative of general ability, rather than of your taught-to-the-test version of a tested IQ.

You would expect, then, that among these groups of people that you would have a very sane and reasonable group of people.

While I have no particular numbers to give, I have noted that this doesn’t seem to be true. You will find physicists who believe in alien abductions, who deny the holocaust, or believe any other number of random and inane things. You could get thousands of PHDs to sign some document warning about the dangers of fluoride in the drinking water.

Obviously, while IQ does measure some amount of problem solving it still falls short in the realm of critical thinking. Or perhaps it too strongly prefers those who can find patterns among random details–even when those details truly are random and unrelated.

What is a Valid Test?

Personally, I have only ever had two ideas. One measurement is to look at the rate of bringing new technologies to market. This requires a bundle of intellectual skills, of which human interaction, critical thinking, and chutzpah are almost certainly all involved. Unfortunately, it would be tremendously difficult to ever actually prove that what you were seeing was a matter of the education of that country. That it would take 20+ years to find out the results of any one change certainly doesn’t help either.

The other measurement–in theory–is to ask those who are being taught.

People don’t like sitting about doing something that they don’t feel has practical value. They might not necessarily have a grand interest in a topic, but they do more-or-less know when they’re actually getting what the teacher is giving.

The only problem here is that we are dealing with children, and children are liable to simply vote for the teacher with the funnest classes rather than the most useful.

Liberal Arts Education

For a child to even measure the level of his education, he also needs to understand what it is that he is ranking. When I grew up, I know that lots of my fellows complained that they weren’t learning anything of practical value. For instance, we had to learn to be able to place the 50 states on the map. Given that it’s simple enough to simply look at a map and see where any one state is, if you actually need to know, what practical purpose does this serve? If I’m the stupidest kid in class or I want to become an artist, what value do I gain by learning algebra or that the Earth is round?

I could argue that once you have learned arithmetic, reading, and writing, you are done with all of the non-vocational learning you will ever need in your life. The extra math that we gain after that, this is perhaps the only knowledge-based learning that perhaps serves a purpose in teaching to our children at large. History, science, etc. these are all unneeded knowledge unless somehow related to the child’s vocation.

So, why do we not start our children on vocational teaching after the age of 8?

That the child can’t know what profession he wants to enter is a factor of course, but more importantly is realizing that when you teach history or make children read a book and write a report, you’re giving them something to think about.

In Japan, when history is taught, it’s taught as a list of events. “Matsumoto killed Hanzo in 1237.” A week later the children receive a test which asks, “What year did Hanzo die?” They answer the question and then gleefully forget all of this information. It’s a factoid, devoid of context, and entirely useless for anything beyond scoring high on tests or TV game shows.

When you put that into context though, it’s giving children something to consider about how humans react when put in certain situations, when the rules of society are such and such, when the personalities of the main players are so and so. This knowledge becomes a sort of second hand experience.

When a teacher then says to his students, “Think about everything you’ve heard and try and think of something which doesn’t make sense or you think doesn’t sound right. Historians create history based on small scraps of information that are connected together with guesswork and probabilities. Half of everything I told you might be wrong. Find the part that seems like it might be wrong, and find out more and tell me what you think.” Now he’s developing their creative thinking, critical thinking, curiosity, research skills, and ability to form an argument.

If a teacher has children do a science project, and the child looks in a book of experiments, follows through what it says in the book, and then tabulates the results, he has done nothing of value. He’s done no science and developed his abilities none. If instead he thinks of any random question about life and figures out how test it, he advances his creative thinking, critical thinking, curiosity, problem solving, and skill at coming to conclusions in a scientifically rigorous fashion.

All of these useless topics that are presented to us in school aren’t there as knowledge. They’re toys which we play with as a method of developing our intellect. If all of this ends in being asked, “What year did Hanzo die?”, all this shows is that the teacher doesn’t know what it is that he’s meant to be doing.

