Fireside Friday, August 28, 2020

Hey Folks! Fireside this week; next week, I hope to start up our next “How Did They Make It” series, focusing on iron production. I say ‘hope’ because COVID-19 related disruptions continue (my current university moved all classes online last week and has started moving students off campus this week) and it seems that no plan survives contact with this semester. I’ve also started some background reading for “the long-delayed but always expected something that we live for” post on why I am so troubled by A Song of Ice and Fire and Game of Thrones‘ Dothraki; while I feel I have my feet fairly firmly on the ground as to some of the supposed real-world-counterparts of the Dothraki, I wanted more background on others (particularly Native American parallels), thus the reading.

In the meantime, you may have noticed I have been thinking a fair bit about how universities are doing, particularly big public universities (where I have done all of my teaching and most of my learning). Which leads into my musing for the week on what exactly college degrees do in our society.

This week I want to muse on a question that I think about a fair bit: what is a college degree for? That’s a question that sounds like it has a simple, easy answer, but the college degree is an odd creature. Created literally centuries ago, it has acquired new uses, values and meanings over time, often without anyone really meaning for it to do so. I sometimes describe these sorts of things to my students as living institutions (or living traditions, when it is a more purely intellectual tradition). Such living institutions have often almost completely escaped the shackles of their original design, which makes it important to think carefully about the roles they have come to serve as opposed to what the original intent or ideal state of the institution might be. Just because the wall wasn’t intended to be load-bearing doesn’t mean, after a century or two of damage and building-settling, that it isn’t now.

So what role does a college degree serve now? Fundamentally, of course, it is a signalling device. While a diploma on the wall may (and should!) make you feel warm and fuzzy, the core purpose of issuing a degree at the end of the education process is to tell other people (mostly potential employers) that you have, in fact, completed the education process the degree is for and are thus qualified to perform whatever social role requires it. But that raises all sorts of strange questions because you can use a college degree to get jobs utterly unrelated to the major on the degree. So clearly there’s some complexity wrapped up in our sheet of vellum. So what does the degree signal?

First and most obviously, a college degree signals a mastery over a certain skill and knowledge set, typically one associated with the college major. A biology degree implies that you can do some biology (or at least have a foundation for further specialist training in biology). This was the original purpose of the degree and it remains intact: there are many careers that it is very difficult, if not impossible, to embark on without the relevant degree.

I think the main misunderstanding here is that the degree is often not meant to signal that you know everything about a subject; more often it is meant to signal that you have learned, practiced and demonstrated the skills and way of thinking in that field. Programmers like to joke that their key skill is searching Stack Overflow for the solution to a given problem but – as someone who did just a touch of amateur programming in his youth – learning how to search Stack Overflow is actually really complicated! There are all sorts of ancillary ideas and terms you need to know, concepts to understand and ways of thinking to have adopted. The same is true in almost every discipline – historians do not memorize all of history, but we do learn to research quickly and effectively, at least for topics where our method of thinking applies well (which, to be clear, is not all of them – anyone who argues for a ‘one true specialist’ field that is better than the others is a fool).

Obviously, that information is of real value to employers. But it cannot be the only thing they are looking for, or you wouldn’t find so many Art History majors in sales, or English majors in management or history majors with law practices (and law degrees, of course). So apart from specialized knowledge in a major, what else does a college degree tell someone?

Second, it offers a signal as to the possessor’s intelligence. I really, really do not want to descend into the fever-swamps on intelligence (and I have no intention of letting the comments do so either, we are not going to debate that book here; there is nothing to be gained by so doing). Let it suffice to say that intelligence varies individual to individual and that colleges have gotten pretty good, at least for large swaths of the population (there is some evidence that for some minority populations, the college-admissions-intelligence-sorter doesn’t work so well), at soaking up most of the smartest folks in most industrialized countries. Consequently, because a college degree indicates that one graduated college, and therefor got into college, it is a strong indicator that one is more intelligence than average (typically in something like the top-third to top-quarter of the distribution). For jobs and roles that demand a lot of thinking, you can see how it would be valuable for employers to have this information, especially as it is often either improper or illegal for employers to ask or test this directly. Of course, this does not mean that everyone who is smart goes to college (it is not hard to meet very smart people who, for whatever reason, did not go to college), or that everyone who goes to college is smart (it is not hard to meet legacy admissions candidates), but the degree (or even a background with ‘some college‘ that indicates an applicant got through admissions) is a strong enough indicator of intelligence to be useful for employers and society more broadly. If your position or job requires a ‘smart person,’ you ask for a college degree.

I want here to make a long aside on intelligence. I have met far too many people, particularly among the colleged elite (note: if you have a college degree, you are a kind of elite; most people do not have one), who treat intelligence as a moral virtue or – God help us – the only moral virtue. This is extraordinarily foolish and I use that word (as you will see) carefully. Intelligence, as a trait, is a mix of inborn factors and perhaps early upbringing – again, I don’t want to descend into the swamps here; the key thing is that by the time we are mature enough to understand it, it isn’t susceptible to much change. Consequently, intelligence isn’t a virtue (in the moral sense) at all but simply an attribute about a person, like an attractive face, red hair, height and so on. Being intelligent does not make one a better person; it is merely the luck of birth. It carries all of the moral virtue of being good at basketball or League of Legends; less, really, since one has to show discipline and practice in those things (though for the already intelligent, there is a strong element of intellectual training necessary to really harness that inborn trait, much like natural talent at sports or esports). If you had the luck to be born smart, you ought – in my view – to feel obliged to give back just as if you had had the luck to have been born rich or beautiful.

