Sunday, August 12, 2012

Profits and Benefits in Foreign Languages

 Should we trust university professors who deny the value of a university education? In the past year, several prominent libertarian professors have been speaking out against college education.  On OrgTheory Fabio Rojas argues that humanities and fine arts produce no job skills.  (His guest blogger, Jennifer Lena, counters.) On EconLog, Bryan Caplan finds no economic value in foreign languages.  Ayn Rand warned that you should not hire a plumber who denies the validity of plumbing.

On EconLog, in reply, I wrote:

“David Henderson's comment about mathematics (Aug. 10 below) comes closest to explaining the true value in learning a foreign language in a general way for most people. Physical education knows the value in cross-training. Certainly, mental education cannot deny a similar claim. In my comment to the original post, I mentioned learning Fortran, Basic, and Java. In discussing the artistry in money with my numismatist friends, I speak in a vocabulary of line and space, with special words such as frost, luster, field, device, and toning. What makes English powerful is its nearly 1 million words, perhaps 90% of them borrowed. The more words, grammars, and syntaxes you know, the better your thinking... or so I claim. The opposite of that is Orwell's Newspeak, a restricted language designed to prevent thought, especially critical analysis and synthesis.”
On OrgTheory as here on Necessary Facts, I pointed out that economics and sociology are seemingly “useless” studies.  Consider an analogy to engineering.  You can complete a Ph.D. and before that be licensed by your state as a professional engineer.  That allows you to practice at the highest conceptual levels, teaching others, solving the hardest problems.

But you can have a master’s, a bachelor’s, or an associate’s, as well, and work at other problems, more limited, concrete, and known, all of which still offer challenge and reward reflected in the relative pay available.  You do not need a Ph.D. to work in HVAC, factory automation, electronic controls, computer networking, automotive repair, website design, or a thousand other occupations.  But an economist with an associate’s degree will not find ready employment.  Outside of college, no one hires sociologists to work as sociologists, certainly not with an associate’s degree.  Thus, the economists and sociologists on Org Theory must admit that their fields are useless.
When I was on KGO (a San Francisco radio station) a few years ago (circa 2006) to discuss that day's 400-point fall in the Dow-Jones Index, I pointed out that at the time it was about a 3% fall. Various financial pundits were saying that it was due to an even bigger fall in China's stock market. I didn't know enough to comment on that. At the end, one of two hosts asked me, "If you were giving a 12-year-old American kid advice on what languages to learn, what advice would you give?" I think he was expecting me to say "English and Chinese." I answered, "Two languages: English and math."
"Thoughts on Second Language" by David Henderson Aug. 11, 2012, on EconLog.
And, as above in my comments about numismatics, economics has its own special vocabulary, even its own special mathematics.  The classic supply-demand curves are examples of mathematical ignorance.  The independent variable, Price, is always on the ordinate (Y-axis).  This is just plain wrong. 

Yet, it works… demonstrating that the special vocabulary, grammar, and syntax of economics may serve a special important purpose (perhaps). 

We think in symbols and analogies.
The true value in learning foreign languages may not be the ones alleged by public education: utility on the job; exposure to culture; meeting people.  Like algebra, drawing, and music, learning to understand and express yourself in different modes expands your inner world.  Your inner experience is primary.  We say that language is a social artifact: you learn it from others and do not invent your own.  But alone on his island, Robinson Crusoe needed language.  Language is how we think.  We also can think in colors, shapes, spaces, sounds, and so on.  Language then – your own or a foreign one – is another cognitive tool.

When you stop and think about it, the fact is that every language is a foreign language.  You learn your first one in the womb.  But if people around you have other modes – music, for instance – that, too, will become a “native” language… which is probably why music is passed so easily.  Few people can play an instrument, but fewer still never hum, whistle, sing, or tap.  Is music education a waste of time because so few high school or college students go on to become professional musicians? 

The 2012 Olympic Games are closing today.  As a nerd, I often hated gym class but I always felt that it was the fault of the school because I liked running around, chasing balls, and jumping over stuff.  (Perhaps in a prior life I was a Labrador retriever.)  Being able to climb a ladder maybe more useful than learning to climb a rope.  But in my work, I stayed off the high iron because I knew how I did on the balance beam.  Would the professors argue that physical education is a waste of time and money because so few graduate to worldwide acclaim or professional status?

In 100 years we have gone from the steamship to the spaceship, but education still consists of one person speaking to a passive array of listeners.  Like Soviet agriculture, public education is doomed to minimal innovation and production – and for the same metaphysical reasons.  So, yes, education as we produce it is open to criticism – even from first principles. 

But we do have some competition: Ohio State versus Harvard; Stanford versus Mt. Holyoke; Antioch versus Phoenix.  And no one has come up with anything better than the liberal education: trivium and quadrivium – Grammar, Rhetoric, Logic; Arithmetic, Geometry, Music, Astronomy.  Today, that would be English composition, philosophy, foreign language, algebra (calculus, etc.), law, economics, music, and science.  Before you sign on as an apprentice and pursue a career, you need the fullest possible range of intellectual abilities.  And learning never stops. 

Previously on Necessary Facts:
The Economic Value in a Liberal Education
The Pretense of Sociology
Two Cheers for American Education
Another Cheer for American Education

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