I was looking at a discussion of what should be in a college curriculum, and as such discussions seem to go, there was a big list of things everyone should study, and some political claims about what's being offered but shouldn't be. 

Instead, what do you wish you'd studied in college? What do you wish other people had studied in college? On the latter, do you think everyone should have studied it, or do you just wish more people knew about it? Approximately what percentage of people?

Of course, this doesn't have to be limited to college. People could learn the same things earlier or later.

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[Meta] The answers will be way more informative if they are posted as "X instead of doing/learning Y" e.g. "Underwater basket weaving instead of moping around" as of course I wished I had learned everything.

(Similar to Fluttershy) Culturally, there's a belief that college years are our formative years, and we should be learning to be good, well-rounded (in the liberal arts sense) people. But college is a huge time and money commitment, and the job market is competitive, so I think college ought to be used strategically for advancement in academic or well-paved professional tracks (doctor, lawyer). My college, Harvey Mudd, had a noticeable emphasis on ethics in science and technology and humanities as a hearty side heaping to technical topics. Ideally, ethics would be strategic for career advancement, but in the real world (software engineering), it's never seem to come up in my job placement. Harvey Mudd should be a pretty good model though since they manage to make it work anyway. Alan Kay also suggested a technical and humanities double major (somewhere in that interview...).

The politics of college aside, here's my list of things to learn as soon as and by any means possible:

  • Rationality. Goes without saying here. In particular: using reasoning and empirical data for important questions. I just came across this today that decries the complete lack of empirical basis for programming language design (a topic that's collectively consumed hundreds of thousands of hours of debate, not to mention time developing mediocre solutions). You'll see the same thing in any field (at least fields that are mature enough to even ask the question).
  • Career & finance. Understanding that there's a game to both and having knowledge about those games can get you opportunities and money that you wouldn't otherwise. I recommend Ramit Sethi's material and Tony Robbin's new book.
  • Body & brain. You can often get away with research + rationality for a particular question, but it's good to have prior exposure to solutions to common problems: nutrition/fitness, body language, learning, mental health. For example: thinking "I'm depressed" leads you to: it could be due to a nutritional or neurochemical imbalance, or fixed with changing some thinking habits; instead of "I'm depressed because I'm a failure at life."
  • Technical topics. If you want to make a contribution you really need to focus. Math is generally useful, but that's mostly as a symbolic and visual language rather than any particular deep math topic until you need it. Programming is often useful for automating technical tasks. I've observed people who study physics excelling in different topics. (Perhaps exposure to model building and data-driving theory testing. Perhaps selection bias.)
  • Philosophical and spiritual things. I've only started to respect this recently, but I've found value in Taoist, Buddhist, Catholic, and Stoic teachings. Here's someone else exploring a variety of areas.
  • Microeconomics and game theory come up a lot in the world and knowledge thereof may prevent you from making dumb "If I were in charge..." statements.

Lots of things I wish I knew more about still, like sociology/anthropology, politics, and history, where there's a lot of "why should I learn about this particular thing or another?" that are hard to answer on my own.

Learn to write instructions clearly.

There are a lot of jobs in which you will have to tell other people how to do things. These include teaching, management, and many technical fields. When a programmer writes API documentation, or a scientist writes up a design for an experiment, they are giving instructions. When a manager explains to a new hire what they are expected to do on the job, they are giving instructions.

Ordinary good writing skills are part of this. If you write sentences with ambiguous grammar, or use pronouns without clear referents, your reader is going to have a hard time. ("Separate the red part from the blue part. Then throw it in the fire." Which part gets thrown in the fire?)

But that's just part of it. Instructions have to be relevant to what the reader is trying to do. API documentation shouldn't discuss internal details that the user can't interact with. Instructions have to be accurate. If your manager tells you that the job requires doing X, Y, and Z, but then you get dinged on your review for spending any time doing Y, something is amiss. Instructions have to be adequately complete. If a scientific paper says "we centrifuged the mixture for 10 minutes at a moderate speed," that's not gonna fly unless "moderate speed" means something very specific.


I strongly agree, but which writing textbooks, courses, or other material does the best job covering this material?