Here I think it is crucial to separate intelligence from wisdom; the moral virtue lies in the latter. Intelligence is one’s ability to think through complex problems; it is an inherent ability with no moral value (but it does, of course, have use-value). Wisdom concerns one’s judgement and consequent code of conduct. I have seen too many students berate themselves – often quite cruelly – as being ‘stupid,’ because they have made some mistake (in situations, by the by, where I can be almost perfectly certain that said students, by virtue of being in my classroom, were in the top 25%, probably the top 15%, of the intelligence distribution). And on the one hand, I cringe because the self-criticism I hear from them is one that elevates intelligence to a moral virtue (they are a ‘bad person’ for being ‘stupid’) and at the same time an in-born, immutable trait that they cannot change. They are declaring (they think) not only that they have no worth (which is not true) but also the impossibility of worth. But of course they haven’t been stupid, but rather they have been foolish. The difference is that wisdom and foolishness is about choices and judgement; we can make the choice to be wiser in the future. A single foolish decision doesn’t make a fool. We have not yet found a way to make a stupid person intelligent, but we have refined many paths for the foolish person to reach to wisdom; indeed, all children are fools and must become wise as they mature.

It may be the case that it is easier for intelligent people to be wise, because they can more rapidly puzzle out life’s problems and find helpful solutions; I am unconvinced, having known a great many terribly smart, terribly foolish people (I mean, I went to graduate school in history – none of us there could have had very much sense) who in their foolishness thought they were smart enough to live without wisdom. It is certainly the case that there are great stores of wisdom, quite clearly labeled as such, available to anyone without the ability or inclination to puzzle out the basic principles of wisdom on their own. To be honest, I would advise the intelligent to use those stores as well; attempting to think one’s way to wisdom is a path full of peril, hubris and error. I have met many people who achieved a real measure of wisdom through these stores and who were often quite a bit wiser than some of the super-smart people I have known (and, as an aside, being an academic plays absolute havoc with your ability to assess normal intelligence when your entire peer-group is very smart; I suggest avoiding ever descending entirely into an academic bubble – maintain non-academic friends!).

Intelligence is an important, but quite frankly, overrated thing in our society; in almost any relationship, we ought to prefer the wise person to the intelligent one.

Third, and I think this is perhaps the most important thing a degree signals, completing a college degree can signal a certain work-ethic and self-motivated discipline to an employer. College takes an 18-year-old student (of course there are a lot of ‘non-traditional’ students who are older, but let’s focus on the vast majority of students) and puts them in an environment where family and community structures which might have restrained them (parents, neighbors, their home church, etc.) are far away, where there is no other supervision, and which is filled to bursting with every distraction an 18-year-old could ever wish for. Alcohol, more – ahem – controlled substances, attractive fellow students of every possible type, free time and interest groups in every possible hobby and every possible kind of vibrant social scene (for me, it was the Science Fiction Book Club, because I am a nerd).

And then it asks them to do the biology reading and write their history essay.

In a sense, of course, many transitions to adulthood do this, but not to the same degree – often the constraints of family are not so far off, or the distractions not so vibrant or immediately, or the supervision is more intense, or simply the need to have money to live is more immediate. While many college students also work in order to pay the bills, the connection between bill-paying and physics homework is much more indirect and far more delayed. And that’s the point.

Many jobs that our society needs done need to be one by individuals who need to self-supervise, self-motivate and self-direct, often in situations where gratification is not only delayed but often not connected to the work being done in clear and obvious ways at all (even if it is connected). College is meant to foster those skills (though of course, there are many self-disciplined folks who never went to college) and then importantly provides a test for the broader society to know if students have passed it, which is why so many jobs that require self-direction, even if they do not require any particular technical knowledge, require a college degree.

By and large very few students (especially at a flagship state school) flunk out of college because they weren’t smart enough. For all of its many, many flaws, the college admissions system is actually fairly good at ensuring that nearly every incoming student is intellectually capable of completing a degree. Indeed, returning to my anecdata on intelligence, one problem of our society’s increase fetishization of intelligence is that students are lead to believe they have an intelligence problem (which they cannot fix) when they actually have a self-discipline problem (which they can fix). And yet at most flagship state schools – which get the cream of the crop of their state – you will find that around a quarter of each class doesn’t make it to the end.

As I tell my students: you are not here to prove to me that you are smart. You’ve proved your intelligence already by getting to the point where you can be in my class. You are smart enough; that has already been demonstrated. The question now is if you can remained focused enough, if you can do the work despite all of the distractions. You are here to prove you have self-discipline and drive (or to develop such within the next four years).

Fourth, and I think this is by far the most awkward function of a college degree, but a very real one, a college degree demonstrates that the person holding it has likely mastered the language and social customs of a society’s upper-classes. This sometimes comes awkwardly close to suggesting that someone from an underprivileged background who succeeds at college is selling out or giving up their culture; this is not what I mean at all. Nor am I suggesting that there is something right and proper about the elite cultural package. Rather, cultural ‘packages’ are like languages: you can learn more than one, and someone who is fluent in several can shift between them. For folks born into the upper- or upper-middle-class of their society, there is no problem; they are like Americans whose first and only language will ever be English – the whole world seems bent to accommodate them. But for many of the people born outside of that group, learning the ‘language’ (including many things which are not linguistic) of the upper-class is often an essential skill to be able to rise in society, or even to hold and perform certain jobs. That need not – indeed, should not – entail them giving anything up. It is merely another tool in their toolbox, to be used when useful and ignored when not.

