The Liberal Arts Ain’t Dead Yet

Never underestimate the need to be fully fluent in the language- to able to read, understand, draw inferences, draw conclusions, draw parallels, to challenge and change ideas. To think.

Much has been made about how the world has changed; how it’s different; how, for instance, computers and social networking have changed the ways we create and interact with one another.

Yes, but to some extent, it’s still the same.  Those who can read, share ideas, analyze, synthesize, and create are still the ones who come out ahead economically and politically.  The liberal arts ain’t dead yet.

I’ve no idea if the editors planned it; I suspect, given the stature and autonomy of each, it just happened.  June 7 was banner day for the liberal arts at The New York Times. David Brooks and Stanley Fish both wrote strong pieces placing the liberal arts and language fluency at the core of American success and education.

Brooks hits the usual benefits of a liberal arts education in his column “History for Dollars.”

“….Studying the humanities improves your ability to read and write. No matter what you do in life, you will have a huge advantage if you can read a paragraph and discern its meaning (a rarer talent than you might suppose). You will have enormous power if you are the person in the office who can write a clear and concise memo.

… familiarity with the language of emotion. In an information economy, many people have the ability to produce a technical innovation: a new MP3 player. Very few people have the ability to create a great brand: the iPod. Branding involves the location and arousal of affection, and you can’t do it unless you are conversant in the language of romance.

…a wealth of analogies. People think by comparison — Iraq is either like Vietnam or Bosnia; your boss is like Narcissus or Solon. People who have a wealth of analogies in their minds can think more precisely than those with few analogies. If you go through college without reading Thucydides, Herodotus and Gibbon, you’ll have been cheated out of a great repertoire of comparisons….” (NYT)

Shedding some light on emerging academic fields and current anthropology, Brooks argues that, as we let go of our past notions of science- political science, economics, psychology, and move into what he terms “The Big Shaggy”- that grey area that science can’t explain- where beliefs and culture drive decisions and activity- not science and analysis.

Why do people vote against their economic best interests based on their culture or something they believe?

Behavioral finance/economics anyone?

Big changes, Brooks argues come from underestimating “The Big Shaggy” and the only way to gain insight into a culture begins through the reading and the foundations of a liberal arts education.  Reading deeply and thoughtfully is the pathway to a depth of understanding.

Brooks concludes: “Few of us are hewers of wood. We navigate social environments. If you’re dumb about The Big Shaggy, you’ll probably get eaten by it.” (NYT)

Understanding and shaping parts of the The Big Shaggy gives one two advantages.  You won’t get eaten by it, or, by others claiming false truth.  You might even find the opportunity to make the big bucks.

In “A Classical Education: Back to the Future” Stanley Fish argues for similar goals, albeit from a different direction.

Fish found himself reflecting on the efficacy of his own classical secondary education as part of his 55th high school reunion. Then turned to reviewing three books on the topic:

Leigh A. Bortins’ “The Core: Teaching Your Child the Foundations of Classical Education,”

Martha C. Nussbaum’s “Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities”

Diane Ravitch’s “The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice are Undermining Education.”

Of Bortins Fish writes:

…“Classical content” identifies just what the subjects to be classically studied are. They are the subjects informed and structured by “the ideas that make us human” — math, science, language, history, economics and literature, each of which, Bortins insists, can be mastered by the rigorous application of the skills of the classical Trivium, grammar, the study of basic forms, logic, the skill of abstracting from particulars and rhetoric, the ability to “speak and write persuasively and eloquently about any topic while integrating allusions and examples from one field of study to explain a point in another.” Assiduously practice, or as Bortins puts it, “overpractice” these skills, and “a student is prepared to study anything.”

Notably absent from Bortins’ vision of education is any mention of assessment outcomes, testing, job training (one of her sub-chapters is entitled “The Trivium Replaces Careerism”) and the wonders of technology. Her emphasis is solely on content and the means of delivering it. She warns against the narrowing distractions of “industrialization and technologies” and declares that “students would be better educated if they weren’t allowed to use computers . . . until they were proficient readers and writers.”.. (NYT)

On Nussbaum:

…For Nussbaum, human development means the development of the capacity to transcend the local prejudices of one’s immediate (even national) context and become a responsible citizen of the world. Students should be brought “to see themselves as members of a heterogeneous nation . . . and a still more heterogeneous world, and to understand something of this history of the diverse groups that inhabit it.” Developing intelligent world citizenship is an enormous task that can not even begin to be accomplished without the humanities and arts that “cultivate capacities for play and empathy,” encourage thinking that is “flexible, open and creative” and work against the provincialism that too often leads us to see those who are different as demonized others… (NYT)

On Ravitch:

…Diane Ravitch, noted historian and theorist of education, writes as someone who once strongly supported the promise and goals of No Child Left Behind but underwent a de-conversion in 2007: “Where once I had been hopeful, even enthusiastic, about the potential benefits of testing, accountability, choice, and markets, I now found myself experiencing profound doubts about these same ideas.”

…The emphasis on testing produced students who could “master test taking methods, but not the subject itself,” with the consequence that the progress claimed on the basis of test scores was an “illusion”: “The scores had gone up, but the students were not better educated.” A faith in markets produced gamesmanship, entrepreneurial maneuvering and outright cheating, very little reflection on “what children should know” and very little thought about the nature of the curriculum…

…Ravitch’s recommendations are simple, commonsensical and entirely consonant with the views of Bortins and Nussbaum. Begin with “a well conceived, coherent, sequential curriculum,” and then “adjust other parts of the education system to support the goals of learning.” This will produce a “foundation of knowledge and skills that grows stronger each year.” Forget about the latest fad and quick-fix, and buckle down to the time-honored, traditional “study and practice of the liberal arts and sciences: history, literature, geography, the sciences, civics mathematics, the arts and foreign languages.” (NYT)

In short, get knowledgeable and well-trained teachers, equip them with a carefully calibrated curriculum and a syllabus filled with challenging texts and materials, and put them in a room with students who are told where they are going and how they are going to get there. (NYT)

“Worked for me,” concludes Fish. (NYT)

A classical liberal arts education gives background and rise to both Brooks and and Fish and, I’m sure, by all sorts of measures, you’d be surprised by the places and positions you find a classical liberal arts education.

Literacy, the ability to think and draw insight are skills that never go unvalued. If you find yourself good and lucky, you might even be well compensated.

Photo credit: Sewanee: The University of the South

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