Home > Uncategorized > Taking the bulls*** out of a Bachelor’s degree would not automatically reduce it to “vocational training”

Taking the bulls*** out of a Bachelor’s degree would not automatically reduce it to “vocational training”

My first couple of posts generated a flurry of discussion. Curiously, more of it seems to be happening on Facebook than here, both on my own Facebook page and on the Facebook pages of people who have reposted links. That’s the way things go nowadays. I’ve seen one particular criticism crop up many times, so instead of copying and pasting my response both in replies to posts here and on various Facebooks pages, I thought it best to summarize some of the discussion in a new post. I am thrilled that so much discussion is happening, whether it is here or elsewhere.

One common worry seems to be that my “B.S.-bs” (Bachelor of Science minus the bullshit; you can similarly contemplate “B.A.-bs” degrees, etc.) proposal would turn the underlying “source” degree into “vocational training.” I see nothing wrong with vocational training and hate the way it is often denigrated. But, let’s assume for the moment that vocational training is the cursed hellspawn of a weekend tryst between Donald Trump and Newt Gingrich, and something we want to avoid in formulating a Bachelor’s degree. (Georgia Tech, for the most part, avoids “vocational training,” despite its origins as a trade school. Most of the faculty now at Tech were hired in the 1970s, when Tech began its transition into a research university, or later, and that is evident in our academic programs.)

Suppose you took a B.S. engineering degree (my canonical example, since it’s the kind of degree I am most familiar with) and trimmed out a few of the “well-roundedness requirements.” That doesn’t necessarily imply any changes to the set of courses that represent the underlying major. I’m including necessary prerequisite material for engineering, like math, physics, and oral and written communication, in that set. To first order, all my “bachelors minus bullshit” proposal does is slighty reduce the time and expense involved in getting the degree and give more flexibility to the student. Trimming a humanities requirement for computer scientists doesn’t automatically mean that all CS courses will be taught using C++, or Java, or whatever the current hot programming language is.

Georgia Tech has strong Computational Media and Digital Media programs (they’re basically the same area, with the former being an undergrad degree and the latter being a grad degree), and those programs, by definition, are humanities/technical hybrids. So if you sign up for those programs, you will get a big dose of Ian Bogost talking about Duchamp, but that’s part of what you’re signing up for. But the computer science student focusing on algorithmic complexity might benefit from spending a few more hours with Donald Knuth than Immanuel Kant. If that student has an interest in philosophy, they can explore it however they want; that might include taking a class on philosophy in college. Maybe they’ll get into the Philosophy of Computation, and maybe that might develop into a field in its own right, and someday you could sign up for a degree in the Philosophy of Computation, just as now you can now sign up for a degree in Computational Media.

To use one of my canonical examples, what impact would the removal of one or two science requirements from my wife’s French degree have had on the classes in her degree program? None. If you speak with most professors, most will have no idea what the various well-roundedness requirements of their degree programs are, unless they’ve recently served on an institute-level curriculum committee. I doubt many of my wife’s French professors could tell you that two science classes were required, let alone list the classes that would fulfill those requirements.

I can’t resist the cliche of picking on philosophy degrees a bit. Would reducing math or science requirements make a philosophy degree more practical? (Or, if I wanted to nitpick a little more, any less impractical?) For that matter, is there anything that you could do to a philosophy degree that could turn it into “vocational training?” (Yes, I know philosophy majors often have to take classes in set theory and first-order logic, and I know that the Philosophy of Math and the Philosophy of Science are deep areas.)

Within a particular field, professors and practitioners (sometimes the former are also the latter, but not often enough in my view) will argue endlessly about what specific degree programs should look like. If you have a department with 15 professors you will have at least 20 opinions over how that program should be designed. We’ll argue endlessly about what should be in the “core” of our discipline. But that’s all fodder for another post. Here, I am just tweaking the margins, and remember those margins are discipline-specific; one discipline’s margin may be another discipline’s essence.

Georgia Tech’s EE and CompE degrees are dense; many institute-level requirements that are written of the form of “student must take two from a set of classes including A, B, C, and D,” and ECE often specifies that students have to take “A” and “C.” So a “B.S.-bs” in EE or CompE from Georgia Tech wouldn’t involve removing very many requirements. But given how few of our students manage to finish in four years, and how many of those students wind up with only one or two classes needed in their last semester, chipping away at the margins is a reasonable place to start. (I had originally put the words “A Modest Proposal” in front of my inaugural “B.S.-bs” post, since I think what I am suggesting is fairly modest, but I didn’t want people mislead into thinking I meant it in a Swiftian satirical sense.)


