One Practical Benefit of a Liberal Arts Education: Knowing What You Know

"Why doesn't a philosophy professor need an umbrella?" went the old campus joke. "He can just presume it's not raining." Funny on campus; less so in the board room.
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My bachelor's degree -- with majors in management and economics -- was earned at a liberal arts college (then St. Andrews Presbyterian College, now St. Andrews University, a branch of Webber International University). And, there's no disputing that the subject matter served me well... while, like every freshly minted college graduate, I was in for a rude awakening my first day on the job, I had a substantial and relevant foundation. But there was benefit beyond the degree -- benefit available to any student irrespective of his or her major, by virtue of the educational philosophy. And, part of this benefit, and one that has served me well, is the ability to know what one knows.

I spend most of my time in Florida, where we have a very controversial amendment on the ballot for our upcoming election. Of the literally hundreds of people who have expressed an opinion to me, often an opinion that is going to drive how he or she votes, exactly one had actually read the amendment. Irrespective of how one feels about the issue, there is a distinct difference between knowing what the commercials say the amendment says and actually knowing what the amendment says. And, fun though it is to pick on Christians for believing this or Moslems for believing that, rare is the person on the soapbox who has actually read the text, even a translated version, much less the Greek, Hebrew, or Arabic versions. And, again, there is a definitive difference between knowing what someone has said the fundamental principles are and actually reading what the fundamental principles are. And, there's even a bigger difference between knowing the fundamental principles and inferring the principles from the expressions and/or behavior of someone who might know them from having actually read them, or might just know what someone said they were. And, then, even worse, are the things we claim to just know a-priori.

Math and science are not my areas of expertise, but I do read articles in the popular press and, if something really interests me, the occasional abstract, and based on this, it appears to me that there are very few things we know a-priori. So, as long as mathematicians and quantum mechanics post-docs with great knowledge in the subject matter debate the possibility of factoring very large numbers, I'm going to remain skeptical that you actually know Bitcoin is absolutely uncrackable. And, having recently had a sleepless night preparing to say goodbye to our dog after not one but two veterinarians told us "he's a boxer; he has a brain tumor," don't even get me started on the difference between stereotypes and actual knowledge of particular individual or situation (he does not -- and I'm relatively sure I know this because I read the science behind the tests subsequently and know the probabilities of a false negative -- have a brain tumor). Inference is, by definition, an imperfect way to approximate knowledge.

And that is one extraordinarily valuable practical benefit of a liberal arts education: knowing what you know (and, conversely, what you do not). Having been forced in college to read the English translation of The Communist Manifesto, I actually know what Marx and Engels had in mind. Having been forced to read portions of the Bible, the Koran, and the Bhagavad Gita doesn't make me an expert on any of these religions, but it does give me a grasp of the key fundamental beliefs of the religions subscribed to by the majority of the world's inhabitants. Conversely, having bothered to learn nothing of their beliefs, I know nothing about Druidism. And, beyond knowledge, even the framework of knowledge is important: Having learned the difference between "valid" and "sound" has been worth its weight in gold. Having had a couple of near misses in my own career by presenting someone else's numbers as correct without actually knowing them to be so, I cannot help but think of the careers that might not have ended had someone known to preface what he or she was about to say with "assuming that the assumptions are correct correct..."

"Why doesn't a philosophy professor need an umbrella?" went the old campus joke. "He can just presume it's not raining." Funny on campus; less so in the board room. And, knowing that the math behind public key cryptology and the biology behind recombinant cures for cancer are just beyond my technical ability are understandings of my own limitations which circumscribe my utterances of a-priori knowledge about things I just cannot understand, much less know, thereby saving me much embarrassment when amongst my friends who do actually know about such things.

Subject matter aside, teaching students to know what they know (and, conversely, what they do not know) is one of the great benefits of a liberal arts education. The continuum between what one knows, what one thinks he or she knows from inference, what one has been told by third parties, and what one thinks simply because it is what one thinks is even more important in the workplace than it is in the classroom. And, fun though the childhood game telephone is, in real life, the consequences of using an accounting of an interpretation of an accounting versus the actual source document can be severe.

Having hired a bunch of people, having fired a bunch of people, making decision about people's careers on a daily basis, I'm here to tell you that knowing what you know is a valuable, valuable talent. And, having gotten a good foundation of it at a liberal arts college (with a bit of painful remediation in the real world), I'm here to tell you that college is a far cheaper place to learn this than is the workplace.

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