BS standing for Bachelors of Science of course. As you may or may not be aware an Econ major at UMW confers a Bachelor’s of Science upon its bearer. Interestingly enough this is not the case at all or even most university. At their discretion some universities instead award a bachelor’s of arts for econ related study. This begs some questions, at least to me: What’s the difference between a BA and a BS, which is better, and is what UMW does really a BS.

I suppose I should mention that this entire discussion is framed by the conversation I had in class yesterday. Specifically what good does a college education do a person? The answer as cited in class was not terribly much overall, at least for most of its students. I think ideally, in the best of all possible worlds education gives an individual the tools they need to best handle life. Now obviously that’s a goal open to a wide gamut of interpretation, but bearing with me for the moment, here’s a possible dichotomy.

A Bachelor’s of Science teaches you how to do things and to know things. A chemistry student knows a lot about titration and the periodic table of elements, an engineering student a lot about gravity and fluid mechanics, A mathematicians a lot about….. err mathy stuff. But for these career paths the knowing of that specialized knowledge is the end goal, with it they are fully employable in their chosen field because they have knowledge that is difficult and onerous to acquire and thus in limited supply. Education, when it “succeeds”, succeeds because its grants the individual a comparative advantage that they can use to find employment.

Compare this to a Bachelor’s of Art. You know, fine, prestigious, and of course lucrative fields like say, I dunno, actor or philosopher. Your college education here is not necessarily helping you get hired. It’s not likely to directly contribute to your annual income. But that doesn’t make it worthless. The “arts” or humanities, whatever you wish to call them, aren’t focused on what you know or do but rather how you know or do. Having an English degree is valuable, not because you can quote Shakespeare but because reading Shakespeare in such depth has giving you a greater understanding and appreciation for the value of words. To put it economic terms your prospective life utility has increased both because the ancillary benefits of studying Shakespeare are a marketable skill but more importantly because you’ve increased the amount of utility you get from a low cost activity (reading.)

Now I’m arbitrarily labeling these two takes on education as representing BA’s and BS’s though I don’t think its an unfair comparison. But I think the dichotomy is useful for framing the issue. You can teach any field of inquiry around either of the axioms. If you really really wanted you could make a philosophy course about memorizing dates of famous philosophers and being able to list off their arguments. I think this would be sad. But in a better world I think you would more often find engineering being taught as an adventure, an inquiry into the world of material science where the goal is not to memorize the formula’s but to understand the system.

To bring the circle around to economics, an economics program could be formulated in two ways. You could start it by requiring students to take enough math so they could really understand the high level theories. They would take their course learn the cutting edge theories and be able to apply their statistic jutsu at any number of lucrative jobs. Education would be succeeding. But that’s not how they teach Econ at UMW. Instead the students are asked to explicate a simple question “how does the world work?” The answers and the scary maths follow after. By teaching it in a way that forces students to keep asking questions, to see the answers to the questions as an ends into themselves makes the UMW econ program very different from the other and I think better.