College Students: Learn Things You Can’t Learn On Your Own

September 9, 2009

New York Times has a short group of blurbs on college advice from educators. Some of it is good, but some of it is shockingly bad.

Rabbit Trail: One professor tells students to read a good newspaper every day. He might as well tell students to check the typeset on their printing presses. If you want to make a point for someone to expand their horizons, tell them to actively seek out the opinions of those with whom they disagree and discover why they disagree or tell them to independently verify facts that they read in a news article once a week. Both these activities will expand your horizons far more than burying your face in a dead tree containing the collected daily writings of 400 people who voted for the same person in the last election.

Back to the point:

I thought the make-up of professors polled was fascinating. Out of 9 total professors, two of them were technical professors (biology and physics), and their advice is shoved down to the bottom of the page. If you considered “science” to be a single subject, it would have been as well represented as English, history or law. No engineering professors. No math professors either.

Here is the reason this kind of irks me: I got tons of terrible college advice from people who gave me some permutation of “expand your horizons”, “do what you like” or “follow your dream”. This led perfectly intelligent individuals I knew to spend $60,000 on an education so they could get perfectly hideous careers taking customer complaints for American Express.

Most of my college classes were fairly technical (mathematics, chemistry, computer science, physics, statistics). But I always kind of bristled at the fact that so many universities basically discriminate against students technical degrees. If you have a degree in something technical, the chances are you were forced to take a ton of humanities.

And I’m not talking English composition or public speaking classes, which every single person should take (or test out of) in order to be a functioning college degree holder. Every degree holder should be able to write in a manner appropriate for educated communication and everyone should be able to stand up in front of people and make some kind of speaking presentation. When I say “humanities”, I’m talking the often endless humanities, literature, history, and “society” classes that go far beyond basic proficiency.

Universities make technical students take all these humanities on the laughable premise that it will make them “rounded” individuals. On an informal survey of core curriculum at a half dozen major universities, a rounded individual takes twice as many classes in the humanities as he or she does in math and science.

What I am NOT saying is “humanities are worthless”. I’m an avid literature fanatic with enough books to take over one of the rooms in my house. What I AM saying is that a college education should be cost-effective. It is my opinion (and my advice to new college students) that students should make every effort to spend their time (and money) learning things that they can’t learn on their own.

If this survey is correct, students are paying $35,000 dollars for a private university (and ) on classes and fees this year. It is my understanding that out-of-state students to public universities are similarly priced. If a student takes a 15 hour workload (five 3-hour classes), they’re looking at about $3200 per class.

My guess is that most places have a core humanities curriculum that takes about 30-40 hours to complete. So, if you’re getting a science or engineering degree, you’re looking at about $30,000 – $40,000 to pay for classes that have nothing to do with your profession and (here’s the key part) are filled with things you could have figured out on your own.

Example: I took a survey of western literature and thought from the Reformation to the modern era. The key take away from that class on my side of things was the fact that the book we used had a wretched translation of “The Grand Inquisitor”, a portion of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s opus “The Brothers Karamazov“. I knew it was a wretched translation because I had read “The Brothers Karamazov” the previous summer (it remains to this day my favorite novel) and vital imagery was toned down because the translators had no respect for the intelligence of their readers. Of all of the authors assigned in that class, I’ve re-discovered all but one in my own leisure time.

In fact, most of the stuff we learned in order to secure the calligraphic document that got us jobs were things quickly forgotten after the final exam. I have since re-learned far more than I was taught because of:

As a contrast, how many people in the audience figured out fluid dynamics all by themselves because they were curious? Calculus? Organic chemistry? These are topics that are very difficult to get into simply by hitting up Wikipedia for some info.

Don’t even get me started on Social Science classes. I was lucky enough to take a gender class my final semester in undergrad. We had several biology students in the class who tried to patiently argue with the professor that men were more aggressive than women not because society taught them to be aggressive but because men have more testosterone. Our professor refused to believe them. One of them suggested that the professor should investigate societies of lab rats. He did not get a good grade.

Every gender class should be taught with an evolutionary biologist and a neuroscientist sitting in the back row trying not to laugh.

