Gittin’ Your Edumacation

Thanks to Gary, who thoughtfully posted this on his Facebook page, where from I stole it.  Who says Facebook isn’t good for anything?!

This quasi-humorous article from cartoonist Scott Adams makes the argument that since most students aren’t going to be successful in the realm of hard sciences or liberal arts, they should not be required to take mandatory courses in those areas and instead should spend their time learning something useful.  It sounds like a compelling argument.  And as a Scott Adams fan, I’m tempted to agree with it.
The problem is that Adams thinks that the logical fallback education should be in entrepreneurship.  Entrepreneur sounds like a cool thing to be.  It sounds business-y, and successful-ish, and smacks of the rugged individualism that permeates our American culture.  Why be a businessperson when you can be an entrepreneur?  Chicks certainly dig an entrepreneur more than a businessman, right?  
But I find Adams’ argument fairly interesting in that he ends up arguing for the very skills that a traditional liberal arts education is supposed to teach students – but he reassigns these to the realm of business for some reason.  He seems to be missing a critical point – a point that is equally missed by many colleges and most students – liberal arts education has a purpose, and the purpose is not vocational prep for a career, but rather successful functioning as a contributing member of society.  Within that very broad definition (my own, I think), entrepreneurship becomes not the goal, but rather one of many possible and even likely goals along the way.
I have a liberal arts education.  Quite a bit of it, I’d say.  Not nearly enough of it, others would complain.  Be that as it may, the problem I see with the liberal arts education that I received was that there was no cohesion to it.  Nobody ever taught or saw their particular class or discipline as part of a larger process.  My history classes were by and large taught with an eye towards history majors who would go on to become history teachers at one level or another.  My literature classes focused on literature majors who would go on to become literature majors and teach literature at one level or another.  
Liberal arts education has become this huge wink-and-nod sort of venture, where the student is supposed to realize of their own accord, at some point later down the road, how invaluable their liberal arts education was in preparing them to be successful and useful and intelligent members of our society.  Nod nod, wink wink.  The problem is, more often than not, if this realization ever occurs, it occurs well after the collegiate process is finished.  And in the meantime, many students are under the impression that college exists to prepare them for a high-paying job.  They see it as vocational education at best, another hoop to be jumped through at worst.  
Colleges and professors have a huge responsibility to connect the dots for their students.  Unfortunately, too often they’re preoccupied with their own projects and tenure tracks.  Teaching is delegated to TAs and others who have less experience and vision (at least theoretically), and who are also likely to be obsessed over reaching the level of success and security their professors have.  Every professor, in every course, needs to be able to clearly delineate to their students how the skills used in their course contribute to everyday life.  But most don’t take the time to do that – and I’m guilty of that as well in the courses I teach.
What is an entrepreneur, etymologically?  Someone who undertakes a task – and often a task associated with risk.  Gee, call me kooky, but doesn’t that sound like life?  
Adams phrases his argument entirely within the realm of business, but the basic skills he’s arguing for are skills that are necessary for every aspect of life, and skills that traditionally were part of a classical education.  His idea of combining skills is in some ways at the heart of liberal arts education.  By becoming somewhat literate in a diversity of areas and skills, students are better able to know what they are inclined towards or what they might be good at (or not good at).  The ability to integrate a variety of talents and skills is crucial to getting through life if your goal is not to give every penny you make away to people who can and will do the things that you don’t feel qualified to do for yourself.  
Failing forward?  Again, nothing specific to the business realm.  Our Puritan roots as well as our money-obsession and self-reliance fetish have fused a culture that sees any form of failure as some sort of moral judgment.  You weren’t just unsuccessful, you were – in any number of subtle senses – bad.   What are the pariahs, the unforgivables and untouchables in our society?  Not the philanderers and substance abusers and self-obsessed, but rather those who have failed fundamentally.  The homeless.  The people on street corners.  Anyone who wasn’t able to keep their #@$% together.  We avoid these people as though their condition is contagious.  I find that fascinating.  One way that we learn to accept failure as a potentially helpful experience is by engaging in it.  In college, we do this by taking courses across a broad spectrum of topics – not all of which will engage us or will match our particular giftings.  We may get through the courses (barely), but that experience of failure within the safety of the academic world focuses us and prepares us better for handling it in the rest of our lives.