One exercise that I remember from school (though I can't place it to a particular year) involved writing instructions which another student would then follow to reconstruct a drawing.

The goal was to get the reader to draw out each letter of a message, but you weren't allowed to use the names of letters, and the reader didn't know the instructions were meant to make a message. So the instruction "draw a half-circle pointing left, with a line connecting its ends" might get you the capital letter D, or it might get you this.

Now that I think about it, this may have actually been in an art class, not even a writing class, and the point of it may have been to get people thinking about shapes, not instructions. But I may be confabulating that.

Maybe various sorts of modeling other people's points of view should be included.

Neurotypicals are assumed to have a theory of mind, but I think a lot of people can pass the "does someone else know where the treat is just because you do" test without getting much farther.

I don't think neurotype has all that much to do with it. The illusion of transparency is a thing; so is the expert blind spot, or what I sometimes think of as "the professor fallacy" or "the promoted-to-management fallacy" — the mistake that just because I am good at doing X myself, that I must therefore be good at instructing people in how to do X.

What I was trying to say was that the capacity of neurotypicals to model other people's minds is apt to be wildly overestimated, both for themselves and for other neurotypicals..

Intuition pump: you're going to lose all adult memories tomorrow. You have a budget of ~4 years worth of experiences and skills which you are allowed to keep. What do you elect to retain?

(This question will probably not work so well if you're 22 or under)

I think the main point of college is to prepare yourself for having a good career, so maybe don't pay as much attention to my advice if you don't feel like that is true. I partially feel this way because I have a bit of an EA mindset, and partially feel this way because I think that having skills which are relevant to the job market gives you more power to pick jobs that you like.

As a general heuristic, STEM disciplines are more relevant to the job market than humanities and the social sciences, though it is worth remembering that not all STEM disciplines are equal. I feel like CS, operations research, and math majors have the best job prospects, followed by engineering, and then biology majors. Chemistry and physics majors don't have quite as good job prospects as other STEM majors. I don't have a great idea of where geology majors fit into the spectrum, but I hear that the petroleum industry pays quite well.

Economics is often categorized as a social science, rather than a STEM field, though I get the impression that math-heavy economics programs probably prepare individuals for finance related jobs reasonably well.

Also, I know that some universities require all students to take a couple of humanities courses, to ensure that students are "well-rounded". I think that e.g. familiarity with Joyce or Homer might be useful to students for signaling purposes, but that the opportunity cost of taking humanities courses is high enough that it would be better for most students if these sorts of courses weren't required.


About Homer. There was a post (in Russian) that compared the mythology of Greeks (safely seen as 'huh, the guys had it wrong so many times, there are no apples to make you eternally young etc.') and contemporaries ('there are miracle formulae that will get you to be in just as great physical shape as you were at 20 years old.) The main idea was that the same visions still are percolated under different names. So if you teach ancient texts in the 'recognizing myths in your own thinking' context, it might be a real help.

So if you teach ancient texts in the 'recognizing myths in your own thinking' context, it might be a real help.

Unfortuantely seeing errors in other peoples thinking often doesn't transfer to seeing them in your own thinking.


But seeing errors in others is often the first step

In many cases people get more confident about their own beliefs if they see errors in other peoples reasoning. That's why smarter Republicans who are better at spotting errors are more likely to be climate skeptics than dumber Republicans.


Payscale tracks good data on degree payoff, but they don't adjust for selection bias. I would recommend sorting by starting salary instead of mid-career salary to reduce that bias. SE and CS majors start at pretty much the same spot, but CS majors end up making a lot more probably because of that selection bias. Petroleum Engineering is indeed ridiculously lucrative right now, but this is in constant flux. Engineering degrees are riding high right now, but this could change a lot in 4 years. I would guess all the degrees below $40,000 probably have a negative ROI, and the ones between $40-45,000 could go either way. The only real surprises to me are Industrial Design and Food Science. I didn't even know food science was something you could major in.

