Sunday, June 19, 2011

Liberal Sciences

The recession set off discussions on the value of a humanities or liberal arts education[1]. The argument against a liberal arts education is that students accumulate debt to get the degree and then can't get a job to pay it off. The argument for a liberal arts education is that it creates global citizens that can use their broad skills to do anything.

I don't think a liberal arts education is so broad compared to more technical or scientific degrees. Our world is very technological. How can an education be broad and enable students to go do anything if it doesn't include technical and mathematical skills?

Computers and the Internet are such a big part of our lives now. I think a liberal arts education should include learning the basics of computer programming because anyone in any career will use computer tools that have computer control interface that is a lot like computer programming. I have seen professors of music using computer software to compose music. English literature professors use natural language processing software  to identify plagiarism. The experts in the fields should be adept at using and modifying these tools because they know more about what the tools should be doing than a hired computer expert. The now renamed Racket programming language was created to make computer programming part of a liberal arts education and is the topic of the book "How to design programs."

Liberal arts prides itself on teaching analysis. Mathematics, statistics and data visualization are a great part of data analysis. Look at a field such as Economics. Economics is often called the dismal science. I think it is called this because the economics is so complex and includes a good dose of human psychology making it difficult for Economists to concretely test hypothesis and accept or reject them. Economics teaches strong quantitative analysis and data visualization skills because economists have to use everything to argue their points because the hypothesis often can't be conclusively accepted or rejected.

If a Liberal Arts education were converted to a Liberal Sciences education with courses in computer programming, statistics, data visualization, and scholars learned to make their arguments with statistics and visualizations of data graduates could go on to do anything in our increasingly technological world and the graduates would be very employable.

Alternatives to academic research for PhD

There are so many news articles lately on the value of college degrees. Of particular importance to me is the value of a science PhD. The basic problem is that there are too many science PhDs for traditional tenure track academic research positions. The number of PhDs generated at universities is based on available funding and the need for (cheap) labor for research projects, not on the job market for tenure track academic research positions. If PhD programs prepare students for other kinds of careers I don't think this is a problem. It really isn't a problem if PhD researchers are trained to transfer new technologies into new business ventures. That way some new PhDs will create new businesses to employ PhD scientists outside of academia.

I have seen some suggestions that universities should grant more masters and less PhDs. Then the masters can pursue research careers. The problem I see with this is the PhDs are more likely to gain the top leadership positions. This  would determine who gets the top posts early in the scientists careers and could hold back masters degree holders that are late bloomers.

I think a better solution is for departments to have tracks for PhD candidates to learn non academic research skills like technology transfer, business development, and management.