I am not saying the existence of this elite culture is good – I don’t actually think it is (although I also think it is probably invulnerable to change, save shifting from one elite culture to another, equally arbitrary one) – merely that it exists as a fact in every society I have observed or studied. In particular, while the cultures of the poor and marginalized in most countries are a brilliant tapestry, full of local variation and variety, the elite culture is typically national (often, today, transnational; American, British and Canadian elites often, it seems, have more in common with each other than with their poorer fellow citizens) and somewhat monolithic. And unfortunately that means people from that brilliant tapestry are often unfairly judged against the monolith of elite culture. This seems to me to be a fairly stubborn element of human behavior. Any country that doesn’t want entry into its upper reaches to be restricted to people born into that elite class has to create ways whereby folks from other backgrounds can learn to ‘code switch‘ into the elite culture.

Again, this is unfortunate. There is nothing inherently superior to Standard American English when compared to any number of regional or ethnic accents, nothing inherently superior to the customs of the American upper-class (the sort of ‘what fork do I use?’ questions) when compared to other, less-elite customs. Yet elite customs are more useful in certain environments. The elite lingua franca is fundamentally arbitrary, but it also clearly exists. There is quite a lot of evidence that things like strong accents or local customs hurt the opportunities available to folks. Absent any way to be rid of that fact (and certainly, refusing to teach the elite lingua franca so that it becomes the preserve and key-to-opportunity for only a small hereditary elite certainly won’t work), the best we can do is provide an institution where the elite paradigm may be learned by non-elites. College is the principle institution we have of this type (so are primary/secondary schools, of course, to a lesser but still important degree). I used to wonder if the rise of the internet and mass culture would diminish this role, but given the Big Sort, I no longer expect that will happen.

Finally, there are a small set of elite institutions whose degrees denote membership, by birth, wealth or special invitation, into a country’s true upper-class and which exist, so far as I can tell, largely to use their wealth and prestige to build a wall around that upper-class that they might benefit from being its gatekeepers. These days, such institutions sooth their consciences that every so often they open the gate for one or two ‘deserving commoners.’ I am not terribly fond of these institutions. I suppose I would not turn down a job at one (any port in a storm!) but honestly I might feel more comfortable teaching at a public university or a small liberal arts school than one of the big prestige-privates (note that outside of the United States this same role is often filled by top-tier public institutions which nevertheless are fiercely selective and find creative ways to wall out most of the lower classes; an all-public university system does not avoid this problem).

So that’s the four (and a half) major functions I see that the college degree serves. Apart from the last, you will note that they are all about using past accomplishments to predict future performance and with a decent, though not perfect, degree of accuracy.

On to Recommendations:

I would be remiss if I did note note that this week my writing on the sad state of higher education in our pandemic appeared in The Atlantic. For the twitter-oriented, I discussed some of the issues in that article with a bit of a different focus on two long twitter threads; a third twitter-thread on adjunctification ought to appear, when I next have time to tweet excessively. Much of this is something you could hear in almost any department meeting or faculty senate at any major state university. Since writing, I’ve also had quite a number of British and EU readers, friends and colleagues contact me with the ways their systems are different, but also often the ways that they suffer from the same ailments by different vectors.

Another video on armor from Tod’s Workshop, this time some experimental work with hardened leather armors. Tod here presents one suggested way to recreate cuir bouilli. I’d have liked him to be a bit clearer in his statement that we don’t know how cuir bouilli was made – we actually have multiple, conflicting reports, suggesting that different ways of producing hardened leather were used at different times. If you are looking for a sense of where the modern scholarly discussion is, check out L. Davies, “Cuir Bouilli” in Conservation of Leather and Related Materials (2005) and E. Cheshire, “Cuir bouilli armour in Why Leather? The Material and Cultural Dimensions of Leather (2014). Nevertheless, Tod is right that much of this is unsettled.

For my part, I have some doubts about Tod’s reconstruction here, on the same lines that he does (he worries that he overdid the glue-saturation, leading the hardened leather to be a bit brittle). Hardened leather defenses clearly worked; I was actually just reading descriptions (written by Europeans) of the relatively high effectiveness of Native American leather body-defenses against arrows. The fact that Tod’s arrows were dealing very serious wounds even through many layers of the hardened leather makes me wonder if perhaps he hasn’t gotten something a bit off. Here though, it must be caveated that Tod’s ‘lockdown longbow’ (that is, his crossbow set to produce longbow-equivalent launch energies) is simulating some of the most powerful bows that would have ever seen a battlefield; most bows were not this strong. Certainly my impression is that, by and large, bows from the Americas tended not to have such high launch energies.

For book recommendations, since we’re going to be talking about iron production soon, I wanted to recommend two books on Roman metal production, particularly iron production for armor: David Sim and Isabel Ridge, Iron for the Eagles: The Iron Industry of Roman Britain (2004) and David Sim and J. Kaminski, Roman Imperial Armour: The Production of Imperial Military Armour (2012). These are by no means the end-all of discussion on this topic (you will note soon I have quite a bit more bibliography when we get to this topic) but as a starting point for exploring the topic, both volumes are quite handy. I think you would be well-advised to read Sim and Kaminski (2012) alongside a copy of M.C. Bishop and J.C.N. Coulston’s Roman Military Equipment from the Punic Wars to the Fall of Rome (2006), which can help with correlating the equipment that Sim and Kaminski are trying to reconstruct with the archaeological remains and evidence on which those questions are based (note: do not rely on Raffaele D’Amato’s newer book on the same topic, which is more likely to mislead than clarify).