Taught early in high school: How to do sex, in real life. Not STI education, not pregnancy/fertility, not how to be safe, or the biology of penises and vagines. How to go into sex and do it so that it's fun and feels good, how to listen to your body and your partner, maybe how to attract the opposite sex, and so on. Dunno about elsewhere, but in the US guys get all their sex education from porn, and girls used to get none at all. (now... also porn?) Porn is fun, but it's Kabuki Sex, and it only vaguely relates to real-life sex. It'd be like giving a 16-year-old a driver's licence when the entirety of his/her driving education consisted of watch Hollywood Car Chase movies.

Of everything useful I ever learned about sex, 50% of it was from Dan Savage and 50% of it was from my fiance, both many years after I had actually started trying to do sex on my own. This is stupid.

how to listen to your body and your partner

That skill is also useful in a variety of other situations in life.

I'm sure that Clarisse Thorne wrote about college women being strongly influenced by pornography, but I can't find the blog entry.

There have been some attempts to improve this, such as the video A Girls Guide To 21st Century Sex or the book Guide to Getting It On (obviously, both heavily NSFW) seem to be working toward helping this, though not without their limitations.

I've not seen much about the relationship aspects of sex that I can recommend, unfortunately.

I'm not sure a college curricula is the best place to examine these sorts of things, but for all the good Dan Savage or OhJoy!SexToy or Scarleteen do, it's disappointing that they're some of the best options available.

I think that learning some basic programming is a skill that can be useful in a variety of occupations. My brother works in procurement, but he has programmed some basic macros that have allowed him to complete his tasks much more efficiently and this helped him gain a promotion.

One of the best courses I ever took was art history. Art is everywhere, in restaurants, in hotel lobbies and scattered around the city. Having an opportunity to discuss various works within a classroom setting was very valuable for improving my ability to analyse art, which furthers my appreciation and allows me to start interesting conversations. I want to try to also take a class in film studies to see if it deepens my appreciation of film.

Statistics are extremely useful and are used everywhere. From the sciences, to business and to sport (see moneyball) it is worth having at least an introduction so that you can at least attempt to understand the evidence behind a theory. Many subjects like business, psychology or the life sciences will force you to take a statistics course anyway.

First year psychology is one of the most interesting and useful courses I've covered too. Psychology covers everything from improving your memory, maintaining motivation, convincing people and understanding happiness.

I haven't taken a course on micro-economics, but I've read articles online. I agree with Joel Spotsky - (http://www.joelonsoftware.com/articles/CollegeAdvice.html), that economics is heavily frontloaded with useful ideas that allow you to understand not only how the business world works, but how to make better decisions in general (arbitrage, Pareto-optimality, time-discounting, specialisation, supply and demand).

Philosophy is valuable because it teaches you to question everything, even your most basic assumptions. Again, this is worth taking in college because of the discussions that you'll (hopefully) have in class. My uni has a course on practical philosophy that I'm planning to do next year.

Don't forget about extra curricula's. You can try to become an exec on a club to gain leadership experience. You can try to find a new hobby. I'll note debating as a particularly interesting activity. Debating calls on knowledge from all different areas - from international relations, economics, law, psychology and philosophy. It improves your ability to think on the fly and to articulate your thoughts. Further, there is a tight feedback loop, adjudicators are usually willing to provide feedback.

I like the wording of the title; it emphasizes how the good things to have learned are not always the best / easiest / most pleasant things to be learning.

I view it as a matter of having enough of a background of knowledge to build an accurate mental model of the world, and to have a clue as to how to expand on it, when desired -- making future info easier to learn. Knowledge as a toolbox, basically.

For me personally, it's a big step forward every time I learn in-depth a new math concept. Same for physics; ideally, at some point, I'd like to know every physics concept relevant to engineering just about anything (if there's enough time in life for such an endeavour, of course), but that's just me and I wouldn't expect the same of other people. Other useful stuff that would aid most people... probability-aided epistemology; it helps tremendously, as most of LW could attest. A general overview of broad fields of human knowledge, and the scientific consensus on a number of important points. Enough of the life sciences to be able to recognize broad symptoms of diseases in yourself, to know what to eat and how to exercise, to have an inkling about what stuff around you is made of (chemistry), and to have an accurate view of the human organism and of the biological bases for a lot of seemingly non-biological processes. Enough history and economics to be able to discuss society and politics sanely.

I'd also add a naturalistic mindset, but according to some people (not well-represented here) that would be crossing the border into ideological impositions.