*Yes, I know I said I’d try to keep politics out of this blog. I’m human.

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Categories: Uncategorized
  1. December 6, 2011 at 10:55 am

    An anecdote on the subject of a philosophy degree as vocational training:

    Back when I was an Air Force ROTC cadet the AF would designate which career fields we went into a year before graduation. This was announced by our instructor reading off four digit numbers for each of us. I was thrilled with “2051”, meaning that I’d be in space operations. Cadet C got a number she hadn’t asked for. The captain didn’t know what it was. None of the 30+ cadets in the class knew what that number meant. So the instructor excused her to go look it up in the regulations (she’d be fretting too much to pay attention to the lecture anyway). The rest of us were curious too–what was the US Air Force going to do with a Harvard philosophy major?

    Ten minutes later she was back with an absolutely stricken look on her face. “Well?” asked Captain Bliss.

    “Mortuary Management!”

    Have to say philosophy is a better fit for that than most degrees.

  2. December 6, 2011 at 12:14 pm

    It almost sounds like the past three posts are the start of a much larger argument for greater accountability in what colleges are selling to students. The idea that students should receive a “well-rounded education” (whatever that means) seems to be far too vague when students have to deal with large amounts of extremely toxic and difficult-to-erase student debt (pretty much what you said in earlier posts). While professors don’t want to admit it, most students go to post-secondary education so that they can get jobs. There is no loftier goal in mind for them – and since everybody will need to work for a living (barring the extremely fortunate), I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that.

    Maybe I’m grasping at straws with this train of thought; it just seems completely unnecessary that, as an out-of-state student, I was forced to spend thousands and thousands of dollars on a couple of classes that did nothing to make me “better” in any conceivable way, all because a supposed “expert” thought that this was necessary for some arbitrary and unenforceable definition of well-rounded. Tell you what – if in 20 years time I can come back and get an interest-adjusted refund for the classes I got zero value from, you can make me take all of the bull**** classes you want me to.

  3. Gregory
    December 9, 2011 at 11:28 pm

    Since the drift of your examples suggests such an end, I actually think it would help to put what you propose into A Modest Proposal. Here’s my take:

    As any reasonable person would agree, higher education is increasingly expensive (tuition rates expand at multiples of the rate of inflation each year, regardless of other economic conditions); increasingly devalued (a 4-year bachelor’s is essentially the new HS diploma in many job requirements; see elsewhere for “what’s wrong with HS graduates nowadays”); and increasingly decoupled from what really matters, which is getting a direct return on your investment: a good-paying job. To be globally competitive, we need leaner, faster, cheaper programs that maximize the earnings potential of each graduate. In terms of value (a la Lincoln-Douglas parlance), we need to emphasize ‘educational efficiency’ with a criterion of ’employability’.

    To start, let’s take a practical example – an engineering student. At the conclusion of his or her contemporary studies, this student will almost certainly amass a significant negative life-equity balance in the form of student debt. Yet even with this massive investment, there is no guarantee that a job is waiting in the wings, nor that the ROI will be swift in coming. How, then, can we improve the chances of a desirably profitable outcome? First, we can reduce both cost and time spent in the degree by removing outdated non-essentials – anything that does not directly and provably contribute to an applied engineering career, we can jettison. This includes any sciences of the animate (biology, chemistry, psychology, et al.) and any mathematics not actually used in the practice. Naturally, all non-‘core’ classes can likewise be excised, encompassing all humanities (arts, languages, history, philosophy, anything whose name ends in “Studies”, etc). As with the British university model, this focus only on single-subject courses will substantially reduce the time spent in study – by at least a quarter (the British programme is 3 years), perhaps as much as half (with reduced foundation courses in maths/science). And since the goal is employability, we can alter the pedagogical model as well – we will replace the degree, which is tied to outdated idealist notions of the goal of education being some kind of nobly-informed citizenry, with industry certification. In the case of engineering, this could simply be an adaption of the current Professional Engineer license. The degree requirement would be refactored into a simple subject mastery list. To account for the experience requirement imposed by many states, perhaps a new ‘provisional’ class of PE can be added, pending completion of a work study or probationary position at an accredited firm. With the elimination of the BS-Engineering, and greater standardization of skill, employers can focus on hiring only on the candidate’s performance on the concluding standardized exams. This commodification will in turn put strong economic downward pressure on the skill learning process, since the relative pedigree of one engineering program over another would be greatly reduced. As a result, the skill phase can be taught at reduced cost by less expensive staff, in turn to be replaced by standardized, online curricula; full professors can be replaced by teaching aides, serving primarily to guide students through their exam preparations. Firms get a more predictable product, students get validation at a reduced cost, and no one need complain that they learned anything irrelevant about dinosaurs or Japan.