52 thoughts on “Fireside Friday, August 28, 2020

  1. My son was thinking about quitting in the fourth year of a philosophy degree, questioning what they were teaching- I explained it’s not the learning, it’s the piece of paper- he held on and got it.
    Then corona hit. Now he’s a surfing instructor.

    1. Perhaps a surfing instructor who could pivot to a number of other things when the inclination struck him, as opposed to a surfing instructor with no piece of paper.

    2. It was still the right call, and I speak as someone who hasn’t used his undergraduate degree (chemistry) in over twenty years at this point (I’m in IT now). The piece of paper helps keep his options open.

      Now, if he were in his first or second year dropping out might have been the right call.

  2. I’d have liked him to be a bit clearer in his statement that we don’t know how cuir bouilli was made – we actually have multiple, conflicting reports, suggesting that different ways of producing hardened leather were used at different times.

    Chris Dobson has, I think, cracked the case in “As Tough As Old Boots? Essays on the Manufacture & History of Hardened-Leather Armour”. He uses “scabbard butt” leather – that is, leather that has been partially tanned so that it case a rawhide core sandwiched between two sections of tanned leather – as the base and hardens it using a dry heating process, which creates a much tougher end product than Tod’s method or the traditional boil leather. It also matches the archaeological evidence, some of which Dobson has had the opportunity to study personally, which says that hardened leather wasn’t made from rawhide (as per Chesire’s thesis) and could be tooled, and also the medieval Italian sources that describe it as “cooked” leather.

    Add to this the 15th century recipe for hardened leather that Stephen Curtin has quoted in his comment on the video, which Chris wasn’t aware of at the time, although he may work it into one of his upcoming books/a second edition of his first, but which verifies everything he had surmised from the archaeology and his experiments:

    “Take lether that ys half tannyd and drye hym, and schave the flesshe syd; and take glwe wt water, and set yt over the fyere, and melte yt wt water, and then al hote ly yt a pone the leder on the flesshe syde, and strawe ther on the powder of glasce bete yn a brasene morter wt fylyne of yrene y mellyd to geder; and then laye a nother pece of the same lether flesshe seyde to flesshe, and nayle hym to the scylde and lete hyme drye, and ther nother sper nother ege tole enter ther ynne”

    A few 12th century Anglo-Norman texts also mention “cooked” leather, with the anonymous Gesta Herewardi speaking of armour that was “coria velde coctis”, and Radulfus Niger speaking of “corium excoctum” in his “De re militari et triplici via peregrinationis Ierosolimitane”. And, near as I can make out, the armour made from “καταξήρων δερμάτων” in Leo VI’s Taktika is sounds like it has been made in a manner similar to Dobson’s method.

    While I don’t know how well it would protect against arrows (although I intend to find out soon, and using a far more representative bow) and it’s impossible to say for 100%, I think that Chris’ method is much more secure than any previously suggested method, at least for medieval Europe, and possibly also the Hellenistic world.

    1. It’s entirely possible Cuir Builli was made one way at one time in history and another way later on.

      Something worth noting about Tod’s tests in the video. He’s using ‘armor piercing’ arrowheads, if you will, at close range. That represents a worst case scenario for the armor. It would be informative to see how the armor did at longer ranges and against broadhead arrows.

    2. I wonder if the distinction between “cooked” and “boiled” leather isn’t an artifact of the modern english language. While english uses “cooking” to mean “preparing food” and “boiling” to mean “heating in boiling water”, some languages use the same word for both meanings.
      Like with so many other cases in english, “cooking” is the germanic word (the dutch cognate “koken” has both meanings) and “boiling” is the latin-derived one (that does not appear to have a “preparing food” meaning, as far as I can see).

  3. I’m curious why you see American society as fetishizing intelligence? I think if you asked most Americans who the “smartest people” were, they would say top scientists and mathematicians. But people in these jobs don’t get very rich; they don’t become celebrities, or otherwise become widely admired; they aren’t celebrated at festivals; people don’t surround them at parties; they aren’t given positions of authority or consulted on important national issues (as the present crisis demonstrates). Approximately nobody has heard of George E. Smith, Joachim Frank or John Gurdon, impressive though their achievements may be.

    1. Intelligence is revered by the highly intelligent and well educated. Outside of this group I would say American culture is profoundly anti intellectual. It is increasingly politically sorted. In the ’90s denial of evolution and young Earth creationism (Earth is 6000 years old) became tribal marker beliefs in evangelical christianity. This had not been the case earlier, though these ideas had currency in that group. The ideas of the religious right are not confined to their ranks, but bleed into more moderate, but adjacent, religious denominations. Those with a financial interest in an uninformed public spread disinformation. Exon knew climate change was going to happen in the 1970’s, per their own research. They chose a decades long disinformation campaign to prevent public action. Carbon energy dealers, and billionaires who like their taxes low, fund think tanks and policy shops to lie to the public.

  4. I decided I would study History at university when I was 12 years old. And I did. I graduated in history, went on to teach history in high school, decided after a year that I could do the job but liked history more than I liked teaching – so I quit the job and looked around for something else to do that would give me the same sense of fulfillment that I got while studying history. It took me 5 years. I worked as an unskilled laborer in a food factory, a soap factory, etc., to pay the bills, was twice offered a job and refused it twice.

    In the end I found out that I liked knowing about financial management and accounting. It took me another 3 years to complete my accounting degree. Since then I’ve worked over 20 years as an accountant in various not-for-profit organizations and as a partner in an accounting firm that works exclusively for not-for-profit organizations. And I’m going to keep on doing this until I kick the bucket.

