What a college education "means" in 2014
June 18, 2014 6:47 PM   Subscribe

What is the basic cultural literacy and knowledge a post-collegiate adult "should" have in 2014? Are there certain humanities subjects you assume or expect everyone in your college-educated social circle to have a baseline understanding of - semiotics? Critical theory? Familiarity with a bunch of poetry, drama, novels, sociological texts, art, music? None of that?

I never had a humanities / liberal arts education and I'm wondering what precisely it means for someone to be "college educated" today. What knowledge is expected by that phrase? What does any of this mean in an increasingly fragmented, pluralistic world that requires specialized knowledge to have a decent understanding of any topic? Are there no such assumptions about a college education that are or should be valid? Is there something fundamentally classist or elitist about expecting a "basic humanities education" (in the classical sense of that word - Rhetoric, Logic, Philosophy, etc.) from someone who has graduated college?
posted by naju to Society & Culture (28 answers total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: As an additional question, if you never went to college or never graduated high school, have you ever felt at a disadvantage socially because of certain topics that you were assumed to know about but don't?
posted by naju at 6:52 PM on June 18, 2014

I don't think so. I got one of those educations and I don't expect anyone to know anything. I know that the people I meet who claim to be liberal arts majors don't make references to stuff that way.
posted by bleep at 6:53 PM on June 18, 2014 [2 favorites]

'semiotics' would kind of date you as an 80's grad student, I think
posted by thelonius at 6:58 PM on June 18, 2014 [8 favorites]

I don't have a degree and if anything, I'm increasingly glad that I didn't spend the money! I don't think I lack any knowledge that my higher-educated friends have, especially when everything is googlable. I have had as good or better jobs than my degreed friends, aside from the specialty degrees (like film, or nursing). I think I owe a lot of that to privilege (white) and my awesome, super-smart parents.
posted by masquesoporfavor at 7:00 PM on June 18, 2014

I expect college grads to be able to think and not swallow every other nutty theory.

I am often disappointed, so don't worry about feeling like an idiot. College ain't a magic place where everyone gains wisdom.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 7:01 PM on June 18, 2014 [8 favorites]

A lot depends on your specific institution and campus culture, as well as the age of the person you're talking to.

Anyways, my ex didn't go to college but did get accepted to a prestigious training program where the vast majority of attendees had at least a BA. Things they knew but he didn't:

Good Stuff
1. Basic word processing
2. Reading for regurgitation vs. content/knowledge
3. How to "test"
4. The mechanics of organizing groupwork/basic project management
5. How to acquire knowledge through research
6. How to evaluate sources (this is actually why timelines would matter; a lot of college students I know don't know how to do this)
posted by spunweb at 7:06 PM on June 18, 2014 [13 favorites]

It sounds like you're asking for a general canon for the humanities. Unfortunately -- at least, I think it's unfortunate, though not everyone agrees with me -- humanities education is too broad anymore to get a sense for what sort of canonical works or big ideas a typical contemporary American college student will have been exposed to during her studies.

If you major in any particular humanities discipline, you will be familiar with a particular canon of historical works along with certain recent scholarly trends in that discipline. But while you could reasonably expect a philosophy major to be familiar with the most influential works of Plato (for example), and an English lit major to be familiar with the most influential works of Joyce (for example), it's increasingly likely that the philosophy student never read Joyce and the literature student never read Plato. This means that even though producing a list of canonical works in the humanities is an interesting and worthwhile endeavor, you can't really use it to get a sense of what any given humanities student will know.

A bit of causal speculation: this is in part the result of increasing specialization of the faculty, and in part the result of decreasing interest among administrators in forcing students to take classes they don't want to take.
posted by voltairemodern at 7:12 PM on June 18, 2014

I never had a humanities / liberal arts education and I'm wondering what precisely it means for someone to be "college educated" today.

Many, many people who go to college do not get a humanities or liberal arts education. For example, I have three degrees, and none of them fit that description.