    Having taken care of the engineers, we can repeat the process for other career-oriented departments: computer science, shedding much of the math, low-level language, compiler design, and other impractical courses, can focus solely on programming languages currently in wide use. Chemistry can be narrowed down to areas of research valued by food and pharmaceutical conglomerates. Business administration can be further specialized: only CPA applicants and C-suite tracks need cover accounting, for example. Law students can simply skip the 4-year degree and put that time and money into LSAT prep (I mean, have you seen their piddly math requirements anyway?), while law schools can whittle down anything not required to pass the Bar. And why is physics a weed-out course for pre-med? Just make pre-med its own degree, a crash course in enough organic chemistry and biology to pass the MCAT.

    Finally, we get to the deadwood. Now we can stop making jokes about the unemployability of philosophy majors, and just end the charade. Pretty much all of the humanities can be cut – everything from art history to religious studies. Follow one simple rule: if the primary occupation of a graduate is to turn around and teach the same subject they just stopped studying, we can cut the Gordian knot by not teaching it at all. Not only do we free productive careers like engineering from being weighted down with them, we reduce the cost of education across the board by excising their departments. No more overhead wasted on tenured classicists and the drafty stone buildings they inhabit. Want to study a language? Move to an immersive community, or subscribe to a podcast. As for dead languages, since no one needs to read Ancient Greek anymore to interpret Aristotle or Aristophanes, no one need learn them. If anyone wants to study such things as a hobby, let them take it up through some center or club, like you would fencing or puppetry. Education is about getting a productive job, not contemplating the obsolete cultures of dead people. Let market forces set the demands, and trade schools – because really, that’s all they need to be now – match with supply. Engineering is just a fancy abstraction of refrigerator repair, after all – maybe you will improve the refrigerator model someone else can repair! Get in, get out, get paid. Why waste time or money on anything that isn’t going to reflect in your lifetime earnings?

    • Joyce
      December 15, 2011 at 2:10 am

      I think you are confusing education with learning. The latter is the passionate pursuit of knowledge for its own sake; the former is a publicly recognized acknowledgement of expertise in a field. By forcing the purchaser of an education to pursue knowledge they feel no passion for, you would devalue both, and accomplish neither.

      Most of your above suggestions actually sound pretty good to me, once you strip away all the Swiftian hysteria.

    • December 17, 2011 at 1:11 am

      Greg, you do an amazing job of persuasively arguing for a position you don’t like. 😉

      I’m going to cheat a bit and copy & paste some paragraphs I used in replying to a comment a post on Mark Guzdial’s blog:

      One thing I want to make clear is that I’m not advocating removing courses from the catalog entirely, per se. I’m advocating a good look at what students are required to take for some particular “degree” (interpreted broadly). If enough students are interested in taking a class to offer that class, then it’s not “bs” to *those* students, regardless of how “useful” or “useless” the general public might think it is.

      Some people have misinterpreted my writings as a call to eliminate philosophy departments, philosophy degrees, and/or philosophy courses, for instance. If enough students want a philosophy degree to justify running philosophy courses and having a philosophy department, that’s awesome! Or, even if an institution doesn’t offer philosophy degrees per se, maybe there’s still enough student interest in philosophy courses to have a philosophy department. Or perhaps there are only a few students interested in philosophy, but the institution feels that it’s important enough for those students to be able to take philosophy courses that the other units in the university essentially subsidize the philosophy department.

  4. Gregory
    December 10, 2011 at 12:05 am

    Now let’s take the other side. You ask, clearly tongue-in-cheek: “Is there anything that you could do to a philosophy degree that could turn it into vocational training?”