    As our host so intelligently says: a college degree does not a career make. It shows aptitudes, personality, and a host of other things. I have never regretted my first chosen field of study. It still is a big help in my job that I know how to filter lots of data to come up with the most important ones, that there’s more to a situation than what last quarter year’s results tell you, etc., etc.

    It also taught me humility: without government subsidies my parents would never have been able to pay for my university studies. Other, smarter students dropped out because even with these subsidies they couldn’t afford to continue. My parents worked extremely hard so that I could pay much of my studies, and society paid for the rest. So society needs to get something back from me. That’s why I work where I work. That’s why I will only ever work for not-for-profit organizations: they need the expertise of me and my colleagues more than an average company does. And if they can improve their work for society because of what we do, then I congratulate myself on a job well done.

    To finish this loooooong story: the high school I attended all these years ago asks me every year to come back to senior students’ information days – 99% of the other professionals there explain which university studies to pursue in order to find a certain job. I’m the 1% that tells every student who’s unsure about the future: “Don’t worry, whatever you study isn’t the be-all and end-all. Just find out what you like to do most in your life and work your ass off to get to that point”. The corner I’m in is very often the one where people laugh the longest and where they feel most at ease. Another job well done, then. No?

  5. I don’t think you have to be smart at all to get into a college somewhere.There’s a whole constellation of low tier (in terms of selectivity) liberal arts schools that seem to mostly cater to dumb rich kids that are quite easy to get into if you can pay. We just never hear about them since there’s no reason for most people to want to apply to them. Similarly you go to community college and then transfer to a low tier public university after two years.

    This is especially the case in countries with dropping populations. In those a lot of unis as DESPERATE to fill their classes.

  6. Well, smart is as smart does. I survived a traumaric brain injury 32 odd years ago while in my first year BA(Classics: Latin), and as part of my recuperation (self-directed, I might add) read through books like AR Luria’s “The Working Brain”, Dr Lezak’s “Neuropsychological Assessment”, Guyton’s “Basic Neuroscience: Anatomy and Physiology” and a number of others, went back to Uni, failed because of clinical depression, did some very part-time jobs computer-cataloguing library books for school libraries but couldn’t make those a doorway into more full-rime work, picked up Elmasri and Navathe’s “Database Fundamentals” and CJ Date’s “An Introduction to Database Systems”, Tanenbaum’s “Operating Systems: Design and Implementation”, Comer’s “Operating System Design: The Xinu Approach”, and others of the same degree of simplicity and ease of reading, and found that potential employers weren’t interested in giving me even a foot-in-the-door at the very lowest level.

    I amused myself with imagining the sort of response I would get if I turned up to a job interview and insisted on giving the HR drone a neurological test to find out whether or not it was neurologically complete, and then a neuropsychological test to find out if it was even remotely capable of taking in new information – such as the fact my failing tertiary studies was not my choice and if I was allowed to rebuild my self-confidence with a few years employment, I would graduate with a degree and so on and so forth.

    From my point of view, relying on formal studies is a cop-out and what’s even more intriguing, seems to have operated as an excuse to avoid research – read Karl Popper’s scathing review of New Zealand’s tertiary education and lack of interest in research at some point. I’ve heard the “Self-education is to be taught by a fool”, and it cuts no ice with me – research is asking the universe a whole lot of stupid questions, and refining the questions you get to ask a second time, until you have no more stupid questions to ask, and you can understand the answers. The impression I got from reading the preface to my grand-uncle Sir E. Bruce Levy’s book “Grasslands of New Zealand” is that he was mostly self-taught in botany, and he used his formal tertiary education to fill in the gaps in that knowledge. Thus he was one of the very few scientists in New Zealand capable of undertaking any sort of research at the time Karl Popper was teaching in the then Canterbury College of the University of New Zealand, now the University of Canterbury, Christchurch.

    1. The way that so many employers won’t even give people without a degree a chance means that it’s often a good idea to favor people WITHOUT them for entry level jobs since you can basically get the pick of the litter among people without degrees. My best employee at my (very) small business had no degree and she busted her ass above and beyond anything we asked of her and wish we could’ve kept her but we only had a part time job available and eventually she found a job that was full time and a lot more interesting than job we needed done.

  7. Resilience under stress used to be another quality demonstrated by those pieces of paper. The exams, whether for admission, grades or certification, were essentially 2-3 hours where one had to focus and perform despite being fully aware that failure could have dire consequences (potentially a whole year’s wait for a chance to give that test again). Far from “no pressure”, it was a case of “Pile on the pressure – can they deal with it?”.

    In my country, the tendency is now to replace exams with the grades the student has received during the previous educational cycle. I.e. to get into college – you need good high school grades, and to get into a good high school – good grade school grades. This appears motivated by a desire to remove stress endurance as a criterion, which I honestly think is a mistake. A brilliant person who can’t handle stress is likely to crack up exactly when they need to perform at their best – thus they are less valuable than an average performer who can keep a cool head.

  8. A couple thoughts on the college thing.

    1) There’s a couple advantages for the student of getting a degree. Personal development is the one most talked about (and is closely related to your point #1), but I think there’s one more we often overlook, which by revealed preferences is probably the most important for most students.

    Post-secondary education puts you in an environment with comparatively few expectations or demands on your time, but even more importantly, it does so with a group of people at the same stage in their lives, artificially sorting you into cohorts based on current circumstances and mindset. It’s better than any other institution in our society for throwing you together with people who are a lot like you, both psychologically and chronologically. Is there any better way to build a friend group?

