Reforming Higher Education: How About Technical Minors?

As a professor but also parent of a college freshman (go Rice, &tc), I tend to see the debate over higher education from both ends.  I have a good idea of the inputs but I also have a good idea of the machinery.  And, as a law professor, I also have some idea of the outputs from undergraduate education.  I want to focus here on one suggestion for the curricula of selective universities – indeed, only for the most selective undergraduate institutions: technical minors aimed at liberal arts, social sciences and humanities majors.

The complaint goes out constantly that America doesn’t train enough science, technology, engineering, and math graduates.  Fair enough.  But here’s one of the strange problems of our top-tier universities’ incentive systems.  Each department measures its prestige on the basis of its own students, especially those at the top.  Less by the general average, than by the top students at the margin.  This is especially true of the STEM areas, but is true of any generally technical area, such as economics – and even, in a much less rigorous way, of the humanities.  Resources are focused on winnowing out students to get to the top students who make the reputation of the department.

Here’s one of the effects.  I used to volunteer to teach a class at my daughter’s top-ranked DC private girls’ school, and my students went off to the top Ivy League schools; they sported top SATs in all subject areas.  I had given some of the girls advice – often interested in law school – as they went off to Harvard, Princeton, and Yale, that my world of law had shifted decisively away from the humanities as the master-discipline, the one that provided the background concepts and vocabulary, and toward economics, and therefore they should try to spend some time doing more than just the basic class.

Wonderful. A year later, however, an amazingly bright and ambitious former student who had gone off to Yale emailed to tell me that my advice wasn’t working out.  Why? Because at a world class institution, she could do great work in history and philosophy, but despite 800 math SATs, she couldn’t keep up past the first econ class in the major.  And since law school would look only at her GPA overall, no one would care that she had struggled in a tough area because she thought she needed to know it.

From a department whose incentives looked to departmental prestige – the venture capital model of student selection, so to speak – this made perfect sense.  The class she dropped was aimed at weeding her out through the math requirements.  From her standpoint, however – and one would wish, though it would not be true – the university’s, too, it would be better if there were some way that she could acquire the knowledge of the course without so overwhelming a technical apparatus that was explicitly designed to be more mathematical than it needed to be, to get rid of people like her.

Much as I admire Greg Mankiw, in other words, a famous blog post of his on “Why take mathematics as an economist” gets to the heart of the problem.  He candidly admits that it is a form of signaling even when not necessarily related to the actual conceptual material at hand. I don’t mean that it is not hugely important for professional economists, of course it is – but that’s the point, there’s no curriculum suited for the non-professionals-in-training. Mankiw says, with charming frankness, that basically the math is one long IQ test so you can show your fellows how smart you are.  (As a theory of the reproduction of class elites, by the way, this is wanting in a lot of ways – our intellectual elites are, greatly on account of these incentives, trained through the school selectivity process to risk-aversion in spades, as well as to confusing signaling behaviors of the Red Queen variety with actual value, but that’s a different discussion.)

Now, the university will point to the “general” education courses, breadth requirements, etc., as the solution.  But we all know it’s not.  The university puts out a cafeteria selection of general interest courses that the departments offer because they have to.  Sometimes they are taught well – brilliantly, even – and often indifferently.  Either way, the ‘gee-whiz’-look-at-the-universe courses are not what I’m aiming at here.  But ask, in passing, why these courses descend to the lowest common denominator – “rocks for jocks,” etc.  The answer for many liberal arts students at the top schools, who are aiming at graduate professional school, is simply that in the end, only the GPA and the LSAT or GMAT matter.  It is irrational to take a class that might lower one’s GPA even marginally – that is, in light of the grade inflation that crowd GPAs toward the top end and therefore leave you mostly with room to fall, it makes no sense to ever put education ahead of credential.  Students don’t and a race to the bottom ensues for the classes that departments only offer to satisfy university-wide enrollment concerns.

