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I studied chemistry in undergrad, but the classes I enjoyed the most by far were my humanities, maybe because it was a break from the grind of the undergrad chemistry sequence.

It's a little unfashionable, but I believe that the "finishing" aspect of humanities courses is underrated. My fellow STEM majors generally bellyached about having to meet their liberal arts gen ed requirements, but a good basic ethics course, a bit of literature, some history or basic anthropology goes a long way towards rounding someone out, and for some it opens a world they can explore and enjoy the rest of their lives.

CS Lewis's "The Abolition of Man" has a lot of these broad strokes correct. I think higher education got itself in trouble specifically when as an institution it stopped caring about moral/ethical formation. The result is a disintegration that results in engineers who can't be bothered to ask the Jurassic Park question to humanities undergrads that reject the notion of objective truth. (I exaggerate the margins to make my point more visible).

Always love the roundups!

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Jan 5Liked by Noah Smith

Tbh if degrowthers now agree with mainstream opinion while still claiming to edgy and radical by playing silly language games, I think they can be safely ignored. Surely even if they "win" this vacuous non-argument, if they don't actually have a fundamental disagreement with the status quo then that victory would not have any material implications.

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My feeling on humanities coursework is that I wouldn’t feel comfortable hiring someone who does not have the skills to write a research paper. At the undergraduate level, it is only in the humanities courses that you are asked to do so. The science classes are all problem sets and tests.

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One would have thought that knowledge - of the human condition, hatred, love, history, war, politics, philosophy would be reason enough to be well versed in humanities (yes, I am lumping in social “sciences”, including econ, psychology).

To reduce non-technical pursuits in business to “backslapping” is unbelievably simplistic. Every product or meme or narrative is consumed by humans. It is not the best built product that wins the battle.

Coding skills today will be about as useful as the skills I used at an old summer job I had repairing circuit boards- with solder. Between AI and the developing world, all the basic coding skills anyone would want will be available for next to nothing. Systems architecture and higher level supervisory and design skills will still be highly valued but are never going to support even a tiny fraction of the labor force (also because only a tiny fraction of people have the skills for this).

With social media we are becoming a society of Id and emotion rather than knowledge, understanding, analysis and perspective. Sure, the current professoriate in humanities and most social sciences is incapable of building out the latter characteristics in society, being consumed by Marxist dogma and activism, but that speaks to a need to revitalize and value humanities and social sciences. And yes, you can learn to code, learn some math and use spreadsheets while learning soft subjects.

At the dawn of the PC era (late 1970s) it was thought that everyone would have to have technical skills. My roommate (who became a PhD psychologist) had to take calculus and FORTRAN and SAS to get his undergrad degree. Even History majors had to take BASIC at my university (I don’t think English or language majors had to as computing was aligned with the stats classes that social science majors were required to take).

It is interesting that instead of embracing computing and better statistical analysis, these fields rejected it by the early 1990s at many universities. This was a mistake, obviously. The push to digital humanities that came later is not enough to overcome decades of separation from our tech-driven world.

Long way of saying that I think everyone at university should be exposed to humanities and social science and everyone should be exposed to tech, stats, math, CS.

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"The U.S. is not a plutocracy". I think that is FAR too strong a conclusion to draw from those redistribution statistics. And that conclusion contradicts the well known statistics about how shares of wealth and income have been increasing in the top 1%, not to mention the studies of how the interests of the 1% are represented in government policy far more than the interests of others. So maybe not a pure plutocracy, but rather a plutocracy that throws some crumbs to the masses to keep them from rising up. We've seen that in the past too.

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Asking about the social purpose of the humanities is like asking about the social purpose of religious faith. The value is to the individuals who study them, and that is what they are for, regardless of what other things come into society from the actions of those individuals. The liberal education is for the development of the human mind, not for production of social outputs. This has been so since classical times.

Yes, it is a great privilege to have the time and money and support to pursue this sort of personal self-development, and it's not surprising that there is less demand for it given the (unnecessarily) soaring cost of traditional university study and the credentialization of everything. I would argue that liberal education produces a great deal of value in the job market, but it's harder to discern (especially if you don't know how to look for it) because it's not a credential, it's not a body of knowledge, but a quality of the person.

Most universities are doing a terrible, terrible job of conveying what a humanities education is for. The "activist" turn has been absolutely destructive, and not even effective at self-protection. Much of the social-purpose stuff that universities are doing can be (and will be) done by alternative, more efficient methods: certificate programs, boot camps, apprenticeships, online programs, whatever. But only a university can fulfill the role of bringing people together to preserve and enrich knowledge, purely as knowledge. Otherwise, what good is it?

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In theory, couldn't a humanities degree be quite affordable? You just need the teachers, right? Like the hardcore engineering degrees require some real physical plant investment... It seems odd to me that the humanities degrees are offered at a similar price.

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I have always thought that the purpose of the humanities is otium. This Latin word means “not working.” In Roman society, the slaves did the work, and the best of the masters, like Cicero and Seneca, used their non-working time to think things over. The results might be useful, or they might not be useful, but you didn’t have to justify your ruminations on the basis of utility.