While I always had a somewhat instinctual understanding that this was the purpose of my classes, I could only wish that I could go back to when I was 8 years old and tell myself and all of my classmates this so that we all approached these topics in that manner. Unfortunately, I don’t know whether a group of children would actually understand this, nor at what age they really would. But I would suggest that it is worth testing. I think that most people, even children, when told on what criteria they are to measure something will give an honest response. If you ask them which teachers seem to be the best at making them progress intellectually and get them ready for the modern world, you will learn what that is. If you ask teachers who of their students are the brightest or most hard-working will certainly be able to tell you. The combined valuation of a student by his teachers, or how he does in an interview at his prospective company or school are likely to be the most well-rounded test of intellect that can ever be devised.

What Teachers Teach

I would say with some confidence that liberal arts education is at its most useless when presented as factoids without context. I would also say that what is actually taught is more or less irrelevant. Variety is certainly good since different children prefer some topics over others and hence be more inclined to actually think about it and exercise his mental muscles, but really any topic is sufficient for that. And, it could be argued, having a population with backgrounds in a wide variety of ideas and second-hand experience is perhaps as ideal a thing as you could ever achieve.

A teacher is always going to be better at teaching the things in which he has an interest–he’ll learn more about it himself, present the information with greater passion, and be able to supply plentiful context. And the things that people form an interest in is going to be based on what seems relevant or somehow worthwhile to modern day life. One might postulate that a sort of “market force” will average on the most useful ideas which will filter down into our children to give them a great start to come up with the next group of ideas.

Telling a teacher who is interested in Chinese history to teach American History results in a rather bored man listing off facts from a text book, with zero passion and zero context. You are better off to let him teach about China. And when he teaches about China, you’re better off to let him teach about what intrigues him about it–which might be specific to only a tiny region during a ten year span–rather than forcing some sort of general historical overview.

Obviously, you need to make sure that a course of study presents necessary background and is well taught, but from there, you might as well let that be that teacher’s class.


A thing I noted in talking to a friend in the Netherlands–if I recall correctly–is that the number of years that a person stays in school is dependent on their ability. One could say that the US is set up in this way to some extent, but it’s more an issue of personal choice and funding really. Within Japan, as you graduate from each level of education, you have to compete for your next school.

Knowing that people are different, some smarter, and knowing that some people can learn the same things faster and overall progress at a faster rate, it does seem like perhaps there is something to the idea of splitting up children based on ability–where the population density makes it feasible–but only so long as a viable method for testing students and teachers can be developed. If that method is based on anything where one can teach-to-the-test, I fully discourage it compared to something more free-style and unregulated. That preferred level might only be so far as it was previous to No Child Left Behind, but I think that my suggestions of an even more anarchic/individual-actor-economy system is worth a trial. There is certainly enough evidence that the American style has been quite effective compared to other nations if you look at our success in the global economy If we could find the peak for our originality and energy as a nation, you might even find the era where our teaching style was the most ideal.


2 Responses to “A Liberal Arts Education”

  1. Roberta said This is an 8th grade standardized test from the year 1895. Can you pass it?

    I agree with you, Publius, that it seems that in today’s world there is too much ‘liberal arts’ teaching and not enough teaching of the ‘basics’ — reading, writing and arithmetic. And that the schools veer off too much in a lot of nonsensical teaching that doesn’t really help the child learn anything of critical thinking value — but maybe just serves some modern version of political agenda. Many of our ‘smartest’ people, now and in the past, were people with relatively low years of ‘schooling’ — some only just up to high school. I have a theory that, especially in these modern days, the longer people stay in school (college, masters/phd’s) — not always, but often — they actually get ‘dumber’ because they are often taught theory, ‘book-learning’ as opposed to real life experiences (a notable exception would be for people going for their doctorates to become medical doctors; medical schools still do a very good job). Today’s schools, especially starting in 8th grade or high school are more political institutions these days than bodies of actual ‘learning.’

    I like the idea of less ‘college, i.e liberal arts colleges’ and more vocational training like they used to do more of when the idea was called ‘apprenticeship.’

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