Saturday, February 17, 2018

The Metaphysics of a Gun

The recent tragic school shooting in Parkland Florida has sparked a renewed round of debates about whether there should be new laws in the USA limiting access to guns by certain people, or to certain types of guns. Inevitably, there are those who argue that "Guns don't kill people; people kill people" or who see any attempt to discuss gun control as interfering with absolute 2nd amendment rights.

The "root cause"

In this particular case, there are also many who argue that the "root cause" of the incident at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School is mental illness, and that our nation needs to address the lack of access to good mental health care rather than the proliferation of guns. My good friend Tom is one of those.
This is Tom and I from WAAY back in 1997.
(Tom has a been a friend a long time, and even though we sometimes disagree about politics and policy, we share an interest in rational debate and clarity of expression. I appreciate him very much.)

I started it by posting an intentionally provocative post on Twitter and Facebook: 

[The shooter] didn’t need a f*cking semi-automatic rifle.

I wasn't really aiming this provocation at Tom, per se, but he was the one who took the bait. Tom wrote (emphasis added): 
 Mental health is the root culprit.
To which I replied:
The NRA is the "root culprit."
Aaannnd the debate was on!

Tom continued:
Here’s where that argument falls apart (and, yes, I believe lobbying should be illegal.) If the NRA vanished tomorrow, we’d still have unstable, deranged people in our society who could use a knife to kill; or a board with a nail in it; or plow a car into a crowd of people; or build a pipe-bomb from common materials. The logic fails when the desire of some people to kill is ignored. Blaming a gun is short-sighted, and to bring such blame to its ‘logical’ conclusion, you’d need to control everything which could or might be fashioned into a weapon - cars, trucks, pipes, batteries, bow/arrows, wire, nails, PRESSURE COOKERS, and list goes on... I see that argument akin to blaming forks for someone’s obesity. The root cause is deeply seated in the brain of a human being who has been damaged and needs psychological help. All the typical warning signs seem to have been ignored, just as in the other tragic cases where PEOPLE - not guns - have gone on a rampage. Don’t ignore the human factor, mental instability is THE root.
And later:
My point was simple and direct - mental illness is the root cause of people who abandon civility and turn to killing innocent people. We need to provide better ACCESS to mental health services to prevent people from turning to violence. You, Craig, were the one who disagreed with that by stating that the NRA is the root cause, side-stepping the human factors in their entirety.
And more:
Here’s a fact - if I put a gun on a table, it will stay there without harming a soul until the end of time unless someone moves it. If by rational argument you mean I would agree with the notion that a gun killed a person, that’s never going to happen - no more than you might agree that the match stared the fire, not the arsonist...or would you try to make that argument in a court of Law. 
I stand by what I said at the beginning - mental health (or lack thereof) is the root cause of mass murder(s), not the inanimate instrument. The only reason I posted that opinion is because I get very frustrated by simplistic, knee-jerk reactions in times of stress and hysteria to very complex issues.
(I definitely appreciated Tom's acknowledgement that the overall debate is "very complex," although I don't believe that I myself was offering a "simplistic, knee-jerk reaction." I truly believe that no-one (other than the military) needs semi-automatic assault rifles, and I would ban them forever, in addition to imposing gun licensing requirements at least as stringent as those in place for getting a driver's license.)

One direction the discussion might have taken  (but didn't) is to discuss the different types of "cause" from a philosophical perspective.  Aristotle ("The Philosopher") identified four types of "cause":
  • The material cause: “that out of which”, e.g., the bronze of a statue.
  • The formal cause: “the form”, “the account of what-it-is-to-be”, e.g., the shape of a statue.
  • The efficient cause: “the primary source of the change or rest”, e.g., the artisan, the art of bronze-casting the statue, the man who gives advice, the father of the child.
  • The final cause: “the end, that for the sake of which a thing is done”, e.g., health is the end of walking, losing weight, purging, drugs, and surgical tools.
The differences Aristotle identified are interesting in their own right, and they do help us to understand how an event (or "effect") could have multiple causes. Aristotle also differentiates between the general cause(s) of a category of events (such as "mass shootings") and the particular cause(s) of a particular event (such as the Parkland shooting). Because of Aristotle's teleological metaphysics (the view that nature acts in certain directions based on the "proper" function or "end" of an object's underlying substance (earth, air, fire, water, or aether), Aristotle doesn't believe that psychology is what makes things happen in general, but only in particular. 