    The only other comparable institution is the military. And while university is a less rigid environment, and a less regimented one, it’s got a lot of the same characteristics. Is it any surprise that it becomes a “band of brothers” in a similar way?

    2) Elite schools seem to exist for prestige as you say, but not quite as flagrantly as that. They want the people who will be tomorrow’s elites. There’s two major pools for that – the children of today’s elites, having been “born on third base” as the saying goes, but also the smartest and best. I know a couple people who went to Princeton, and while both came from reasonably affluent families, both were Canadians of no particular note. They sure weren’t legacy admissions.

    And most elite schools these days have overflowing endowment funds, so they go pretty far out of their way to support that second category (while milking the first for $50k tuition). I looked up Princeton’s tuition support for lower-income families, based on a comment one of the above friends made. My family was not poor by any means, and our household income was well above the national median, but even so I’d have paid less at Princeton in 2020 than I actually paid at a Canadian government-run school in 2001. It would have been something like $2000/year for me to go, if I could get in (and if I’d even thought to apply).

    1. Yeah my private liberal arts school ended up being cheaper after scholarships kicked in than my local flagship public university due to it being a lot better funded.

  9. I think it’s important to emphasize the role that race, social and economic class play in the performance of college students. For many well-off white students with parents who graduate from college, their performance at college *is* simply a question of self-discipline, they don’t have to work a campus job in order to receive financial aid, their parents already have an implicit understanding of what they’re going through and are able to offer material and emotional support, and they don’t need to learn the “elite language” they only need to learn the course material.

    But there are plenty of students who do not have these advantages and it is this lack, rather than one of self-discipline, that keeps them from finishing.

  10. Good, but I’d have liked to see something about credential inflation; as college becomes more and more the default, it becomes less and less useful as a signal of anything distinctive. Rather it’s an expenditure that must be borne if one wishes to become virtually anything above a retail worker. As more and more people go to college, standards must drop, because some people just aren’t particularly disciplined, either by temperament or by personal choice, but if we expect everyone to have a degree leaving them out in the cold isn’t an option. Also, as your piece notes, colleges need money, and their money is as good as anybody else’s.

    This can also be gamed in the opposite direction. I’m training to become a respiratory therapist. Right now, it’s a two-year degree, but some people are pushing hard to make a four-year degree mandatory. Not because you need four full years to become a competent RT–the credential is mostly a way to prove yourself basically competent to learn the skills on the job, because clinicals simply can’t reliably teach everyone everything. I’ve never heard any suggestion that current RTs are inept. But everyone recognizes that a four-year degree commands a higher salary by further restricting supply, and a lot of RTs have a chip on their shoulder about being disrespected by nurses. So we push to have longer and more expensive training, even though respiratory departments are already understaffed and due to face further shortages over the long term. It’s idiotic and bad for patient care on the macro level, but kicking the ladder away after you’ve climbed the wall is a proven way to ensure that you don’t have much company.

    1. I was reading about WWII propaganda stories and in one, an aunt silenced her niece and nephew when they were objecting to their mother’s taking a war job by pointing out that the mother had not only graduated with honors from high school, she had a year of college. Faced with such amazing proof of her competency, the children did not object further.

  11. If I’m remembering the video correctly, I think Tod at one point says that the arrow points are mild steel, which should allow for a somewhat sharper point than would be strictly historically accurate.

    Not sure how many North American arrows would have used metal (vs. e,g, stone) for arrowheads before the switch to guns either.

    1. Yes, he does say that, and he says that historically they would have been wrought iron. You’ve got a good point.

  12. I hope this isn’t too much of a quibble but the proposal that college admissions take in the top-third or tighter on intelligence doesn’t add up. For starters, 35% of Amercans have Bachelor’s degrees or higher, so we’re already over-budget, but in your numbers you cite 25% don’t complete college post-admissions and then there’s the unquantified suggestions that not every smart person goes to college and not every college student is smart. Rather than the top one-third, it seems more plausible that college gets top two-thirds.

    1. Lev,

      You are right, today about 70% of high school graduates enroll in college; though about 40% of those enroll at 2-year schools and another 5% or so enroll at technical schools. I think it was implicit that Bret was referring to flagship public universities or selective private universities, which attract a higher tier. I have been a hiring for years, and college quality is much more important in evaluating candidates than in was even 10 years ago.

      1. When you say “hiring,” do you mean hiring for academic sector or outside academic sector? I left academia and became a recruiter (specializing in public/private partnerships and private non-profits) and school quality is really just accredited vs not. Heck, I went to one of the USN top 10 and experienced, powerful people have asked me if it was a community college. A bachelor’s is a bachelor’s is a bachelor’s.

        1. I think the school name can help with getting the first job. When I am reviewing resumes and I see the same GPA but one is a tier 1 engineering school and the other I never heard of I will go with the tier 1 applicant

        2. I meant to say “a hiring manager” but dropped a word… I am outside academia and have worked in both private industry and consulting. At my current job we are a fairly high preference employer and tend to get a lot of applications for each entry-levelish position. The difference between a chemistry degree from Michigan and the same from Northeastern State can determine whether an applicant gets an interview.

  13. Very nicely done summary of the many purposes of a college degree. One thing I think that bears considering is, some of these are _undermined_ by the trend towards more and more people going to college. That is, as the percentage climbed over 50% of the young, it no longer signaled much, but yet it cost even more.

    If you are familiar with the term “credentialing crisis”, I would be very interested to hear about how past societies have experienced them, and if there are any patterns there which we might be able to learn from.

