The Value Of Liberal Arts Skills

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An interesting article in USA Today reports on a study confirming the intuition that the sorts of skills honed by – or at least needed to do well in – a liberal arts education gives people a leg up in life:

Recent college graduates who as seniors scored highest on a standardized test to measure how well they think, reason and write — skills most associated with a liberal arts education — were far more likely to be better off financially than those who scored lowest, says the survey, released Wednesday by the Social Science Research Council, an independent organization.

It found that students who had mastered the ability to think critically, reason analytically and write effectively by their senior year were:

•Three times less likely to be unemployed than those who hadn’t (3.1% vs. 9.6%).

•Half as likely to be living with their parents (18% vs. 35%).

•Far less likely to have amassed credit card debt (37% vs. 51%).

Grades and other factors influence a student’s chances of success, too. Graduates of colleges with tougher admissions standards tended to have fewer debts and were less likely to live with their parents, the study found.

A report this month by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, which studies the labor-market value of college degrees, found that recent graduates with a bachelor’s degree in architecture had the highest average jobless rate (13.9%, vs. 8.9% for all recent college graduates). Education and health care majors had some of the lowest jobless rates.

The findings released Wednesday “show something new and different,” says lead author Richard Arum, a New York University professor. “Students would do well to appreciate the extent to which their development of general skills, not just majors and institution attended, is related to successful adult transitions.”

This is likely be a morale-boost for many university professors, who tend to feel under-appreciated and certainly underpaid. Unfortunately, there is no data on whether those high-scoring students picked up their liberal arts skills in college, or whether they’d already entered college with them-

Arum also cautions that the study doesn’t speak to whether high-scoring graduates picked up their skills while in college. It follows up on research last year showing that 36% of college graduates showed few or no gains in learning between their freshman and senior years.

It would be nice to know what proportion of that 36% showing few or no gains in learning over their college years were in the high-scoring group, and whether the sort of learning tested in that previous study focused on skills or discipline-specific knowledge; without this further information, little can be inferred from the juxtaposition of the two studies.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier… Iranian Scientist?

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In case you haven’t heard, another Iranian scientist who was perhaps working on nuclear issues has been killed in Tehran. Reuters reports-

TEHRAN, Jan 12 (Reuters) – An Iranian nuclear scientist was blown up in his car by a motorbike hitman, prompting Tehran to blame Israeli and U.S. agents but insist the killing would not derail a nuclear programme that has raised fears of war and threatened world oil supplies.

The fifth daylight attack on technical experts in two years, the magnetic bomb delivered a targeted blast to the door of 32-year-old Mostafa Ahmadi-Roshan’s car during Wednesday’s morning rush-hour. The chemical engineer’s driver also died, Iranian media said, and a passer-by was slightly hurt.

Israel, whose military chief said on Tuesday that Iran could expect to suffer more mysterious mishaps, declined comment. The White House, struggling for Chinese and Russian help on economic sanctions, denied any U.S. role and condemned the attack.

While Israeli or Western involvement seemed eminently plausible to independent analysts, a role for local Iranian factions or other regional interests engaged in a deadly shadow war of bluff and sabotage could not be ruled out.

That last paragraph, which grudgingly admits that there are at least two competing explanations, is to Reuters’ credit. All of the pundits I’ve heard discussing this homicide have simply assumed that Israel is responsible, given the circumstantial evidence: targeted assassinations fit Israel’s modus operandi, and no doubt there is a continuous covert war ongoing between Israel and at least Iran’s proxies. But, having seen Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy recently, I can’t help but wonder…

Normally I deride conspiratorial thinking, but in this case I’ll make an exception, just to make a point. Has it struck anyone as odd that the Israeli defense minister apparently telegraphed this killing the day before it happened? Might it not have given the Iranians (or some Iranian faction) the opportunity to kill Ahmadi-Roshan and conveniently blame it on Israel? But why, you ask, would the Iranians kill their own scientist? Well, who knows? Maybe they suspected him of spying for Israel, the U.S., or some Sunni Arab state (the Sunnis fear the Iranian mullahs almost as much as Israel does). Or maybe he was not particularly valuable to them, and they killed him just for the sake of further driving a wedge between Israel and the West? Almost all the pundits, after suggesting that Israel was the likely culprit, go on to point out that a strategy of killing scientists, besides being morally reprehensible, is hardly likely to slow down Iran’s nuclear program much, and it gives Iran a huge propaganda advantage. But they fail to draw the obvious conclusion: that maybe – just maybe – Israel didn’t do it.

So we have at least two competing, somewhat plausible (and somewhat implausible) possibilities here, but so far no firm evidence for either of them. My point is not that we should believe that the Iranians did it; that would be nearly as irrational as, say, the 9/11 conspiracy theories. Rather, it is that we should feel comfortable putting neither forth as even “probable”, at least without further information.

Could someone please tell the pundits that?

To Tweet Or Not To Tweet…

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…that IS the question, these days. And although I’m not one to partake of the latest internet fad (just search this blog for my posts on Facebook), I’ve taken to announcing my Blog Here Now posts on Twitter. May the Gods of unabbreviated writing have mercy on my semi-literate soul…

Follow me @herzberglarry.

