What Liberal Arts Education Is For
A Manifesto

In college, I took a class called The Letters of Paul. I took it for two very good reasons:

  1. I was (and am) named Paul.
  2. The prof, Cal Roetzel, was (and is) cool.

I didn’t figure it was an especially practical course. It was for fun, for the challenge, for the cultural knowledge, for the pleasure of doing it.

The class turned out to be more or less “A Letter (singular) of Paul:” we spent the semester reading Paul’s letter to the Romans, at a rate of about 3 sentences per week. Per week! Why so slow? Because we read multiple translations of each of those sentences, and multiple commentaries on them, spanning many centuries — plus a bit of social and historical context. Slow, diligent, careful. And…

We asked, over and over: What do we think Paul was thinking, given that he chose those words? What do we think each translator and each commentator thought Paul was thinking? Why do we think they thought he was thinking that? Does it really make sense for Paul to have thought that? For us to think they thought he thought that? A theory of mind hall of mirrors!

At the heart of the course was this question: What can we learn about what other people are thinking, about their mental models of the world, by paying very careful attention to the words they use?

I loved that course, but thought it had no particular relevance to my career as a software developer…until I started encountering text like this (from a presentation by Lenore Zuck):

Section 2.7.6: Security (~ page 10)
“If the system sends a signal hot then send a message to the operator.”

Section 9.3.4: Temperatures (~ page 150)
“If the system sends a signal hot and T>600, then send a message to the operator.”

Summary of critical aspects (~ page 650)
“When the temperature is maximum, the system should display a message on the screen unless no operator is on the site except when T<600.”

It sounds precise at first, doesn’t it? Read it carefully, though. You’ll start to notice that it is unclear, even self-contradictory. It is unclear in ways that only authorial intent can resolve. Somebody wrote this. What did they mean? What did they want? What problem were they solving? A developer could resolve the ambiguity unilaterally by guessing what the words mean, and they could build something that way — but it’s unlikely it would be a satisfactory something.

When I’m on a software project, I try to listen hard to what everyone is saying, to the words they choose. “Don’t blame me! They asked for it!” is never good enough. I ask critical questions about what people are really thinking, what we’re all hearing each other say, from the start.

Why? Code is a whole lot easier to change before it exists.

I’ve saved many companies on many projects a whole lot of money (and heartache) by using the skills of close reading and critical questioning to nip misunderstandings and hidden assumptions in the bud early. Skills I honed in a Religious Studies course.

“Liberal arts” doesn’t mean what people think it means

Here’s the hidden truth of education: You don’t know what you’re preparing for.

You don’t know. Your teacher doesn’t know. Your school doesn’t know. Your future employer doesn’t know. Nobody knows. Not really.

Much of what you’re preparing for doesn’t even exist yet. We hope it doesn’t exist: don’t we educate students in the hope that they will make the world better by changing it? By creating new realities?

Doesn’t that mean education is impossible? Not at all! Because we’ve learned over time that there are kinds of learning that help people prepare for an unknown and unknowable future world. Not just specific skills or subjects, but kinds of learning: approaches rooted in curiosity, exploration, seeing closely, questioning, critical examination, taking multiple perspectives, using multiple kinds of tools, synthesis, communication, dialogue, relationships. Learning like that has a solid track record of mattering in the long term, often in surprising ways. We can do that learning with joy and confidence in its value if we accept that we will only understand its specific utility in hindsight.

Is a Religious Studies course “for” a software career? Well, is a Computer Science course “for” a software career? That Religious Studies course applied to my software career in exactly the same way that my Algorithms course applied: I rarely use (and have largely forgotten) the specific knowledge from it; I use its approach, its patterns of thought, constantly.

There is always a tension in education between teaching the knowably practical and the unknowably valuable.

That first kind of education, the knowably practical, we generally call “vocational education:” specific knowledge we believe students will need for specific reasons in a very specific future. That kind of knowledge is often the primary barrier around entering a specific career, solving a specific problem, or occupying a specific place in the world. We might learn it in class, or in training, or in an online tutorial, or from fumbling our way through a problem and picking it up as we go. Vocational education takes all those forms. Its utility tends to be immediate but ephemeral.

That second kind of education — learning that will be valuable in unknowable ways in an unknowable future — has a name, too. It is liberal arts education.

Contrary to popular belief, “liberal arts” does not mean “humanities and fine arts.” I teach liberal arts computer science courses. Read that sentence again: I teach liberal arts computer science courses. I don’t assume that the only thing I’m preparing my students for is a software career. Yes, often I am! Yes, there is a vocational element to what I teach, and it matters — but it is only a part of the teaching, and more a seed or an anchoring point than a destination. Software industry career preparation neither constrains nor fulfills my teaching. I am preparing whole students for their whole lives, in ways neither they nor I can know in the moment. Liberal arts education.

It’s possible to get a liberal arts education in comp sci — and it’s possible to get non-liberal-arts education in the arts or humanities. Preparing for an orchestral career with a degree from Curtis is a great example of that: you are going to graduate ready to kick ass in the very specific, very competitive job of playing in a top-tier orchestra. Whatever other growth you happen to find as a human being is up to you; if you choose a different path in life, who knows if that education helped? Not the goal. Not liberal arts. A stellar education that serves its purpose well, no doubt! Just not liberal arts.

Liberal arts is an educational philosophy, an attitude, not a set of disciplines.

Of course the “I didn’t realize learning X would be applicable to Y!” phenomenon exists everywhere in education, inside and outside of school. (School is a subset of education.) What “liberal arts” means is centering that serendipity, making it not just a happy coincidence but a primary goal. It’s about preparing students with the expectation that they’ll have to adapt to an unknown future they’re helping to shape.

There’s a history behind that, one with an ugly side — and a tough lesson for us now.

The past isn’t even past

Do you know where the term “liberal arts” comes from? Despite studying at a liberal arts college, I didn’t find out until many years after I graduated. I knew it didn’t mean politically liberal. I long assumed it meant “liberal” as in “all-inclusive” or something…but no. The original Latin phrase, artes liberalis, roughly means “skills or practiced principles worthy of a free person.”

Free as in taking a fully privileged part in civic life.

Free as in self-determining.

Free as in not a servant or a slave.

If a person lives a life of servitude, if they are enslaved, don’t they need only vocational education? If their human existence has no utility beyond their job, if they cannot shape their world or create new paths through it, then why do they need anything but immediately practical skills? Why teach them things we know they don’t need? Isn’t it only free, fully privileged, self-determining people who also need a liberal arts education?

Think about that. Think the mixture of elitism and derision with which our society views “liberal arts” today. Think what that says about how we view human beings.

Don’t get me wrong: I emphatically do not think absolutely everyone should attend a 4-year liberal arts college like the one where I teach. I don’t think everyone should have to go to college at all; I’m highly skeptical of society’s current hyperfocus on college as an educational path. Education can — should, must — take many, many forms. It should take many forms across society, and it should take many forms for each individual. Education doesn’t even have to happen in school!

What I do believe is that some form of education with that liberal arts philosophy — “Because you are free, you must prepare for the unknown” — should be present in the life of every human being.

I cringe, cringe deeply, to my core, when people try to create socioeconomic mobility by force-pushing tech and STEM and give-them-lucrative-careers content into schools. I cringe even though access to that kind of learning is important, is crucial. It can unlock choices. It can change lives.

I cringe because at its heart, this push is about meeting employer needs, not human needs. It is asking students to conform to the world, not to reshape it. It does not treat students as human beings who are and should be free.

Our society treats liberal arts education as a luxury good. Think: Which K-12 schools cut supposedly inessential programming to focus on “practical” learning, using phrases like “job skills” and “college readiness?” And which K-12 schools still have that supposedly inessential stuff like, say, robust music ensembles?

This is the same question as, “Which students does society view as fully privileged, free human beings, and which does it view as cut out for a life of servitude?”

The same question.

The term “liberal arts” came from a world where servitude and slavery were the norm, where the power structures of society worked to limit self-determination and world-shaping to a select few. I wonder how different that world really is from ours.

Liberal arts and liberation

There is a naive, crappy version of this essay that goes something like, “Don’t worry about practicality! Just follow your bliss, and everything will work out!” That’s a pleasant thought. It’s also a thought rooted in extreme privilege, and a dangerous one for anyone who doesn’t enjoy that kind of privilege (and a fair bit of luck on top of it). To be blunt: it’s a thought I’ve only ever heard from white people.

Learning out of utility or necessity, learning to navigate the world as it exists — that’s an important part of life, a crucial part, and it needs to be a part of education too. Vocational education matters.

