What to Study?

Scott H. Young writes,

Assuming you were to fulfill that high-minded goal of education, how would you do it?

I find it doubtful that the traditional university curriculum would be the best way to do that. Probably the best way wouldn’t involve an institution at all, but be something you undertook on your own.

He proposes a curriculum in terms of 10 years. I have converted it into percentages:

30 percent immersion in foreign cultures
10 percent philosophy
5 percent religion
5 percent world history
20 percent math and sciences
10 percent art
5 percent music
5 percent meditation
5 percent economics and psychology
5 percent practical skills (carpentry, sewing, etc.)

My comments:

1. A lot depends on what you assume somebody knows when they leave high school. 3

2. A lot also depends on what you take to be the goal. Let us suppose that the goal is to learn in a well-rounded way.

3. Off the top of my head, some tweaks:

10 percent philosophy
15 percent math and sciences (emphasize statistics and biology, not so much advanced math or advanced physics)
5 percent world history
15 percent human culture (including economics, politics, sociology, and psychology)
10 percent arts and literature (art, music, dance, literature)
10 percent personal fitness (sports, exercise, meditation)
10 percent practical skills (include cooking, computer programming)
25 percent immersion in foreign cultures

4. Learning is social. Who are you spending time with? That is a major issue. I think that Tyler Cowen, who provided the pointer, would agree.

This entry was posted in Economics of Education, Tyler Cowen is my Favorite Blogger. Bookmark the permalink.

26 Responses to What to Study?

  1. Jon says:

    What you refer to as “human culture” I would term “human behavioral sciences.”

    You would allocate no time to learning about world religions? Some basic knowledge is a prerequisite to understanding human history, art, culture, and philosophy.

    • Roger Sweeny says:

      I assume that “human culture” includes religion, with an emphasis on behavior rather than doctrine.

  2. Handle says:

    Would you adjust those numbers if, instead of giving out well-meaning advice for autodidact individuals, you were in charge of, say, the typical four-year curriculum for today’s elite undergraduates?

    For example, would you target today’s most urgent intellectual pathologies, and perhaps bump up the human culture bit with more respect for markets and a lot more ‘technocratic humility’ (e.g., the knowledge / calculation / coordination problems, public choice, and the long history of Socialist disasters.) Maybe a series of courses on overcoming the problems created by the three languages of politics?

  3. Michael J Moran says:

    As an accounting major, some time learning accounting and business. How can the markets to allocate resources properly if you don’t teach people how to measure what is the proper allocation. This is also knowledge one is unlikely to learn on ones own.

  4. shrikanthk says:

    I’d say 5% world history is too little.
    Maybe 10-15% world history.

    Immersion in foreign cultures – it is not strictly necessary. It can be proxied by watching movies, and reading history.

    • Weir says:

      By going off-campus, by talking to strangers on public transport, by trekking out to the further reaches of all those cities that are otherwise too expensive for anyone except the wealthy white progressives who have made “flyover country” a foreign country.

  5. shrikanthk says:

    Also I feel rootedness and tradition are underrated.

    It’s good to immerse in foreign cultures, yes. But how deeply you understand your own? How many Americans are familiar with the founding fathers? How many are familiar with English Puritanism – the wellspring of American culture? How many of them like Baseball? How many of them read Twain and Henry James? Watch Jimmy Stewart and John Wayne?

    How many of them go to a church every Sunday?

    One has to first appreciate one’s own culture before you start visiting mosques or temples.

    By the way, I am a practising Indian Hindu. And I find American unfamilarity with American-ness startling.

    • Weir says:

      If you were raised in the culture of some hygienic, efficient international airport, then that really is your culture. Every airport is largely indistinguishable from the others, but that’s what you know and what you were brought up with.

  6. Zane Gray says:

    Appalling low levels of science and math. Surely those are the essence of learning to obtain knowledge on your own throughout life. Neglecting them to this extent is crazy.

    • Handle says:

      The vast majority of even smart people simply don’t have any capacity or use for anything beyond basic mathematics. And frankly, even statistics in the hands of anyone other than someone with top mathematical skills and understanding has proven to be a recipe for intellectual disaster (which is another good argument for the requirement of publication of full data sets instead of just summarizing statistics.)