Beyond this, I think, it's a matter of specialization, intrinsic interest and curiosity, and improving job prospects.

On a tangential note, I wouldn't trust college or formal education with this task. This knowledge is much too important to allow it to be degraded into just another class to score a passing grade on. At least so I have gathered from my experience with formal education at all levels in my country; maybe things are better at the Ivies or MIT or top international universities in general, but it's a shame for society if one has to get to that percentile to have the full toolbox to think about the world around oneself. I don't think there is anything higher education institutions can do to equip people with this knowledge, and nothing short of a cultural shift to get people to read more and have a stronger appreciation for intellectual values would get the job done.

I liked the title too. It reminded me of that Mark Twain quote: "A classic is something everyone wants to have read, but no one wants to read."

One thing I'd like people to learn is how much detail and work goes into conclusions in academic subjects, and the extent to which conclusions can be disputed.

That's a way of saying that, given controversy, teaching laypeople the scientific consensus on a matter is likely to influence both laypeople and research (budgets etc.) in a wrong direction?

No, I didn't have a specific policy outcome in mind-- it's more that I think people don't have a good understanding that knowledge frequently takes a great deal of work and may still be somewhat uncertain. My impression is that the human default is to believe that knowledge just happens, and should be assumed to be accurate.

On a tangential note, I wouldn't trust college or formal education with this task. This knowledge is much too important to allow it to be degraded into just another class to score a passing grade on. At least so I have gathered from my experience with formal education at all levels in my country; maybe things are better at the Ivies or MIT or top international universities in general, but it's a shame for society if one has to get to that percentile to have the full toolbox to think about the world around oneself.

Given this, how much knowledge acquisition should you leave to college? As a current college student I've been struggling with how much knowledge I should pick up on my own vs how much to get via courses. I've mainly focused on satisfying requirements with my courses while self-studying math/programming on my own, but I realize that this might not be the best use of resources.

I took a Philosophy course that emphasized Aristotle, Sartre, Plato, Freud, Karl Popper, and a handful of psychologists and other philosophers that I frankly didn't bother to remember ten minutes after the final.

It didn't tell me why I'd actually care about philosophy.

Other harder sciences sometimes had this issue -- most notoriously math -- but the answer to a math problem is the same no matter why you're interested in it. That's not really the case here, and that my instructors didn't even feel such an argument was worth mentioning is... frustrating.

I wish I had learned how to have successful relationships with women in college, though of course college generally doesn't teach that unless certain classes in psychology and human sexuality offer some useful information. Because our culture leaves something this important to the haphazard, if you can't get the foundations for that man's skill set in high school, and if you go to college and can't get the right kind of "remediation" there, then as an adult you face some serious problems which extend to other areas of a man's life beyond just the impaired ability to pair up with women.

The most important thing that many pyschology courses offer on the subject is probably that a majority of women attend.

Personal finance, both the investing end as mentioned elsewhere on this thread, and, more importantly, the (not) spending end.
Cooking. Most stuff on the CfAR curriculum. How to fall safely, its easy to learn and greatly reduces the danger of a fairly common type of injury.

How to fall safely, its easy to learn and greatly reduces the danger of a fairly common type of injury.

Could you be more specific about how that's supposed to be taught?

The three things I remember from a long-ago judo class that have served me in good stead are
(1) If falling forward, roll -- that is, constrict all the muscles of my torso and neck so my head is driven towards my knees and I end up on my back.
(2) fall as flat as I can, spreading the impact out over the largest possible surface area.
(3) keep my chin tucked up against my chest while falling so my head doesn't bounce off whatever surface I strike.

Of course, these are the sorts of lessons that have to become reflexes to be worth anything. And reflexes are taught by practice.

Many martial arts, as well as several performance arts and sports have well developed break fall techniques that can easily be added to a standard gym class curriculum. Some locations have tried doing so and so a large reduction in fall based injuries. Unfortunately, I don't have those articles on hand, but here is a related one discussing the effectiveness of such techniques. If you are interested in learning them yourself they are pretty much the first thing you will learn in a standard Judo class.


