Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Education, Professional Success, and/or the Liberal Arts

About a month ago, sick of seeing it continually lambasted within the press, I decided to put in my two cents on the value of a liberal arts education. Since then the subject has popped up in at least three separate conversations, convincing me of its relevance to just about any dialogue and delaying the publication of this particular blog entry.

What's the point of a liberal arts education? With unemployment high in the US, and job opportunities slim-to-none, it’s definitely legitimate to debate the value of non-professional higher education. The main issue, and definitely not a new one, is whether a student majoring in, say, Anthropology or English, will ever be able to find a job. Over a year ago an article in USA Today, citing a study by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, stated that the US economy was in serious danger due to a growing mismatch between the skills needed for jobs being created and the educational backgrounds (or lack thereof) of would-be workers. This same study was republished in last weekend’s (24 July 2011) New York Times Education section. Apparently we’re all quite interested in just how unprepared our children might be for “real life” and how we might better “direct” them if we want to remedy this situation.

Compounding the problematic discord between chosen programs of study and future job success is the continual insinuation that colleges are not adequately preparing their graduates for the "afterlife." A recent article in salon.com outlined the pitfalls for those with a liberal arts degree (too esoteric, disconnected, irrelevant, and impractical) while simultaneously supporting its intrinsic value; most significantly suggesting that universities should be taking a more active role in the future of their graduates. In response to these discouraging studies and the bashing of the liberal arts, multiple businesses (ironically under the direction of liberal arts graduates--so they have in fact found some way to make a living), specifically aimed at easing the way for these graduates, have cropped up throughout the country.

The issue of marketability, in reference to academic studies, cannot be ignored. In fact, the direct relationship between college major and median earnings and the growing attraction of the more “practical” fields of study, such as that recently published by the Chronicle of Higher Education, indicates the urgency of this issue. Engineering, for example, has taken over as the most popular concentration nation-wide, with English (just an example) way down the list. The underlying implication of such data is that a liberal arts education, at the astronomical price of $200,000, might, just possibly, be an official waste of one's time (and money)--leading nowhere.

What all of these studies fail to address and identify is the true significance of the liberal arts education. The original concept of liberal arts study was based on the study of the seven liberal arts by ancient Greeks: grammar, dialectic or logic, rhetoric, music, arithmetic, geometry, and astronomy. The goal of this curriculum was to impart general knowledge which would develop the student’s rational thought processes and intellectual capabilities. Carefully excluded were all studies that had anything to do with professionalvocational or technical preparation. According to much contemporary commentary it is this latter omission, the provision of no specific instruction, which leaves college graduates inadequately prepared for the real job world.

My personal experience actually proves that the concentration on what might seem to be esoteric or impractical fields within the liberal arts can, albeit in an "undefined" fashion, actually prepares students for their professional lives. Having been educated precisely in the manner set forth by Plato and Aristotle it took just one fascinating course on 20th century Architecture by larger-than-life Professor William Jordy to forever alter my pre-college plan to become an attorney. Swallowing up the liberal arts concept whole I became an art historian. While liberal arts studies are a natural drawing card for future academics—and indeed many of my childhood friends expanded their study of fields such as Comparative Literature, Religious Studies, Economics and Biology into careers within academia—it is just as relevant for the more “professional” or “practical” fields like law, journalism and business.

Any understanding of the relevance of a liberal arts education, so ostensibly “erudite” as to be considered by some as outdated, entails an acknowledgement of its roots.  From the get-go the American system of higher education, originally modeled after that perfected within esteemed, and in many cases ancient, European institutions, was intended as an "experience:" a four year bubble in which the still developing and maturing young person could develop their thoughts and ideas within a supportive, nurturing and intellectually stimulating environment. For the most part, the farmers of Virginia weren't sending their sons to Harvard to study agrarian science. They understood that the value of a liberal arts education lay not in its curriculum, but rather, in its discourse and rhetoric.

This is precisely why many academics alternatively claim that a liberal arts background can increase a student’s marketability, thereby ensuring his future professional success. USC Professor Robert Harris has beautifully outlined its multiple benefits, specifically mentioning the manner in which it teaches you how to think, improves your perception and, by offering deep knowledge, enhances potential creative thinking. Furthermore, in an article in the Financial Post answering the multiple criticisms of the inability of business schools to prepare its graduates for leadership roles, business entrepreneur Ray B. Williams actually encourages a return to the education developed in classical Greece wherein individuals were, for example, taught to sit down and critically discuss the effectiveness of their rulers. He proposes that this broad, idealistic form of education endowed its students with a wisdom which made them more valuable to their employers in the future.

