Beating the System

Having had a bit to say on the subject of education, I was intrigued today by an article by a professor from the University of Houston [where I will be Monday] about a university student who completed five undergraduate degrees in six years in 1998.

Instead of finishing in four years with one degree, he finished five college degrees in only six years. He amassed 340 credit hours with a grade-point average of 3.70. His degrees are in political science, psychology, sociology, criminal justice, and communications. Coyle has taken as many as 64 credits in one semester, which qualifies as absurd. He's also been accepted into seven fine law schools. Naturally, his university is less than delighted. The provost feels that Coyle has mocked the academic process.

I would be more impressed if there was a serious degree in the bunch. Each of those subjects qualifies as a voodoo science. It is definitely unfair of me to assert that, but nonetheless true. Each of those subjects, considered unto itself, I would consider interesting. I just have serious doubts about any of them taught in an American university. Each of these disciplines as taught has a great deal of overlap, and do not require the mastery of a complex, cumulative body of knowledge. Coyle could not have amassed 340 credit hours in the same amount of time if he had chosen mathematics, physics, chemistry, biology, and mechanical engineering. Go ahead, try it. I dare you.

I know this to be true, because I studied physics and mathematics at the same time. It was extremely common for physics students to double or triple major. Common adjunct majors included astronomy, mathematics, and engineering.  However, this was only truly possible because the requirements overlapped to such a large degree that only a few courses [as few as five] were required for the double major. Even the dreaded engineering physics major only required 129 credit hours.

I also know this to be true because I had a friend who completed a triple major in Criminal Justice, Political Science, and Psychology at NAU. She graduated with over 200 credit hours, which was only possible by gaming the system. NAU also does not feel that you should amass ridiculous amounts of credits, even if you are able, so there is a strict cap of 25 credit hours per semester, with over 21 requiring the dean's approval. My friend would take classes at the local community college and then transfer them, to evade the credit hour cap. I remember her as busy, but quite sane. Someone who tried to take the equivalent number of classes in a hard science would have to be inhumanly smart, insane, or both. Probably both.

There is one thing such an accomplishment shows, a very high level of conscientiousness. My friend was always organized and on the ball. I never could understand how she got so much done. Actually, I do now. She is exceptionally conscientious. In retrospect, much is clearer now. My friend also went to law school,  there seems to be more than an accidental relationship here. I should point out that my contempt is reserved for the present system, rather than either Coyle or my friend. You need to be an exceptional person to be smart enough to figure out this is possible, and be sufficiently organized to actually do it. Coyle says he isn't smart, but I don't believe him.

I do agree with the provost of the University of Nevada, Coyle did make a mockery of the system. I just feel the system deserves to be mocked.  The subjects Coyle quintuple-majored in are just not hard enough to prevent this kind of thing from happening. This kind of behavior is rare both because no one thinks of doing it, and also that the vast majority of college students don't have sufficient conscientiousness to pull it off. For a lot of smart young people, college is a very pleasant way to spend four [or five] years. Choosing a major that is not too hard can be a good way to ensure that you are still employable [given sufficient smarts], but not cramp your social life. Doing 340 credit hours in two years definitely cramps your social life.

I am largely in agreement with Charles Murray. Far too many people are going to college. This whole episode is really just a symptom. Lienard, the UH professor, relates a story from his youth where he was denied credit for exceptional drafting ability because he is dyslexic and consequently was doing poorly in high school. Lienhard did three years of classwork in one semester, but only received one semester's of credit. The school system current, both secondary and tertiary, cannot accept that people have wildly differing levels of ability in many different spheres. Some people are much smarter than others. Some people are much more organized than others. Some people can visualize in three dimensions much better than others.

This is not a bad thing. Paradoxically, I also assert that it is not a bad thing that some people are less smart, less organized, and less able to visualize in three dimensions. This is simply a fact, that must be acknowledged.

Plus, someday the last shall be first.

h/t John D. Cook

Rational Choice Theory and Experimental Philosophy

Satoshi Kanazawa has a blog post up at Psychology Today about rational choice theory. Voting, he claims, is irrational, because each vote, especially in national elections, counts for so little. I especially like the part where Kanazawa pooh-poohs the idea that voting might be a civic duty as magical thinking.

I've never been all that impressed with rational choice theory, even though it is not a flat out terrible idea. Rational choice theory apparently cannot explain something as common as voting, which is rather strange given that all else being equal, people who actually do vote are probably more civic-minded, more conscientious, and so forth.  Apparently all the people who do vote can see some benefit the economists forgot to put in their model? As far as I am aware rational choice theory could present playing Powerball as rational as long as the jackpot was high enough, since rational choice theory is built on the idea of cost-benefit analysis. If the odds of winning are less than the expectation value of the payoff divided by the cost of the ticket then it would be rational in these terms. [What, you won't live long enough to collect? I guess that's too bad.]

That example is admittedly ridiculous, but sometimes it is helpful to take an idea to it's limits to see where it breaks down. Kanazawa hasn't yet posted his ideas on why people vote, but it seems that if rational choice theory has trouble explaining something so straightforward, it needs rethinking. I'm not really opposed to the use of empirical and mathematical methods like this, afterall, Aristotle's philosophy is solidly empirical [not empiricist]. But trying to mathematicize behavior seems to have a tendency to try to compress human behavior to fit the model, rather than expand the model to fit the behavior.

I came across a somewhat related subject recently, experimental philosophy. As a Thomist, I can't really be against this kind of thing, yet I feel that something is not quite right. I can understand the desire to use experimental data to attempt to bypass the endless debates of philosophy, but I don't think their results mean what they they think they mean. By way of example, consider this post on the Experimental Philosophy blog looking at the subject of Natural Law and Moral Objectivism. The proffered explanation for their result is that people are ultimately philosophical relativists. Possible, but I can easily think of competing explanations, such as the test subjects are less willing to think that people from wildly differing cultures have enough in common to even have a moral disagreement. The crucial question of why was not asked, because the answers would be too various for analysis. This seems to be the common weak link between rational choice theory and experimental philosophy: human intentions do not have a 1:1 relationship with human behaviors. They don't map in such a way that mathematical analysis would always be useful. Thus the attempt to measure behavior falters because we really need to know why rather than what. As long as this limitation is borne in mind, I suspect this kind of thing could be pretty useful. But if it is not, then we get the attempt to call behaviors that don't fit the model irrational.