To apply Aristotle's view to the current issue, we might say that the "material" cause of mass shootings is guns and bullets; the "formal" cause is the way that a person can initiate an act leading to gunpowder causing a projectile to fly out of a gun and enter a victim's body and possibly kill that victim; the "efficient" cause is the murderers; and the "formal" cause is the basically animal nature or territoriality of humans. (I'm not sure of this analysis... Comments welcomed.) The cause of a particular mass shooting, such as Parkland, might be the beliefs, intentions, or grievances of a particular shooter. In other words, Aristotle would never say that the "root cause" of mass shootings is "mental health" (in general), although he would certainly accept that the "root cause" (or at least one cause) of a particular mass shooting might very well be the mental health of the shooter.

In any case, I didn't bring Aristotle or any other philosopher's views to bear in the discussion with Tom, but I eventually got Tom to admit that an event such as the Parkland shooting might have multiple root causes, although he never retreated from his core argument that "mental health (or lack thereof) is the root cause of mass murder(s), not the inanimate instrument."

Inanimate instrument? 

The idea that an object such as a gun could be "inanimate" would never have occurred to Aristotle, because he believed nature has built-in teloi or ends which "animate" all of nature. Nothing is ever truly "inanimate" because everything has a "natural" end or function which it must fulfill. Tom's image of the gun on the table sitting there until the end of time unless "someone" moves it is not an Aristotelian one, because Aristotle held that movement is inherent in the chaotic nature of nature: that is, nature is always trying to "sort itself out" by putting things back the way that are supposed to be. (Earth in the center, Water along its surface, Air above the surface, Fire above the Air, and Aether above it all.)

So in Aristotle's universe, that gun on the table would be striving (in a manner of speaking) to get to the center of the universe, and eventually the table would break or be upended by some cataclysmic event and the gun would move ever closer to the center. (The gunpowder might burst into flame, thus releasing its fire, allowing it to move to its proper place as well.)

But most people don't really believe in Aristotle's universe any more. Rather than "proper ends" or "functions" of objects based on their underlying substance, we now have a model of the universe that envisions all physical/material objects as "inanimate" in the sense that they will continue in the direction and speed in which they are moving forever unless forces (such as gravity or magnetism, or the "animate" force of a wilful being) operate on them to change that state of motion (Newton's First Law). According to this more "modern" theory, the gun is "inanimate" in the sense that it has no will, or purpose, or "end" other than that to which it is subjected to. 

Now, Tom is an construction engineer, and his professional training and approach to the world is definitely a "modern" one, in the sense that he makes a firm distinction between inanimate (material) things and animate ones (pets, people). I'm not sure if Tom would say that "gravity" is "inanimate," but he would certainly argue that gravity has no "intention" but just is the attraction of masses to one another. To the extent that the Earth (along with the table and the gun on it) is actually moving VERY fast through space would be seen as the natural result of the Big Bang, not some willful movement "toward" anything. 

I don't think Tom believes in God, so, for him, the universe will keep going until either it expands so much that celestial objects no longer interact with one another or it reaches a point where the energy of the Big Bang has dissipated to the point that the forces of attraction overcome the forces of expansion, and we get a Big Crunch. 

Even in this "modern" view, Tom is technically incorrect that the gun will stay on the table until the "end of time." The Sun will probably at some point consume the Earth or flame out, and the forces on that gun on the table will change in ways it's hard to predict. Not only is the gun moving NOW, it will be moved eventually (probably many times), even if no person every picks it up off the table. 

But Tom can be forgiven for his figure of speech about the end of time. Practically, for us, that gun might very well sit there on the table "forever," or at least as long as we care to keep track of it. (It's kind of like "happily ever after"...that doesn't really mean "forever," either.)

The gun as object 

Here's where I want to introduce a new complexity into the debate. I don't actually accept that the gun is "inanimate" in any meaningful sense.

Here, I'm going to rely somewhat heavily on a metaphysical understanding that differs from both Aristotle's and Newton's. This sense derives largely from the philosophical views of John Dewey, especially the "metaphysics" he set forth in his 1925 book, Experience and Nature. (I've written extensively about Dewey's metaphysics. If you're interested in looking at some of my writings on that subject, see here.) 

John Dewey, 1859-1952
Dewey started his academic life as Christian Hegelian, believing that the Christian God as "Absolute Mind" was the formal/final cause of everything that happens. He would probably have said in those early days that the "root cause" of mass murders was evil, which was an absence of the presence of God (or, maybe, the presence of Satan) in the mind of individual men and women. (Lots of people still believe that, even those claiming to be scientific.) 

Dewey gradually lost his Christian faith, and drifted away from Hegel, seeking a more "naturalized" world-view that could be based on observable facts and experimentation. A huge and important part of Dewey's journey to a new metaphysics was his embrace of Aristotle, and the notion that things have proper "ends" or "functions" that determine how they behave. But Dewey wasn't satisfied that Aristotle's metaphysics effectively removed "supernatural" (non-observable) causes from nature, and so he moved past Aristotle, and constructed his own metaphysics without the kind of cosmological teloi that Aristotle posited. 