That doesn’t mean your college major determines your whole life and if you major in [whatever] you’ll never get a job oh noes!!1! Get a grip, people. Seriously. It doesn’t mean that. (Some of the best software industry folks I’ve known majored in philosophy and anthropology; one of the best graphic designers I’ve worked with majored in…computer science.) No, it means that having no access to vocational education is as damaging as having only access to vocational education. Denying access to vocational education is a hallmark of systems of oppression.

Here’s the thing: so too is making education nothing but vocational. Somehow people have more trouble seeing that second side of the coin. They especially struggle to see it in my field: software development has a prestige halo that harms our ability to see it clearly. Surely computer science makes people rich? Surely forcing kids to do STEM will force them to be equals in society? Surely economic advancement is the same thing as liberation??

I don’t think that increasing the size of the STEM labor pool by shoving marginalized kids into it ends marginalization. I think it lowers labor costs for employers who are sick of paying people so much money to write software.

It’s the “shoving” that’s the problem there.

A quick litmus test for whether an education is a liberal arts education is whether it puts student curiosity at the center. Curiosity is what sent me to The Letters of Paul. It’s also what sent me into programming at a tender young age. Curiosity — and access. I am tremendously fortunate. The door was open to me, and I walked through it because it just looked cool in there. My curiosity changed my life. Many times over.

Curiosity is magic. It’s been evolving for billions of years, and it’s damned good at what it does. And what does it do? It leads us to where the learning is. It susses out what our brains needs long before we have any chance of knowing why we need it. You want to talk about curriculum? Curiosity has been doing curricular development since long before language even existed.

Think: What structures in schools let students pursue their curiosity? What structures actively thwart it?

The best educators, STEM and otherwise, know that. They’re thinking about it every day. They’re fighting for the humanity of students in the face of systemic forces almost too daunting to contemplate. They’re not shoving; they’re opening doors. Ask: Who’s helping them do that? Who’s hijacking that work? Who’s poisoning it?

Be careful. Be curious. Be critical.

Ask who every school is for. Ask how it views its students.

View with skepticism any putative efforts to help marginalized students if those efforts work by narrowing them.

If you’re in school, embrace learning outside your discipline, outside your comfort zone. You cannot possibly know how much it will matter. And if you’re not in school…same.

Exercise your freedom. Seek your liberation. Claim it in your education (in and out of school). Because you are free, you must prepare for the unknown.

Fight to make that liberation available to everyone. Everyone deserves it.

Full circle

I started this manifesto talking about how a religious studies course unexpectedly helped prepare me for a software career. That’s great, but!! lest we fall into the trap of thinking that career outcomes are the ultimate justification for the utility of education:

Software has been an excellent liberal arts education for me, both in the computer science classroom, in the software industry workplace, and in my own spare time creative adventures. It’s prepared me for things far beyond employment.

Much of what I know about problem-solving, creativity, how to handle frustration, how to be skeptical of my own hubris, how complex systems behave, how human relationships work, how to communicate, how to help, how to puzzle things out, how to be tenacious, how to be kind — I could go on — I learned from writing software.

Programming helped prepare me to be a parent, a spouse, a musician, a teacher, a citizen, a human.

Liberal arts education, including computer science: we are whole human beings, and everything’s connected to everything. 💙

This essay was originally a thread on Mastodon.

(lightly curated from Mastodon)


I've just read your thread (well the blogpost version) and I just wanted to say that it resonates so hard! I don't think I could have agreed more with every word you've written.

Marc Criley

Reminded me of this: "Want Your Children to Survive The Future? Send Them to Art School" by Dustin Timbrook.


Chris  🟦 🌻

I have never for one second regretted having a liberal arts bachelor's degree.


oh this essay *sings* to me! As someone spanning the creative and technology industries and constantly being told they’re not natural companions, this puts into words so many unformed thoughts. And the “shoving”! Nailed it.

Michael J. Coffey

Thank you for this. It clarified something I couldn't quite put my finger on before--why a school I really loved wasn't as good any more. It no longer passes the litmus test you mention at the end.

My brain feels like I finally dislodged that popcorn kernel from between my teeth.

Paul Cantrell

Glad the essay resonated, and sorry for the loss of a beloved school’s goodness. That kind of invisible institutional death can hit hard.

Tormod Halvorsen

The most important thing a school can teach is how to learn. Topics are less important than establishing a capability for learning new skills.


Or even more: an enthusiasm for learning. A teacher who imparts that is solid gold.

Kartik Agaram

This is so amazing from a historical perspective. Used to be that the poor and lower class went to vocational school and the rich and upper class went to liberal arts school to learn how to become "gentlemen". All of society understood then what "your betters" meant: it meant people who could respond to lots of situations.

And now we're throwing away everything our forbears fought so hard for.

David Colarusso

There's no way to convey how much I ❤️ this essay by @inthehands. Maybe it's because when I got my masters before becoming a physics teacher, I took a divinity class that looked interesting, which seems to parallel the author's experience. Or maybe it's because I teach law students about tech, straddling two worlds... No, it's because liberal arts is a precious beautiful enriching thing that made all of that possible.

So, what is a liberal arts education for? Find out: https://innig.net/teaching/liberal…

Paul Cantrell

Thanks for the kind words, David. 💙

Sarah Burstein

Oh, this is fantastic! I remember the original thread and will definitely be bookmarking the essay form

Paul Cantrell

I really appreciate the kind words. It means a lot to me that people I respect so much here on Mastodon have such a positive response!

Andromeda Yelton

This is really beautiful. And not just because I also took a college course on Paul (intermediate Greek, in my case, translating Acts) that made a huge difference to how I understand the world. I sent it to my 17yo, now thinking about college, in hopes they'll get something out of it too.

Paul Cantrell

Thanks! Hope the 17yo quietly finds something in it (while of course conspicuously ignoring it, as is the duty of all teenagers).

Lisa L. Spangenberg

I too love this. It's true. I'm technically a Medievalist. I've made at least half my income since grad school working in software and IT. Close reading and close listening are two of my primary skills, both derived from my "useless" liberal arts education

Twobiscuits :graz:

love it, as a slightly mad technical writing teacher (among other things). Not quite as mad as the motorcycle maintenance guy but he's there on the fringes ... 🤣🤪

Tofu Golem

I cannot stress enough how much this topic annoys me.

To name another example, I often hear religious people talk about how "secular learning" is inherently evil and will cause a person to become less moral.

This couldn't be further from the truth. The person who is better able to anticipate outcomes has the potential to make better moral choices. Secular learning is critical to making good moral decisions, and you cannot always anticipate which is applicable.

When I was in junior college, I worked in fast food. A regional manager was coming to visit, and the manager freaked out trying to prepare the kitchen for his visit. She announced an intention to combine different cleaners in a mop bucket to make it extra effective.

By this point, I had a class of high school chem and a class of freshman chem, and I utterly failed to apply what I learned when she announced her intention to combine cleaners in that mop bucket.

Had I stopped and thought about it, I would have realized that some cleaners work by being acidic, some by being basic, and combining them would reduce their effectiveness.

Had I more chemistry than freshman-level, I might have anticipated that two of those cleaners would produce a noxious cloud that rendered her unconscious and required an ambulance to take her to the hospital.

I failed to make a good moral decision because I failed to apply what I learned…

…in chem class to my job as a fast food worker.

As you say, one never knows what a piece of knowledge might be applicable to something unexpected. I had the necessary knowledge, but because I failed to spend time thinking about how what I learned could be applied to the real world, my manager had an unexpected trip to the hospital. She turned out OK, but I could have prevented that.

It is not enough to learn a wide variety of things. One must devote time to considering how your learning MIGHT apply to things.

Bruce Lee warned that knowledge is useless if you don't spend time thinking about applicability. He had a large and eclectic collection of books, and he insisted that each book contained at least one piece of information that improved his martial arts.

Paul Cantrell

My 8th grade science teacher specifically and pointedly warned us against mixing household cleaners. I’m grateful to her.

Wendell Bell

You should hear about the first two cases I handled right out of law school, neither of which I had had ANY specific training for. Or could have.


I encourage you to read Lectures on metaphysics and logic by Sir William Hamilton should you have the time to dabble in that area again

Beyond his deep examinations regarding errors, his discourse on Thomas Acquinus' `Quidquid recipitur ad modum recipientis recipitur` is worth reading.


Stephen Fry, genius: https://youtu.be/8ZnFVSDZNgo?si=H…

(Donald Trefusis was an Oxbridge don character he did, back in the day.)

Paul Cantrell

Ha, there are some marvelous quotable quotes in this.

Eric MacKnight

Great stuff! Thank you, Paul!


