Monday, November 19, 2007

Advice to Undergraduates Part III: What you should study in college.

This is the third post in a sequence of indefinite length designed to rescue undergraduates from the fate of finding themselves in law school or otherwise having messed up their lives. (Well, it's a sequence now. I've declared it to be one.) See the previous two posts: Some Loosely Connected Musings on Passion, Regret, Law School, and Class Privilege, with Advice to Prospective Law Students; and Why you shouldn't go to law school. Also see Belle's post on undergraduate majors: Thoughts on Undergraduate Majors, Well-Roundedness and Fluency. The basic premise of this sequence is that undergraduates don't have enough information to make the choices we ask them to make. Without some years of experience in the higher education system or in life, or very good advice, it's easy to make academic decisions that will have life-long consequences without any idea what considerations one must take into account.

And don't think this is just condescending paternalism from some old fogie blogger either. I speak to this and to you from personal experience. I started college several years early, and I had no idea what I was going to do with my life except for a vague plan to go to law school. Consequently, I did much of what I'm now trying to warn you to avoid: I substantially wasted my undergraduate years, e.g., never taking calculus, only taking one language course, only taking one major, not taking any time off. I've largely escaped the consequences by virtue of a) having started young enough that I could go back to grad school for a second career without having wasted too many years; b) having a contemptuous disregard for my own financial well-being; c) having a certain kind of intellectual chops which isn't necessarily better or worse than any other, but which, combined with overweening ambition, the willingness to sacrifice a social life to work, and a knack for finding opportunities to buff my resume, did enable me to do cowboy-type things like teach myself calculus before grad school, and gave me a fairly good chance at a variety of life courses beyond the constraints of my path-dependent background. Many of the readers of this blog will have c), but a) and b) are much rarer and b) is possibly rather foolish (although those of you with family wealth can get by without it). So don't follow my path. (I think, however, that my next post in the sequence will be something like "So you went to law school: how to get out of the mess; OR: Being Paul Gowder")

Part A: Your Choice of Majors

You should have two long-term objectives in college. The first is to learn what you love and try to make a life where you can be personally fulfilled and hopefully contribute something to the rest of the world, be it in art, in politics and community service, in knowledge, or (even) in wealth. The second is to handle the economic realities of the world and maximize your human capital to enable you to meet your material needs. (This advice is of course not directed to those with inherited wealth who need not worry about such things. I suspect the over-privileged rich can get along quite fine without my advice. Also, this post is unabashedly directed to the reasonably talented. I strongly suspect that the readers of this blog are all capable of sustaining full courses of study in the fashion I suggest below and doing well. The blogosphere is already a pretty highly educated and skilled group, and this blog is a particularly involved and intellectualish part of that universe. So this post is mainly directed at the talented poor.)

Often, however, those two objectives are hard to reconcile in one major. If your passion is, say, painting, you have to confront the fact that the probability of getting a good career out of painting, one that meets your material needs, is fairly low. So unless you want to find yourself doomed to a career involving flipping burgers or directing telephone calls, you need to find something that will lead into more lucrative jobs. Likewise, if you pick your major for the money, you'll end up practicing law or medicine, or doing investment banking, or god only knows what else, and most of your life will be spent doing things in which you have no intrinsic interest.

Thus, I advise a double-major. Every university of which I'm aware allows you to do this. Major first in that which you love most, and try first to make a career out of it. Don't consider the economic consequences of that choice at all. If foucauldian social analysis or renaissance poetry or jazz dance or video game design (god help you) is what really makes you unbelievably happy, then do it. As you graduate, seek out opportunities in that area. There's some positive probability that you'll succeed. If you do, I'm really happy for you. If not, at least you'll have a strong background in something that you love, that you can pursue as an avocation while you fall back on your cash major.

Because that's your second major. Figure out the minimum income that you feel you need to live a good life. Then find out the average yearly income of the people who have done careers following study in the various majors offered by your school. Now major in the most interesting and enjoyable of those majors which offers an average income at least at your minimum. (Hopefully you've learned enough statistics [see below] to look for the variance in this income too and understand what it means for the risk you're taking.) This will give you a reasonably good shot at a good enough life if your passion doesn't pan out as a career. Be sure to follow the advice in my first post and take some time off mid-schooling to do internships or similar experimental incursions into that career to ensure that it is what you've been led to believe it is.

