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Why We Need Liberal Arts

Grasping complexity — embracing it — is a critical capacity to be learned earlier rather than later in life. Liberal arts colleges should do all in their power to encourage students to avoid the polarized thinking that is, sad to say, becoming the standard of our day. Increasing the Value of a Liberal Education – William G. Bowen – National – The Atlantic.

Clark Kerr, in his now classic book The Uses of the University, described the modern university as so specialized that the only holding the various colleges together was the parking lot. The modern university has followed along the same path as modern systems of production. The more we can specialize students’ knowledge, the more they are able to focus on specific areas and become highly trained in those areas to produce at higher and more efficient rates.

It all works well with the assumptions of the modern economy. The manufacturing assembly line has simply been replaced with the cubicle farm as production has gone from hard goods to information management in the United States.

Is such specialization the best way to go? If you can fill up your cubicles with low wage earning college graduates who have the skills it works great. However, with education debt as high as it is, a college graduate can’t afford to have a low-wage, bottom rung job with that model. It works great for big companies but stiffs the employee.

What if the model changes? What if fewer but more talented people are hired? What if companies focus less on specialization but imagination? That is exactly the point of Seth Godin’s book Linchpin.

(T)he competitive advantage the marketplace demands is someone more human, more connected, and mature. Someone with passion and energy, capable of seeing things as they are and negotiating multiple priorities as she makes useful decisions without angst. Flexible in the face of change, resilient in the face of confusion (Godin, S. Linchpin: Are you indispensable?. Penguin, New York, 2010, p. 33).

Specialized research is important for larger institutions whose primary role is to create new knowledge. But the students that become grownups when they graduate need more than that to change the world and be happy. They need breath and depth. They need to know how to think critically, analyze often contradictory information, communicate well, think on their feet, and perform multiple kinds of things simultaneously. We need engineers and scientists who are also philosophers and artists. We need business men and women who understand political and religious dynamics in society.

Education has always been about the cultivation of a better society by developing better human beings. This cherished goal may have nothing to do with where the money goes in the markets. In fact, it might have everything not to do with that.

If we cease to focus on those questions that drive liberal arts curricula: What is good, what is beautiful, what is true, then we will lose the ability to adapt when the system crashes.

I think we can all agree that the crash has happened already. How we respond is a choice.

About Andrew Tatusko

Secularization, critical pedagogy, sometimes agnostic, politics, and a ton of running. Penn State is definitely not responsible for what I say.


2 thoughts on “Why We Need Liberal Arts

  1. I agree with the premise (I have a MA in classical liberal arts, and was an art teacher in the public schools for three years), but what caught my attention was Mr Godin’s suggestion that the alternative to the factory approach is “passion and energy.” For a lot of people not naturally bursting with energy and enthusiasm (especially introverts), that expectation tends to lead to feeling insufficient (“I may be thorough and level headed, but I’m not bursting with creativity all the time, so I must be doing things wrong), and burn-out.

    Posted by Molly | September 30, 2012, 10:39 PM
  2. Reblogged this on Tafacory Ideas and commented:
    The importance of a liberal arts education; proud to be part of this tradition.

    Posted by Tafacory | May 11, 2012, 1:21 PM

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