There's even a book: "Do what you love and the money will follow" and you can't do what you love if you can't afford the education to learn the basics or the materials to do it.

Kevin Russell

More Empowering arts, uplifting arts you need, liberating arts.

Lets spread this like wildfire.

Paul Cantrell

I like “liberating arts” a lot.

Andrew Hinton

Sadly it’s not even meeting employer needs even if employers think that’s what they need

Paul Cantrell

It’s true. Something I’ve learned from my many years in industry is that employers are in fact terrible at knowing what they need, from tech employees and in general, and frequently can’t even run a job interview process that serves their own interests. The flailing incompetence of business, especially large business, is just mind-boggling.


it’s the complete capture of human creativity by capital really… it can’t be critically engaged, it can’t be challenging… it can only be instrumental to the continuation of the “growth” mythology even in the face of overwhelming material evidence that this doesn’t work for anybody, including those perpetuating it. It’s a suicidal short-term-ism that considers all energy expended outside of neoliberal “productivity” as waste… it’s why i chose to focus on art and specifically art that actively engages with uselessness and non-productivity. :) but I don’t know how we get out of this globalized mess …


I agree that STEM over everything is not a good idea. I'm not critical of that aspect of this thread.

But rather that liberal arts gives leads to most people being able to think well or prepares them for the unknown. Liberal Arts ime prepares you to be a good little cog in the "idea economy". In my undergrad experience I spent time with folks from lots of different departments/colleges in the uni, was active in student govt -

mainly I spent time with people in 4 different areas of study legal, polisci, comms and compsci

I'd say of those the polisci students probably got the best bite at a liberal education - The "best" among them came out unethical nincompoops who actually knew very little outside of how to maintain social relations with power.

When someone would relate to me a story of a student behind some unhinged exchange, if I didn't know them - I knew their major.

and they were thieves and used whatever power they had to get the letters of rec they needed (skipping details because it gets googlable)

The world view these people were getting from their education was "power is power" "might makes right" and these were all political liberals.

My takeaway after all that is, a liberal arts education doesn't teach people ways to solve problems. Much is made of "Critical Thinking" based edu (K-12)

but unless you make a conscious effort to get into methods of problem solving in the world like Dialectal & Historical Materialism one never learns how aspects of problems or contradictions interplay and take precedent (and then lose precedence) in solving problems

It wasnt until I was out of school that I learned that. More often than not when I meet people with one type of liberal arts edu or another - they seem clueless about how to make the world better, they seem afraid.

they seem paralyzed by the largeness of the world - something I was told a liberal arts education was supposed to prepare them for.

The Academy has a large responsibility here, as do the scum of Adademia, the School Administrator.

Academia has a fundamentally conservative bent. If people want to debate that I'm happy to provide proof - but quicc example - a couple weeks ago as the latest uprising in Palestine was kiccing off -

a professor was tutting Hamas, Claimed also to teach Fanon to his students every semester.

That's right a liberal arts professor on the fedi telling the oppressed how to fight their oppressors.

That is emblematic of the problem liberal arts academics represent - their goal is to teach you how to think - but what THEY think ultimately in one discipline or another supports the reification of the status quo (or "incremental change" at best).

last and least (decent) The Higher Ed Administrator (all school admins are bastards but gonna focus) who claims to be the poor wretch just trying to make it all work is also the policy maker choosing which students get to oppress other students.

we can again refer to recent events where anti-genocide protesters are being arrested, kicked out of student housing, clubs being kicced off campus, etc. But also include refusing to punish racism, sexual assault - the list goes on.

my point is that the liberal arts education you hold in high esteem produces in practice some really, brutal and craven people and preps them to do well in such a world.

While something like it is needed, the Academy nor its Administrators are capable or interested in producing it.

Paulie 🚲🥃🧀

thanks for the very thoughtful piece. Some part of curiosity and successfully negotiation modern schooling to become an adult capable of creation and change depends on the child themselves, and the attitudes and behaviours of the people raising them.

Paul Cantrell

Yes, all education depends on the individual and their context. It is not only possible but •necessary• to take that fundamental philosophy — nurture students to thrive as self-determining human beings who help shape the world — and adapt it to meet different students where they’re at.

Jeff Miller (orange hatband)

I finally convinced myself to apply for a curiosity driven intensive in my field as a remote participant, and it's been enlivening to be alongside other learners motivated by curiosity and creation.

(The programme is the Recurse Center, broadly focused on computer programming with an admixture of creative arts)


Wow, this was good. TYVM.

I got through three degrees and a library career (every quarter I taught a new crew of work study students how to staff a university reference desk) by posting this above my desk:

A paper has three parts. Assert, A=B, B=C, ∴ A=C, or refute, A=B, B≠C, ∴ A≠C.

Not always applicable, perhaps, but, armed with it, the crews gave good reference assistance. 😅

Paul Cantrell

Thanks. Fwiw, one of the things I did in that fine liberal arts education I got was to read A Primer of Soto Zen, a collection of Dogen’s writings. Not sure I even scratched the surface of understanding it, but I found it thought-provoking and resonant, and your bio brought it back to me now.


It helps to know that Dogen was a kind of jazz musician of Buddhist concepts, saying whatever he thought would be most helpful to those around at the moment, even if it contradicted what he said the day before. If you like to sit still sometimes, as Otis Redding did at the dock of the bay, you're covered. 😎 🙏

Paul Cantrell

That is totally the vibe I got from Dogen, and I enjoyed the reading greatly! And yeah, being an improvising musician myself, I’ll say there’s a lot of that kind of stillness you’re talking about at the piano for me, so I appreciate the analogy.

Kee Hinckley

Very much how I found my Anthro BA useful when I had an internet/web consulting company. Treating each company as an organization with a culture and processes meant that we developed solutions that fit the company.

Catherine Berry

Exactly! Most people don't understand how much of (real) education is about learning new ways to think, rather than particular information or skills. Ways of thinking tend to be applicable in many domains.


Where did liberal arts education reach its highest level? English public school to train colonial admin. No timely communication with home so they had to build thinkers.

It's never been valued as anything other than generating money and power.

Paul Cantrell

I’d quibble with that “never:” beautiful radicals have been throwing the doors open wide to that liberal arts spirit for centuries. Look at what Maria Montessori said about access to education, for example.

But the first half of what you wrote is spot on: whenever some entity like the colonial admin has wanted to create a stratified society, they’re stratified education — and put broad education at the top.


AI delivered by tech and minimum wage minders for the masses, techless private schools for the elites. Coming to countries everywhere soon.


SBF said this: I don't want to say no book is ever worth reading, but I actually do believe something pretty close to that,”


There is no such thing as STEM unless one defines STEM as jobs that are unpleasant enough in either or both the preparation and the doing, such that there is a shortage of workers and the workers have decent wages and some power in the workplace. There is no "STEM" shortage. Half of STEM degree holders do not work in STEM and half of STEM workers do not have a STEM degree. STEM wages have been stagnant for 30-40 years.

It's all about dehumanization.

Catherine Berry

I am a software engineer. My STEM education taught me invaluable lessons in how to think about problem solving, how to assess my confidence in hypotheses, and how to blend quantitative and qualitative reasoning. My humanities education taught me the value of philosophy, gave me keys to the deeper beauties of art, and prepared me to be an informed and responsible citizen.

I am very glad I didn't have to choose between them.

Will K

definitely feel this. I got a significant promotion because of my liberal arts education. Being able to process and analyze multiple sources then synthesize a conclusion is a super useful skill. I've applied it to everything from user research to business strategy. Honestly, working with Deleuze and Guattari was way more challenging than any of the business books or docs I was handed.

Incorrigible Maker

I absolutely agree with your premise that LA education is getting short-shrift. I must *disagree* though about your premise that "force-pushing tech and STEM" is in some way limiting children's freedom. As children mature, they seek & need support to make decisions about the direction of their lives, and making them aware that tech/scientific study/careers are viable options - not some pipe dream - is important. But ... STEM education needs to include much more LA as it used to

Paul Cantrell

I’m not sure you characterize my argument accurately. It sounds as though you’re perhaps reacting to the first sentence of the post to which you were replying, skipping the second paragraph, and working toward agreeing with what I wrote downthread about the “naive, crappy version:” https://hachyderm.io/@inthehands/1104…

cognitively accessible math

I took a class about Dorothy Sayers. It was awesome.

yes, it's me, liza 🇵🇷  🦛 🦦

🛎️ 🛎️ 🛎️ yup. studied linguistics & history in tandem for that reason. ironically, it's why i was able to teach myself to code too.