The idea here is what I'll call the maximax-minimax strategy. (Miximax?) Pursue a course that simultaneously maximizes the chance you have of getting the best possible life (maximax), subject to the minimax condition, and maximizes your happiness in the lowest state to which you're likely to fall (minimax), subject to the maximax condition. I can hear the souls of a million decision theorists screaming in unfathomable agony as I suggest this, but who listens to them anyway? I'm pretty sure miximax can't be expressed as a nice closed form function, bears no simple relationship to pure utility maximization, conceals all sorts of tensions, etc. etc. So be it.

Part B: Other Things That You Must Learn in College

In addition to the choice of majors, here's what you ideally shouldn't get out of undergrad without knowing:

  1. A basic consumer's understanding of statistics and probability. Most human knowledge is expressed in terms of statistics. Moreover, an understanding of statistical and probabilistic statements will enable you to more effectively reason about your own life even if you have no intellectual interests whatsoever. Without some understanding of probability and statistics, you will never be able to judge the riskiness of your personal and financial decisions, evaluate medical claims, or be an informed voter on environmental, crime, and economic issues. I really think this is the single most important body of knowledge out there. Without an understanding of, e.g., conditional probability and Bayes Rule and why it's really really important, or why (and when) the gambler's fallacy is a fallacy, or what a normal distribution looks like and why we care, or what a confidence interval and variance are, or the law of large numbers and regression to the mean, you will get a lot of stuff just wildly wrong.

  2. At least one foreign language. Why wouldn't you want to greatly expand your communicative potential, learn about other cultures, and gain a better understanding of English by learning how the parts of speech work in other languages (I'm given to understand that Latin is particularly good for that)?

  3. Basic computer programming. The object here is to increase the range of things that you can do. You can learn facts out of a book. Skills require instruction and concentrated practice, and one skill that becomes more important every year is the ability to make a computer do what you tell it to do. (Possibly some logic goes in here too.)

  4. Evolutionary theory. Right now, our politics are being grossly distorted by a bunch of charlatans and their cronies who take advantage of public ignorance about the science behind evolution to ruin the education of America's children with their ridiculous propaganda. If you don't have the intellectual tools to resist their bogus arguments in your own mind and contribute to the public debate on behalf of actual science, you're part of the problem. More than just that, however, evolutionary science is importantly different from many other kinds of scientific reasoning -- it's functionalist, it's non-optimizing, it relies on stochastic processes -- and the modes of thinking that you'll have to pick up to understand evolution will serve you well in the rest of your life. See also above re: being an informed voter.

  5. Basic microeconomics. Try and not drink the republican kool-aid when you take this one, but it'll give you an understanding of why your world is the way it is. Marx gave us the concept of an ideology -- a distorted system of beliefs about the way the world is which (generally, loosely) presents the contingent as necessary. An understanding of microeconomics will help you understand why the contingencies that present themselves to you in your day-to-day life are contingent, and on what: why prices behave the way they do, who gains and who loses from your commercial behavior, how to act within the marketplace to achieve your goals. Again, see also above re: being an informed voter.

  6. Calculus. This should be obvious. If not, see the discussion in the comments to the law school post. Also, you'll need it to understand the microeconomics and the statistics.

  7. Ethics and political philosophy (SELF-INTEREST ALERT: your taking this advice might lead to my personal gain for obvious reasons...). First, see yet again also above re: being an informed voter. Second, I think part of the hold that religion has on people is this notion that it gives us the only reliable source of normative claims -- and this is a good way to be disabused of that notion. Third, human beings have to live together, and it will be a lot easier and more pleasant for the rest of us if you have the tools to stop and think when you engage in serious actions which affect us all.

And now, my pets, I have a plane to catch (provided the airline doesn't delay it yet again). Until next time, don't do anything I would do. When that next time comes, I'll tell you how to do what I would do and nonetheless get away with it.