Critical skills for getting the most from your career:

Networking - as a general skill, my absolute number 1

Communications - Both written and verbal skills are a must; visual design if you do a lot of visual presentations

Grammar - maybe not too much; your boss probably thinks it's okay to use a comma in front of a subordinating conjunction too

Organizational strategies - I'm not sure if this can be taught. It may be purely a personality trait.

information technology - I doubt this is a problem for most of you; note I do not at all mean computer science which has a much lower value

how to not be a dick

How to evaluate ideas scientifically - Determinism, Parsimony, Probability Estimation, the Scientific Method, Research Methods and their relative validity

Advanced Statistics - this is critical if you're going into academia; the rest of us only really need it to look good on a grad school application and to get by for those couple of years; most advanced mathematics simply never come up in the real world

finance - some important ones are index fund, expense ratio, and IRA

tailoring - this is critical if you're going into law, finance, or politics; not how to tailor but how to evaluate a piece of clothing's quality and to get the right fit; it is also useful for other fields but less so (no, khakis are not typically business appropriate)

Where to look for the best information in your field

as many hundreds of hours of practice as possible in your chosen craft - if your field is performance-driven then this should be done even if it is to the detriment of the other skills I named; if your field is signalling-driven then this should come after the rest of this list

This leaves out all the critical life skills of course.

Being geeky and probably mildly Aspie, I've always had trouble recognizing non-verbal signaling as well as using it appropriately. I am quite sure that this has negatively impacted my career to a significant degree, only partially mitigated by academic excellence. I'd happily trade a few courses, like philosophy, history and drafting, for Human Signalling 101. Of course, no such course exists anywhere in the world, for all I know. A couple of other interpersonal relationship courses would have been nice, too. Maybe a Dale Carnegie one.

no such course exists anywhere in the world, for all I know

Paul Ekman did a lot of work on the facial expression of emotions, and has some online training for the detection of emotion from facial expressions. It's been on the list of things I might shell out money for one day. I think there are multiple sites with his stuff due to licensing issues. Seems particularly Aspie appropriate.


For online training:



I'm not sure which is his current site, but there may be price differentials between them, so I'd check them all.

what do you wish you'd studied in college?


Why? Would an understanding of physics help you now, or is it more for fun?

Physics is math that touches the ground. Not only do you avoid the temptation to muck around with "inaccessible cardinals" and things like that, but I get the impression good physicists can just work out a lot of things from first principles.

Physicists have an excellent nose for modeling too.

edit: I don't think knowing more physics would "help me" now, in the sense that I don't need to know more physics to write papers. But I think knowing more physics would help my intellectual development a lot. I am working on it...

I am not sure my experience generalizes, I certainly am not advocating studying physics as a universal piece of advice.

As a physicist, I'd like to say that if you're tempted by inaccessible cardinals, you will still end up mucking about with them, much to the annoyance of some of your cohort.

I wish I knew what I wanted to have studied when I went to college, so that I could have hit the ground running, with a goal in mind. Instead I took a year and half before I had settled on a major of physics. It seems that some people had a better idea of what to get out of college, but that seems largely dependent on their parents, where they grew up, and what part of the internet they lived in. I don't feel like I had a good understanding of what different jobs and careers were like.

So for classes, I took more chemistry than I would have liked, but that doesn't bother me that much, as it was interesting and still relevant to some of my physics classes.

What does bother me, is that I spent a lot of time taking classes that I thought I should take, instead of classes I wanted to take. I thought that doing theoretical physics was a bad idea because of job / grad school prospects (probability of getting a professorship is low) so I took lab classes and did laboratory research that I didn't like as much, and did worse in, than theory classes. I still ended up doing theory in my spare time, and instead of research / laboratory work, but it was at the expense of that work, rather than purely additive. I was thinking that following my 'passion' was a bad idea, but I think that if i did so and did theory it could have worked out better - I would have been happier, and had a better resume in the end.

I have a lot of strong opinions about the physics curriculum, and wish that it had more programming, and less redundancy. I'm not familiar with how physicists get good at modeling or data-science, and can't think of any undergraduates from my school who got much experience with this. But that seems like it would have been a good thing.