Thank you for this excellent thread. A few thoughts:

* I got a liberal arts education at a STEM school. When I was there, MIT required everyone to take at least 8 humanities/social science courses with 3 meeting distribution requirements and at least 3 in an area of concentration. I did almost a full major in music; friends concentrated in writing, philosophy, poly sci, etc. We found a lot of personal value in our concentrations, and they expanded our views of the world.

* After college, I got a masters in clinical social work. I went in other directions professionally, but never considered my MSW a waste. I learned important interview/consulting skills that I've used throughout my career in the same way you use your lessons from your Religious Studies course. I learned not to accept someone's first vague presentation of their research question, but probe more deeply to help us better refine the question, to design the best analyses. 2/

* And while I seldom use the specific physics and chemistry facts I studied along the way, I constantly use the methods of analyzing problems, figuring out what information I have and what I don't have but need to get in order to solve the problems I'm facing - whether research questions at work, parenting problems, or deciding how to vote.

None of my education was wasted, even though particular vocational skills are now outdated, because I learned how to think critically.

Josh Braun

Hey, thanks so much!

T.C. Harris

I have said many times that I use my humanities degree more directly in my software engineering career than my computer science degree.

My humanities classes taught me how to speak to an audience, how to craft an argument, how to spot rhetorical sleight of hand, how to work across cultural differences.

My CS degree taught me how to build data structures that I just use libs for and resource management that the VM does for me and algorithms that I have long forgotten.

Paul Cantrell

It’s all true. I should also say that CS education has not been standing still, and the kind you describe is not the universal norm anymore. In my own dept, collaboration, communication, clarity, problem-solving, careful reading, sussing out and reasoning about abstractions, being comfortable with the unfamiliar, and healthy responses to frustration (for example) are all among our intro courses’ primary learning goals.

T.C. Harris

And to be clear, I don't think my education was bad or useless. That's just what would fit in a single post.

A detailed understanding of the fundamentals of computing helps me in lots of intangible ways.

And even for that era, my program was atypical. We were working in ANSI C while friends at other schools were using Java. My job in software engineering is akin to a skilled trade, and my computer science degree was organized to prepare me to do graduate research in computing.

Paul Cantrell

Totally, right there with you. There’s a big tug of war in CS ed between “undergraduate CS is for software jobs” vs “undergraduate CS is for grad school CS,” and as you gather from my thread, I’m in this weird third camp of “undergraduate CS is for people to become the best human beings they can.” But I’m not alone!

I wish more folks in industry could see what cutting edge undergraduate CS looks like these days. So many of the “I wish my schooling had done X” things I hear professional devs talk about are things that we’re already doing. The classes I teach are very different from the ones I took 25 years ago!

T.C. Harris

I'm with you on that one.

I've taught programming outside the university and humanities courses inside it. I think both types of programs can benefit from that approach.

The goal is to help students achieve their goals and figure out what they are, not to put them on train tracks and send them to the next stop.


godDAMN, this was a good post.


This is part of why I homeschool. I don't hate school, and I think we need public schools, but my own kid was utterly failed by public school and I think it's fair that we have options for the kids we need to learn differently.

Paul Cantrell

The one-size-fits-all nature of so much public education is not an accident; it is a policy choice. And its effect — perhaps intentional, certainly real — is to undermine public education as a whole.


Stumbling on your post after finally ended today's initiation to computer lesson at a Dakar poor suburb school.
What is more depressing is less the abysmal language level of some kids in the teaching language used (French) or the disorganization that had me handle 14 students on three computers when I had been adamant that I couldn't have more than two pupils per computer, but the insistence of the teachers that I go back to top-down lessons sticking to the program...

Paul Cantrell

Disinvestment and institutional rigidity are both endemic in education. And both are non-accidental policy choices.


What saddens me is that the teachers who insist on keeping on top-down methods are not bad people, they're kind guys and want to do well, not mentioning that they really don't earn a lot of money for the hard work they put on...


Your 2nd point used to be what higher education was all about back in the day.

Paul Cantrell

Still us, in many places! But it feels like we have to fight pretty hard to get the word out a lot of the time.


The sheer discipline of further study changed I think about 30 years ago. It was diversified and broadened, and then with that came the idea that universities had to become not places of learning, but profit centres, and so your degree had to have market value rather than intellectual value.

Corstian Boerman

Story time! I spent about two years in high school in the Big Picture Learning project. It was a diverse group formed by all "problematic" students. That space allowed me to pursue my own curiosities, and never have I studied less and learned more.

The impact it had on my mood was astounding as well, and ever since I use that period as an aspirational benchmark for what and how I can be if the context is right. Those two years saved my life.

Paul Cantrell

It sounds like a great experience! I’m so glad you had that chance. So often it just takes one good teacher or good situation to make all the difference.


i am currently doing my master in mech engineering and I am so excited by my "general studies" classes, where I have to take something outside of stem. After studying engineering for 6 years already, it's so interesting to see, how other fields approach their research and the topics. But even more to their approach to teaching. In engineering, you often notice a lack of understanding regarding pedagogy and there's many lecturers that don't focus on learning but content only.

Paul Cantrell

Happily there’s a lot of interest in better pedagogy in STEM these days. But it’s uneven, and varies a lot between individuals, departments, and institutions.

Jeff McNeill

Indeed, taking intellectually stimulating courses from brilliant professors is doubtlessly edifying. And sometimes useful!


i think it's tragic that we have turned college into a hugely expensive vocational education for so many and denied the true learning and possibilities of a liberal education to any that desires it.

"useful to society/capitalism" is a poor substitute for "bettering everyone".

Jeff Grigg

My boss and I, working on a project in a foreign country, had a chat about the country's requirement that we submit our original college diplomas to them, "to show that we had skilled professional qualifications for the work."

Both, being from more than 30 years before, had been before *ANY* of the technologies we were there to teach and use were even invented.

Languages, operating systems, etc.

Things Change!!!

EllenInEdmonton :mstdnca:

Having taught in Asia, "soft skills" are what employers and employees are desperately crying for! Because everything was taught by rote and as factual and unchanging, adapting to the constant changes in the workplace can be challenging, especially with a global work team.

Paul Cantrell

That kind of teaching has crept into systems all over the world. Many of the standard structures of K12 and college ed came from late 19th century industrialists trying to prepare workers for assembly line labor (and run education like it)


My interest in politics and civil society helped prepare me for my career in computer security, and my career in security has made me a lot more capable within civil society (as well as stuff like handling bad landlords!)


What a fascinating & valuable thread. I didn’t start uni until I was in my 30s. I took a single first year unit of philosophy, ethics & logic, which helped me to articulate the way I think. (But not to understand why everyone else doesn’t think that way.) That analysis of Paul’s letter sounds fabulous.

LaurenZannah in Techland🏳️‍⚧️

That's actually a philosophy I learned from being Jewish, I had no idea it was also expressly a liberal arts concept! That's neat

Paul Cantrell

Lots of smart folks have figured this out over the years! We’re privileged to have that wisdom passed on to us.



i have gotten way more useful training for life from all the various "liberal arts" and "soft subjects" than all my college prep or job prep courses i was told were what i'd need to succeed in the work world.

Keith Ammann

Jean Anyon has entered the chat


I spent almost a decade living in constant fear of being fired, until the man who'd hired me finally convinced me that he wasn't going to sack me.

I finished high school in 1989, at the end of year 10. I went to work for my father in electronics repair. I have no formal qualifications. As my life changed repeatedly, until I found myself in that particular job, I felt increasingly insecure, in spite of having never been unemployed (except for three days, after one job where the company shut down unexpectedly).

It was in that almost-decade long job that I finally came to understand that one of the things I felt was my biggest weakness was potentially my greatest strength.

I have done multiple jobs, but not only that, I'd followed (and dropped) multiple special interests throughout my life.

The role I ended up in, utilised the skills I'd developed over those preceding decades, not just in the various jobs & roles, but in the special interests I'd embraced.

I never could have worked as a graphic designer, had I not decided on the spur of the moment to publish a webcomic for several years (forcing me to learn Adobe Illustrator), but also a short term obsessions with design principles a few years earlier.

I don't have a formal education, but I have boundless curiosity, and a willingness to say out loud that I don't know something, but I'm going to ask a shedload of questions to try and understand it.

Because what I've learned in life is that everything IS connected to everything, and the odd collection of skills that you pick up in one context can turn out to be wildly useful in a completely different context.

Paul Cantrell

Sounds like you gave yourself a really great education! I’m glad you came to recognize its power and value.


This is exactly my fear when people evaluate schools and the courses they choose from a vocational perspective - we never know (oops just saw you address that in the next post - I'm posting anyways as a +1)

Paul Cantrell

Yes, of course you anticipated where I was going


"P", "A", "U'", & "L"?