    Good stuff as always, thanks!

  14. I’m not sure it’s entirely fair to say that the last of your four categories has nothing to do with using past accomplishments to predict future performance; on the contrary, there are plenty of jobs (particularly in fundraising-heavy sectors like politics, media, nonprofits/NGOs, VC-heavy corporate startups, etc.) where the “accomplishment” of having a prior social network among the Ivy-educated elite is easily the single most important determinant of one’s future performance! The extent to which we don’t like that definition of “performance” is probably the extent to which it has nothing to do with either intelligence or wisdom, i.e. the extent to which we see it as an indictment of our elites (and thus our social model in general) for failing to hew to what we perceive as the morally “proper” standards of “performance,” but that doesn’t change the underlying reality that metrics like the Rolodex test can be a meaningful predictor of how well a potential candidate will fulfill the expectations set for them.

  15. To comment on the previous article about agriculture & markets – I was late to read it due to problems here.
    It seems to me that a form of demonetization may be taking place under our noses here in the UK at this very moment thanks to our very own modern form of bubonic plague, COVID-19.
    A wide range of UK shops are refusing to accept cash payments – some of these national chains – purportedly out of fear (possibly or possibly not well-founded; I’m not sure on the science) that it will spread bubonic plague (or rather COVID-19). Some of these shops accept payment by credit card or debit card being zapped under their scanners; some absolutely refuse to accept any kind of payment process in-store at all, and will only hand over goods if you have placed your order remotely via the internet (this latter bracket of stores leads me to suspect that some at least are taking advantage of the virus situation to try and force their customers to go cashless altogether.)
    And I wonder very much, after reading last week’s article, if these people have thought through the consequences of systematically destroying or undermining the monetary system (or at least what I think of as that) in this fashion?

    On this week’s article, there’s a request not to go into the whole intelligence thing, so I will affect to be wise and won’t. 😀
    Quite a bit of it doesn’t make much sense to me (a UK resident) except to give me a sense that something different from what I am familiar with is going on in the education system on the west side of the Atlantic.

  16. A couple of comments.

    First I don’t see the self discipline part playing as big a role as it used to 10 or 20 years ago. These days most institutions want to get all 4 or 5 years of tuition out of the person they admitted. So the safety net to ensure the student stays is getting stronger and stronger. Also the connected world has made it much easier for parents to stay involved to a much higher degree than in the past. I am seeing less self discipline and less maturity out of today’s bachelor’s graduates than I did a generation ago.

    Second there is another thing that a degree, or at least an advanced one, signals – the ability to think and tech oneself. This was touched on briefly above but I think as you get to the PhD this ability to teach oneself and to think critically is one of the most important things about the degree.

  17. What are these clearly labeled stores of wisdom and how do you differentiate them from things that purport to be wisdom but are instead self justifying nonsense?

  18. Interesting reading, Bret. Thank you for articulating these ideas. I’d like to suggest a Number Five for your list:
    Anecdotally, when I found myself “sorted” into a social group of young people that included very few college graduates, it became immediately apparent that those of us who had previously had at least a couple years of exposure to people from other cultures, backgrounds, races, etc. by attending college were better able to extend basic courtesy to others, and allow for their differences. That is, there was less apparent prejudice against the “other” than found among those who came to this group without that exposure. Now this was over 40 years ago, so maybe this has changed/?

    1. In my case, when I started my college-equivalent in the UE, it was the first time I was in contact with people from outside my cultural/social background. I didn’t make many friends, but at least it helped me avoid mistakes later on when I started working (mostly because I already did some of them in a more lenient environment)

  19. And another comment, to offer my usual set of proofreading corrections:

    one is more intelligence than average -> one is more intelligent than average
    one’s judgement and consequent -> one’s judgment and consequent (preferred in AmEN)
    about choices and judgement -> about choices and judgment
    not so vibrant or immediately -> not so vibrant or immediate
    need to be one by individuals -> need to be done by individuals
    society’s increase fetishization -> society’s increased fetishization
    remiss if I did note note that -> remiss if I did not note that

  20. Somehow I managed to get through college despite having a lot of trouble focusing. Maybe because I was interested in my subjects?

  21. Useful and interesting as always– thanks!

    “Finally, there are a small set of elite institutions whose degrees denote membership, by birth, wealth or special invitation, into a country’s true upper-class and which exist, so far as I can tell, largely to use their wealth and prestige to build a wall around that upper-class that they might benefit from being its gatekeepers.”

    What institutions do you have in mind and what leads you to think that’s largely their purpose? Anecdotally: in the early 2010’s I was an undergrad at A Small College In Central Jersey– probably the most stereotypical example of this category as far as US pop culture goes– and the day-to-day vibe was much more about the difficult academics (and the usual partying) than about the upper-class trappings most people would associate it with. Also, from their statistics I see the student body is roughly 60% on financial aid (no loans; also, 25% are “low-income” and so probably full-ride) and 15% legacy, which is consistent with the mix I saw on campus.

  22. A little late to the party here, but regarding experts looking things up: How much is online? Could you write this blog without looking things up in paper books?

    1. It depends on the things being looked up. Speaking to other academics, I’ve found that, for instance, a lot of public policy and science research hasn’t been too negatively impacted because the essential information is available via journals and publications were are available (in expensive forms often) online).

      For history, things get harder. For academic writing, there is an expectation that you are not only demonstrating familiarity with the latest and greatest research, but with the history of the debate, which means citing even older works which are now outdated. Obviously, I don’t need to do that as much with blog, but it slows down my academic writing to be unable to get to those sorts of things quickly.