The most important aspect of Dewey's metaphysics that distinguishes it from other viewpoints is that it is a metaphysics of experience, not of essence. Dewey didn't want to use his metaphysics to understand the underlying essence of nature, an allegedly pure metaphysics that would remove humans from our picture of reality and get to the things in themselves. Dewey believed that experience was the medium in which we, well, "experience" reality, and that experience had to be included in any description of the nature of nature. Things-in-themselves are unknown and unknowable; all we can know is that which we experience; and we experience things in experience, with qualities that are not necessarily of the things-in-themselves but of our interactions with things.

Dewey reconstructed the concept of an "object" away from the unknowable "thing in itself apart from human interactions with it" toward a view of entities as themselves constructed by human experiencers. (Yes, this is a form of constructivism, implying some of Dewey's educational beliefs, but I'm not going to get into that here.) When we encounter an entity (or "thing," although Dewey didn't constrain is metaphysics to only physical things) in experience, the "thing" doesn't just enter into our minds pure and unadulterated. Rather, it "enters" our minds through the complex web of expectations, prior experiences, assumptions, culture, biases, meanings, and habits that make up our understanding. Again, we experience things through our experience, and while we can try to get a sense of the thing that minimizes the psychological aspect of our experience of it (through science, largely), we have to work at understanding nature, and can never rid ourselves of the effects of our understandings on that which we are trying to understand. 

(Some people speak of an inescapable "hermeneutic circle" in which our interpretations of events such as texts, or anything, are always shaped by our interpretations of our interpretations, in an endless loop.) 

As we process an experience, we create objects, which are essentially the contents of our thoughts, beliefs, and feelings of the entities in our experience. An object doesn't exist outside of us, necessarily. However, objects can be cultural as well as personal. As members of human society, we share objects with others, and assign these objects certain names (signs/words) so that we can evoke them in conversation even if the entities to which they refer are not currently in view. 

If I say "gun" in a conversation, and if you are someone who is literate in the English language, the word (either its written form or its auditory equivalent) will evoke in your mind an image of "gun," even if you have never actually seen a gun in person. Your image of the gun may be different from my image of the gun, so if I want to evoke a more specific image, I need to add some additional words, like: "semi-automatic assault rifle." 

Now (this is important), your image of the "semi-automatic assault rifle" is unlikely to be purely visual. The phrase will evoke a complex image involving emotion, memory, belief, and numerous connections to other objects in your mind, such as the 2nd Amendment to the US Constitution, or the NRA, or that time you got to hold or fire one, or your frustration that there is no longer a federal ban on such weapons.

Similarly, if you encounter a gun or semi-automatic assault rifle in your personal experience, it will not enter into your experience as just a visual "thing" that can be easily detached from your experience or your understanding or your culture. 

In other words, a "semi-automatic assault rifle," or "gun" is not limited in our minds to just the material from which it is made and is physical form. There may well be some entity "on the table" that is just metal and plastic and paint and ??? in a certain physical form, but that isn't what you experience. (And, I would argue, such a "thing" doesn't actually exist except in your imagination!)

Okay, hold on there a second, Dr. Cunningham!

Yes, I am claiming that the "common sense" notion of the gun on the table as "inanimate" is itself a figment of someone's imagination. The actual gun, the object of our experience, is fraught with a complex array of associations, implications and potentialities. The "object" is animated by a zillion and one interrelationship in our minds (and, in actual fact, in the world), and it cannot be detached from those interrelationships (except, perhaps, in our imaginations).

Let me go a step further. The gun on the table isn't just the physical amalgamation of different ingredients in a certain form. It has a history. It hasn't always been a "gun," and it hasn't always been on the table, and it's actually quite unlikely that it will remain on the table, untouched by human hands. It was actually manufactured at some point, to a set of specifications that were themselves developed over time. It didn't somehow come together "naturally." Someone decided to make it. Someone had a purpose in making it. Probably, the intention of the manufacturer wasn't to have it sit on a table for eternity. What was the intention of the manufacturer? I can't say for sure, but I bet you the cost of an AR-15 that part of the intention was to sell it to someone who wants it for some reason. Why would anyone want an AR-15? Well, there are many possible reasons. To shoot it? Probably. At what? Who knows? (I would wager the idea is to shoot it at something and that the goal isn't for that something to remain intact.) Or, maybe someone just wants to hang it on the wall and admire it. Okay. But they don't want to hang it on the wall because it's an inanimate chunk of metal. They want to hang it on the wall because of what it implies or suggests. It's a gun, after all. NOT a pressure cooker!