The combination of this means of teaching with a more directed plan of study, such as that noted in the more professionally-focused system embraced within Israeli higher education, may offer a solution to current cynics. In Israel students begin their studies after 2-3 years mandatory military service and apply directly to a specific course of study. Unlike the typical eighteen year old American beginning his studies, the Israeli student seeks acceptance into a specific degree program, beginning his or her higher education with answers rather than questions.  His undergraduate experience accordingly more closely resembles the American graduate one. While "Liberal Arts" are included amongst the other majors (such as literature, art history, economics and political science) offered in Israeli institutions of higher education, similar to those found in their American counterparts, one can also opt for what Americans would consider "professional" courses of study (such as Law, Dentistry or Medicine) usually reserved for graduate education in the US.

For the most part, courses of study in Israel are heavily focused on the student’s main concentration and include a minimal amount of “tastings.” Although this might seem barbaric to an American audience, I mean where is the hit-or-miss process wherein one makes amazing discoveries within fields one has never heard of (my own experience!), it makes quite a lot of sense for this slightly more mature demographic. Several years older than their American high-school-graduate counterparts, with unique life experience behind them (active military duty or an extended stint contributing to the Israeli public through social service), this population is somewhat better positioned to make concrete decisions regarding what they want to study and eventually do with their lives. Eager to get started, the university experience for them is very much a means to an end. Critics of the seemingly disconnected and irrelevant aspect of liberal arts study might appreciate the middle ground between the two systems: a combination of the "exclusive education for education’s sake" offered within the American one and the more “focused” approach which is the substance of that noted in Israel. Ironically, the latter, suggests the kind of maturity whose acquisition was one of the original goals of the liberal arts curriculum!

While it would be natural to expect a certain decline in interest within the more esoteric concentrations, especially in light of these statistical studies, the state of the economy and recent journalistic attention, that isn’t entirely the case. Indeed, even in Israel, liberal arts-oriented fields are somehow holding their own. Although not as popular as the departments of engineering, international relations, economics and computer science, the "purer" fields are still alive and kicking. The best proof that this next generation values the theory and thought behind the matter is my own sixteen year old son’s choice to study the Philosophy of Science as part of a summer course at an American Ivy League institution. Bypassing many of the courses with a more practical orientation, such as medicine, engineering or law, this product of the nuts-and-bolts Israeli education system opted to acquaint himself with writings on space, time and dimension by the likes of Berkeley and Abbot, Einstein and Van Cleve.

I’m way over my head. I’ve taken on a subject beyond my academic acquaintance and although my words somewhat assuage my own irritation and anxiety about liberal arts-bashing I’m aware that they barely skim the surface. Nevertheless, I’m continually reminded of the significance of the topic. Two few weeks ago I attended a performance of Ballet X—a company known for a repertoire showcasing contemporary choreography quite different, save for its incorporation of classical technique, from that of traditional ballet. The last piece of the evening, choreographed by Annabelle Lopez Ochoa, was intended as an exposé on the life of the last castrati, those young boys who sacrificed their manhood for the sake of their art. The work describes these castrati almost as lab rats: laid out for inspection by the audience for whom they perform; depicted under strobe light meant to reveal their oddity more than their artistry. It demands that the audience understand something of 17th century European history, the particular plight of these unfortunates and their sacrifice in the name of art, while simultaneously accepting their own complicity as peeping Toms whose interest has encouraged this atrocity.

Working on this essay at the time, I sat in the dark and wondered, “Where do the synapses required to create this conceptually clever and intensely revelatory dance originate, if not in the rhetoric and discourse espoused by the Ancient Greeks." I’m a confirmed adherent.

1 comment:

  1. I always feel that being a critical thinker--ie, being able to ask questions more than anything & think about things at more than one level--is the best preparation in terms of academics. I wouldn't want my kids to forgo that for "practicality" unless of course they really favored practicality over liberal arts. I do take to heart the real world in these ways: being capable of things like cooking or laundry or what have you, being able to work & work with others, those are essential skills. Combine the two & you can study anything & you can probably learn to do anything too.