For the first few centuries, science lived in the world of otium. Now we know that theoretical science will always lead to practical results, but that was seldom true for the first few centuries.

Otium produces the unexpected. If you always know where you’re going and why you’re going there, you will seldom end up with anything truly new.

I see it as a contrast between exploring and application. When you are focused on application, you are trying to commercialize an idea. When you are an explorer, you don't care whether those ideas have commercial applications or not. When I made a choice to be an explorer in the 1960s, I knew I was almost certainly not going to have a robust income.

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Never heard the term "degrowth" and love this quote: "Degrowth can make these extravagant promises only by pretending that words suddenly mean the exact opposite of what they used to mean. Creating prosperity is growth. That is what growth is. That is what it means. That is its definition." A replay of communism with a different idealistic goal ?

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Humanities are useful. I was a philosophy and economics major. Both were obviously useful, and one can theoretically trace a through line of economics to hedge funds to venture capital, etc, but the actual "skills" within economics were not actually that useful until "relearned" later on in context anyway.

Philosophy, on the other hand, has given me a lifelong ability to conceptualize arguments people have around morality and clarify them. Often to the degree that suddenly makes the other party surprised they held a somewhat inconsistent set of principles to begin with. It's also given me a much sounder basis to be comfortable holding views that sometimes are contrary to my peers. That's important because leadership in innovative fields is rarely about being exactly the same as everyone else.

Humanities are useful. I think they're even economically useful, which, as you say, in a world where soft skills are more and more important as a "human touch" when AI can take over more and more "boring hard stuff."

The bigger problem is the academy doesn't know how to frame that argument. Many of the professors have never worked a day in their lives outside the academy and don't know how it can be useful or not. This goes for some STEM professors as well—but they simply have an easier argument or don't have to make one at all. When students don't think a subject is useful in the "real world," the last group that can make a coherent argument about why that’s not true has never been in it.

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Maybe we need to be careful about the term "plutocracy". Study after study has shown that the legislatures are far more responsive to the wealthy (donors, lobbyists, etc) than anything corresponding to their constituencies. Now, that inevitably leads to a skewed system in favor of an oligarchy (especially now that the doors are wide open on corporate and dark money contributions).

Yes, there have been some movements towards being more progressive, but in response to a system that had moved away from that for years (starting with Reagan). There is a reason why most people believe that the "system" is rigged against them - they see the wealthy able to get large tax breaks (and hide even larger sums), they see anti-labor practices, they see wealthy able to get off lightly on various financial crimes, they see no one punished for the 2008 crash (except the homeowners who lost their homes). Going to be awfully hard to counter that with a few studies that show things are starting to improve a bit.

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Jan 5Liked by Noah Smith

I've got a lot more reading to do now!! Good stuff

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It's important to distinguish between the social value of studying the Humanities and the social value of Humanities research. I think there is a lot of value in studying the Humanities, mostly for reason others have articulated below (see Casey). But I don't believe most Humanities research has a lot of social value.

History is an exception here. Original historical research often has a broad impact on how we understand the world, and it makes sense to have a group of people trained and incentivized to produce more of it. The rest of the Humanities are different imo (disclaimer--I am a philosophy PhD drop out). With a few rare exceptions, most of the original research produced by philosophy and lit professors is extremely insular and tailored to a narrow audience. There are exceptions (e.g. John Rawls) but they are rare and it's not obvious to me that we need to structure a whole profession around generating more original philosophy research. The real social value of Philosophy and Lit professors lies on the teaching side, but the incentives mostly reward research. Is it any wonder student interest is declining when professors spend most of their time thinking about what will impress their colleagues instead of what will be interesting and relevant to students.

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Jan 5·edited Jan 5Liked by Noah Smith

“the potentially FRAUDULENT research in question is on the topic of DISHONESTY, and has little if any connection to economics.”

How ironic is that? Was the research funded by the Mar a Lago Foundation?

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Educators should agree that the “identitarian drift” noted by Mr. Harper conflicts with a liberal arts education.

The breadth of a liberal arts education teaches students to gather and evaluate information and ideas across disciplines; it is inherently apolitical. What is the difference between art and craft? Does this academic study engage in p-hacking? How do you utilize AI agents to generate an information campaign?

As an antidote to ‘siloing’, a liberal arts education can be more valuable than ever, both to the individual and to companies seeking qualified staff.

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I studied science and English as an undergrad, English/fiction and expository writing in grad school. I was a working-class Catholic, pretty far from a WASP world. If forced to choose which was more valuable in the world outside academia, I’d go with English. There are plenty of examples of successful corporate leaders who studied anything but business. Herb Kelleher and Peter Thiel studied philosophy -- both were outliers in their respective business sectors.

Fortunately, I haven’t had to worry about money for decades, traveled the world, yadda, yadda, yadda. Thank goodness for the study of English and a love of reading. How does a guy like Warren Buffett spend most of his day? Answer: reading, thinking, and writing. If you do these well, you have only a handful of important business decisions to make in a lifetime.

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