We Might As Well Be Cars

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USA Today had an interesting story a few days ago on the attitude of a growing number of Americans towards God, Religion, and Athesim: So What?.

Researchers have begun asking the kind of nuanced questions that reveal just how big the So What set might be:

•44% told the 2011 Baylor University Religion Survey they spend no time seeking “eternal wisdom,” and 19% said “it’s useless to search for meaning.”

•46% told a 2011 survey by Nashville-based evangelical research agency, LifeWay Research, they never wonder whether they will go to heaven.

•28% told LifeWay “it’s not a major priority in my life to find my deeper purpose.” And 18% scoffed at the idea that God has a purpose or plan for everyone.

•6.3% of Americans turned up on Pew Forum’s 2007 Religious Landscape Survey as totally secular — unconnected to God or a higher power or any religious identity and willing to say religion is not important in their lives.

Hemant Mehta, who blogs as The Friendly Atheist, calls them the “apatheists”

Mariann Edgar Budde, Episcopal Bishop of Washington D.C., calls them honest.

“We live in a society today where it is acceptable now to say that they have no spiritual curiosity. At almost any other time in history, that would have been unacceptable,” Budde says. She finds this “very sad, because the whole purpose of faith is to be a source of guidance, strength and perspective in difficult times. To be human is to have a sense of purpose, an awareness that our life is an utterly unique expression of creation and we want to live it with meaning, grace and beauty.”

Nah, Helton says. Helton, a high school band teacher in Chicago, only goes to the Roman Catholic Church of his youth to hear his mother sing in the choir.

His mind led him away. The more Helton read evolutionary psychology and neuro-psychology, he says, the more it seemed to him, “We might as well be cars. That, to me, makes more sense than believing what you can’t see.”

Well, okay… as long as I can be a Model S Tesla

Now, normally I’d be happy to see growing skepticism about religious beliefs (and, for that matter, about atheism as a sort of metaphysical dogma). But this sort of “apatheism” seems to have more to do with intellectual laziness than well-reasoned doubt. It certainly doesn’t follow from the failure of religious dogma to answer the deepest questions of existence that “we might as well be cars”. The dilemma between simple-minded religion and simple-minded materialism has always been false, but the growing (literal) awesomeness of physics and cosmology has never before made the mysteriousness of existence so clear.

Let’s just take a brief moment to appreciate how amazing it is that we’re thinking about the universe together on this blog… here… now…

Grand Spiral Galaxy NGC 1232, courtesy of NASA

For more awesomeness, visit NASA’s Astronomy Picture of the Day Archive

Blog Here Now, Be Here Now

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Those of you “of a certain age” are no doubt well aware of where I got the idea for the name of this blog: Ram Dass’s famous book, “Be Here Now”, one of the holy books of the late 1960s and early 1970s “counterculture”. And if you have read much of this blog, I’m sure you also recognize that the similarity of the titles is probably the only thing Blog Here Now and Be Here Now have in common. Part of the reason for this is that, while I very much respect the insights delivered by forms of Hinduism, Buddhism, and Taoism (and the practices of meditation upon which they’re based), I don’t have much to say about those insights. In fact, I tend to think that the more one talks about them, the less insightful they seem. That’s not the fault of the insights, it’s just a result of the limits of languages and the conceptual schemes they encode. Poetry, music, and the visual arts do a better job of communicating the insights than language. But two well-educated intellectuals (or counter-intellectuals) of the mid-20th century, Ram Dass and Alan Watts, probably have done the best jobs of trying to communicate them in English. I tend to gravitate more towards Watts’ approach than Dass’s, because Watts “clothes” the insights in less religious language, and when he does use religious language, he goes out of his way to clarify what he means by it. Dass, however, perhaps more faithfully translates aspects of the Hindu tradition into English.

If you have never seen Mickey Lemle’s documentary, “Ram Dass: Fierce Grace“, which deals with how Ram Dass “transacted” – and continues to transact – with a life-altering stroke, I want to take this opportunity to recommend it to you. Here’s the poster for the film-

I think it’s particularly relevant to aging baby boomers such as myself. The way he managed, painfully, to integrate his neo-Hindu insights with his stroke is truly impressive and inspiring. Who knows when each of us might be similarly challenged?

What got me thinking about Ram Dass was an email I received from Noah Te Stroete, a former student of mine and one of the few regular commenters on this blog. It turns out that Noah has an artistic talent of which I was previously unaware: he’s quite a painter! Here’s his portrait of Ram Dass (which, I think, beautifully captures the man’s “spirit”)-

Portrait of Ram Dass

"Ram Dass", by Noah Te Stroete

Lawrence Lessig’s Learned Lesson: Lucre-Lust Leverages Legislation

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I’ve now heard Lawrence Lessig speak several times about the need to rid our politics of the influence of moneyed interests. His new book, “Republic, Lost: How Money Corrupts Congress–and a Plan to Stop It” sounds like it’s well worth reading. And if I had any time for any elective reading, I’d elect to read it immediately. But I don’t. So it seems that the next best thing for us time-challenged folks is to watch this video of a slideshow presentation he recently gave, outlining the book’s main points (with rapidly edited visual aids to help keep the attention-challenged tuned in). It seems like a good way to start off this election year-