The gun on the table has a past, yes, but also it has a future. And the fact that it's a gun (and not, say, a used tissue) has considerable implications for what that future might be. Someone (hopefully, not a child or a deranged person) will inevitably see it, be motivated to touch it, move it, pick it up, take it home, get some bullets for it, and take it out to a field and fire it. Or, maybe someone will turn it into the authorities. No matter what happens, the gun invites interaction with humans who encounter it. This invitation is not solely in the minds of the person who encounters it! The invitation is built into the gun, along with the steel and whatever else.

In this way, the gun on the table isn't the same as a rock on a hillside, or a car in a driveway, or a "pressure cooker" in a kitchen cabinet. It exists because of the manufacturer's desire to make a profit, and this possibility of a profit exists because humans seem to want guns. The military, yes, and that's understandable. But in addition many American humans who have all kinds of associations in their minds with having a semi-automatic assault rifle. It's a symbol of power, freedom, autonomy, wealth. It's a tool with particular purposes.

But, quite essentially and inevitably, it has possibility. Potentiality. It can, potentially, kill an animal. Even a human.

And if it finds its way into the hands of a person who wants to kill people, for whatever reason, it empowers that person with a power and a possible future that the person didn't previously have. This power doesn't exist solely in the person who has the desire to kill. It exists in the gun. Yes, a person is required to fire it. (I don't think the gun can fire itself.) That person may be intentional about killing someone. Or that person might just be curious to see what it does when the trigger is pulled.

"Pow! Pow!"

The image is cultural. It exists even in the minds of small children.

The person might be of sound mind (whatever that is) or might be certifiably insane. I'm not even going to get into the complexity of defining mental health or illness.

That's going to require another blog post.


Monday, March 20, 2017

Technology Coaches vs Technology Coordinators

The faculty in National Louis University's Technology in Education program (AKA "Learning Technologies") have recently revised our course sequence (and the courses themselves) to better reflect the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) Technology Coach standards, which were revised from the previous Technology Facilitator standards in 2011. (Yes, it took us a while.)

In addition to the ISTE standards, our program is also aligned with the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) Technology Specialist standards (hard to find on the ISBE web site, but available in legislation originally passed in 2002). The ISBE Technology Specialist standards are much older, and are currently under revision. The faculty specifically aligned our program in 2004 with both the ISBE Technology Specialist and the (then new) ISTE Technology Facilitator standards, which was a prodigious task, but it ensured that we would be accredited by ISBE to offer the Technology Specialist certificate/endorsement to those who completed our program (and passed a content-area test), and also accredited by ISTE (through NCATE, now CAEP) as a program aligned with their Technology Facilitator standards.

As I mentioned, the ISBE Technology Specialist standards are a bit long in the tooth, and need revision. I am not personally aware of the direction that this revision is taking. However, I have noticed that the evolution of the Technology Facilitator standards into the Technology Coach standards has taken the direction of more emphasis on the Technology Coach as a mentor to teachers and less emphasis on administrative tasks. (The Technology Coach standards still include such things as contributing to a shared visions, but do not include purely administrative tasks such as budgeting, break-fix, networking infrastructure, or life-cycle planning.)

With the revision of our program to align with the Technology Coach standards, we have also evolved our program to focus much more on the Coach role and less on the administrative aspects of a Technology Specialist (as envisioned in the current ISBE standards). During this revision, we did align our courses with the Technology Specialist standards, but I'm not sure how well prepared our graduates would be for a largely administrative role (rather than a coaching/mentoring role), unless they had previous training in technology management or educational administration.

This issue came to the fore for me today, when I received an email from ISTE with a promotional flyer for the 3rd edition of their Technology Coordinator's Handbook, by Max Frazier and Doug Hearrington. I was interested to read through the Table of Contents and the supplied sample chapter. Illinois is specifically called out for having been in the forefront of the licensing of technology coordinators, I assume because of the longstanding Technology Specialist certification. This calling out made me think about whether Illinois' certification is a "technology coordinator" endorsement or a "technology coach" endorsement.

In the sample materials I reviewed from the Technology Coordinator's Handbook, I noted a couple of things. First, the word "coach" only appears twice in the "Introduction," in both cases only in reference to ISTE's Technology Coach standards, which are described (along with the ISTE Administrator standards--on which more, below) as "important guides for those who aspire to work as technology leaders and facilitators at the school and at the district level" (p. 3). And, the word "coach" doesn't appear at all in "Chapter 1: Qualifications and Expectations."