Seems like it would be a pretty short course. :p

I'll show myself out.


this is a wonderful thread

I went to college as a liberal arts major in 1977 and fell into programming as a lark, taking it out of curiosity after having gotten glancing exposure through friends and classmates. This was the days of keypunch machines and the I/O room. I was messy student, taking things out of order or putting early requirements off until later to take something more interesting first. I think when I got to college learning just stopped being fun because I had to actually pay attention, and it was no longer enjoyable. The two things I did enjoy, somewhat inexolicably to me, were the accounting class I’d taken and the programming class, both because they were so logical and the math did not swamp in the way engineering pre-reqs probably would have.

𝔼k 𝓋ℴ𝓃 𝕂𝔫ä𝔭𝔭𝔢𝔫𝔟𝔢𝔯g

it is a very practical course if you have to deal with certain people

Mark Loundy

I’ve been preaching this for years. The most important skills that we can give students are the ability to solve problems and the confidence that they can learn *anything*. Thinking that we can granularly prepare them for the jobs of 15 years from now is hubris at best.

Daniel Barlow
from a long time ago, an anecdote in a computer magazine that sticks in my mind. Representative of some employer was asked about the value of computer studies in schools and said that it was useless to them as it didn't even teach school-leavers how to turn the PC on.

(The Amstrad PC1512, a popular computer of the time, had the PSU and therefore the power switch in its monitor, not in the system unit. Why are we not teaching important stuff like this to our children instead of pointless academic pursuits like maths or logical deduction or ethics or media literacy or ...)
Paul Cantrell

As a software freelancer, I definitely notice that people grossly overestimate the generality of their own needs and experiences. And as an educator, I notice that they turn this into unreasonably specific expectations of school, couched in an unhelpful “skills” mindset.

Simon Brooke

university education is free for all citizens in all civilised societies.

Unfortunately, there are very few civilised societies.


Genevieve Williams

This whole thread is great but I wanted to add something here in particular. I was an academic librarian at a SLAC for 18 years. Libraries at their best are intended to be another locus for this kind of educational philosophy, as well as a place to feed curiosity (the value of which you highlight later in the thread). They can be one of those non-school places where learning can happen. And libraries too are too often being devalued of late, where they aren't being actively attacked.


I had this experience when I was looking for funding for uni as a humanities major. Originally I was thinking of going into psychology, but as time went on and things changed, I realized that I couldn't anymore.

Now, As a language student, I know that I have to rely on disability-specific funding to get me through all of this.

I can't tell you how many nights I've spent crying because I'm scared of going into the workforce because I've been conditioned to think I don't have marketable skills. It's like, if I'm not interested in tech or studying in a STEM field, the world simply isn't going to let me succeed. This is a societal thing. This is because we are raised to have the impression that STEM is all that's really useful. Just because I was smart enough did not mean I was interested. I'm still not. But there is a part of me that still mentally tortures myself with thoughts of what could have been.

Paul Cantrell

I’m so sorry you’ve been sucked into that vortex. It is miserable, and you are not alone. And choosing a different area of study doesn’t solve it: my students worry about this sort of thing constantly, and they’re comp sci students! There is so much uncertainty in the world, so much attendant anxiety, and that’s just the water we all swim in now.

Here’s the truth of the matter. It won’t magically make the anxiety go away, but it is the truth:

You will find a path, and not by finding a job “in” your field, not by being in control, not by planning or virtue — but by trial and error, by wandering, by messing up and finding unexpected doors and just engaging with the moment you are in and rolling with the surprises. And it will all only make sense in hindsight. Only in hindsight!


That would be an ecumenical matter 🤣


this is a skill many developers and product managers and UX researchers hone in many ways—through doing/practice, apprenticeship, graduate study, etc. Biblical hermeneutical courses is a new one (but a welcome one) for me!


this is an excellent thread, thank you for sharing your thoughts.

You have articulated a lot of my philosophy on learning and given me new words - I had heard of liberal arts but it's not a phrase used here in the UK.

The principles of my ecology degree were invaluable when I worked in software because I understood that each detail was part of a system and I could predict knock-on effects. Now I'm back in science, I use dev principles to organise my work. It's all linked.


@inthehands@hachyderm.ioYeah. It's interesting to note that a lot of this education is teaching a system of values: it's often discussing and defining what is moral and what is not, more than anything else.

WhichOne'sPink 🇫🇮

Nah. We educate kids to be good little cogs in the capitalist machine.


the content of Letters Of Paul was actually How To Think. You were learning how to learn. How fortunate to have this experience.

Allyson Williams  ✅

god, I hated exegesis.

Stephen Cox Author

The point of education is human flourishing. Education should support liberal democracy and citizenship. Education should allow knowledge for the fun of it. Arts in the broadest sense for all.

Mary Ann Horn

critical thinking! Using fresh filters! Knowing there are other filters!

Andrew C. Oliver

my issue is that frequently prerequisite classes supposedly there to give you a liberal education are actually completely information free. Memorize this and bubble the circle...forget it the next day. There should be precisely no courses like that.


we must know. know the world, natural and physical sciences explore the world as it is, as it has been and how it is trending. how can we not know this, teach this, and be active addressing these trends, Human activities and behaviours?

we know very well what to teach and what to do


this entire thread is so gorgeous! Thank you for posting! And thanks to @scott for sharing w/ me 💜

Ppl always try to tease me about how, as a designer, I must “never use that history degree, right??” And I look at them and tell them all the ways I use the critical thinking, the narrative voice, and the data analysis from history to inform my design work every day. Literally every day.

Paul Cantrell

I just had an advisee graduate with an individually designed major centered around making interactive exhibits, basically a mashup of history, CS, and media studies. And guess what she had to learn a whole bunch of to complete her honors project? GRAPHIC DESIGN


hahaha! And to think I got through and entire media studies degree with no graphic design skills to speak of!

Dr. Heather Etchevers

The illiberal approach was applied in my educated but also working-class Boston suburb in 1980 with results now obvious & short-sighted. Reagan's election led to the notorious Proposition 2½ that changed property tax levies in MA and thereby how public schools were funded. It took textbooks, paper, crafts & music/theatre personnel out of our schools. Both quickly exacerbated economic inequalities; we went on food stamps but I got scholarships then that no longer exist.

Dr. Heather Etchevers

My experience worked out and my parents' pro-liberal arts stance stood their children in good stead. I loved my heavily subsidized education in US & abroad. The middle-class equivalents to my erstwhile situation can't afford to attend small LA colleges now, as aid is need-based & there is more need overall. The yawning economic chasm is more expensive to bridge for colleges and deprives many kids of curiosity-based education already needed at K-12.

Yeshaya Lazarevich

I was just talking about your thread with my 8th grader today. Ran into it again, might send them a screenshot of my favorite part. Thanks!

Paul Cantrell

I hope they find something useful in it. Send them my regards!

Deirdre Saoirse Moen

I had a class where we read TS Eliot’s The Waste Land (which, fwiw, I dislike, but not as much as some other stuff we read), then the source material he alluded to, then reread The Waste Land. Our term paper was about how our perception of what Eliot was communicating changed.

Because we knew the assignment in advance, we each came up with lists of questions we had, which taught me a lot about approaching software design.


I encourage you to track down the journalist and satirist, Martin Rowson's cartoon reworking of The Waste Land to supplement your perspectives on the text(s).



I am teaching STEM subjects in another educational system. I do try to connect what I am teaching with what happens in society. Or, to put it in another way, I teach the course but that is in the end just a small part of what I want the students to learn.
ChatGPT and other ML programs are forcing us to rethink what education is about anyway. This thread is part of that debate by pointing at the things software cannot provide.

Elaine Anderson

This was a very interesting discussion. I have also studied Paul's letter(s). My boss told me what made me good at my job was an innate curiosity about everything. In high school, I studied all of the core subjects but also art, music, auto mechanics, drafting, woodworking...pretty much anything I had room for on the timetable. I think I was prepared for just about any kind of career and I did change careers (not jobs) about three or four times.

Alexander Rind

a readworthy thread on education priorities.
Inspiring and providing context for my teaching of data visualization and analysis. I try to find a balance between patterns of thought for working with data and practical hands-on with tools, both to inspire tinkering.

Steve Wildsmith

this reminds me of the time, 1970, when our high school careers advice was to go into geology, because Australia was experiencing a mining boom and needed geologists. Four years of university later, you can guess what happened. A glut of geology graduates and not enough jobs. Today, our government has been "pulling the levers" to encourage more students into STEM by lowering fees in those subjects while raising fees in Arts & Humanities. Now a degree in History costs more than a degree in Maths. 😒

Matt Tearle

This. This, this, this. And this.

