explicitClick to confirm you are 18+

Choose at least one: Art, Business, Engineering, Philosophy, or Science

haksayngSep 17, 2018, 6:33:34 PM

What are kids these days learning in school? Unfortunately, how to produce value is probably not a very common response you will hear. A similar, but distinct answer you may hear is (not) marketable skills. We'll return to these topics in due time.

Allow me to give some context for this post (essay);

I just finished up teaching a course at a university, which was pretty interesting. Gathering course materials (and in many cases making up my own content anew) was a challenging, time consuming process. One reason for these difficulties was that I found a lot of the content in my field (a social science) just... terrible. I didn't think it was worth my time or my students' time to go over that stuff. So I did some thinking about just what made so much standard curriculum stuff so distasteful to me.

My basic argument goes like this: time spent training (i.e. receiving an education) is well time spent if students improve in either their abilities in art (craftsmanship), business (negotiation), engineering (making cool shit), philosophy (clarity of thought), or science (the formulation and testing of hypotheses).  

Insofar as students learn these things, they are improving as producers of value (construed generally, not just in terms of $$$s). Insofar as students don't learn these things, they are either (1) wasting their time, or (2) devaluing the degrees they seek to earn.

Producing value

Let's dive in and explore these different ways of creating value.


Nice things, such as objects produced with attention and skill, are valuable. We like to keep things around which make us feel inspired and uplifted. Art doesn't have to be "logical". It doesn't even have to be too "complex". There's stuff we like because its well made, whether sculptures, digital illustrations, or delicious foods. I don't need to explain to you why you like your favorite artists.

Bless the Internet, a still relatively free marketplace for artists of all sorts to gain more market exposure than ever before.


Growing up, some people around me liked to say mean things about financial institutions like banks and derisively call activities like buying stocks "gambling". 

Now, I know that many of the worst parts of "capitalism" in fact are the socialist aspects of the United States. Do you hate corporations? Well, many (most?) free market advocates take serious issues with corporations (and "crony capitalism" aka crapitalism) as well. Corporations shield individuals (usually wealthy ones) from risk. Investment and business must entail risk. That's why entrepreneurs get paid more than employees. They risk shit. They don't have guaranteed income. Unless they use social engineering and legislative levers provided by the state (which has a monopoly on violence) to make risk "magically disappear". /endrant

Teaching business is teaching negotiation. How can people arrive at mutually beneficial solutions? How can we find win-win outcomes where buyers and sellers are both happy to exchange value for value?

School doesn't often teach negotiation. Many instructors, aiming to be fair, have strict, inflexible policies for how they grade. There is nothing inherently wrong with this approach that I can think of (students are told what they are signing up for).

On the other hand, I don't think that there is anything wrong with having a more flexible, negotiation-based way of operating. Indeed many instructors that try to have some strict policy often cave into the demands of students who are persistent in their "lawyering". 

In the class I just taught, I had a vanilla, default way of grading students. Some students had problems with the way I did things and spoke up. I negotiated some extra puntos for them, not necessarily because I believed they had a legitimate claim to points because they were right but because they chose to speak up, and take some risk in actually trying to negotiate with me.

On the other hand, other students who likely had similar grievances sat fuming silently in the sidelines. They didn't try to negotiate with me. They didn't try to find win-win solutions. I graded them on the vanilla grading scale I graded students that only showed up to class for the midterm and the final on. Negotiating wins; passively hoping someone else will negotiate for you with no skin in the game doesn't. I want my students to be winners. 


Making cool things, whether for entertainment (e.g. Elon Musk's magnificent Teslas) or utility (e.g. JavaScript) is well understood to be a way to produce value.

I don't think I need to say anymore about this here.


Clear thinking, based on reason and evidence, doesn't produce stuff in the same way that engineers build bridges. Nor does it necessarily make aesthetically pleasing results as the arts do. But it is valuable. How so?

Philosophy qua "the art of living" is the macro-economics of life. What sorts of things should we do? What sorts of things shouldn't we do? The philosopher uncovers what artists should aspire to honor, what engineers should design solutions to maximize.

Truly, the world doesn't need many (original) philosophers. But the exercise of working through philosophical problems through dialogue and debate is a valuable exercise for people of all sorts. In particular, people that are not "professional philosophers" need philosophy to determine which, if any, people that call themselves philosophers are worth listening to. Oh the irony!

If students in my class, through rigorous thought, conclude that all the stuff I've been teaching them is utter bullshit and nonsense, I have succeeded as an instructor.