Is there something fundamentally classist or elitist about expecting a "basic humanities education" (in the classical sense of that word - Rhetoric, Logic, Philosophy, etc.) from someone who has graduated college?

I don't think that there's anything particularly classist or elitist about it, but it's an expectation that isn't grounded in reality. If someone went to college to study engineering, then it's odd to expect them to have read Jeremy Bentham and Proust as a consequence. The fact is that higher education is increasingly specialised, and coming increasingly closer to the trade school model than the ideal of providing a 'rounded' education.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 7:33 PM on June 18, 2014 [3 favorites]

What is the basic cultural literacy and knowledge a post-collegiate adult "should" have in 2014?

Very few things in The Dictionary of Cultural Literacy* should be new material to such a person. I think it gives a very good sense of the canon such a person should know. Study never ends, by the way. "This wasn't covered in school" is not a reason for not knowing something.

No one should aspire to be this person.

* the publishers of the Dictionary also make smaller books for the grade levels pre-K through sixth grade titled in the style of "What Every Xth Grader Should Know". I use these books with my children and frankly, I think most collegiate adults would be unfamiliar their material on topics such as the Punic Wars, music theory, and basic astronomy.
posted by Tanizaki at 9:04 PM on June 18, 2014 [7 favorites]

I find things are much more fun if instead of thinking as cultural literacy as some sort of necessary life skill, think of it as something fun and interesting.

You don't need to know shit about Decartes, or in fact where the '36 Olympics were hosted to get by, but if you don't know how to swim or look both ways before crossing the street, you're running some very real risks.

So, since no one is going to live or die by their humanities knowledge, just think of it all as play time.

I grew up in a milieu where of *course* you knew The Sound of Music inside out and backwards and forwards. It's a cultural classic after all, and what else is a family supposed to watch while shucking cardamom pods?

But now as an adult, I meet people who haven't seen The Sound of Music? Looks like we just found an opportunity for an after work beer and movies event! Fun!

And you can buy people interesting books that they'll enjoy.
posted by colin_l at 10:10 PM on June 18, 2014

Slightly more practical answer. I work in the education services industry. My company sells products to universities.

Having basic undergrad cultural and academic literacy is very useful when working with customers. Our customers are depart heads, provosts, etc.

Having the experience of higher education, and the vocabulary that goes with it, is pretty important.
posted by colin_l at 10:14 PM on June 18, 2014

It's not the content of their brains that does, or should, distinguish a person with a liberal arts education, but a way of thinking critically, as Brandon Blatcher suggests. A good liberal arts education teaches you ways of approaching an argument, and a language to convey it in, but there is no body of knowledge everyone possesses such as the one that, say, Golden Age detectives can quote with such facility.

Other than that, there are cultural markers which are independent of, but often overlap with, liberal arts education, and are, in my view, no different from being able to quote Monty Python. This may be familiarity with Ian McEwan, or it may be dropping Plato's cave into a casual conversation.

I have a US liberal arts college education with a solid core curriculum, and personally value, but do not expect, the body of knowledge you describe. Unlike the commentor above, I don't feel it is problematic that there is no longer a canon, perhaps because my own cultural background is firmly outside that canon.
posted by tavegyl at 10:37 PM on June 18, 2014

I don't really expect anyone to know anything. I had such a different experience than people at different schools within my field that it seems unreasonable to expect someone to know any particular thing. Not only that, but not assuming people know things makes it less uncomfortable for them when they don't, which makes for happier people and better conversations.
Is there something fundamentally classist or elitist about expecting a "basic humanities education" (in the classical sense of that word - Rhetoric, Logic, Philosophy, etc.) from someone who has graduated college?
When you talk about this, I think of expectations that rich people in the 19th century would have about a well-born, university-educated person of their social class--in other words, I find it both wildly out-dated and classist. I have a 4-year degree in engineering, and never studied any of those things. I think it's classist too to conflate a college degree with a humanities degree, as if engineering is beneath someone of high breeding.
posted by !Jim at 11:59 PM on June 18, 2014 [5 favorites]

Just want to add that all my 'liberal arts' is from K-12, where I had excellent English / "Language Arts" / Spanish / Latin "Enrichment" teachers -- all my collegiate writing was documentation and proofs. My idea of what "liberal arts" means is probably from the mid 1900s, when my teachers were trained.