      Math and Physics have some of the highest status in the academic world for a variety of good reasons. When people think of “genius” those are the folks they often things about as archetypal examples. And with justification.

      But the trouble is that, as usual, high status attracts imitation and creates a measure by which people can compete to show off their impressiveness. So everybody outside those fields is tempted to introduce the appearance of a lot of “math-physics-engineering” intellectual patterns in their work.

      But that’s outside the Safe Operating Envelope of those patterns, and applies them to disciplines where they don’t belong, and where they are bound to produce inaccurate and erroneous results, but with the impression and imprimatur of scientific high confidence and authoritative objectivity.

      Disrupting this Social Failure would be a step in the direction of progress.

  7. Jeff R. says:

    Practical skills and immersion in foreign culture ought to swap percentages, in my mind.

    • JK Brown says:

      You are correct. In today’s world, the knowledge of practical skills cannot be assumed. Forty, fifty years ago, a student had to have far more practical knowledge just to get to school or survive daily life. A century ago, the body of assumed practical knowledge is huge compared to today. Knowledge of how to handle horses, maintain a fire, judge the approaching weather, etc., was necessary just to get to school sometimes.

      I found the list of suggested subjects for incoming college freshmen for a first exposition on a extemporaneous familiar topic in the Freshman Rhetoric book referenced below to be revealing if you consider what would be on a list of assumed familiar topics for a freshman in 2017. Today the average college freshman can’t be assumed to have the practical knowledge of the most pampered daughter of a wealthy family of 1917.

      Freshman Rhetoric, John Rothwell Slater, Ph.D. Professor of Rhetoric and English Literature in the University of Rochester, (1913)

  8. JK Brown says:

    Well, a prerequisite of what to study is learning how to study. From the very beginning of formal education, what is rewarded is game show knowledge, “name 6 reasons for the industrial revolution”, etc. Real study is brooding, halting, seeking out multiple sources, determining the relative importance and relationship of the facts, developing ones own opinion of the information before considering the opinions of others, etc. Some, the “smart” students arrive at some manner of this as a matter of survival. Many times the studying skill will only apply to schoolwork or even particular subjects. Other students reach the end of the more muscular studying techniques they adopted and slip behind and the schools label them as “C” students or worse.

    “What to study?” is to open-ended. One should study everything. But one cannot effectively study everything. The question of what to study must be tempered with the first element of studying, the provision for a specific purpose. What to study to become a knowledgeable citizen of a liberal democracy is a very different question from what to study to gain favor and advancement is a socialist paradise. What to study to understand an France, Germany or Russia is very different from what to study to develop an appreciation of the world history that shaped the birth and development of the United States.

    But all the “what to study” benefit from learning “how to study.” Until the 1960s, Western civilization and the Great Books were used as a complex and thought provoking body to develop the student’s ability to study. As Progressives gained greater control over the education system, they concentrated on altering what was studied and suppressing any individual efforts to develop strong ability to study. Perhaps out of evil intent, but more likely because the credentialed, but uneducated, academics and “educators” saw the shiny surface of what and could not fathom the underlying how that was the greater goal.

  9. Charles W. Abbott says:


    Many people don’t learn it in college. Even though I learned some in college and grad school I still feel like I don’t know enough and am easily duped. And Nassim Nicholas Taleb (among others) has made me aware of how ignorant I am, or blinkered, based on assumptions that things are distributed normally even though some variables obviously are non-normally distributed.

    Charles Murray said (probably in _Real Education_) that when he speaks to a room of people with 4 year college degress he still can’t assume a rudimentary knowledge of statistics.

    = – = – = – = – =

    Less Sociology and more Economic History.

    Less Trigonometry and more Probability.

    = – = – = – =

    World History:

    Not just “World History” but also some World Geography–knowledge of world biomes and climatology (which drives the biomes), so that one realizes that it’s easy to grow corn in tropical Africa but not wheat, and that must of Africa remains very Black pheonotypically because of the disease burden (mostly malaria).

    North America is a some sense a neo-Europe–many parts of the world are not and never will be.

    In World History / World Geography, other things to know would be migrations–there is a Black Atlantic now, but there wasn’t 600 years ago. The steppe and pastoralists used to be more of a factor in the rise and fall of dynasties.