The best thing about getting a math degree, for me, was that what you really learn is logic, abstraction, generalization, analytic reasoning skills, etc. Also enjoying that stuff.

The math is sometimes useful, as well. But’s that’s a nice side benefit.


That's pretty much how my dad taught Sunday School for 50 years. The classroom had a bunch of translations. We'd read them and discuss the differences, and he would share what he'd read in commentaries and history.

Line by line, sometimes, and definitely very short passages.

Ellen Saunders

I cannot like or boost this thread enough, thank you.

roundcrisis (a.k.a Andrea ) 😹 🦙

I think you might want to turn this thread into a blog post 😅

Paul Cantrell

Just as soon as I have a blog!

Jeff Byrnes

Such a good thread, thanks for writing it, and thanks for sharing it Crystal 👏🏻


Should be a required course to get a teaching certificate, Paul.

I was probably in my 40s before it dawned on me that nobody cared that I wrote grammatically correct memos and software documentation.
Anyhow, superior thread. Precious seldom I see my opinions about education expressed better than I can think them. 8^)


A beautiful thread to which I wholeheartedly agree.


THIS is the path for software development to actually evolve into engineering. The disciplines of engineering evolved from a common root and much of the language is precise and customized to make thought and understanding clear. Software development is completely divorced from that tradition and that is why it is disconcerting to engineers when software developers call themselves engineers - just like anyone encountering an obviously self-named medical doctor will react. Of course real engineering projects are also laden with miscommunications and hidden biases, but the system of engineering management tends to reveal them pretty rapidly.

Cat West

Justifying neglect, exploitation and even cruelty has been the key to achieving great wealth for corporations since the days of plantations. People accepted it because they assumed we could not survive as a society without the goods produced by slave labor. Plantation Mentality must be eradicated.

Mary Nelson

Yes! As a retiree who long ago majored in literature, rhetoric, and foreign language, I worked for decades as a technical writer and consultant using a method I called "relentless questioning", for exactly the reasons you note in your thread. Relentless curiosity & respectful questioning about proposals and projects saved clients (and teams) from later remorse. Agree that people do not appreciate what the liberal arts have to offer.


This thread! 💯

John Quentin Heywood

Fantastic thread that hits the nail on the head!


Had I not been married with two children I would have remained in college for the rest of my life. Had to take max amount of degree required courses to graduate and get a job.

Thomas Lee ✅ :patreon:

I convinced my university (CMU) that programming language courses should count as foreign language courses. I argued that it allowed me to communicate with computers, the same way that learning German would help me communicate with, well, Germans. They bought the concept!

Paul Cantrell

Heh, that is a very CMU story!

Our Director of Writing argued to me that my Software Design and Development course should be designated as fulfilling one of the writing requirements, since coding is writing. I replied that she is absolutely correct, but I didn’t want the designation because our computer science majors also need to be able to communicate with humans, even if their only function in life were to write software!

like jam or bootlaces

as it happens, I'm pretty sure a computing language first satisfied the language requirement (for chemists) my first year of grad school

like jam or bootlaces

oh, that's cool. mine was ... later.

and I meant 'first' only in the context of that program.

Thomas Lee ✅ :patreon:

I was at CMU when they did not offer a BSc in Comp Sci. Only Grad degrees. So I created a student-defined degree in "BSc Computer Problem Solving" - a combination of psychology and comp sci. Some awesome profs, including Herb Simon. But that was back in the early 1970s, and the Interweb was in it real infancy. #Node12

Paul Cantrell

We now have many students taking / majoring in both psych and CS. It’s a well-recognized power combo. You were ahead of your time.

Thomas Lee ✅ :patreon:

Indeed. I decided after my 2nd year I wanted to go into Computing., But the CS dept did not do BSc. So Imoved from the Engineering college into the Margaret Morrison Carnegie College where I, technically got my BSc from. HOw times have changed.


Fantastic thread. We need to keep pointing out the value of close reading, of expansive thought, and of liberal arts education in general when so many forces are now arrayed against it.

I don't think we overlapped at Macalester, but Cal Roetzel was my advisor there, and I am also A Religious Studies major who wound up working in tech.

Paul Cantrell

High five! I was an accidental religious studies minor, in no small part because of Cal. Hope life has been treating you well since!

Betsy. (a muffin).

Thinking of a tweet from a little while ago, something like: "forget humanities vs STEM, let's unite against our common enemy: business majors."

Paul Cantrell

Ha, I can understand the sentiment, though I do also grudgingly acknowledge that good MBA programs are actually full of rich, challenging learning, particularly the case studies they do.

Your sardonic quote touches on a deeper truth: disciplinary squabbles are a distraction; the real battle is about the underlying philosophy of education.

Betsy. (a muffin).

AFAIK, MBA programs and undergrad-level business majors are doing pretty different things at the classroom level, also.

I may be permanently scarred by the intro-level information systems management textbook that devoted a whole chapter to why you wanted to insist on low-cost technologies that solved business needs, and another chapter to rating various countries' outsourcing potential by relative English proficiency and programmer cost.

Paul Cantrell

That sounds…comic book villain level bad.

Betsy. (a muffin).

one thing I think about a lot too is…

A lot of folks who love STEM fields love them for their beauty first and their practicality second. And sometimes — certainly in my case — there’s an acute sadness when encountering folks with bad early math educations that fucked them out of seeing beauty in the sciences.

The usual framing of STEM vs humanities misses out on that dynamic, at best, and at worst uncritically adopts a framing that only the humanities have beauty…

Paul Cantrell

This is all very true. Beauty and utility are both all around us, marbled through every field, and imagining the split between them does terrible damage.

You would probably enjoy this if you haven’t already seen it: https://www.maa.org/external_archive…

Noah Gibbs

That's a lovely one that I've seen repeatedly over the years 🙂

Betsy. (a muffin).

yes! It’s a delight.


A truly visionary educator from the early 20th century once said:

"The secret of sound education is to get each pupil to learn for himself, instead of instructing him by driving knowledge into him on a stereotyped system."

Although this is not his best known quote on the topic.
Extra kudos if you know who said that without looking it up

Paul Cantrell

Maria Montessori:

“It is necessary that the child teach himself, and then the success is great.”

“The child who has never learned to work by himself, to set goals for his own acts, or to be the master of his own force of will is recognizable in the adult who lets others guide his will and feels a constant need for approval of others.”

More here: https://amshq.org/About-Montessori…


interesting, not who I was thinking of and who the quote is from. But definitely a contemporary even though he was a couple of decades older

Although the person I'm thinking of while a great educator had very little to do with the school system itself and is more known for non formal education.
He is also a product of his time and said much that is problematic by today's standards. Although he did change significantly post ww1 with respect to colonialism

“True peace … suggests the triumph of justice and love among men; it reveals the existence of a better world where harmony reigns.” - Maria Montessori

The matching quote from this person is probably... (see next toot)

"The first step to this end is to develop peace and goodwill within our borders, by training our youth of both sexes to its practice as their habit of life, so that the jealousies of town against town, class against class and sect against sect no longer exist; and then to extend this good feeling beyond our frontiers towards our neighbours."

Paul Cantrell

oh, I found the quote’s author (not knowing it myself) and posted the Montessori as a sort of affirmative answer.

Christopher Pickslay

I’m a software engineer with a BA in English. I approach projects the same way.

Paul Cantrell

This son of a retired English professor salutes you!


Great thread. I have a bachelor's in Religious Studies and History. I work in Public Health Administration. Exegesis of Pauline letters (or Johannine letters for that matter), are directly applicable to the work I do in reading, writing, and interpreting regulations. (also, for an earlier commentator, incredibly applicable to understanding and applying algorithms, although you need specific vocational skills in addition to the conceptual)

Eric Lawton

So an alternative read of your earlier sentence: If a person lives a life of servitude, if they are enslaved, then *their enslaver* needs them to have •only• vocational education*?

A liberal arts education can illuminate their condition to the (wage-)enslaved and reveal ways to escape.

Hence the active attempts by the far-right to crush liberal education; it's not just to save money.

Paul Cantrell

Yes, you’re picking up what I’m putting down.

Timo Grün

>>>Hence the active attempts by the far-right to crush liberal education; it's not just to save money.

Yep. Also: Edjikashun makes’m woke ‘n lib ‘n gay ‘n all.


I can't think of a single "practical" class that I took in college (or grad school). I had no career training whatsoever and now, 30 years later, I have no regrets.


health science isn't stem, medical research isn't stem, but business, accounting, law & business administration are. I have a deep suspicion that "stem" = "male-dominated" (+ medicine).
And I am the first to say that engineering, the one male-dominated discipline, is grossly underfunded, because UK education is primarily about perpetutating the class system aka the wage gap, so vocational is despised & neglected & not offered much (inverse of communism).