Interestingly, the ISTE Technology Coach standards don't seem to receive much additional attention in the book (although I only saw the Introduction and Chapter 1), but the ISTE Administrator standards are actually included in the book as "Appendix C." In addition, the structure of the book reflects the "Technology Coordinator Issues Model" (TCIM), a five-part organization of the types of issues that a technology coordinator might face. These five areas are:
1. Teaching and Learning;

2. Supporting Teaching, Learning, and Computing;

3. Network Operations;

4. Administrative Computing;

5. Planning and Budgeting
Area 1 is clearly related to the Technology Coach role (and includes instructional support for teachers as well as planning for professional development of teachers), but the other areas are clearly framed as administrative or technical rather than pedagogical, and would seem to be more closely addressed in the ISTE Administrator standards.

I need to see the entire book in order to make a final judgment about this, but it seems to me from my review of the materials I received that the book doesn't believe that a person who is prepared to be a Technology Coach would be necessarily qualified to be a Technology Coordinator. Rather, it seems to me that the preferred route would be for someone to add an administrative certification to their teaching license, and somehow to gain (through their teaching experience or otherwise) the technical skills and knowledge necessary to run the technology operations of a school or district. And, if the envisioned Technology Coordinator position is equivalent to the certified Technology Specialist role as described in the forthcoming revised ISBE standards, I wonder if our Technology in Education program is going to need some major revisions if we hope to maintain our accreditation as a preparer of Technology Specialists in the State of Illinois or elsewhere.

(See this old but interesting discussion of one person's disappointment at the expectations of a technology coordinator, as well as this more recent and more upbeat narrative.)

I'm curious if anyone else has thought much about the differences between the Technology Coach and Technology Coordinator and how these differences pertain to a graduate program aligned to the ISTE Technology Coach standards as well as state standards for a similar, but more administrative role. Please comment below, or contact me at

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

What skills do teaching and corporate work have in common?

Some skills (soft and "hard") that are transferable between classroom teaching and corporate work:

1. oral and written communication skills
2. interpersonal skills
3. demonstrated ability to work independently
4. demonstrated creative problem-solving skills
5. demonstrated ability to learn new things quickly and apply them in various contexts
6. demonstrated ability to work in fast-paced, pressured environment
7. active listening skills
8. patience
9. planning and organization
10. discipline
11. adaptability
12. ability to work collaboratively and to coach teamwork
13. ability to give clear instructions and to rephrase for different learners
14. cultural intelligence
15. emotional intelligence
16. social media/networking

(To be continued.)


Thursday, June 25, 2015

What's an "envelope link"?

I obviously have too much time on my hands (or, more likely, I am vigorously procrastinating from finishing up my grading for the Spring quarter), but…

I subscribe to a daily blog post by my friend Nick Burbules.  Nick (who is an educational theorist in his day job) has been writing this blog for many years (since 2004!!). 

The Blog, called Progressive Blog Digest, or PBD, is a summary, or "digest," of progressive blogs (and other news sources), tracking what's currently interesting to the progressive blogosphere. 

Before it was a Blog, PBD was a daily email message, called "Today's News." A vestige of those humble origins exists in Google Group, called "Today's News," that allows anyone to get the daily edition of PBD delivered via email. The archives of "Today's News" shows 3442 "topics," which translates into approximately 3442 daily editions. That's a lot of writing!

In any case, I've been reading Nick's daily posts since the beginning, or nearly so. I like to get it via email, and usually read it while drinking my morning tea as my primary way of keeping up on what's going on in the political world. (Yes, yes, I know, it's not exactly objective news, but still it keeps me up to date on big political events.)

Anyway, I heartily recommend PBD to anyone who is interested in progressive politics. You can subscribe to the daily email here:!forum/todays-news or read the blog on the Web at

When I read PBD/Today's News on my phone (which is typical…I use CloudMagic these days for my consolidated emails), this is what I see at the end of every Today's News post:

This morning, a particular sentence in this boilerplate footer jumped out at me: 

If you enjoy PBD and support what we are doing, you can help by forwarding a copy of this issue to your friends (using the envelope link below) or by sending them a copy of its URL:

I’ve looked at this sentence a thousand times and never wondered until this morning. 

However, this morning, I wondered: "What’s an 'envelope link'?

(There are a number of links there: none obviously looks like an envelope link.)

So, naturally, I googled “envelope link.” Nothing relevant. (Try it!)

If I am using Gmail via its web interface, it’s a little easier to figure out what "link" is referred to, because there is only one link “below.”

Gmail is smart enough to normally “trim” out the Google Group boilerplate, but you can see it if you click the little gray ellipses at the bottom of the message, as I've done here:

But still, what’s the “envelope link”?

