Oberlin Blogs

A Liberal Arts Education and Useless Bits of Information

September 16, 2016

El Wilson ’18

My father is an encyclopedia of useless bits of information. He can tell you lyrics from '70s hard metal songs, most of the history of the Turkish Empire, and several stories of corrupt politicians. He knows so many random facts that one of his coworkers came up with a name for them: UBIs (pronounced you-bees), useless bits of information.

The sad part is that I am my father's child. Although I don't get my information from giant history books, I have fallen in love with podcasts. Did you know that giraffes did not evolve their long necks to reach high leaves but rather to fight each other? Or that the difference between "caffeine free" and "decaffeinated" is that things that are decaffeinated naturally have caffeine in them (like coffee) that has to be removed, but things that are caffeine free just don't have caffeine added to them like they would normally (like pop)? Or that the entire video game industry almost crashed because of a bad E.T. spinoff game? You get my point.

Knowing any of this information serves no purpose unless you can put it into some context. Because I'm a psychology major, I know lots of facts about how the human mind works. As random as some of the facts are, they come together to form a web of concepts that allows me to link new information and situations to what I already understand. For example, I learned in my social psychology class that people are concretely worse at interpreting data when it disagrees with their viewpoints. I also learned, from a podcast named Reasonable Doubts, that people are more likely to consider the opposing opinion in a debate if their opposition admits to having some common ground with them. These two principles together give me a better picture of how people debate.

Don't worry. This isn't a blog post about how smart I am. I spend most of my time at Oberlin feeling very small-brained. I remember almost nothing from the astronomy class I took last fall despite the fact that I got a good grade and spent hours that semester looking at the stars. I couldn't even name more than one movie we watched in the cinema studies class I took freshman year. All I've gained from the classes that don't fit into my two majors are UBIs, useless bits of information that don't have enough context to make them meaningful.

If this is true, then what's the point of a liberal arts education? I'm still wrangling with this question. The closest thing I have to an answer comes from what I understand about the human mind. Our brains, generally speaking, can learn how to think in a particular way. I may not remember most of the names of the stars we learned in astronomy, but it completely changed the way I viewed the way math and science come together to create our understanding of the universe. One subject is almost useless without the other. My brain now knows how math and science are connected and therefore can use this understanding to interpret new information in the future.

I know I'll graduate Oberlin with more UBIs than I can count. The threads that connect the many facts that I learn in class will dissolve. Unless I directly use my psych major, most of what I remember will be the things that applied to my daily life and not the loads of statistics I've had to take. Luckily, I'll have the rest of my life to learn everything I'll forget and then some. If all goes well, I'll leave Oberlin with many UBIs and a brain that knows how to learn many more.

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