I was so frustrated in my last ultra-stem job. I've been engineering for 20+ years, and those were the least imaginative and worst engineers I've come across (as a group)


Good thread!
For extra credit, here's more about school:


Paul Cantrell

You might appreciate this if you haven’t already seen it: https://www.maa.org/external_archive…


I'll check it out, thanks.


Great thread. Thanks for sharing this.


A lot of fine arts education is not much on the practicality scale, but it offers life lessons and historical perspective that provide a rationale for the practical aspects...

Paul Cantrell

This is 100% true, and equally true of most of what’s lately called STEM education. Honestly, my high school math and my high school choir were about equally practical for my software development career…though choir probably wins on the practicality scale, since it builds skills around maintaining healthy collegial relationships, remaining outcome-focused, and cutting scope.

Jeff Byrnes

I attended 4-year music college (Berklee) and what you say here about high school choir is, in many ways, how it prepared me for a life as a software worker in the 21st C.

People regularly ask me how I went from music → software, and at this point, I have a very pat story that explains my journey & hopefully illuminates their own.


A lot of English majors found great success in the banking business. You never can tell...

Jeff Byrnes

Yep. When I interview for positions I’m hiring, the one quality I look for above all else is “capacity to learn”. When I gently probe folks knowledge & skills, my biggest red flag is someone who’s unwilling to say “I don’t know, but here’s how I’d figure it out…” and then take me through a quickie version of their research process.

Rhi's come in like a lamb

Thanks for this thread. I'm someone who works at intersection of tech and business. People are often kinda bewildered by my liberal arts education (humanities major, though I know and love many fellow alums who did science and tech majors!) where I was required to take courses outside my major/minor, and that I use what I learned constantly.

Paul Cantrell

People do get surprised, but those who know…know! I’ve worked with developers who were biology, anthropology, and philosophy majors, and one of the best graphic designers I’ve ever worked with was a computer science major. Majors are not identity, and are not destiny!

Ben Lopatin

concisely said, and timely too. TY.

The kicker for me is having and being able to build mental models of other peoples mental models. It’s why I cringe at efforts to substitute programming for foreign language curriculum; it’s not the ability to order lunch in another country so much as the first hand exposure to a slightly different window (of human experience) for which Python/JS are no substitute.

All of which is to say nothing of the value of developing an informed imagination…

Paul Cantrell

A big part of how I teach programming is the idea that you’re •also• getting a window into other people’s minds when you write code, since all the languages and tools we use are created by humans and for humans. This was at the heart of a talk I did in April: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3aw7777D…

That is not to discount at all the unique value of learning foreign languages, just as you say! Neither substitutes for the other.


But … what about NULL? That was like reading a freebie Amazon book only to realize the best part is in the next book. 🤣

Loved the talk, even as a non-programmer. I was really interested to hear about NULL, though.

Paul Cantrell

Ha, sorry! Glad you found the talk interesting, even if the sequel’s not available in stores.

We had a little impromptu “null talk” our in the hallway after the talk. Here are the slides, which at least give a taste of that line of thought. The very short: some languages already secretly got rid of null as we know it; Swift is the example (slide 2).


Thank you for sharing the slides! I’m still sorry that it’s not in the video because the story helps fix it in my brain, but I can follow the gist based on the rest of your talk. I really enjoyed the subject; thank you for making it available!

Paul Cantrell

Yeah, sorry, the slides aren’t much to go on — just a taste. One day I’ll do the 1-hour version and/or start a blog! In the meantime, I’m delighted that you enjoyed it.

Marcos Dione

"stop using C and C++, they're like the cigarettes of software!" I loved that one, even when you where 'just' paraphrasing the NSA.

You say you would like to talk for 1h30 about each of your predictions. Did you ever think of producing an 8 episode series in YT about them? :)

Marcos Dione

another note: those using #python and wanting to learn more about composition vs inheritance, you can watch this talk in the last EuroPython: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2qpW1-7T…


I understand where you're coming from, but lucrative careers aren't just employers' needs; they are how market economies transmit the information that a job needs doing, and there aren't enough people doing it. High prices signal that something is either very valuable to a few people, or fairly valuable to a lot of people.

Of course there are imperfections. Not all monetary value has the same moral value. Not all prices are market driven. But there's a kernel of truth there which shouldn't be simply dismissed as "employers". They're driven by markets too.

Also, algorithms - specifically, analysis of algorithms - is probably the only knowledge I use every hour of my coding life, in or out of work: space and time, resource consumption as a function of input size: it is a constant awareness for every loop, every list and string manipulation, every attempt at concurrency, every allocation, it's pervasive.

Paul Cantrell

I don’t think we disagree on that. Yes, if markets are good for anything (in principle at least), it’s asking people to make balanced tradeoffs between their individual wishes and the needs of others. Employment markets are very much a part of that.

The thing is, education that is attuned the •current market• is inherently ephemeral — and if it’s the •whole• education, it narrows people. You’re missing what I wrote about “asking students to conform to the world, not to reshape it:”

even from a strictly career-market-utilitarian perspective, education should (1) prepare students for the current job market, but also (2) prepare them for a changing job market, help them be ready to rapidly adapt to jobs that don’t exist yet, and (3) empower them to •create• those jobs that don’t exist yet. (And of course all the above extends beyond employment.) That’s what I’m saying.

Meow.tar.gz  :verified:

I cringe as well but for slightly different reasons. I cringe because it devalues learning for the good that it does us mentally and emotionally. It conditions us to only learn for a monetary reward, much like Pavlov's dogs. It's more conditioning than learning. Learning should be done for the good that it does us, not for some reward at the end of the effort.

Paul Cantrell

Yes, we are thinking many of the same things here.

Andromeda Yelton

oh my gosh, I spent an intermediate Greek class translating Paul and it became fundamental to how I understand organizations and leadership


I could definitely argue that intermediate Greek involves enough logic and coding to qualify as a STEM class...

Andromeda Yelton

well, I mean, I was also majoring in math. Thus rendering me spectacularly competent in Greek letters.

Paul Cantrell

Ha, that was my only ace in the hole looking at the Greek! The trick was that even though I could name and write them all, I had no idea what sounds they make.


Paul, nobody else knows how they were pronounced either!

Paul Cantrell

High five!

I think it pained Cal (prof of my Paul class) that it was not feasible to make fluency in Koine a prereq for the class. Maybe one of us knew it, if that…? He tried to teach us a smidge, but clearly we could have gone deeper if we truly knew the language. I envy you that!


wonderful thread, thank you.

I recently have been thinking more about verbal, visual, and spatial thinkers. So much of our education system favors the verbal thinker (standardized testing is a great example) that we are excluding whole classes of thinkers from getting the education they need.

Word based thinking is sequential and linear, comprehends things in order, good at understanding general concepts, good sense of time (not always direction). Tend to dominate conversations.

Visual thinking is not about how one sees, it is how they perceive and process information. Two types: object & spatial.

Object thinkers make rapid associations. Maps, art, and mazes. Grasp how mechanical things work & enjoy figuring them out. Tend to be problem solvers. Spatial thinkers think in patterns and abstractions, they make the trains run.

If we aren’t meeting learners and thinkers with the right education style for them, then they are ill prepared for the workforce too.

Paul Cantrell

Yes, people have all kinds of wonderful different minds, and one of the primary (and hardest jobs) of schools is to meet students where they’re at. Education that has that flexibility is a beautiful thing.

Wizard Bear  (💉x7 + 😷)

You don't know what you are preparing for. That's why education needs to help students think critically, be able to look at things objectively, learn about cultures and cultural differences. It is also very helpful to learn how to look at cause and effect relationships, regardless of the subject matter. Basics matter.


I’m a nurse with a BA in history. With the well rounded liberal education, I have found it much easier to relate to a wide variety of ppl - as various classes taught me how different ppl value different things. While a4 yr degree may not be needed, I wish more ppl would chose to go to a library/author presentation, a symphony or a jazz club and a museum…

Tim Hadley

A great thread on liberal arts education - https://hachyderm.io/@inthehands/1103…

Thomas H Jones II

It used to be, schools focused on teaching how to learn: knowing how to know, to be mentally flexible, is far more future-proof than learning perishable skills by rote.

Avi Rappoport (avirr)

A) most schools have always used rote learning. B) teaching how to learn is difficult to do and teachers get a lot of flak for it.