When I teach my students how to post their blogs to D2L (Desire2Learn, our learning management system, which I think might be changing its name to "Brightspace"), I teach them the difference between the overall blog URL and the “permalink.”  (

The link at the bottom of a blog post (linked to the title of the blog, or sometimes to the date that it was originally posted) is the permalink. 

“Permalink” isn’t a very pretty word (I like “envelope link” better), but maybe there is a better phrase?

I looked up “What’s another word for permalink,” but Word Hippo said “No words found.” (

So…I guess we’re stuck with “envelope link” (which as near as I can tell Nick made up) or “permalink.”

By the way, while writing this blog post, I learned two new words:


See what I get for procrastinating?

Saturday, May 30, 2015

Generalizations and Individual Destiny: Geeking Out on Choosing Nerdiness

The ability to recognize opportunities and move in new - and sometimes unexpected - directions will benefit you no matter your interests or aspirations. A liberal arts education is designed to equip students for just such flexibility and imagination. --Drew Gilpin Faust, American Historian
Last night, I was hanging out at my favorite local watering hole, and I met my friend Matt, who introduced me to his friend, Jill, a beautiful, vibrant woman who happens to date one of the watering hole's employees.  The three of us got into an elaborate and funny conversation about the differences between "nerd" and "geek."

My own view is shaped by my having come of age in the 1970s, when nerd meant something very specific, and it wasn't a compliment. I was constantly called a nerd as a kid, I guess because I liked school and got good grades or maybe because I kind of looked/look like this guy:

The word "geek" didn't even really appear in my experience until the 1980s and always seemed to have more of a connotation of a person having a particular idiosyncratic interest that goes way beyond what's typical.

In any case, it seems that comparing "geek" and "nerd" is something a lot of people feel compelled to do, as you'll find out if you google "geek vs. nerd." One fun comparison is in this not-official-but-parodic Epic Rap Battle of History starring Rhett and Link of Good Magical Morning:
The three of us went back and forth and all around, eventually lapsing into a kind of punchy silliness in which each of us tried to use "nerd" or "geek" in some new way that illustrated the different ways they can be used. Jill made perhaps the best point of the discussion, which is that the definitions of these terms are quite fluid and you don't really know what someone means by their use of one or the other unless you look at the context and sometimes even then you have to ask for some elaboration. We three agreed that equivocation about the meaning of "nerd" and "geek" was the better part of wisdom.

But that's not what I want to write about today. As the nerd vs. geek discussion wound down, we began discussing the particularly nerdy (or geeky) quality in some people that they are really interested in some particular area of study, often not very practical.  Jill expressed a somewhat negative view of people who study, for example, sociology in college, as if that might prepare them for some sort of practical job afterwards. I pressed her on this a bit, because it seemed to me that she was saying that it's a mistake for people to study a discipline like that in college--that college should have some relationship to getting a decent job afterwards. "You know how many people with B.A.'s in the liberal arts are working in places like this as waiters and waitresses?"

As people who know me can attest, I often find myself defending a point of view that goes against what is taken to be "conventional wisdom." This notion that going to college and majoring in the liberal arts is impractical and in fact somewhat idiotic given the realities of the current economic climate is one of those conventionally accepted ideas that I consider to be worthy of ongoing critique. 

It turns out that Jill is a professor of social work, which might explain why sociology was her particular choice of an impractical college major. Whereas sociology at the undergraduate level is full of grand theories that don't have much particular application to the actual concerns of actual people in actual situations (or so Jill's sense of it goes), social work is a real profession, and those who study social work are initiated into a whole set of practices, useful theoretical frameworks, and standards that ensure that it connects directly to the real world.

I myself majored in history in college, and I think I've done quite fine by myself (thank you very much). Yet getting a job in 1983 when I graduated was no cake-walk, for sure.  (Like many of my liberal-arts-educated friends, I went to law school, which was supposed to ensure that I would get a great job, make a lot of money, and be eternally happy.  It didn't quite work out that way, but that's a story for another time.) Now I work as a professor in the field of education, which, like social work, has a similar kind of existential connection to the real world that keeps it from being the province primarily of academic nerds. (This is not to say there aren't education nerds, but they are a lot more rare than, say, sociology nerds. People don't tend to go into education out of a purely theoretical interest. If the standard response that an education major got when she revealed her choice of major at a cocktail party was "What are you going to do with that?," many of us education professors--especially those of us with a primarily theoretical interest--would be out of a job.) So I get what Jill was trying to say about the difference between majoring in something like sociology--with little practical application--and social work--which is nothing if not practical.

