Friday, March 28, 2008

Stuff "Everyone" Should Know

This is a post intended to provoke comments. Consider this your personal invitation.

I was talking to TD tonight, which is awesome as always. TD does financial analysis and consulting (mainly project finance) for a company in some industry in some part of the country. TD graduated with degrees in economics and chemistry from an Ivy League school. TD is really widely read in multiple disciplines (for fun), and has spent a significant amount of time in what I call "the real world", working various jobs for various companies in various industries. Except for the chemistry degree, it appears that his previous studies are relevant to the various jobs he's held. Thus, what he does is both narrow and broad: he has a job that requires him to do a lot of analysis and number crunching, but he has to read up on a lot of law, accounting and policy in order to do that job. Couple that with his broad undergraduate education and continuing education in the form of recreational reading, and he's quite a dilettante, and a good one.

Compare him to me: I am a legal academic, or at least am trying to be. I am in an advanced law degree program at a top 10 law school (but for the immobile top 5...), but my scholarly focus is both narrow and broad: I focus on employment law and employment discrimination (and one day, contract theory and administrative law), but with a sociolegal approach that draws from organizational studies, sociology, and behavioral economics (or at least micro-foundations of organizational behavior). I graduated with degrees in English literature and political science from a big, not-so-great state school, neither of which I use anymore. I also have a J.D. from a top 20 school with a concentration in Critical Race Theory (civil rights, writ narrow) and an LL.M. in which I wrote a craptastic thesis on federal criminal regulation. I've spent absolutely no time in the real world, but I do know a lot of different theoretical approaches--and no, TD, that is not a waste of time and life. I also read a lot, but my reading is either for my already too far-flinging work or for pure pleasure, and thus I hardly read non-fiction that is not directly relevant to my work or at least legal in its focus and analysis. I would pass over any economics or science lay text for the Nth book on constitutionalism any day.

Thus, what I do is now completely different from what I did, and I am a total dilettante in the worst way: I used to know a lot, but I don't know much anymore. I know a lot about a lot of different subjects, just because I kept moving around so much in my 8+ years of higher education. But the further I advance in my education, the more narrowly focused I become, and my own individual intellectual habits are not conducive to acquiring, or even sustaining, the former breadth of my knowledge. This is not to say that I am smarter because of all my education, or more expert because of my focus (although I'd like to think so): more that like all insects, I have specialized, and with each year I cast off the dross and keep what I consider to be the ore.

However, there's a good deal of human capital that I've acquired and then sort of cast aside. Dudes, I am aware that everything I read and learn suffuses my general intellectual approach, style, and outlook, so yes I am glad that I read a lot of Victorian literature and jurisprudence, and yes I feel good about myself. (hugs self) Obviously, all of my legal training has been valuable even when I question its utility, so I don't regret that part. Part of the specialization process has been to deepen my knowledge of the law, even as I figure out other approaches to understanding it.

But back to the human capital I've cast aside in the last 4-5 years of legal education and specialization: what is the stuff that every well-educated (or moderately-educated) person should know? I'm not just talking about high school shit like the Pythagorean theorem or the the formula for calculating force. I am not asking a Jay Leno type stupid question in which I query stupid people on the street and show some ha ha demonstration of how stupid people are. I know that "most" people in America don't know these things. I am asking you, readers, what should a person who has graduated from college know? What should someone of my quite high level of education know?

The problem with this question is that it is rather reductionist: with the great disparity in quality of education, even at the higher education level, and with the great diversity in majors (especially given the explosion of little ___ studies departments), it's hard to say what every college graduate should know. When education was more tightly regulated and in the stranglehold of Old White Men, it was relatively easy to graduate with the same basis of knowledge: classics, sciences, literature, math, philosophy. I remember reading that a lot of the old guys who started up the most successful investment banks in NY were philosophy or literature majors--what you learned in college wasn't important (college is not a trade school, and it used to be a gentleman's grooming school), but what you learned on the job was. Then the model of education opened up even as it became more professionalized, and as David Horwitz would say, all hell broke loose. So many majors, too little consensus. Even with required "general education" courses, there's very little homogenity of experience within an institution, let alone across a state, let alone across the nation. There's a great deal of choice in gen ed requirements. There's a great deal of choice within a major even, so I was able to fulfill my lower-division requirements with a comparative literature series rather than the standard English lit offerings--and thus, I have never read Paradise Lost. Oh, judge me now, bitches. But seriously, college education is too heterogeneous to generalize the knowledge produced.

So when TD asked me, tonight, whether I knew what the "time value of money" was, I said "yes"--but only because I vaguely remember learning it in my non-essential Political Economy class in college, that got repeated just last semester when I was taking Micro Foundations of Organizational Behavior. I learned this as a concept though, not the precise formula or definitional terms. He also asked me if I knew what "NPV" meant--and no, I did not know it stood for "Net Present Value", nor what that meant and how it was calculated. Supposedly, I should know this. It was an interesting data point that I knew one without knowing the other. I find though, as I become more expert in my already too disparate focuses on employment law, I forget the stuff that I used to know, and thus don't know the stuff that "everyone" should know." And I definitely didn't count "time value of money" as one of those things. Is someone who doesn't know this (or whatever other test of knowledge) less educated or somewhat intellectually impoverished? (For the record, he did not say that, he is too awesome, I am editorializing).

It's a hard test to make: what someone should know, given the great disparity in college educational experience, upon graduating from college. I say that the tests should be if not major-specific, then at least discipline-specific.

But what would you count as something everyone who graduated from college should know?

I would nominate:

-The Bill of Rights (yes, all 10)
-The structure of government (three branches, Federalist 10, 51...)
-Westphalian sovereignty (too much to ask?)
-Some philosophy, any philosophy: Intro to Ethics, Intro to Epistemology (too much to ask?)
-What are the tests for statistical significance (come on, now)
-Basic passage analysis and criticism and how to write a term paper (come on, again)
-What is game theory
-The concept of rational choice/rational actor
-Supply-side economics
-Market forces
-What cognitive dissonance means
-US/Western History, at least broadly and barely
-Marxist theories of capitalism
-What is Deconstructionism

This is obviously centered on the social sciences and humanities, although I can't really come up with quick tests for English literature. The study of literature is a process and approach, not a subject that generates quick quizzes.

What ideas/concepts/facts do you think everyone should know upon graduating from college?