      As for blog-writing, the issue is often that the key works on a small topic might be more than 20 years old and so haven’t been digitized (and are often out of print), but because the field hasn’t moved much, they remain the standard reference and are only available in physical form. A good example of this is ancient logging; the standard text is still Meiggs, Trees and Timber (1983). Subsequent archaeology just haven’t revised its conclusions enough to really change the question, so no one has written Trees and Timber 2. But being written in in 1983, it’s nearly impossible to buy a copy for less than a hundred dollars and it isn’t available online.

      Likewise, for ancient mining, there are about a half-dozen key works (Healy, Tylecote, Craddock, Shepherd, etc), almost all of which were published in the 70s, 80s or 90s. More recent works (like Sim & Ridge or Sim & Kaminski) often don’t talk much about mining precisely because these older works already have, so they can just point to them in notes and move on to what they want to do (which is more focused on later stages of production). At the same time, open-platform online resources – like Wikipedia – are often really deficient when it comes to these niche issues.

      It may be at that at some point enough of these older volumes are either superseded or digitized to make online research work in history, but right now – not so much.

  23. As a hiring manager (usually for software developers), I have never used college “quality” at all (though I worked with people who did). I *do* use it as a proxy for being able to complete a long-term project (useful since the positions I hire for are intended to be long-term, as are many of the projects).

    These days I wonder if I misread the signal, and it’s simply people who are fortunate enough to be able to afford the degree. Though when I began, the crazy cost inflation hadn’t really begun.

  24. The intelligence think is a nice example of the notion that as successors of the Christian era rather than Aristotle, we should more clearly divide between qualities and virtues.

    Virtues are things that tend to make the world a better place like judgement, wisdom, kindness, generosity, compassion etc

    Qualities are things like intelligence, determination and courage (bit controversial but stay with me) that enable the owner of said quality to be more effective in whatever they choose to do. If they want to do good things, those qualities are mighty servants, but they work *just as well* for someone engaged in wickedness. All the worst people have typically had lots of qualities, but few virtues.

  25. While I agree that elite universities (like the Ivies, or MIT) serve to preserve the elite status quo, I find it a little disingenuous for a graduate and an instructor at Chapel Hill (a public ivy, and an elite enough institution we can just call it by the town’s name) to not draw a distinction inside of public universities. A piece of paper from Chapel Hill, Berkeley, or Ann Arbor is closer to a piece of paper from New Haven, Princeton, or Cambridge than to one from Columbia, MO or Columbia, SC in my opinion. That nit being picked, thanks for the nice piece!

    1. The big difference is that UNC-Chapel Hill is part of a system that runs the range of universities and resources are shared in that system. The North Carolina state university system has 15 campuses (UNC-Chapel Hill, Asheville, Charlotte, Greensboro, Pembroke, Wilmington; NCSU, NC A&T State-U, NCCU, Appalachian State, ECU, Elizabeth City State, Fayetteville State, Western Carolina and Winston-Salem State), spread all over the state. UNC-Chapel Hill is the most research-focused of those (although NCSU is not all that far behind!), but it doesn’t get to hoard resources and donor money away from the other institutions. And UNC-CH is bound by the state to admit mostly in-state students (the ratio is actually quite high) because it actually serves North Carolinians, however imperfectly.

      Harvard isn’t the flagship for some system of colleges – instead, Harvard reinvests in Harvard. Endlessly. To the point where Harvard’s endowment is some $40 billion and grew by $1.7bn last year (2019). Harvard could cancel tuition forever, but it doesn’t. Harvard could start a program to rescue liberal arts colleges that are going to close in the pandemic, but it won’t. Harvard could renovate and support a half-dozen urban community colleges that badly need funds, but it won’t. Harvard could declare every fourth year equity-year and admit an entire class of underprivileged students with perfect or near-perfect test scores (there are more than enough of them to fill an entire Harvard class) for free. Instead, that money will be used to further polish the chrome on a Harvard degree, trying to further elevate the Harvard name above regular colleges, admissions are kept selective and focused on cultivating top-end donors for the future and the Harvard Endowment grows and grows to no purpose save running up the score.

      I think there is quite a difference between those institutions.

  26. I’m skeptical that the author has met lots of not-so-intelligent legacy admissions. I didn’t understand them to be very common at big state universities. In any case, when I was in college–a private university–the really large class of dumb people was jocks. I was under the impression that the situation at Chapel Hill was even more that way, although maybe the jocks are so segregated into special classes that Prof. Devereux never encounters them at all?

    1. I have taught quite a few athletes, of varying temperament and athletic abilities. Athletics admissions have huge problems, but if I got started on the problems with athletics, I’d never talk about any other part of the university. So I tend to leave it out.

      I have a number of colleagues who teach or have taught at elite private institutions with large numbers of legacy students – but even at state schools, I’ve met people I am quite certain were only admitted because of their last name. Not many, but not none either.

    2. Those dumb jocks often ARE the legacy admissions. Poor kids usually only play a few sports while rich kids play a wider range so to fill the roster with athletes across the board often involves letting in a bunch of dumb rich kids. The more you favor athletes in terms of admissions the more dumb rich kids are favored.
      It’s just that the sports that poor kids usually play get more attention so this gets obscured.

  27. Without wandering too deep into the swamp you mention, why do you assume that self-discipline problems are fixable? It may seem intuitive that they are, but I’m less convinced of it than I was 20 years ago.

  28. “we are not going to debate that book here”

    i legitimately have no idea what book you’re talking about. what book is it?

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