Luck and the Liberal Arts
Here’s a random topic: the liberal arts. For people of my generation, college mostly relied on the humanities to give us a good education. Literature. Languages. Mathematics. History. Art and music. The social sciences. Some added the “hard” sciences, too. It was expected that we would learn how to analyze and interpret the world via these various points of views and intellectual disciplines. Education used to matter to be well-rounded in this way.
When I talk to college-aged folks these days, the term “liberal arts” is far from center-stage. It seems that education has evolved such that, from a too-early age, they are tested for and directed toward specific vocational, technical, or professional careers. Good in math? Head for computers, or engineering. Science? Bio-tech, or a medical field. Like messing with engines? Try the vo-tech classes, and head for diesel mechanics or tool-and-die work, or engineering. None of this is wrong or bad. But I wonder at the impact on society of such widespread channeling solely toward the strengths our younger generations demonstrate in 4th or 5th grade. They aren’t able, yet, to pick and choose from the vast range of opportunity. They cannot appreciate, yet, the wider nuances of what it might mean to study topics we once took for granted. I wonder if it isn’t just a bit...limiting. Just a little unfair.
Beginning in 2007, I was given a three year opportunity to teach freshman classes cryptically titled “Thought and Writing.” It was really freshman English, but the course title was catchy. And then I discovered something chilling: knowing how to really think was not a skill that had, so far, been nurtured in most of my students. They were highly adept at many things—but paralyzed when asked to bypass mere parroting of information and actually analyze it. Interpret it. Tell the rest of us what they thought of topics at hand and what these various topics meant to them. Paralyzed to have an opinion or, at least, to voice that opinion. So although we worked on their writing, we also worked on building that other skill: thinking. What a concept.
It made me wonder, what’s happening here? If we lose the mental/intellectual grit of a thinking society, we lose the fortitude (maybe even the ability) to question things, scrutinize trends, fight against stuff that rubs us the wrong way. It worries me. Just look at half the postings on Facebook; it’s easy to press the “like” button without having to explain ourselves. It’s easy to unfriend someone whose postings don’t mesh with what makes us comfortable (virtually).
It took me a long time to recognize the extent to which my liberal arts education taught me how to think. Yet isn’t learning to think a major facet (if not the whole point) of education? I feel very lucky that my teachers gave me the space to question things. I’m grateful they instilled in me the courage to allow curiosity to bubble up. I wish everyone could break loose from their educational straitjackets and have a semester of basket-weaving. Why not? Why not try various courses that happen to be totally off-grid from The Plan (whatever the pre-set plan may be)?
The broad thinkers who were my liberal arts teachers gave me an enriched life. The essays they made me write forced me to think. It wasn’t enough to parrot others. I had to research widely, and assess the provenance of those whose information I passed along in my writing. I had to learn to think. It’s a great skill, as is the affiliated skill of effectively using the knowledge gained.
The world of education (as business-like as it has become) must necessarily provide to the student/clients the skills and knowledge to make a living. Absolutely. I’m just saying that we also need to allow students to take off the blinders that seem increasingly in place as they “learn.” Please, let them learn to think about things that simply interest them. Tickle their fancy. Nudge their curiosity. Perhaps there is room for irrelevant information, knowledge that cannot specifically be applied to their upcoming careers. Please don’t let the importance (and relevance) of the liberal arts be lost.