Monday, June 2, 2014

Learn How, and Learn Why: On Not Giving Up on Liberal Education

In the spirit of that esteemed internet phenomenon Let's Rush to Judgement, let's talk about a book I haven't read yet, Michael S. Roth's Beyond the University: Why Liberal Education Matters

I caught the author, Wesleyan president Michael S. Roth, in a long interview on KERA radio. You can catch it too, here.

He was talking about the tension between practical and liberal arts education. 

TJ came up as the author asked a question I don't know the answer to: shold we be preparing students for work or for understanding the world in general?  TJ, of course, wanted it both ways. 

"For Jefferson and his successors," Roth says in the interview, "liberal education had to have a pragmatic value just like science has a pragmatic value.  You learn very deep basic modes of inquiry in science, but those modes turn out to have extraordinary productive power." 

I love that. It's what got me through Algebra -- my teacher swore that it would make my mind more disciplined and ...something...useful...later...actually I don't remember what she said but the idea was it was good for me in a long-term kind of way. 

I took her word for it, which is hard for a lot of kids to do.  Roth talks about this. 

"When liberal education has been at its best in the United States, there's been a tension between inquiry and reverence.  On the one hand, inquiry, you go wherever the truth takes you. You cultivate a suspicion toward the world and its powers... But there's another part of liberal education that Bruce Kimball has called reverence, which is that you get introduced to things that many people for a long time have held in high esteem, and you ought to try to figure out why they have done so rather than try to tear it down."

\We make a big effort to teach critical thinking, and that's so important since marketers and politicians and skanky singers want to steal our kids' souls. 

But how can we help grow reverence in that same context? How to help our students find their place as total noobs in the world and to listen up until they've learned a thing or two?  That's at least as important as self expression. 

The President has proposed we rate universities like blenders: are grads working? Great. You get an A.  But will he grade on a curve on citizenship?

What if all a school's grads are ready for their first job, but can't tell that it's a terrible idea to get a payday loan between their first and second paychecks? What if the entire country becomes populated by the kind of people who go to art museums and dismissively say, "I could totally do that" to all but the "highest" kind of art? (Don't laugh; it happened). 

Roth says, "Today, because of the pace of change, going to college to prepare for the first job you're going to have after school, which is likely to be the worst job you'll ever have, that's a terrible investment...I think it's much healthier to take the route of college being a time where you learn the skills that will enable you to have a  career over the rest of your life,and  not just to get that first job. Because chances are in our economy, the skills you need for that first job, in five years, won't be the skills that you'll need to advance your career. "

What does Roth think kids do need to know how to do? Well, I think TJ would totally agree: "Learning how to create change, find opportunities and to get the skills that are immediately useful - that's the sweet spot."

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