Maybe if I wasn’t still paying off tens of thousands of dollars in student loans, I wouldn’t feel this enormous resentment to the months I spent reading stuff I’d already read (or would read again when I wanted to) and talking about it in classes with 3 students who cared and 40 who didn’t. But the fact of the matter is that many students are going to college to get degrees to get jobs. For technical students, their progress is being slowed by humanities classes filled with readings they can do on their own time if they are so inclined.

21 Responses to “College Students: Learn Things You Can’t Learn On Your Own”

  1. Jeff Says:

    I totally agree! I feel that the only thing of worth I received from my humanities classes is that I met my wife. Everything else, I have read on my own.


  2. Jake McKenzie Says:

    As a student I find that all forms of academia I am taking is basically a humanities history lesson. Whether it be european history, english or even my math courses. They all correlate back to humanities. Now while human condition may not seem as important as a technical field I believe you are maybe misstepping a bit in this article.

    I would like to say that that you are acknowledging the correlation not the actual causation. The reason why human condition propagates in colleges is basically because it interests the most people. You take a biology or a math that is very old stagnate profession, it shows that it is not as popular.

    If technical fields were just as popular or more popular than an engineering or molecular biology class, you would see a drastic decrease in that profession exuberant wage. Inversely if a humanities was less popular it would see a rise in it’s average wage.

    Scarcity of those actively seeking the profession is not a fault of the teachers, but society itself. I took pre-engineering in highschool, and worked for a short time as a center for human cognition apparatuses. I found it extremely boring and now I am pursuing a degree in english and applying at the local paper.

    Even with the $$$ that those technical degrees offer, they still are oddly enough not appealing. If I lived a long time ago sure those sums might had influenced my decision more, but I am perfectly happy perhaps writing and making less.

    I value an engineer just as much as a writer. Both are stewards to an incredibly important craft. I think it also could be that there is not a huge demand for engineers and molecular biologist, I mean the institute I was at was readily turning down people who were in my mind qualified to do exactly what I was doing.

    • politicalmath Says:

      I’m not talking about which majors are more popular. I unfortunately couldn’t find any data on the popularity of majors among graduating students. If you have some, I’d love to see it.

      No, what I’m talking about is core curriculum. In almost all schools I looked at, the core curriculum is heavily weighted toward humanities. If you want to get an engineering degree or a computer science degree, you will take over a solid year of humanities while a humanities major will take a semester or less of technical classes.

      If your education is about money, then technical degrees are obviously better. But I’m arguing that if your education is about broadening your horizons, technical degrees are still better. Students should take the opportunity to broaden in a way that will be unavailable when they get out of school. Dostoevsky will always be there for them to read as long as they remember how to read. But it will be much harder to figure out differential equations on their own time.

      • Jake McKenzie Says:

        Instead of talking in such broad stokes how about you tell me what technical fields you speak of. I mean I think the whole mathematical field of modern day education needs a serious overhaul. I love the polynomial expression and I know it has done more for the field of mathematics than most people will ever give it credit. That being said I think statistics is much more practical field for most people. Look how much that field of math is taught compared to old boring invariable algebra. If more college students were required to take statistics instead of college algebra, you might see a huge increase in people interested in technical fields but not only that, it will positively effect all other fields also. I don’t know if this is the same for you where you attended schooling but a lack of initiative seems to plague technical courses. Mainly because the education material in question uses insanely contrived and just the most obtuse examples possible to show where these examples correlate to tangible things.

        ^would you agree with this pyramid?

        I find grouping of careers detrimental to society when done in that fashion. I mean is a doctor just as important as a teacher?

        Our society feels doctors deserve more than someone who in my minds are just as important to functioning properly. That being said, while I made that point I have to say even the construction worker who built my house, or school is just as important as that teacher or doctor, but the importance society deems him through his wage is lower than that of the teacher or the doctor. I consider myself a libertarian, but I don’t understand this resentment towards humanities from the more conservative community. The best way of explaining this without going into much detail would be to recommend a book on the subject.

        Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariely a behavioral economist. A person who merges the study of humanities with what you would consider “technical”.

        I don’t think that technical degree broadens your horizons anymore than those lower tier degrees on that picture I posted. I mean that in the most sincere way. Your whole political math segments are humanities, so I don’t see the disconnect. What are politics ultimately but the putting into effect the lessons that we have learned in dealing with the contradictions in our own character?