    Also something along the lines of Bucky Fuller’s notion of the core of civilization tended to move over time

    = – = – = – =
    Politics / History

    Something along the lines of how unusual republican government is–in Europe monarchies were common. Outside Venice and the Netherlands and Switzerland, durable republics were almost unknown. But of course ours will last for a long time–what could go wrong?

    = – = – = – =


    Some economics, including basic familiarity with macro-eonomic vocabularly (but perhaps eschewing doctrinaire policy prescriptions, such as the soft Keynesiansism in Samuelson-Nordhaus textbooks).

    Some grounding in micro theory, just the basic sort of price theory that is not too hard to drill into the heads of the motivated learner.

    Math far enough to grasp functional notation and understand multiple regression models.

    Comparative religion as Prothero has argued.

    = – = – =

    Immersion in a foreign culture–hard to say.

    The “immersion in foreign culture” is a hard thing to argue for. Even now, many people in the USA never leave the country, or barely do so. It’s not necessary, nor is it rational to do so. Get out of the top quintile of the USA and you will meet middle aged people who have never crossed the Mississippi River, never driven across the country, never had to get a driver ‘s license in a different state, never flown to Europe, never owned a passport. Perhaps there is an exception for military service, but other than that travel is a luxury.

    Our hypothetical students are really supposed to spend 30% of their education on “immersion in a foreign culture?” We need to decide what this education is for–is it a luxury good? Or is it for the common man / woman?

    Travel is broadening, it’s true

    I am reminded of Adam Smith’s claim that for many young men from good families, the Grand Tour was an utter waste of time and little benefited the people who embarked on it. Sometimes youths just picked up bad habits along the way.

    = – = – = – =

    Novels and Literature and Philosophy

    I’m agnostic. The liberal arts are liberating–as argued by Earl Shorris. I wouldn’t disdain it.


  10. Kevin Dick says:

    From my perspective, thinking in terms of percentages is flawed. You want to think in terms of the minimum level of mastery. For some people in some subjects, achieving this level may take little time. For others, the opposite.

    The place where percentages matter is the allocation between minimum mastery and topics that interest the individual. I’d say you should spend no less than 1/3 of your time exploring topics that interest you. The role of the institution in this time is to mentor you and point out connections between those topics and others that you might want to explore.

  11. Weir says:

    Right now the existing curriculum is 92.3 percent attitudinizing.

    It’s going to take a huge uphill battle to make a dent in that figure, because for the kids who want to be rich and successful, this is precisely the education they’re paying for. Ambitious, careerist professionals need to know how to fit in with and win the approval of other ambitious, careerist professionals.

    Excellent Sheep is the title of the William Deresiewicz book about this, but you could google his old articles in The American Scholar or The New Republic.

    The New Republic is a case in point since it was purged, only months later, of every subversive element that might be suspected of undermining solidarity and cohesion.

  12. John Dougan says:

    My belief is that you can drop trig from HS, it is mostly used for algebra practice leading in to calculus, and substitute basic probability and stats using “How to Lie With Statistics” as one of the texts. I think the important point is to not make the average student a statistician but to impress upon them how it can go very wrong, either accidentally or deliberately. I’d be happy if most of the class could look at a poll online in a news source and be able to see if it passes the most basic sanity checks. (sample size, questions asked, selection method for respondents, availability of poll data, etc.)

    • Handle says:

      Unfortunately, this suggestion incorporates an idealistic but inaccurate view of how even most statistically-educated people process media messages, which is not with their “skeptical scrutiny” shields up, as if they are buying a used car (with the exception of when the reporting is on a subject concerning their particular expertise. See: Gell-Mann amnesia.)

      Instead, most people are using ideologically-tribal filters: trying to synchronize with what other tribe members believe, and applying confirmation bias to information which helps their sides’ narrative, and disconfirmation bias to anything which helps the other side. Motivated credulity, and motivated skepticism.

      Most educated people are well aware of the problem with statistical word games, and indeed, most of them are pretty good at playing it when it’s in their interest. Have you ever read a self-assessment prior to conducting a performance evaluation of a subordinate. Trust me, people know how to abuse technically accurate statistics to create inaccurate impressions, and they are aware that lots of people do it lots of the time.