The second option that universities also offer is the pass-fail course.  Most limit the number of courses quite sharply – so much so that it is not really possible to do a genuine minor, even if the subjects were offered.  And in any case, pass-fail does not satisfy the need for students who are smart and well-prepared, but not able to compete against the world’s best SMET students, in a class filled with those students.  Good for the world-class students who make up the top end of those departments.  In my view, however, the university fails in an important mission by providing a genuinely technical alternative to those who are not planning to major in those fields and would be winnowed out in any case.

My proposal would be that the selective universities need to offer a set of technical minors, aimed at liberal arts, humanities, and social science majors – and looking to the foregoing, with the following characteristics, designed to address the fundamental problem of educational needs of students misaligned with their credentialing needs:

  • Technical, but at a level that looks to the math and science skills of the high school graduate that majors in English at that university;
  • available in the fields of SMET, economics, and accounting, perhaps a couple of other areas;
  • pass-fail, so as to deal with the rationality of avoiding anything a student doesn’t already know he or she is good at;
  • quite possibly taught by people who do not teach in the actual prestige-driven departments, since this will be at best an annoyance and distraction to those departments’ quite different incentives.

Why is the proposition underlying this – the need for liberal arts and humanities students to have available a technical education available to them – socially useful?  This is not about the needs and skills of the lower tier schools; it is obviously silly, whatever one thinks of the “fewer kids to college” thesis, to suggest that students with 2100 SATs not go to college.  The first thing this helps socially is the need for more people who have some technical exposure in SMET fields, even if they are not going to be the world-class technical people and even if they do not intend to “do” those areas as their full job.  They can do the basic math, they can communicate with the genius-level technical people, they can understand the language and the issues at a decent level – these are not innumerate people.  But they won’t be the students that the SMET departments want at the highest level universities.

There’s something weird about inducing a nearly complete disconnect between the technical students and the humanities students, when they are all pretty smart.  But what the humanities and liberal arts students need is a Yale history education – and a state polytechnic education in one or another technical field.  It is not the case that there is no value in a mid-tier technical education; we have whole ranges of schools that teach at those ranges – the problem is, those departments are not accessible to students at Vanderbilt, Northwestern, Duke, Rice, etc.  We are absolutely not socially well-served by brilliant students who have carefully, rationally, and prudently not studied anything other than history, English, politics and government, international relations, etc., for fear of getting less than an A-.  They are brilliant and will probably do well in law or business school – and we would be better off if they had some undergraduate training that told them in a real way about petroleum geology or computer programming languages.

The complete disconnect  that the incentives of university, department, and student create – leaving college knowing nothing whatsoever about a technical field – that’s a profound waste of resources when that student goes out into society and tries to get a job.  Sad and frankly crazy: the freshman I knew who wanted ultimately to go to law school, but thought she might also be okay, okay but not great, at basic programming – but simply could not even catch up to where the students were in the basic class at her top university.  She was perfectly bright and would have done well in this at a lesser ranked school; but she would never get this technical exposure.  This is crazy because we need people like her to go into management, etc., but with a technical exposure to go with their top-tier liberal arts background.

This presumes that there is value in the skills of analytic reading and writing, communication, logic, interpretation, and so on conveyed by the humanities and liberal arts.  It is quite true that these fields have more or less self-immolated in the course of the last few decades, and there is good reason to ask how much in the way of traditional skills in logic, rhetoric, or analysis they actually convey.  I agree it is a major problem, and I’ll leave that for another post on higher education.  But philosophy and intellectual history still retain their rigor, and whatever the road back to rigor for the others, we are not better off by abandoning the humanities and liberal arts.  People in the technical fields impute far too much magic to their disciplines; and they should remember that in a complex, specialized commercial economy, it is entirely possible to train too many engineers.  In any case, we are creatures of society and culture, even in a technological society, and those social disciplines, however debased, are important for their own sake, as well as serving, at their best, for transmitting forms of analysis that can’t be got any other way.

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