Something cool to have learned would be "practical mindsets and values". For a long time I had an idea of that as long as I was learning things, that was great and all I needed to care about. This served me well, but eventually I was introduced to the idea of "get shit done" which was also very useful.

I just wanted to make a second comment - I'm sure I've seen some similar topics before. If anyone can remember what they are, please link them.

One of the things that everyone learns in university (but usually does not notice to have learned it as it is never listed in any syllabus) is a set of skills and procedural knowledge that is specific to university setting, e.g. how to deal with problems using university resources, how to use them, how to submit forms that are university specific, how to deal with a university administration, how to submit your homework, how to deal with deadlines and so on. Naturally, this procedural knowledge is somewhat less useful (although not useless) outside the university. At the same time, the way "the outside world" works is not diametrically opposite to the way the university works (although it is different), therefore maybe there is a room for some small changes that would be helpful for students that leave academia after they graduate? Suppose a university decides that it would be useful for their students to obtain more procedural knowledge that would be useful in the private (or public) sector. How could they achieve this goal without compromising the things that are good about university life? One obvious answer is to outsource this problem by encouraging students to find internships, but maybe there are more ways to do it?

I wish I had taken more statistics courses. I learned the basics and have picked up a fair amount of the advanced stuff through self-study during graduate school, but I didn't realize during college how useful it would be.

I wish more people would take more computer science courses. Intro to Comp Sci is usually too basic to be useful. Data structures, algorithms, numerical/scientific computing are all useful in a large variety of careers.

I think some sort of debating or arguing class would be very helpful. People should have good reasons for why they do things and this applies to most topics.

Some sort of thing where the topics debated would be marked by how well you cited facts or how clear your chains of reasoning were. So if you were asked to discuss why on food was better than another you should have some process like looking up the answer in a text book or looking up stuff from science websites online, interpreting them correctly, and presenting the truth. Lots of fanfare and marks should be awarded for doing this process successfully so people are trained to see this process as valuable. Lots of effort should be made to make sure people look for good advice sources.

On novel questions, reliable processes like asking a bunch of people their opinions, doing some tests, and presenting those results should be suggested.

For specific knowledge fields clear aid should be provided for these topics- finances. Maths should deal with this a lot. Physical health. Biology should deal with this a lot, in a more comprehensive manner than it does now- I've often seen them address illnesses, but rarely seen science curriculems address good health practices. Sexual health and relationship good practice should be addressed a lot more widely. Those are issues everyone is likely to face and everyone should have a solid foundation of knowledge to aid them with rather than a slapsash compilation of things from random people and the internet.

I am a firm believer in liberal arts and classical education and I would like to see more of that in university and have other things farmed out to technical schools and trade schools. I think of 4 years the first two should be limited to philosophy, language, learning how to think, writing, research, journalism, and then the last 2 years specializing in a field of study within which to excel.

Engineering instead of biology.

I guess there is a spilt between sciences (subjects where you do problem sets) and humanities (subjects where you write essays). All my university education was problem-set based, and now I'm a bit jealous of how good the people who did humanities are at writing. On the other hand, I'm not sure what I would like to sacrifice from my actual education, most of it seems pretty worthwhile too.

I think that people have such different ideas about what college is for that it's hard to say what other people should do. The best advice I've ever read about college was here - and the comments are full of people denouncing it as terrible advice! Chacun à son goût.

For myself, I wish I'd switched from maths to economics.

When you notice that the higher education system has too many different purposes, I guess it would be a good idea to stop thinking about it as an indivisible system where every university has to have a similar purpose. Maybe different colleges and universities should specialize in satisfying different purposes? Of course, even today some universities (at least to some extent) do that. However, maybe making it explicit which university is of which type would stop them trying (or pretending to try) to cover everything? In the best case scenario, those different types of universities and colleges would compete for prestige with other universities within the same type.

I wish I had actually applied myself in studying a foreign language instead of putting in the minimum effort to pass. I wish I had studied computer science, it would had accelerated my career by 5 years and CoSci is fun. I wish other people had taken more English classes, because writing clearly is hard and needs to be taught*.

*My alma mater my be unusual in actually teaching clear writing in English classes. I credit the professors involved.


Academics are only a small part of the value of college. Build your network.

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