    • politicalmath Says:

      I hate that there are only 3 levels of reply here. 🙂

      I don’t really have an opinion on the pyramid… I’m not saying that humanities degrees are “worthless” in a metaphysical sense. I’m saying that, from an economic standpoint, it makes more sense to spend money on something you can’t learn on your own. Humanities tend to be things you can learn on your own.

      But I don’t accept the “society values doctors more than teachers” premise. When you say “society” you’re not talking about an amorphous glowing eye that sets prices and salaries according to a value scale. You’re talking about people making transactions with other people and how much people are willing to pay for various things. You are free to buck the trends of “society” and pay your doctor what a teacher makes and pay your teachers what a doctor makes.

      You’re talking about salaries as if they mean something existential… as if money were the sole arbiter of importance. But prices are set by people like you. If you think that importance is tied to money and that your plumber is as important as your doctor then take a stand! Pay your plumber $300 per hour. No one is stopping you.

      Finally, as I said in the blog post and at the beginning of this comment, I’m not saying that humanities are worthless. I love the humanities. I’m just saying that humanities are perfect for self-study, which is cheap. If you’re going to get bang for your buck, pick a topic that isn’t self-study friendly. Those topics tend to be technical.

      • Jake McKenzie Says:

        We have contrasting world views. For our generation to expose such contradictions with how society functions like that of how Sigmund Freud did we need to continue collegiate humanities. Regardless our colleges may over emphasize humanities but that is not showing a drop in technical educated graduates. America still places around the top in this category. China may be producing more than double the engineers as the United States, but those same engineers have much less years on average going through the education system and the fact they have double our population.

        Until a country like an India or a China challenges America technically speaking. Lets say a space race to mars or a race to cutting almost all dependence on fossil fuels, you will not see a huge increase in technical fields. The demand is just not high enough.

        If you want to support an increase in technical fields I recommend looking into supporting the Green Jobs initiative by our president.

  3. Austin Says:


    Would you know where to find data on how public funding of places of higher education has changed over the past few decades? I’d be willing to bet that if you paired that with the changing composition of courses in technical and mathematical degrees, you’d find good correlation.

    I mean, its no surprise, considering the colleges don’t run on what makes the market work but instead what increases the cash flow from the public coffers. I’d be willing to bet “diversity-minded” programs (humanities, sociology) would be more successful with public subsidies than physics and statistics degrees.

  4. ablur Says:

    I am very much in agreement here. I didn’t need art appreciation for example. I already have a natural affinity to art and will often visit museums and galleries without a class directive.
    Music appreciation is another waste. I liked Mozart, Chopin and others long before my required class.
    College was a ways back in time but I still bare the scares of the costs. I have a degree in business statagys and minor in Pre-Med. All my Chemistry and Biology classes could never be made up with self study. You would need the classes even for many of my business studies. The synergy of a class and the required learning of something this brain draining makes independent study almost impossible.

    I probably wasted over half my education money on humanity studies. If I am going to have to pay for it, why can’t I choose by subjects? I got into a discussion with a Dean about this once. It always seems to fall back on the well rounded principal. I find this completely bogus but colleges and universities are still getting away with it.

  5. Erika Says:

    I have to disagree with the thrust of this article. I went to an undergraduate institution where the only majors were engineering, math, computer science, physics, biology, math, and various combinations thereof. That school, understandably, attracted a certain type of people who, like myself at one point, beleived that all the world’s problems had a technical solution. The required humanities curriculum was, I believe a necessary part of helping students get past that belief. It was not so much the particular subjects studied as the acquisition of the knowledge that non-technical topics had a point and purpose. (Plus, honestly, when you are taking 5 or 6 classes a semester you are thankful that 1 or 2 of them are non-technical.)

    • politicalmath Says:

      Ah… but that assumes that technical people all think that way and they need to be cured of it. It is therefore the duty of the university to try to cure them of such narrow mindedness.

      But this worldview is one that is inherently prejudicial to technical people. It assumes that they are in a unique bubble that must be popped, so we’ll force them to pop it.

      That is not the bubble I see. I see artists who can’t do algebra and think that mathematics is robotic while art is the soul of humanity. I see people who can’t tell the difference between a million and a billion. I see people who are supposed to be educated but who don’t understand the first thing about the scientific process or the difference between a mean average and a median average. And yet these things are far more important for a rounded person to understand the world we live in than whether or not they read Dickens.