Things I think the "liberal arts" include:

1. History of English language, not being freaked out by inflected languages, basic understanding of language change
2. Sentence / paragraph / essay structure. Some people seem to intuit this whereas I use the same sentence structure over and over despite being painfully aware of it.
3. Random bag of western oriented years: 753, 476, 1453 (three reasons!)
4. Huge bag of names of literary and rhetorical techniques: alliteration / simile / metaphor / hyperbole / assonance / consonance / asyndeton / polysyndeton / anaphora / litotes / "these are the only Greek words I know"
5. Music? Sing some rounds, play recorder, read music, tell between Bach and Bartok.
6. Enough science to reason about your damn muffins. Wow. It's really blue and tastes soapy; I wonder what went wrong. (I stopped listening to cooking podcasts due to science snobbery; probably my loss)
7. Oh those art classes! Elements of design -- positive and negative space, "draw what you see, not what you think you see," use of basic shop equipment.

But yeah, this is tantamount to being able to quote Monty Python, as tavegyl says. I see it as giving me a bag of words that has overlap with other people's bags of words.
posted by batter_my_heart at 12:01 AM on June 19, 2014 [2 favorites]

The fact is that higher education is increasingly specialised, and coming increasingly closer to the trade school model than the ideal of providing a 'rounded' education.

As someone who never went to college, I've sometimes been surprised by what my college educated friends don't know. Outside of their major, I'd say there's very little difference between someone with a college degree and someone who just absorbs the cultural zeitgeist through the mass media.

Also, I think the difference between a humanities major and a CS degree is mostly about process. They're going to do a lot of researching, thinking about topics and writing about them, so that particular skill is going to stand out most in a humanities major, I think.
posted by empath at 1:58 AM on June 19, 2014 [2 favorites]

Is there something fundamentally classist or elitist about expecting a "basic humanities education" (in the classical sense of that word - Rhetoric, Logic, Philosophy, etc.) from someone who has graduated college?


I'm not sure I would call you classist or elitist to expect those things, but I would call you mistaken. I would also point out that in the past, familiarity with the 'canon' was a status symbol, and that if you value it over other kinds of knowledge, you should consider why.

But also, when you say 'college,' do you mean a humanities degree? Because there are many other types of degrees. I went to college, and I studied other subjects. I didn't take a single course on philosophy, rhetoric, or literature. I did take a couple of courses on logic, but as part of my mathematics degree.

I learned a lot in college outside of my specialist subjects, but these were through general education requirements, which means that I got to choose what I learned a lot about. (For me: Russian history and culture, Mongols, Cosmology, Indian Religions, and other non-canonical subjects.) Someone like you might talk to me and be shocked that I don't know Kant and assume that I'm uneducated, but it's not that I didn't learn anything - it's that I picked what I learned, and Kant wasn't included.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 2:29 AM on June 19, 2014

In the UK, undergraduates do not apply for a general college 'Liberal Arts' degree. Rather, we apply for single honours or joint honour undergraduate degree courses (so, we choose our major from the off). I have a BA in English and Related Literature, but was not required to take any modules from History, Language and Linguistics, Archaeology, whatever. In fact, there was a limit on how many modules we could take from other departments, and only a minority of students ever opt to do so.

As it happens, my degree did require that we take a module looking at a foreign literature in its original language, so I read Goethe. Which is cool, not many people learn about (or read any of) Goethe's works. I also took modules in Homer and Film Authorship and Silent Cinema. The flip side of having an unusually broad Arts & Hum education (for a Brit) is that I missed some of the more classic, canonical texts of Eng Lit (for instance, I only studied three Shakespeare plays in my entire three year degree).