Bob Blaskiewicz

Welp, that's a follow right there. I teach in our Uni's General Studies Program...possibly because I never sufficiently specialized. :) I've taught WWII in film and lit, American Conspiracy Theories, Science and Pseudoscience, the History of Alternative Medicine, business writing courses, and critical thinking seminars. All students are required to take "at some distance" courses that have nothing to do with their majors. Interdisciplinarity is the only way to fly.

Paul Cantrell

Yup. Life is interdisciplinary!

Dr. Zoë Plakias (she/her)

Really love this thread! Thank you!

Paul Cantrell

Thanks for reading!

craquemattic 🏳️‍🌈

awesome thread. i cannot support this idea more strongly than have lived it myself. diversity is how the universe operates, it only makes sense that we treat our education the same way.

i dislike the STEM movement. it pushes young minds to think they must work against their own sense of self to be successful in the world. i have a “STEM” job & my liberal arts education centered on music. none of our kids are doing STEM… it’s hospitality, theatre, and psychology. they’re doing great.

Paul Cantrell

Totally. It’s a fine needle to thread, because sometimes all the STEM talk turns into “This stuff is awesome! Yes, it can be for you too! Give it a try! Jump on in! Here’s lots of support for you!“ And when that’s what it means, I am all for it. That is broadening, not narrowing. But it all turns into narrowing so easily, so invisibly, so quickly, on a dime.


well. Considering that FOUR of the seven artes liberales were considered mathematical , i.e. geometry, arithmetic, astronomy and, yes, music -- there is a lot of STEM included in the liberal arts. It just needn't be reduced to a vocational training or use cases.

I believe in liberal arts education. From the bottom of my heart. I also did a vocational (re-) training in software development (can't code sh*t though) because I cannot find a job.

(in neither field. )

Paul Cantrell

Yup. Again, liberal arts is a philosophy of education, not a specific kind of subject matter.

And of course good vocational education (school or otherwise) is essential for anybody who wants a job. The two should ideally work together: broad education turbo-charges specific skill acquisition.

Good luck with the job search. Software development is a particularly hard thing to learn without social support over a long period of time. Hang in there.


as somone who predominantly chose to study STEM topics and now work in engineering I can certainly see the benifits of it. But as much as anything else STEM focused courses should be predominantly focused on teaching observation, the scientific method. The ability to make a prediction of an outcome based on already known information. To then test that, and then refine your mental model based on those observations and then use that again

Paul Cantrell

For software, I’d list a bunch of things related to human collaboration and communication right at the top of that list. Regardless, ideally every course is exemplifying things at the heart of its discipline that will generalize to seemingly unrelated activities.

Tormod Halvorsen

Wonderful to hear a religious class be used to teach critical thinking skills.


What else would it be used for? I say this as somebody who ALSO loves the subject matter, but really this is the heart of Rel. Studies (also Rel Studies is so interdisciplinary in utilizing anthropological, historical, sociological, etc. approaches to its subject matter that it is great background). I'm sad that my college Rel. Studies department graduates so many fewer students today than when I graduated.

Tormod Halvorsen

Big topic, but one important thing is to understand both what a text SAYS and what it MEANS. Can we get to the intent the author wanted to convey? In what context was it written, what were the cultural conventions at the time of writing etc.

René :zcash:

This is very true in Southamerica where I went to college. The curriculum of engineering degrees is tailored to the needs of oil companies looking for cheap local labor.

What's interesting is that almost everyone I know with a college degree *doesn't* work on the field they studied.

Most of them found something else that was interesting to them and sought-after by companies and now do that.

Tim Kellogg

I'm a huge fan of Waldorf education. They bake in curiosity from the very beginning. At all ages it's all about recognizing where the kid is at and meeting them there, using creativity & engaging them in stories. They really don't spend much time on math & reading/writing, but when they do spend time on it, the kids soak it up like a sponge

Paul Cantrell

I’m a Montessori kid myself, then and now!


I'm a latecomer. I did not hit it (in the context of formal education) until college: the "Great Books Program" at St. John's College, Annapolis MD, whose motto is "Facio liberos ex liberis libris libraque" - "I make free adults out of children by means of books and a balance."

However, I realize now that during my very early years I received a good grounding for a liberal arts education from things my grandmother taught me.

Paul Cantrell

Yes. Not all education happens in school!


Your Waldorf education must differ widely from mine - mine was everybody imitate the teacher and do the same thing, including most of the visual arts classes.

Also, critical reading or how to read non-fiction books: not taught.

I did enjoy the crafts classes though where some creativity was allowed sometimes. And it was definitely good for my foreign languages due to the early start in 1st grade.

There is also a potential danger in Waldorf education: You can become used to the teacher knowing how the world works and being your single source of truth. This increases the chance of you becoming susceptible to populists like Donald Trump and his ilk.

Fortunately, I grew up in a secular household that counterbalanced the teacher hero worship. And of course teenagers' rebelliousness then also makes things more healthy.


I would add that the focus of the education that has lasted was learning "skills*, acquired only through practice. For example, the skill of close and careful reading (and listening), the skill of logical argument, the skill of writing (both handwriting and stringing words together to communicate clearly ideas, methods, and questions), and so on.

Skills stay with us if we continue to use them, and we do use essential skills. And they do require practicing them.

Paul Cantrell

Yup. To avoid a possible point of terminology confusion: in education circles, people often the term “skills” to refer to narrowly focused learnings, the “the teacher puts knowledge in the student’s brain” mindset, in •contrast• to the sorts of things you’re describing. For the things you’re talking about, educators typically use terms like “metacognition” or “habits of thought.”


Habits/skills, are acquired and retained through practice. Training a neural network (e.g., the brain) requires repeated exercises to enable it to recognize and then retain the pattern, the pattern being things seen (distinguishing dogs and cats) or things done (writing clearly).

But I agree: I was referring to skills/habits of thought and not mere mechanical skills like riding a unicycle.

I wrote a post on learning a writing skill: https://leisureguy.ca/2006/11/11/rober…

Jeff Miller (orange hatband)

Waldorf ended up being a failure for our child especially during the middle school grade years. He didn't relate well with creating an artistic lesson book. He was very happy to go to public high school. The system overweights the class teacher's responsibility to handle everything, which can sometimes be good and sometimes very bad.

Waldorf can be a good match for some, yes.

Paul Cantrell

“One size fits all” is always a recipe for failure in education. It is important to have a wide variety of approaches, because there is a wide variety of people in this world.

Billy Smith

It's never "One size fits all!"

It's always "One size fits nobody!" :D


absolutely. I would have really really struggled to learn to read today using the only system permitted to be used in the UK at the moment (synthetic phonics) thankfully I'm old enough not to have had to suffer through annual standardised phonics tests etc and was able to learn to read using a system that worked for me. By secondary school I could read a typical paperback in a night, and often did!


I acknowledge that some Waldorf methods foster creativity but the anthropological (edit: it is "anthroposophical", of course. ) ideology is deeply troubling.
Also, while a good student-teacher relationship is crucial for teaching, Waldorf teachers have way too much control over students, books and dessemination of knowledge.

Jeff Miller (orange hatband)

I feel lucky, looking back, to have taken a course called "Method, Imagination, and Inquiry" in the English department at the University of Washington.

I find its history-of-Western-Thought content, as well as cultural anthropology, useful for insight into how people understand things together and share those understandings.

Curiosity based choices for me at the time.

George Dinwiddie

When I went to college, I was determined to get an education rather than vocational training. Even though I had a science background, I majored in English and minored in psychology. These were areas I’d neglected in public school, and thought there was important stuff to learn. I learned a lot about myself and about learning, itself.

Wendell Bell

Gotta say, I do question, as a 70+yo, the utility of what it took to get ready for SAT Math. And not just for me, for most who work/live on the social science space.

Daniel Martin

What do you mean by "SAT Math"? Do you mean the mathematics portion of the SAT?

I don't understand why one would "get ready" for that; it's been a few decades since I took it, but my impression was it was just math of the ordinary kind you'd do elsewhere in school.

Wendell Bell

As a lawyer, I have used a lot of skills, but not the advanced high school math. Perhaps I would have if I had gotten involved more with statistics, but not even with financial planning.

Daniel Martin

Many parallel threads of responses spring to mind, most probably not useful.

However, I will say that I don't understand the dividing line you have between "advanced" high school math and not. I understand a division between "requires calculus" and not, and I suppose one could wall off trigonometry as its own thing, but since all SAT math is non-calculus, you seem to see some other distinction where I only see a cohesive whole divided up only because of the school year.

Stephan Schulz

Hmm, "advanced high school maths"? As a computer scientist, I've never thought "I don't need that math", but regularly do think "I wish I had spent more attention in that math class". From statistics to linear algebra to calculus and set theory.