Many students think of "science" as a body of facts. The earth is round. GMOs will kill you. Anti-vaxxers are dumbshits. Blah blah blah.

Teaching science, in my view, is teaching students to formulate and test hypotheses. Statisticians learn the mathematical side of good science. Biologists, chemists, and the like may learn more specifics about their object of study, rather than going really deep into the analytic tools. These groups both need to work together.

On the other hand, students in "soft sciences" often learn neither well-established findings via useful models or mathematical rigor. Students that want to learn about feelings and take psychology courses may end up with some "knowledge" of some trendy approach from ten years ago and not a clue on how to assess if the newest trendy thing is better or worse than what happened in the past. That's a failure of education on both the parts of instructors and students.

Case study: Second Language Studies

Trigger warning: red pills for students of second language studies

Everyone reading this speaks a first language, or multiple first languages. Everyone gets a childhood (some are more pleasant than others), just as everyone has parents (some are better than others).

Second language studies (SLS) is about languages that are not first languages or "mother tongues". How do I, a person raised in the United States speaking English, come to use Japanese, despite not living and working in Japan? How do Spanish speaking immigrants come to (or not) be able to speak English proficiently?

Not art

Do you read about SLS for fun? After hearing about SLS here, will you watch SLS lecturers for inspiration and amusement? Maybe you'll give it a shot, but I doubt you'll continue. Maybe some people will.

I don't need to tell you to look up other songs by an musician that inspires you. The art does that itself. If SLS is art, it is not very popular or beloved art.

Not business

SLS is subsidized by tax-payer dollars. SLS departments exist in universities and students sign up for those programs to get degrees. Without those universities, would the content in SLS programs be valued at the price students pay for it?

You can just buy books on second language things; they aren't that expensive (a few dozen dollars at most?).

Computer science doesn't need subsidies. People will learn about computers, pay for resources that help them learn, and build new technologies regardless if tax payer dollars are involved or not.

SLS takes money at the point of a gun. I prefer to buy books for languages I'm interested in off Amazon (oooooooh BEZOS evilllllllll ouccccccch). Amazon does a comparatively good job giving aspiring authors exposure and compensating them for producing content.

Not engineering

Polyglots, people that speak many languages, have plenty of tips and tricks for learning languages. Here are some tips for learning Japanese in the form of a blog post. Here is a book that really helped me with my Chinese grammar. "Engineering" for language learning doesn't need thousands (millions?) of dollars of government grants.

Entrepreneurial people that take the time to learn difficult things can share their insights with the rest of us. Those that are interested in following their footsteps can buy their books, listen to their podcasts, and otherwise support the work they value directly. In this case, what is being "engineered" is success in language learning.

Not philosophy

Tell me about the life well lived. Your opinions about diversity? One can make an argument about the practicality or moral obligation to learn a second language, sure. Oftentimes though, just as people listen to music they like, people learn languages they're interested in simply because they love their object of study already. SLS doesn't have to justify its existence, just as good music, cool technology, and solid mathematical proofs don't. 

People that make their livings talking about language(s) spend a lot of time explaining the value of what they do.

Not science

Show me the falsifiable theories.

C's get Degrees

Many students are undoubtedly in school (here, I'm mostly thinking about higher education, though the same reasoning could be applied for other schooling as well) in order to earn a degree. While the same degrees (e.g. BA, MA, PhD) from the same university may nominally be the same, clearly there is a widely understood hierarchy of which degrees mean more than than others.

While a degree in computer science doesn't guarantee a good programmer, society at large recognizes that people who have computer science degrees know a thing or two about solving problems with computers.

Here, I sketch a framework for evaluating how any one particular degree (or "academic field") adds value to the world. Does it produce things that inspire (art)? Does it promote civil, non-violent solutions (business)? Is it self evidently useful or cool (engineering)? Does it give people clarity of thought (philosophy)? Does it extent collective human knowledge with falsifiable claims (science)?

If the answers to all these questions for some class or field of study are no, or yes, but... (insert endless qualifications), it is likely you have found dollars being spent, hours being wasted, and blood, sweat and tears being channeled into substance abuse by self-loathing individuals.

Its not too late to bring dignity back to higher education, universities, and other formal institutions of learning. In order to do so, though, I think we need to have more discussions about what value means and be willing to call out bullshit when we see it.

Notes and references

More of my thoughts on education, knowledge, value, and related topics.

"The School to More School Pipeline" (8/1/2018)
"Class participation, nap time, and power" (8/6/2018)
"How do you lecture for two hours straight? (you don't)" (8/7/2018)