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February 13, 2003

Well rounded Geeks

The LA TIMES has a piece on humanities at Cal Tech. Yes, you read that right! This is a funny sample:

"The older students get used to it," said David Armet, 20, a junior sitting at a campus cafe with senior Jay Carlton, 21. Both are mechanical engineering majors. Carlton, who was thumbing through a robotics text, said he felt sorry for the humanities professors his freshman year.

He recalled a poetry class in which the lecturer asked for examples of odes: "The answers we gave were 'electrode', 'cathode', 'anode' and 'diode.'

I often get very frustrated when talking to non-science people about science, and was often shocked at how ignorant of other subjects some of my fellow science (mostly chemistry) majors were. In Who Killed Homer, Victor Davis Hanson suggests that humanities majors be required to take at least one year of Calculus as well as some laboratory science. Similarly, it might do some good for future scientists to read a little philosophy and history to understand the implications of the discoveries that they will be making in the future [1]. With college degrees being handed out to about 25% of young Americans, it seems to me that it is being somewhat cheapened. I know of people graduating with 2.2 GPAs and a political science degree-which is, to be honest, a big ass bar-tab. One thing I've been thinking-make all students double up majors and take something technical (science, math, pre-professional) as well as a liberal art or humanities (english, history, political science, art, etc.) and set a 5 year goal instead of 4 for graduating. A lot of kids would transfer to more explicitly pre-professional vocational training schools pretty quickly.

[1] I am no Luddite, I've always said that we have to ride the technological tiger or simply surrender and walk back into the past.

Posted by razib at 12:46 AM

I totally agree. I actually studied history (to PhD level) before the realities of earning a living dictated a switch to writing software. I always wished I could have something mathematical as a sideline.

Posted by: Alan at February 13, 2003 02:17 AM

I'd actually support something like what Chicago requires (or used to, anyway), although at the time it was one of the reasons I decided not to go there. They have essentially a two year standard track for all students, which involves a basic grounding in western history, lit, and philosophy, along with (I think) basic science topics as well.

Their program might not be perfect, but the idea--of using 2 years of college to provide a rigorous base in all disciplines, is certainly a good idea. Most majors could then be accomplished in the remaining two years. The only field that might have a little trouble would be engineering, and even that, it seems, could be accomodated.

Posted by: Doug Turnbull at February 13, 2003 09:30 AM

Even before I read this, I noticed that the CalTechies who favor humanities courses had names like Lea and Melissa.

She also observed that women embrace them more than men do.


But I wonder whether the guy-techies really should be forced to take these classes, or so many. I wouldn't be in favor of forcing a ballerina to take math class. These guys are obsessed, and when you are obsessed, being distracted is a form of torture.

Posted by: Di at February 13, 2003 10:29 AM


don't attack people with bad grades. Christ, some of us didn't give a shit, because we were interested in forming a vision for a future; learning how to inspire others; taking calculated risks with our time and most importantly learning how to be original.

For me it has paid off.

You should be a little more open-minded and original so as not to demean the innocent wiht your comments.


Poor grades

Posted by: Poor grades at February 13, 2003 10:41 AM

poor grades,

i don't think there is less moral worth in someone who gets poor grades in a subject that is generally considered rather easy (if someone had a 2.2 in chemical engineering, i'd be far more hesitant to heap score). but as you said, obviously you don't give a shit-so why be in college? if the person is getting financial aid, they are increasing the tuition for everyone else. i think a lot of people with graduate with 2.0 GPAs at 22 would get 3.0+ students if they went to college at 26 or 27. i know of one guy who had a 2.6 chemistry GPA, came back to do geochemistry graduate work 10 years later (he had to convince the department to let him in obviously) and graduated with a 3.95 in his graduate level studies....

Posted by: razib at February 13, 2003 11:40 AM


In the US a college diploma is like a union card and is necessary to have for lots of jobs it has nothing to do with, credentialism rather than meritocracy I guess. Maybe it shouldn't be so, but it is.

Posted by: j mct at February 13, 2003 11:54 AM

When I was at Berkeley, pretty much all engineering schools had a "Humanities and Social Sciences Requirement" dictated by the engineering accreditation board. It was 18 semester units of classes, which could include up to 4 for the basic English 1A, but could not include basic foreign languages, or art practice classes. Additionally, 6 of the 12 units had to be upper division units, and there had to be classes from more than one department. A friend of mine came up with the "Science and Engineering Requirement" for humanities and social sciences majors, parallelling ours. 18 units, 6 upper-division, in any math, laboratory science or engineering class. Up to 4 units for Math 1A (calculus). No (programming) language courses. No Physics for Poets or Rocks for Jocks.

How many H/SS majors could complete such a requirement?

Posted by: Anthony at February 13, 2003 12:48 PM

Razib, 5 years in college would only be reasonable if people entered college at a younger age. As it is college is effectively selecting against smarter people reproducing. Smart people should be on accelerated education programs. They should start taking college classes at age 16 and should go to summer school as well.

Posted by: Randall Parker at February 13, 2003 01:22 PM

Cloning, Randall, think cloning :-) seriosuly though, putting smart kids in accelerated programs is unlikely to improve their reproductive success. They are far more likely to be thrust into the world as social misfits.

