Bryan Caplan  

A Modest Proposal for Wannabe Humanities Profs

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From the Vault: My 2006 Piece ... Rules and Culture...
False hope is not a free lunch.  I've said it before:
I suspect that students with who believe in malleable intelligence are more likely to go to graduate school despite low test scores. They'll probably get better grades because of their belief. But better is often not good enough. Belief in malleable intelligence is no free lunch - it could easily lead students to waste years of their lives trying and failing.
Thomas Benton at the Chronicle of Higher Education agrees with a missionary's zeal.  Prospective humanities Ph.D.'s have...
...been praised their whole lives, and no one has ever told them that they may not become what they want to be, that higher education is a business that does not necessarily have their best interests at heart. Sometimes they accuse me of being threatened by their obvious talent. I assume they go on to find someone who will tell them what they want to hear: "Yes, my child, you are the one we've been waiting for all our lives." It can be painful, but it is better that undergraduates considering graduate school in the humanities should know the truth now, instead of when they are 30 and unemployed, or worse, working as adjuncts at less than the minimum wage under the misguided belief that more teaching experience and more glowing recommendations will somehow open the door to a real position.
Again:

Maybe thinking of graduate school as a "cult" is silly...

Still the semantic game seems worth playing when I talk with idealistic, vulnerable humanities majors who are about to complete their B.A.'s and have no idea what they are going to do with their lives. They have been flattered and encouraged by faculty members whom they respect, and who believe (as cult members do) that they are doing a good thing by recruiting young people for graduate school: "You're too smart to go into business, my child."

But Benton goes too far.  If you want to study the humanities for a living, you don't have to abandon your dream.  Just learn some math, get an econ Ph.D., and call your research "economics of whatever"!  Yes, this strategy won't work if everyone tries it, but why not take advantage of the continuing disequilibrium?

HT: Tyler


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COMMENTS (10 to date)
Josh Weil writes:

How do you know there is a disequilibrium in econ Ph.Ds?

Norman writes:

This may sound snobbish, but are you *trying* to make refereeing journals more painful?? Why would you encourage more researchers of dubious skill to send more research of dubious quality through the refereeing process??

Fabio Rojas writes:

I think there's a simple answer: discipline police. Sure, maybe a a few people can get away with "the economics of whatever." But honestly, how many such people can there be? Wouldn't hiring committees balk at taking too many "economics of whatever" folks? Wouldn't journal editors limit the number of "whatever" papers and this make mobility and raises impossible? The discipline police would crack down.

If it comes to similar social sciences, you may have a point. I've read many econ papers that are more or less soc or poli sci papers with a few "du/dx=0" in them and an identification. And you do see these people in econ and other programs.

But would this work for a philosopher? Or someone who cares about poetry? Seems unlikely. Also, even if you could write about the "economoics of poetry," it would have to not be about the aesthetics and more about prices.

Jesse writes:

Yes, let us have more economics PhDs please. I don't see anything delusional about that. Then you can use your new educational credential to make broad philosophical arguments about how broad philosophical arguments are useless and we should just let the market decide.

Ryan Vann writes:

Ouch aptly put Jesse.

Dan Hill writes:

"learn some math"

There's the rub. That's like a real subject that you can't BS your way through!

Floccina writes:

Perhaps if people learned something broadly useful for life in each of these disciplines it would help. It would also help if that knowledge could not be obtained elsewhere. I think that we school funders (reluctant as we may be) should always ask what is it that people do not know that if they knew it would have the most positive impact on their lives per effort learning it.

Marcus writes:

"You're too smart to go into business, my child."

Is this really the attitude of academia toward business?

The situation is worse for someone like me, with a Ph.D. in the humanities, who believes literally the opposite of everything everyone else in the humanities believes. Probably would have been a good idea to do the Ph.D. in economics thing. Except that when I actually looked into it, I was discouraged from it at every turn. In the meantime, I am attending conferences on spontaneous orders, colloquia on Hayek, and am being invited to summarize my work for a spontaneous orders in cognition journal. All good stuff, but one can't live on the pay.

So if anyone here knows of someone looking for a Ph.D. in the humanities who is an expert on spontaneous orders and other self-organizing, complex adaptive systems, let me know.

Bob Calder writes:

The Dismal Profession could certainly use the clear writing that could result.

However, the offsetting belief in fairy tales would reinforce the existing tendency.

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