But I'm a nerd, and I get a particular nerdy kick out of being particularly contrarian about what I see as too-likely-to-be-accepted-without-question conventional wisdoms like "it's not smart to go to college and major in something like sociology and expect to find a job afterwards."

Without necessarily being aware that she was playing a role in a more common morality play, Jill hit all the right notes in the ensuing conversation.  She even started getting emphatic about her main point when I began pushing back.

You always know someone is getting emphatic about something when they start using this "illustrator" gesture:

This gesture is less threatening than a "tomahawk chop" through the air, but it is used to "indicate decisiveness, chopping with each point." When someone starts emphasizing their point with this gesture, I'm always tempted to mimic them, to show them the effect of their gesture. Sometimes, it gets people to realize that their gesture may indicate that they're passionate about what they're saying, but the gesture does little to convince someone else.

Jill's point was that going to college and majoring in the liberal arts is not only impractical but even idiotic. "Everyone [hand chop] knows that it's nearly impossible [hand chop] to get a job [hand chop] out of college with a liberal [hand chop] arts {hand chop] major [hand chop]."

"But not everyone knows that!," I interjected. "And it's not even true! Lots of people get good jobs after going to a place like the University of Chicago with a liberal arts major!"

"But that's not the point," she chopped. "The world has changed! It's no longer the case that having a liberal arts degree identifies someone as an elite person with enormous potential in a job!"

"But it's true for some people!"

"But it's not true for most!"

"But that doesn't mean people shouldn't do it!"

"They shouldn't do it if they expect to get a job!"

At this point, we paused. She was clearly frustrated that I wouldn't admit a simple empirical point about the changing value of a liberal arts degree. I was frustrated that she seemed to believe that her "empirical point" was more important than the circumstances of an individual person's life choices.

As we briefly debriefed what had just happened, I realized that she was expressing a more-or-less typical social worker position that tries to help people make good choices by clewing them into the larger context of those choices, whereas I was expressing a philosophical, existentialist position that each individual's choices are unique, with specific unique circumstances that are far more important in determining outcomes than empirical generalizations. As Jill put it, we were "having different conversations," which is why we weren't coming to agreement but just clinging more strongly to our positions.

So what to make of all this?

First, let's look at the claim that a liberal arts degree isn't worth what it used to be. Turns out that this claim, while widely held, is harder to prove than it might seem.

How widely held? In 2012, Gallup surveyed parents of pre-collegiate students and found that more parents believed that majoring in a vocational/professional/technical degree was likely to result in their children getting a good job than those who believed a liberal arts degree would, and in fact, that more parents thought not going to college at all would result in a good job than parents who thought going to college and majoring in the liberal arts would:

(That study also showed that more parents identify getting a good job as the most important reason to go to college than becoming a well-rounded person.)

Conservative pundits and politicians seem particularly likely these days to criticize the liberal arts. Part of the reason for this seems to be an underlying distrust of the the focus of some liberal arts subject-matter on examining power relations and the history of oppression of certain groups, such as gender studies does with regard to women. The humanities seem to have a particularly bad rap in terms of how people think of their value as a college major. One "study" (more like an opinion piece with a right-wing bias) claims that the following majors are "useless" and "do jack sh** for you in the real world": art history, philosophy, American studies, music therapy, communications, dance, English literature, Latin, Film, and religion. But criticisms of the liberal arts aren't confined to conservatives; even Robert Reich, Democrat and former Secretary of Labor, believes more students should choose technical degrees rather than liberal arts.

A Pew study released in early 2014 found that graduates who had majored in the liberal arts, social science, or education were more likely than those who had majored in science and engineering to express regret about their choice of major (33% to 24%). The former group is also much more likely to say that they are overqualified for their current job (42% to 28%). Graduates who majored in science, engineering, or business are also more likely to believe that their college major is closely related to their current job.

Interesting, Millennials are more likely than Baby Boomers to express some regret about their choices in college, including their choice of major. This gives some tangential support to the notion that things are changing in terms of whether majoring in the liberal arts is something people come to regret later. However, it could also be the case that Baby Boomers have had a longer time since college to come to terms with their choices or find some way to make those choices work for them.

Further evidence of a change in the value of the liberal arts comes from educators and administrators who work in higher education. David Maxwell, outgoing president of Drake University, writes that "Thirty years ago, it was fairly risky for an academic at a liberal arts college to talk among colleagues about the 'relevance' of liberal education to the real world, especially to preparing students for employment." But that has changed; everyone in higher education now recognizes that dealing honestly and up front with issues of relevance and job prospects is necessary to make the case that parents and students should invest time and money in a college degree of any type.

