‘One Thing a Person Cannot Do…’

“… is to draw up a list of things that would never occur to him!” A Thomas Schelling quote prompts Julius Nagy to reflect on the value of a liberal arts education.

September 30, 2022
A black-and-white photo of economist Thomas Schelling, a white man with short hair wearing old-fashioned glasses.
Thomas Schelling
(Alvaro conde/Wikimedia Commons)

As the pandemic kept us all at home during the summer of 2021, I found myself reading things I might not normally have the time or inclination to read. Somehow, I came across a post on the Conversable Economist blog, which, as a chemist, is not on my reading list. The post, written by economist Timothy Taylor, is entitled, “Thomas Schelling: ‘A Person Cannot … Draw Up a List of Things That Would Never Occur to Him.’”

As a chemistry professor at a small liberal arts college, I was immediately intrigued and eagerly climbed into this rabbit hole, because in my courses on general chemistry, there are many concepts that would never occur to my students, even after several lectures and homework assignments. But who is Thomas Schelling and why should I—we—care?

Schelling won the 2005 Nobel Prize in economic sciences with Robert J. Aumann for “having enhanced our understanding of conflict and cooperation through game-theory analysis.” He applied game theory to, among other topics, the Vietnam War, international trade negotiations and issues surrounding racial segregation. The full quote from that title above can be found in Schelling’s essay in the 1987 book Managing Nuclear Operations (Brookings Institution Press), where he discussed the use of war games to discover issues and options that might not have been previously known, let alone considered: “Games, however, have one quality that separates them qualitatively from straightforward analysis and permits them to generate insights that could not be acquired through analysis, reflection, and discussion,” he wrote. “That quality can be illustrated by an impossibility theorem: one thing a person cannot do, no matter how rigorous his analysis or heroic his imagination, is to draw up a list of things that would never occur to him!”

An impossibility theorem, indeed! If we were able to generate such lists, no effort would ever fail, because all the sources of failure would be known and avoided. This is where the liberal arts education gains considerable value.

The “games” that Schelling refers to in his essay on war games have several characteristics:

  • “People have to interpret messages that they did not write.”
  • “People must look for patterns in a set of actions that they did not compose.”
  • “People must infer the intent behind decisions to whose intent they have no access.”
  • “People must predict what must be coming next, given what has come.”
  • “People must read meanings in a set of actions that probably included meanings that were intended to be read.”
  • “People must be alert to the significance of the messages they did not receive.”

For those of us with a liberal arts background or who teach at liberal arts institutions, Schelling provides the reasons such a broad-based education is essential in the 21st century.

Merriam-Webster’s dictionary gives two definitions of the liberal arts. The first refers to the course of studies in medieval universities comprising the trivium—the three arts of the humanities (grammar, logic and rhetoric), and the quadrivium (arithmetic, astronomy, geometry and music). The second definition cites the contemporary reality: “college or university studies (such as language, philosophy, literature, abstract science) intended to provide chiefly general knowledge and to develop general intellectual capacities (such as reason and judgment) as opposed to professional or vocational skills.”

Each institution of higher education that presents a liberal arts educational option presents it in its own special way. Since I teach at Siena Heights University in Michigan, I refer to our approach, as outlined in the introductory pages of the Siena Heights catalog. “In the view of the faculty at Siena Heights University, the purpose of a liberal arts education is to help students develop a deeper understanding of themselves and their relationship to the world in which they live,” the catalog states.

The Siena Heights catalog goes further, stating that “the liberal arts curriculum strives to engage all students in the foundational wisdom of cultures, past and present, to develop the kind of intellectual curiosity, discipline and judgment needed to fulfill their aspirations and to meet their obligations.”

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That our students leave our institution with training in communication, critical thinking, creativity, art, diversity, social and civic responsibility, world religious traditions, and ethics points to the most important element of a liberal arts education. An education based in the liberal arts breaks down barriers between disciplines and exposes students to ideas and concepts that they can draw from to solve new and complex problems—to interpret messages they did not receive, to look for patterns in actions they did not compose, and more.

Drawing from the framework of Schelling’s quote—“one thing a person cannot do, no matter how rigorous his analysis or heroic his imagination, is to draw up a list of things that would never occur to him!”—the liberal arts education expands a student’s understanding of themselves and the citizens of the world in which they live. It broadens their base of knowledge so that they see and consider options that others will not consider. It improves awareness of that which they do not know and feeds the drive to be a lifelong learner.

Fareed Zakaria, in his 2015 work In Defense of a Liberal Education (W. W. Norton), cites a 2013 survey from the American Association of Colleges and Universities reporting that 74 percent of employers would recommend a good liberal education to students as the best way to prepare for today’s ever-changing global economy. He writes, “You must be entrepreneurial and recognize that you will need to change jobs and even careers over a lifetime. No company will stay loyal to you, nor can you lock yourself into one place.”

Zakaria also writes that one of the enduring benefits of a liberal education is that it “broadens us,” that exposure to literature, history, science and music prepares us for the many professional and personal roles we will play in our lifetimes. “A liberal education gives us a greater capacity to be good workers,” he writes, “but it will also give us the capacity to be good partners, friends, parents, and citizens.”

When we have that broader base of understanding, we can find better solutions to problems, and we can keep an open mind to consider the ideas of others who come from very different places than we do, because many of these ideas are ones we could not possibly think of ourselves. If the COVID-19 pandemic and the civil rights uprisings of the summer of 2020 have shown us anything it is the following: that understanding others is important, that we should be considerate of the fact that their positions on issues are legitimately different from ours, and that cross-cultural solutions are possible. These are the keys to building the kind of world that most of us would like to live in and build for future generations. Solving the problems of the world will take higher-level thinking than that which created these problems, and it is only through an approach such as that taught in a liberal arts institution that success will be ours.

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Julius Nagy is an associate professor of chemistry at Siena Heights University, in Michigan.

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