      Indeed, they are also good at trotting those statistics-skeptical explanations out when they need to rationalize the unreflective rejection of information that would be good for the bad-team, without any regard for whether the principle has been applied correctly or not.

      Thus, there’s really nothing to be gained from using education to try and reinforce that particular message about statistics. It wouldn’t help.

      • John Dougan says:

        Geez, Handle….I guess you don’t eat, because it wouldn’t solve the whole problem and you’d just have to eat again later.

        Of course people use filters and “How to lie with statistics” wouldn’t completely solve the problems. I just think we would be in a slightly better place than now, or as the Yanks would say, “move the ball down the field”. My stats education was pretty bad in that respect, and that seems to be common amongst “most statistically-educated people”, so perhaps we can remove one more excuse. Also, your point about “Gell-Mann amnesia” doesn’t support the rest of the argument. If we can make people a bit more competent in stats maybe, on the margins, they will be a bit more likely to see a bad stats argument as they might for bad arguments they have other expertise on. “Gell-Mann amnesia” is a continuous function, not discrete.

        This is an economics blog, so I’m allowed to make arguments about changes on the margin. ;-)

        I suspect would also be useful for supporting the later education in the parts of the sciences where a significant chunk of the replication problem appears to be a bad stats education that treats stats as a magical validation machine (Instant p-values < 0.05! Just add a search process!). I'd also be happier if, realizing their ignorance, more non-statisticians went and used a statistician to help validate their research approach.

  13. Craig says:

    I guest because none of you has serve in the military or know of someone who has or you would have put the study of war on the list.

    • Charles W. Abbott says:

      I was thinking of that after the fact–but my post was long winded enough already.

      The absence of any knowledge of military history, combined with absence of basic history and geography, combined with the absence of anything approaching universal male conscription, is not a recipe for the the lengthy survival of the republic.

      all of the founding fathers would be alarmed, methinks. They saw most republics ending because of costly wars. One solution was to vest the ability to declare war in Congress. It’s not enough.

      • Charles W. Abbott says:

        I have seen good op ed columns saying that the discipline of history as taught in American universities is too driven by race/class/gender along with social and cultural history, and political history is still there, but there is less and less knowledge of military history that the average diligent student would pick up, even as a history major.

  14. sam Abd says:

    I suspect would also be useful for supporting the later education in the parts of the sciences where a significant chunk of the replication problem appears to be a bad stats education that treats stats as a magical validation machine (Instant p-values < 0.05! Just add a search process!). I'd also be happier if, realizing their ignorance, more non-statisticians went and used a statistician to help validate their research approach.


  15. djf says:

    I’m not sure what “immersion in foreign cultures” – which ones? and to what end? – is supposed to accomplish that would not be more efficiently accomplished by the study of world history and the political systems, philosophies, literatures and religions of other cultures – if done without ideological skewing. The current educational zeitgeist seems to be inculcating the false impression that all forms of social perfidy are the exclusive invention of Western Civilization and/or Christianity (for example, imperialism by nonwestern cultures somehow does not count as “imperialism”), and that medieval Islamic civilization, in particular, is the highpoint of human achievement, with the West somehow being at fault for having made greater progress over the last 800 years.

    It used to be understood that one goal of general education was to inculcate particular knowledge of, and loyalty to, the society’s own civilization (while acknowledging its faults and continuing problems). At some point, this idea seems to have been entirely discarded in the West, although not in other cultures.

  16. Jeremy, Alabama says:

    You start with something like this


    maybe change out Vol 30, on science, with something more modern. But then again, it’s not about the science, it is about the writing and the thinking.

    The purpose of the classical education is to acquire suppleness of mind, and to bring you to a shared understanding, argued by the greatest thinkers of the last two and a half millenium, concerning the major questions of life, art, science, travel, religion. It should be revisited every century or so.

    This is our culture, and it is of no use to Van Jones and the countless other radicals who set the educational agenda for the US.

    This is our culture, but it was abandoned decades ago, replaced by global warming, queer studies, deconstructionism and Karl Marx. It is no surprise to me that modern youth riots to prevent Charles Murray from speaking on their campus.

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