      • Erika Says:

        I agree that there is just as much need for humanities types to have better mathematical/scientific educations, but I think you are incorrect in claiming that that background is more important than a good grounding in the humanities. It just seems that way because good technical requirements are missing from most humanities programs while the reverse is not true.

        However, I don’t think it is “inherently prejudicial to technical people” to recognize that, regardless of the state of the critical thinking skills of the artist, many technical folks are lacking the wider perspectives that taking humanity courses gives. What’s important about having a well-rounded education is that different branches of learning teach you different modes of thinking; they teach you that there _are_ different modes of thinking. Whether that’s gained from Dickens or political science doesn’t matter.

        To me it sounds like your argument comes down to “it’s not fair that technical folks have to be well rounded and non-technical folks don’t”. Convince me that that’s an incorrect interpretation.

  6. ablur Says:

    I am in agreement with you but the comments seem to not understand the point of your post.

    The humanities have great value but by their very nature they are ready and available to you at any point in life. More often then not you will need to use the skills promoted by the humanities to function in day to day activities. The point being is that being so, you have a natural inclination to build on this area of your life without intervention by an educational authority.
    The technical programs generally require highly skilled and knowledgeable people who are only available to you in technical educational settings or apprenticeship programs. You will not find common access to this information nor its training and skill without the educational setting.
    I do not find the humanities unimportant only generally obvious and therefore not as forcibly pushed as they are in our higher educational system. Under this system we have greatly effected cost and ultimate achievement of the point of education. Higher education that is specifically paid by the customer has been over sold to benefit the institution while causing suffrage to the customer or student. The debt remaining after education has greatly burdened our society.
    Now if you are one who seeks education in the humanities then by all means take the classes and become so educated.

  7. Joe Says:

    As a proud owner of a 15-year-old Electrical Engineering degree, I can’t agree more with your assessment of technical degree plans as a whole. Humanities course topics are much more easily studied without professional direction than technical course topics. And, as tuition costs soar, I find the “well-rounded” curriculum argument to be less and less applicable. Now, would I have investigated developmental psychology (a course I thoroughly enjoyed) on my own if I hadn’t been forced to stumble upon it as a humanities elective? Probably not. Would I have been a lesser person because I didn’t know about it? Maybe. But did it warrant the additional time and money required for me to graduate? I don’t think so. Unilaterally deciding that all “tech geeks” need to “broaden their horizons”, while art and music majors are allowed to say, “Ewww…math. I *hate* math” and only be required to take college algebra to get their degrees is hypocritical. The implication is that arts and humanities are necessary to make you a functional “educated person”, and math/science topics are not.

  8. Nikki Says:

    Love this post! I have a Ceramic Engineering degree and I barely tolerated those humanities requirements. They were certainly a waste of my time and money. I’ve been out of school for over 15 years now and have yet to make good use out of those psychology classes. I’d rather listen to a dying cat for three hours a week than sit through another touchy feely psychology class! I could easily learn as much about Pavlov’s dogs in five minutes of internet searches as I did in an entire semester of Psych 101.

  9. Sledge Says:

    THANK YOU!!! Though I was a music performance major, I endured similar trials. Being forced to take a sociology class where I was tested on the daily life of the rural Japanese was terribly frustrating because it robbed me of valuable time that could have been better spent working on my chosen vocation. No matter what anyone may think, the daily life of rural Japan has little to do with western baroque music. Come to think of it, the religion class that was taught by an avowed atheist didn’t help much either.

    Thanks again.

  10. Tom Says:

    My story:

    I went to the University of Pittsburgh (big school). I double majored in Economics and Business. I really only had intentions to pursue the Economics side of it, in fact I’m in graduate school in Economics now.

    Unfortunately for me, at my university I had to take an endless slew of requirements that I did not need or want like, “history of jazz” and “voodoo and zombification” and “irish gaelic for beginners”. While some of those had parts that were interesting (I’m a crappy musician, my family comes from Haiti…) What I needed to get into graduate school and find a job were math courses. Semester after semester I would plead to get out of a humanities requirement so that I could take more math to get into grad school. No luck.

    I ended up graduating and then having to go back to school just to fill out my degree before I could get accepted anywhere. When I look at my transcripts, it turns out I spent freshman year taking economics requirements, sophomore year taking business classes, and both my junior and senior years taking forced humanities. Half my education spent on something I never wanted in the first place.