So really, no one can possibly learn 'the canon' in their years as an undergraduate, there just isn't enough hours in the day. What you learn is the process of research - reading, critical analysis, reasoning, interpreting and communicating, writing - in reference to a body of topics that you select from what's on offer. These skills are valuable, particularly if you want to carry on in academia, but they are also transferable if you want to change disciplines or careers.

I would not assume or expect a college educated person to have knowledge of any particular thing, but I would expect them to be skilled at reading and interpretation, critical thinking , and writing clear and well-reasoned arguments.
posted by dumdidumdum at 2:57 AM on June 19, 2014

Working in academia, I find that the ability to speak clearly and understandably to a wide audience with a minimum of cultural references is more of an educational marker than knowing the Brandenburg Concertos from a hole in the wall. Folks with less education are less likely to know what is and isn't common knowledge for various groups of people, and are more likely to feel the need to demonstrate what forms of media they've consumed.
posted by tchemgrrl at 4:35 AM on June 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

Be able to talk about most stuff in NYRB.

Critical theory most certainly isn't required. I say this as a philosopher.
posted by persona au gratin at 4:51 AM on June 19, 2014

To clarify: I don't think a college grad should be able to talk about most stuff in NYRB. But it is a terrific source for important humanities knowledge.
posted by persona au gratin at 4:54 AM on June 19, 2014

I went to a liberal arts college and have a humanities degree. As far as subject matter, I gained a decent grounding in the social sciences (I took plenty of classes in the humanities and physical sciences, but they weren't completely new areas of study). I appreciate this to this day; it helped me look outside myself when I hadn't before, and when I'd already started to look outside myself, it helped me figure out how and where to look. In addition to that, there was a lot of focus on how to structure our thoughts, how to think critically, and how to make connections between subjects and disciplines. It didn't feel like anything was taught in a vacuum. The cliché I keep hearing is that studying the liberal arts "teaches you how to think," and that feels pretty true to me.

I don't think a college-level liberal arts education will turn a completely blank slate into a worldly scholar; generally speaking, my fellow students and I were there because we wanted to learn, and we'd already developed these skills to some degree. If you want to use college as a springboard into a specialized career, you probably won't go to a tiny college in a cornfield that most people have never heard of. And it's absolutely possible to have comparable skills and knowledge without a liberal arts degree, or any degree at all. A good high school education will cover a decent amount of the "how to think" stuff, so, yes, there is some classism/elitism to the idealization or expectation of a liberal arts education; it just starts much earlier than college.

When I meet someone who learns things quickly, makes connections, asks questions, looks beyond the surface, and can think outside of the perspective of themselves in their own country and decade, I don't instantly assume they have a college-level liberal arts education. But if they lack these things, I generally assume they don't.
posted by Metroid Baby at 5:05 AM on June 19, 2014 [3 favorites]

To me it seems that the average college education is a $100,000 extension of high school. I'd like to think that college graduates understand their subject matter and learned a survey of other subjects, but most importantly, I expect college graduates to use the Scientific Method and to have Critical Thinking skills. Most of the time, this is not the case.

We aren't seeing scholars, we're seeing grads who took those four years to go from larvae to pupae. They may be getting there, but they've got some time to go.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 5:53 AM on June 19, 2014

As the flip side of this question, if you encounter a college graduate with a Bachelor of Science degree, you should expect them to know calculus.

Unless it's been more than 10 years or so, in which case they may have forgotten.
posted by Huffy Puffy at 6:26 AM on June 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

My opinion: a liberal education is less about "what" and more about "how".

That is, I agree with posters above who have identified, not so much cultural or historical touchstones (although those are secondarily important), but method, process and, for lack of a better phrase, a "balanced world view" -- one which has been nurtured by contact with the great tradition of human learning across centuries and over continents.