Finding the action – kind of a vague goal if you ask me.  But I would rephrase it more along the lines of being able to understand what the critical issues are, but also being able to see them as part of a larger picture.  Synthesizing information so that one is not merely swept away in an avalanche of data and facts, nor goaded along the primrose path by every emergency or contingency, real or fabricated.  Being able to view current events with an eye towards their historical roots and development, and their possible goals and outcomes is critical.  Even more critical is seeing yourself not simply as a spectator, but as someone with a vested interest in these issues who has something to contribute.  Finding your voice, and placing your skills and abilities alongside others who have similar ideas and understandings.  Life is not simply about a paycheck.  And ultimately, your ability to even earn a paycheck is dependent on larger issues and themes at work in our society.  This sort of analysis and synthesis is traditionally one of the hallmarks of a classical liberal arts education.  We learn to see things not as discrete and unrelated topics, but as part of larger wholes.  Unfortunately, in a culture that seems set on the denial of larger wholes, we are forced more and more to look at everything as hopelessly isolated from everything else.
Attract luck.  Ugh. The things that people will say to avoid saying that there are inexplicable things that happen in the world and in lives and that these things might point towards God.  His category appears to be a reiteration of the previous one, with the acknowledgment that it’s not just your efforts in and of themselves that guarantee success.  A truly classical liberal arts education covered this through theology
and philosophy.  But since those are areas that posit truth and objective reality and things larger than just making a buck, it’s just easier to call it luck.  Ugh.  
Conquer fear.  Huge advice, that.  Once again, classical liberal arts education covered this in part with an emphasis on speech and public speaking.  Rhetoric and the art of persuasion.  Not simply getting used to being in front of people, but being in front of people with a clear sense of purpose and intent.  Not simply for your enjoyment, but in recognition that any time you’re in front of people, you’ve either placed yourself there for a purpose or you have been handed the opportunity based on something you’ve done or said.  It’s not simply about your own personal enjoyment.  Unless of course, you’re an entertainer of some sort.  But even that requires intentionality, and ought to include the understanding that entertainment should never be solely an end in and of itself, that entertainment has parameters and contexts and other things that require faithfulness and skill.
Write simply.  This is one of the core goals of a liberal arts education – the ability to communicate effectively both on paper and verbally.  The laziness of text-messaging shortcuts, the obliteration of grammar rules, these things are rampant in college students.  They aren’t being taught any longer at younger levels, or the effectiveness of such teaching has been marginalized by a culture that refuses to accept that some students should fail (so that they have a chance to learn), while simultaneously continually slashing away at the learning environment through budget cuts that increase class size and place greater loads on teachers.  In reading great literature and studying the different writings of various disciplines such as history, philosophy, natural science, theology – students not only learn the mechanics of writing, they see how it is done well and can craft their own writing accordingly.  How do you do this if you aren’t reading copiously and practicing your own writing by reflecting on the writings of others?  I don’t know.  I’d venture to say that Adams doesn’t either.  Those who complain that the business world has no soul (and much of Adams’ cartoons stress just this point) ought to be clamoring for more required reading and writing, more eloquence and not just the spartan utilitarianism of PowerPoint bullet points.  The ability to write concisely and accurately requires first the ability to write well in general.
Learn persuasion.  This was traditionally dealt with in rhetoric and logic.  Not simply being winsome and attractive, but being able to back your charm with arguments – whether subtle or obvious – that drove your audience towards the thought or belief or action you desired from them.  This is one of the things that the Greeks spent so much time on – to the point where Socrates got ticked off and wanted to remind them all that there was more to life than winning court cases or political positions.  That life matters, and that there are some big questions in life that people should be exploring and thinking about.  Rhetoric and logic for their own sakes can quickly become abusive.  But to assume that these fall under the exclusive realm of business application is short-sighted.
The funny thing is that a good liberal arts education ought to produce not just entrepreneurs, but leaders.  The people who will ultimately end up overseeing and directing the genius scientists and mathematicians and others that Adams relegates (accurately so) to an extremely small percentage of college students.  Classical liberal arts education isn’t a plan B, it’s the plan A, the baseline education that everyone ought to have.  How much of our society’s problems are caused by deficient skills that a liberal arts education ought to address?  How do we assess beauty – and know what sorts of art we should be funding?  How do we think through complicated issues to arrive at a conclusion that is more than mere opinion?  How do we speak and argue to and with one another beyond the quicksand basis of relativistic belief?  How do we quit seeing ourselves as helpless victims of a system, and rather as the rightful owners and directors of that system?  

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