You want smart kids to reproduce - how about encouraging sperm banks to hold drives during math olympiads?

Posted by: Suman Palit at February 13, 2003 03:20 PM

It must be the fumes from the polyurethane floor finish i've been laying down all day - I'm usually a very serious poster on GNXP, seriously..!

Posted by: Suman Palit at February 13, 2003 03:21 PM

I think it is a rather serious problem that a lot of the people I discuss HBD issues with frequently turn out to have a very tunnel visioned education. Most of their knowledge of genetics and logical analysis comes from middle school education. There's nothing more annoying in a conversation when you quote for example some demographic statistic and the answer is some sort of variation on, 'but please think of the children'.
I feel in the future with the PC-ification of a lot of history studies and social studies material many would be scientists will be even more trained in ignorance not to discuss such contentious issues as ethnicity and race.

Posted by: Shakey2000 at February 13, 2003 11:28 PM

"i don't think there is less moral worth in someone who gets poor grades in a subject that is generally considered rather easy (if someone had a 2.2 in chemical engineering, i'd be far more hesitant to heap score). but as you said, obviously you don't give a shit-so why be in college?"

Why go? Well, that is easy - to learn of course. But what kind of man would I be if I were to accept at face value the teachings of some neo-communist Keynesian professors of economics when it was Hayek who spoke the truth? The answer of course is that I would be a bit of drone not an individual of my own discourse. Therefore, who is right? The student who accepts the professors falsehoods and learns them fully or the man who can instantly spot the logical incongruities and seeks the truth elsewhere?

Why go? Well, because it was the best setting for engaging in intellectual debate. Where else can one find so many with burgeoning intellects willing to engage in lively banter?

Just because I didn't care about my grades, didn't mean that I was indifferent to learning. Quite the contray. Today I am near 30 and can say with pride that my experiment has paid off in spades. I would therefore suggest that the drones who studied like bookworms and failed to notice the greater reality around them, are now (as a group) responsible for the most of the world's problems. Afterall, they have the innate cognitive ability but not the judgement or bravado to do what is right because they are lemmings to the "elite." This groups failed logic, lack of charisma and overall dearth of passion are anethma to the learned man. So to fuck with anyone that pisses on the adventurer.

Of course, my opinions are limited to non-scientific endeavors.

"if the person is getting financial aid, they are increasing the tuition for everyone else."

Eliminate government sponsored financial aid and you will reduce tuition prices. Don't blame people for playing the system, that is what it is designed for.

Posted by: Poor Grades at February 13, 2003 11:45 PM

I agree with Poor Grades. In my case, I was broke and wanted to get out of school fast. I managed to make the Dean's List with 21 hours of engineering classes at a highly rated school, but you can bet that I didn't the quarter I attempted 22 hours of junior level engineering classes there while working two jobs part-time. But I worked enough hours to qualify for unemployment compensation over a period while I was enrolled full-time in school, and although I never quite got around to donating plasma for money, I did take part in paid medical experiments.

And I must have learned something along the way - I scored in the 90's on the first tries each time with the EIT and PE exams. That's more than I can say for some of my fellows who got significantly higher grades and academic honors. I just didn't have time for ass-sucking and I didn't attempt perfection.

Sure, I knew idiots who piddled away their time playing videogames or RPGs, drinking, doing drugs and chasing women all night. I might have done better if I had been a drug pusher, like one guy I knew who had a Dean's List GPA in electrical engineering. Instead I delivered furniture, clerked, solicited door to door, hung drywall, packed oranges, pumped gas, printed phone books...

GPA is only one parameter of many. Without money I couldn't have stayed in school, and I wouldn't have paid off the last of my loans over a decade ago. Those of you who were free to focus on grades are fortunate - don't even try to tell me it's the result of "hard work".

Posted by: J Bowen at February 14, 2003 07:14 AM

For a liberal arts major's point of view, click my URL. (NOTE: this is hyperbole. However, there's a serious point there.)

Factors to consider: while reaching competence in hard subjects takes longer than it ever does now, in the American system most students only get serious when they're 18. (Contrast XIX c. European elite schools, whose students came out with a basic competence in 2-4 foreign languages, basic science, and math, with an introduction to most of the humanistic disciplines.

Second, there are almost no privately wealthy gentlemen scholars any more, and few rich families would want their offspring to specialize in ill-paid cultural studies anyway.

Third, you don't have the kinds of aristocratic sinecure positions in the clergy and public administration that you used to.

The result is that traditional humanistic studies are in a bad way. (Yeah,and post-modernism is a problem too). My own solution would be for people to train first for techie-type jobs that paid pretty well and then do humanistic studies on their own. Problems with this would be the tension between family and scholarship, plus the fact that most techie-type jobs require continual reeducation. Celibacy or childless marriage and frugal living would be a solution here.

Many here might feel that the humanities are for dummies, but that belief an artifact of the US university system. To do a masterful job on Mongol history, for example, you'd have to have a fair degree of knowledge of about 15 languages. One man, Paul Pelliot, actually learned them all. But his writings consist entirely of textual commentary with no interpreation whatever.

Posted by: Zizka at February 14, 2003 02:40 PM