  11. Lexingtoon Says:

    While I agree that at some level it gets overbearing to have a year’s worth of humanities, I think the problem is that as a university there is a requisite level of competence that all graduates must possess to -not- reflect poorly on their institution.

    You say that humanities are more self-service than the technical schools of thought and in a sense I agree, but only if you’re unwilling to really dig. In high school I had a trig class which essentially required a graphing calculator, something my family could not afford. In order to get by I taught myself basic calculus and used it to solve the problems by hand which other students did by pressing four buttons.

    But to the point – the big problem I have with your article is that you fail to take into account just how poorly educated many of these technical majors are coming in. They’re gonna be nuclear physicists but they couldn’t string together a sentence if their lives depended on it. Now sure, I think people ought to be able to choose whether or not they’re subjected to “18th century feminism rebellion literature” or “southeast asian music history”, and as an art major I assure you I bored myself through numerous art history courses, but for the most part it is important.

    One possible solution that might satisfy both sides would be to have a competency entry test which students would take – not a weak-kneed SAT-clone or a multiple choice farce but a hard-nosed test which really pushed you to think critically and creatively. Should you get a certain grade, a separate, much more independent-minded schedule could open up. Perhaps instead of “Marriages and Families II” you could take your technical class.

    But again, the last thing we need is a bunch of illiterate doctors running around. I can’t count the number of people I met in four years who breezed through Calc 3 but didn’t understand that not all sentences should start with “the” or “I”. Eesh.

  12. Blaise Says:

    We had a course in the physics dept called “physics for poets”. The physics dept had to offer this to be fair to the humanities students.

    Several undergraduate physics majors began inquiring about a “poetry for physicists” offering from the English dept.

    Seriously I enjoy poetry today, but only because I fell in love and married an English major. In fact I suggest, going to school or marriage in order to learn subjects you can’t learn on your own.

  13. Scolaighe Says:

    I disagree with some of your numbers.

    Let’s use my University as an example – SUNY at Albany. (All of the following numbers were taken from )

    By your methods (we’ll stick with out of state numbers for simplicity and congruence with your methods):
    Out of State total per year (discounting misc. personal and book expenses): $24,886.
    Let’s assume a student is taking five 3-credit/hour courses for a total of 15 credit/hours. Divided by two semesters. This would bring a total of $829.53 per credit ($2,488.60 per class).

    My gripe with this method is that you’re not doing this out of the tuition portion of the total funds paid; you’re including room and board. Out of the $24,886 for Out-of-State students’ costs, $10,238 is specifically for Room&Board; this means that the tuition is $14,648. Tuition is the exact same amount, whether or not you live on campus (if you live off campus, of course, you would not have to pay the $10,238 for room and board). By this method, each class (assuming five 3-credit/hour courses for a total of 15 credit/hours times two semesters) would only cost $341.28 per credit ($1,023.80 per class).

    I am a humanities major (Russian specifically), and I agree that there is too much of an emphasis on unnecessary humanities. Quite simply, I just found error with the methods at which you arrived at your numbers.

    • politicalmath Says:

      The stats I mentioned above are for tuition and student fees alone.

      So… no, I’m not including room and board. You probably should have checked that before you wrote your comment. As such, you didn’t really find error with my numbers although I really like the as a source. Thanks!

  14. whoisthetrizzle? Says:


    I just recently discovered your site (I haven’t delved into the new one yet), but I like what I’ve seen so far. I was actually turned on to you from the 10000Pennies YouTube videos. Very nice.

    Anyway, I agree wholeheartedly with your assertion. I have a degree in mechanical engineering, and I had to take 12 hours of humanities and 12 hours of social sciences. My last semester I was taking 4 ME classes, one of which was senior design, and a history of modern Japan class. I remember thinking then how completely disinterested I was in the class and how absurd it was that I was forced to take it to graduate.

    I also understand what you mean about learning things you can’t learn on your own. Since graduating, I have begun reading much more in my free time than I ever did when required to in college. My new areas of interest are economics and politics, and I have learned far more about them on my own since finishing school than I ever learned while in school.

    Being that I am an engineer, I am definitely a numbers guy. I just wanted to say I think you’ve done a great job of presenting your information in clear and easy to understand ways. Keep up the good work!

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