Philosophy, philistines, and programming

College-for-all won’t work. But neither will overlooking the role that the humanities play for technology.

Bryan Caplan, an economist at George Mason University, recently published a piece in The Atlantic: “What’s College Good For?” I’ve wondered that many times after nine or so years of higher education. The things I’ve studied — ancient and medieval philosophy, theology, and languages (two of them dead)— have little observable impact on my professional life as a software developer and business owner.

Yet almost our whole team at Fiat Insight is graduate-level educated in the humanities, and not a computer science degree in sight. We build great products, and we have a great time doing it. We’re enriched by our work. I think that’s no coincidence.

Caplan has a gift for making contrarian cases against untouchable social norms. Take his book, Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids (which I also reviewed in 2011). His argument against the “college-for-all mentality” is equally weird sounding, but there’s promise:

Civilized societies revolve around education now, but there is a better — indeed, more civilized — way. If everyone had a college degree, the result would be not great jobs for all, but runaway credential inflation. Trying to spread success with education spreads education but not success.

That’s all true, I think. Society does treat education in a rather uncivilized way. Press a grad student on something other than a hyper-focused research specialty, as Caplan says, and you’ll see the point. And because of that, prolific college degrees don’t do a whole lot to actually round out civil society. Instead, they fuel a frenzied market for credentials. Trying to make people successful by educating them spreads formalized education, but not real success.

Where Caplan leaves off is where my experience begins. It’s not that education can’t beget success — in business, or technology, or whatever. Some people need to be the experts, and at some point formal education is required. But it can go farther, too. Formal education can “spill over” into professional areas that aren’t evidently related or at the same level.

Caplan talks about the “signaling” that happens when high academic achievers go to the job market. It’s not that they’re genuinely better at what they’re probably going to be hired to do; it’s that they signal an intent and capability to work hard and learn new things. That’s true, but not the whole picture.

Some subjects, like economics and philosophy, actually produce the sort of cognitive skills required to do other, more practical things. Don’t get me wrong, not all econ or philosophy students make good business people or technologists. Some are downright awful, I’m sure. But it’s possible — and probably above average odds with these subjects — that good students develop the raw materials for being good at business and technology, or healthcare, or hairdressing. (Caplan cites a study from the University of Michigan that shows these results. And I’ve talked to doctor friends who tell me that certain medical school boards look more kindly on non-chemistry undergrads than the physical science-hopped-up run of the mill.)

There’s a related case to be made that the more important thinkers of our age will come from among software types without formal CS training. They tend to buck the trend of philistinism that — I agree with Caplan — runs rampant on college campuses. It’s a field with lots of vocational training opportunities, and broad entry options for serious jobs. But it’ll need to be tempered with some kind of formal training, to illuminate the principles that “good” technological skills and products are built on.

We believe that developing great software means developing great people. Come work with our team at Fiat Insight and discover the difference it makes.