A good university education teaches you how to think, how to read, and how to write: to think critically, to read insightfully and to write simply.
posted by tivalasvegas at 9:40 AM on June 19, 2014

On second thought, there's something else. I think a sense of love and wonder is necessary to be truly educated. You have to want to reach out to the world around you and you have to rejoice in the process of keeping your eyes open. That is what separates education from ignorance and from ideological indoctrination.
posted by tivalasvegas at 9:45 AM on June 19, 2014

The expectations for "college-educated" varies by major. There is no universal canon.

I would expect computer science majors to be able to reverse a string and to know a few data structures and algorithms.

The only expectation I would have of all graduates is around basic literacy and fluency in English and basic computer literacy. I would expect graduates of an English language institution to have sufficient English written and verbal communication skills to write professional emails and participate in meetings, regardless of mother tongue. I would also expect graduates to be able to use Google effectively. That's it.
posted by crazycanuck at 11:01 AM on June 19, 2014

To state a recurring thought in another way: you would expect American college graduates to have worn braces.

Like braces, college graduation is yet another effect of stable upbringing by well-educated and not-poor parents. College mostly projects the current social structure of the USA into another generation.
posted by batter_my_heart at 1:32 PM on June 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

So, I'll answer this in a bit of different way. I understand that 'humanities' has come to mean a great many things, and I sort of think it's often to the detriment both of the field and her students that this is so.

I went to a college that is sort of famous for their pretensions about "reading the canon." You take two years of common core literature/philosophy courses, a survey of art, survey of classical music, survey of science history. The idea is to get this general sense of the history of the (primarily Western) world (though most students end up taking a year survey of foundational Eastern texts as part of the core requirements as well), and to read the sort of foundational texts that, say, the founding fathers would have been familiar with. Or something. If you want the reading list, here's year 1 and year 2 (and if you poke around you can see the syllabi for the other survey courses). This approach to education seems to be along the lines of what you mean by a sort of traditional humanities education, though few schools have this sort of common curriculum anymore.

I am of two minds about it for sure. On the one hand, it is sort of bullshitty. I mean, who decides what the canon is? Why so-and-so and not this other person? And you can see from the reading lists, some of the choices are sort of WTH.

On the other hand - I'd be lying if I said there wasn't great value in having read some version of the canon, and I think it's a little odd to have received a humanities education from a university without having encountered most of these works in some capacity. It is hard to think of a comprehensive humanities education that doesn't include such seminal things as Plato, the Bible, Kant, etc., as so much of all the other work produced in the humanities (up to and including the present day) is so heavily influenced by these profound and era-defining works. Part of a good humanities education is learning to be able to put things in context, and so you do have to learn the contexts. You might go on to be really into pomo lit and rock music, but it's hard I think to fully appreciate those folks without knowing how they were able to evolve - like trying to read Joyce without Shakespeare and the Bible, or fully appreciate Miles Davis without knowing Beethoven and Bach, or Warhol without Caravaggio.

It is true that humanities educations these days tend to emphasize the 'how' over the 'what,' i.e. how to think critically as opposed to simply having read x, but you develop the critical thinking skills by actually reading the humanities and engaging with them. That's the work of the humanities education - just like you have to practice math to get any good at it, and have to do problems over and over again, so you have to read philosophy and literature and art criticism and practice thinking about them and arguing over them and wrestling with them to gain any skill at thinking critically about literature, art and philosophy.

The sciences were developed through steps - one discovery leading to another. And they are still largely taught this way. In physics you learn Newton before Einstein - how else would you do it? In the humanities, it is the same - philosophy was built up, not piled together, and so you do need to read Plato before you read Wittgenstein. And really, whether or not it is always the case, this is how the humanities, in my humble opinion, ought to be taught, and this is the value of the much maligned canon.
posted by Lutoslawski at 2:50 PM on June 19, 2014 [2 favorites]

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