What about employers' perceptions? Certainly they want to hire people with the technical skills they need for particular jobs. And according to some employers and economists, there is a shortage of skills in many technical fields, whereas there seems to be a surplus of those with liberal arts majors.

According to one study, only 2% of employers are seeking to hire graduates in the liberal arts, whereas 27% want engineering and computer science graduates, and 18% want business majors. 

However, the number one "job skill" that employers want in their new hires is a strong work ethic. They also want adaptability. As some researchers have written, "The modern workplace demands adaptability, broad-mindedness and creativity -- competencies that are well developed in programs based on a liberal or general education model." Critical thinking, problem-solving, and communication skills are developed by rigorous participation in disciplines across the liberal arts.

But what of the bottom line? Does majoring in the liberal arts hurt the prospects of college students in terms of salary?

Well, yes. Recent college graduates with liberal arts degrees tend to make less money than those who majored in professional or preprofessional fields, or in the sciences, math, or engineering. One study concluded that the college majors with the lowest overall financial return on investment (ROI) are, beginning with the lowest: Communications, psychology, nutrition, hospitality/tourism, religious studies/theology, education, fine arts, and sociology. (Only some of these are what is traditionally thought of as "liberal arts.) This echoes what career advisor Penelope Trunk says, that 85% of college students are wasting their money. (Trunk doesn't specifically criticize the liberal arts, saying that what really matters is the quality of the school rather than the major. More on this, below.)

Liberal arts majors do tend to make up this ground over time, earning more during their peak earning years (age 56-60) than the professional or pre-professional majors.  However, this advantage of the liberal arts disappears when those who have gone on to get advanced degrees are taken out of consideration. What's more, those who majored in science, math, or engineering end up making considerably more ($20 - $30K per year) than those who majored in the liberal arts. (See the report details here.)

So majoring in the liberal arts is likely to result in lower earnings overall during a career than majoring in science, math, or engineering. The unemployment rate among recent liberal arts graduates is also slightly higher than it is for science majors. Does this mean hand-chopping Jill was right?

Certainly there are financial premiums for majoring in science, math, or engineering (the so-called STEM fields). But there's no evidence that majoring in a professional or pre-professional field (like social work or education) is better than majoring in the liberal arts, at least not financially, and certainly not over the long haul.

Some have argued that the advantage of the STEM fields isn't so much the particular subject matter that is studied, but the ways that this subject matter is taught, in a practical and applied manner. As Boston's Northeastern University President Joseph E. Aoun recently writes, "liberal arts classes are often framed by the traditions of the essay and exam paper." This makes them more likely to stress abstract concepts.
"This boundary between the abstract and the real may largely account for the conceit that a liberal arts education doesn’t equate to a tangible outcome, or a tangible paycheck. However, liberal arts programs can counter this misperception by reproducing the lessons from engineering laboratories or business school co-op programs and adding an experiential component. By practicing the experiential liberal arts, they would better prepare their students to engage in the world."
Aoun, whose university has pioneered a cooperative approach to undergraduate education involving partnerships with businesses and nonprofit organizations, urges liberal arts programs to incorporate applied experiences such as internships and community service programs. The tendency to draw sharp contrasts between "applied" work such as that in the sciences and more theoretical work such as that in the liberal arts is, Aoun suggestions, a false dichotomy. 
"Every scientist needs to ponder the context of her work and communicate its meaning; every liberal arts student should wrangle with the revelations of big data. Both applied disciplines and the liberal arts have much to share between them. By bleeding a little into each other, these two approaches to higher education would give every graduate a powerful, marketable education for today’s economy. 
"So let’s move past the false dichotomy that characterizes the current debate over the liberal arts and applied disciplines. Better to draw lessons from both, and agree that the most valuable education is one that works."
Another less dichotomous way of thinking is for liberal arts majors to take advantage of the flexibility that many of their programs offer for taking electives.
“In the current economy, majoring in liberal arts won't yield good job prospects, so you have to pair a liberal arts degree with business [or marketing, or operations] courses in order to become a more appealing candidate,” said Dan Schawbel, founder of Millennial Branding.
Schawbel also found that for some employers, a candidate with no college degree--but real world experience--is more attractive than a typical liberal arts graduate who hasn't really done anything practical. What really matters isn't so much the degree as positive attitude, communication skills, and an ability to work well on a team, especially one with diverse participants.

However, the combination of the liberal arts with more practical and applied subjects--especially when coursework is supplemented by real-world experiences--may be the best of both worlds. The liberal arts have value for helping people across many fields to ask good questions and think through difficult problems--skills that potentially have enormous payoff.  Some colleges are experimenting with hybrid courses and majors that aren't easily characterized as "liberal arts" or something else.