    I say, absolutely. I’d go so far as to suggest that, properly formulated, at least some elements of a philosophy degree may be the *most* useful part of an undergraduate education, regardless of employment outcomes. That’s not to say that current philosophy departments are currently well-configured to offer such a service, as they’re as prone to entrenchment, overspecialization, turf battles, and the other ills of academia as everyone else. But let’s take a quick survey of what philosophy classically provides:

    – how to argue, and how to identify flaws in arguments
    From Socrates on, philosophy is built on making cases for and against things, argued from premises to (hopefully) cogent conclusions. Debates consume our world, particularly over issues of value, and they affect all of us – in politics, public policy, religious doctrine, and so on. Moreover, with our modern advertising-saturated society, and a press-cum-industry swaying increasingly towards partisan persuasion and entertainment, familiarity with argumentation can inoculate against undue influence. A base course in rhetoric, logic, and spotting fallacies is arguably (ha!) one of the most valuable classes the modern student can have.

    – frameworks for ethics
    Persons may each have their own opinion on right or wrong, but groups of people have to come to some kind of agreement over how we should behave collectively. Ethics, like argumentation, is a bedrock subject to prepare for the particulars of political science, public policy, health policy, law, medical practice, international relations, business, scientific research, and on and on. Often, it’s either thrown in as a bland survey course that gets treated as a hindrance, or it’s shoehorned into a particular major with a bit of a wink (the treated-as-obligatory-but-not-prescriptive business ethics requirement in an MBA) or a groan. Yet, given the right topic, particular cases of *applied* ethics can draw some of the most passionate involvement of any course topic – and can be the most transformative, when long-assumed positions are challenged by others who feel differently. And that process will only repeat over and over after graduation.

    – a universality of “of”
    While also a symptom of specialization as in other departments, it should be noted that you can make at least an interesting, if not profound, area of study simply by putting “philosophy of” in front of almost any other discipline. Psychology has philosophy of mind, linguistics the philosophy of language, plus philosophy of science, of history, of sport, of religion, of art – and what we’re talking about here, the philosophy of education. It’s really just “thinking about”, probing structure, challenging assumptions, making cases – everything you’ve done on this blog, in fact. Although it’s typically taught as a separate subject, philosophy is really a method of thinking, and the object of that method can be most anything. Trivially, you can find books on the Philosophy of the Simpsons, sure, but you can also go deeper into many subjects by bringing to bear the lessons of philosophy. So perhaps philosophy should not be its own degree so much as it should be divided up so that regardless of what you study, you spend at least a little time on its philosophy.
    (Oh, and since you mentioned it – there is in fact a (pretty recent) philosophy of computation, often called the philosophy of information.)

    Philosophy is, taken back to its roots, what all academic study later came to be: a rigorous method of investigation, elsewhere called “critical thinking”, applied systemically. In the knowledge economy, what practice could be more valuable than that?

    • Joyce
      December 15, 2011 at 2:27 am

      I hate to tell you this, but you know where I learned “rhetoric, logic, and spotting fallacies?” And how to think about ethics? On the internet. I kid you not. There’s a lot of cruft out there, but there are also a lot of very smart, civilized people, working hard to craft logical arguments and educate their readers. Phrases like “ad hominem attack,” “falsifiable theory,” “straw man argument,” and so forth all entered my vocabulary through reading feminist and skeptical blogs. You no more need a formal education to develop critical thinking than you do a religion to develop morals. (Unlike the religion, however, the education can at least be helpful.)

    • Joyce
      December 15, 2011 at 2:32 am

      “perhaps philosophy should not be its own degree so much as it should be divided up so that regardless of what you study, you spend at least a little time on its philosophy.”

      Now that is the best idea you’ve come up with. And may possibly be a framework for a system where your ideas and Aaron’s coincide. It’s not so much that the engineering major shouldn’t study philosophy–it’s that the engineering major should have a reason to *want* to study philosophy. You think Aaron is arguing for finer and finer specialization, but I think what he really wants is broader applicability of…well, everything.

      (I can say that because I’m married to him, and he’s right next to me.)

  1. December 6, 2011 at 11:04 am
  2. December 6, 2011 at 1:13 pm

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