Monday, October 15, 2007

Diminishing Marginal Returns and Academia

Academics specialize. It's what they do. Hell, it's probably more accurate to say that all humans specialize -- just that some of us specialize in rather mundane tasks. There are good economic reasons for that: specialization and comparative advantage allows for more and better work to get done.

Yet there are diminishing marginal returns to specialization, and an academic (especially in the social sciences and humanities) who knows nothing outside her field will generally not produce work as full as someone who is broadly trained. There will always be gaps obvious to those trained in other fields. The irony is that learning the other fields' perspectives can be so simple. After taking one class in Sociology I had the tools and perspectives: structural functionalism, conflict theory, and symbolic interactionism. Now, I may have relatively crude conceptions of these theories, but the rational theory behind them has served me well nonetheless in philosophy and daily life. Similarly, all it takes to absorb the most integral concepts of economics such as opportunity cost, diminishing marginal returns, comparative advantage, and externalities is one easy class! The rest of the classes mainly just teach you other applications of these tools!

By the way, I've found that many faculty members at my school have never heard of an externality. If you haven't taken an intro economics or sociology class, you should!

The same applies to a lesser degree in mathematics and the sciences. Everyone should do at least Integral Calculus. And the reason most people don't has nothing to do with intelligence -- it has to do with willpower, interest, and teaching styles.

The most important reason for someone to be broadly trained is that these people make better citizens. And when I mean broadly trained I mean, of course, trained in economics at least. ;)

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