Whither the Liberal Education?

In the outline of his ideas for the future, Jim made this point:

The next stage of economic development is to systematically develop a region’s human capital through education and training of the population, as well as recruitment and retention of individuals who possess cutting-edge knowledge and skills — the so-called “creative class.”

I can see the point — an educated population tends to be more dynamic and adaptable to changing conditions. That is generally a good thing. But what troubles me is that too often, education is reduced to the mere acquisition of skills, rather than the development of the ability to think.

Independent, critical thinking is supposed to be one of the benefits of a liberal arts education. It also, increasingly, seems to be passe. Businesses say they want a highly educated workforce. That is in their interest, naturally, as it saves them time and money having to train workers how to make better, faster, cheaper widgets. But what is their vision of an educated workforce? Is it one that can apply critical thinking to problems, and question assumptions, or one that can simply make correct change and do what it’s told? I fear the trend is toward the latter.

If we are to compete effectively with the prussianized hoards, the thinking goes, we must sacrifice or at least minimize any forays into art, philosophy, music and literature. You can’t build a new economy on the back of a screenplay, so get thee to a technical school and quit wasting time.

And what a bleak, colorless, humorless world that would be. I suggest that if we really want to build more human capital (a phrase that deserves to be banned form all polite speech), we first ought to demand that our educational system allow people to spend more time developing their abilities to think critically, to observe, to analyse, to question…to be independent.

In other words, it demands we become more liberal in our learning. But I’m not sure that concept would sell.

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9 responses to “Whither the Liberal Education?”

  1. Anonymous Avatar

    N.L. is absolutely right. If you only teach a skill, what you have is a person with a skill. If you teach that person how to think, solve problems and be creative, then they can learn many new skills and take them to new levels.

  2. Anonymous Avatar

    Who is going to write the SOL to think critically, to observe, to analyse, to question…to be independent?

  3. Jim Bacon Avatar

    Norm, You certainly won’t get any argument from me about the value of critical thinking. And I don’t think you will get much argument from business either. In the business critiques that I have read, some of the “skills” that are sorely lacking among our college graduates are the ability to communicate (especially in writing) and the ability to think critically.

    “Skills” don’t have to be as mundane as knowing how to use machine tools, or even learning a particular computer language.

  4. Anonymous Avatar

    Our focus has become–and most of our resources are spent on–achieving some homogenized “minimum” performance in our public schools. Regrettably, we are succeeding–BKD

  5. Darrell -- Chesapeake Avatar
    Darrell — Chesapeake

    Business doesn’t want independent thinkers. They want people who are certified, preferably at the potential employee’s expense.

    Just look at the job announcements. No where do they say ‘must be an independent thinker’.

    Such people are loose cannons in a business environment geared around teamwork. The result is a team that is certifiably inept and discovering innovative ideas.

  6. Reid Greenmun Avatar
    Reid Greenmun

    Darrell- you make a truely EXCELLENT point! Thank you.

    As a former member of the so-called “Creative Class”, its now become a joke to those that are –

    The past few years of Liberal MSM babble over the “Crateive Class” is just another ULI cookie cutter scam by the “Developer Class” and their partners-in-crime, the “Government Class” – to try to find any excuse to sell the notion/myth that “most Americans” want to flock to flee the horrors of “dysfunctional” “suburban sprawl” and live in over priced, over crowded, failed urban centers.

    You know? The shining city on the hill that all the “sustainable human settlement” crown keep blathering on about?

    (ut-oh! I stepped in it now – incoming from EMR – )

    I hire people. I work in a mid-sized corporation.

    For the most part I don’t hire “free thinkers” – we have all the “free thinkers” we need.

    THEY have their jobs. By in large, the rest of the firm’s “work force” I’m looking for are those qualitfied job seekers with the SKILLS I need to provide my customers.

    I look for good TEAM players. People that will work with others and be happy doing so.

    We invest in long term. A trait of the so-called “Creative Class” is one of getting board too quick – and “moving on” to “the next big thing”.

    But … it sure helps those high density urban redevelopers to sell those urban properties they keep building.

    Liberal Newspapers eat this “Creative Class” myth up!

  7. Anonymous Avatar

    “They want people who are certified, preferably at the potential employee’s expense.”

    Yes, indeedy! I read recently that the US Biz community is at the low end of spending on training their workforce. This will be good for the bottom line in the short run but disastrous in the long run.

    Anon 2:55 is correct. Our public schools are increasingly concentrating on minimum standards, and as (s)he suggests, minimum thus becomes “the” standard. When our schools drill the lowest levels of learning until some unrealist percentage “achieves” them, the kids who are brighter but whose parents can’t afford to send them to private school or to live in an exclusive school district get shafted. Didn’t I see a WaPo article recently noting that schools in Alexandria were having such children “mentor” the low achieving students? That’s great on a limited basis, but they should be being challenged academically, not be made de facto teachers’ aides.

    Deena Flinchum

  8. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    You need BOTH but it would be a tragic mistake to have our education policies focused on teaching everyone to “think” at the expense of producting an educated workforce for all those others who will need world-class skills FIRST so they can get jobs and not become a tax burden.

    Innovation from the “thinkers” is a key part of our country but the paths for those folks are many and varied beyond our basic public school system.

    There is no obstacle to any student or parents with their own kids that they want to learn “more” than the basics but to do away with our school system teaching the “basics” for a skilled workforce would be … not a good thing… and for some reason… we have trouble distinquishing the need to have BOTH.

  9. The ‘liberal arts’ education is okay to a degree (no pun intended). However someone I recently worked with said his kid had a math problem of 14 X 4, while he knew and showed that the answer was 56, the teacher wanted to know ‘how’ he arrived at his answer … what??? I dunno, you could write out a stupid explanation that if I counted out 4 groups of 14 I would come up with 56 – but how about merely saying ‘because I know my multiplication tables’ – that (to me) is where the ‘critical thinking/independent thinking’ bandwagon has gone off track. My daughters both got very good educations at private grade schools and high schools (I have the receipts to prove it). They blew public school kids out of the water. However, I couldn’t afford college for them and they really didn’t know what they wanted to be in college. They both joined the Army to get training, learn how to be part of a team (instead of this individual ‘free think’ crap), give themselves time to grow and get a skill set with experience. ‘Liberal arts’ educations are highly overrated (IMHO).

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