...but this has to be the most fully realized visual of the old cat landing/buttered bread idea I've ever seen.
Meanwhile, elsewhere on the internet there are reports that a pastor in North Carolina suggested putting LGBTQ people in internment camps and letting us die off.
So that happened.
The thing is, both of these have had me thinking about another thing that's been on my mind a lot of late. See, I consume a fair bit of news. Not as much as someone like, say, Jon Stewart or Rachel Maddow, but I'm pretty sure that if somebody did a study of news volume consumed, and marked the median, I would be reasonably far off to the side of it.
Some of this is self-preservation -- being queer and trans and pagan means that it's important for me to be aware of the forces that have a material effect on my life and culture -- but a lot of it is also intellectual curiosity. I'm interested in the world around me and how it works, how it's changing, what I can predict about what it will be like later on, etc.
So it troubles me that for the last few years I've kept seeing this idea about how the traditional "liberal education" -- i.e. the concept that it's beneficial for students to be exposed to a wide range of topics and have some basic mastery in multiple areas -- is falling out of favor.
A quick point of clarification: "liberal" in this sense does not have a political meaning (except possibly in that it comes from the Latin word for "free"), and that it is designed to give someone the knowledge and critical skills to be able to operate as a political being (e.g. to think for themselves, to communicate, to reason out complex problems) and to contribute well to society. It's a 19th Century idea with roots in Greece.
And which, oddly enough, I learned more about in my senior capstone course than at any other points in my own education. So.
Admittedly, from a certain standpoint, the idea of exposing students to a large constellation of concepts instead of focusing on a specialty area (which will theoretically result in maximum earning potential for minimum cost) seems wrong-headed. This is especially true right now, because the dual forces of economic downturn and the increasingly staggering cost of a four-year degree have teamed up to pulverize anyone whose family didn't already have the financial wherewithal to weather an expense somewhere in the range of $50,000 to $130,000. I get that. It sucks, the system needs revision, and the haves need to stop dinking around with the means by which the have-nots can achieve upward mobility. But here is the thing:
My K-12 experience did not give me the tools I needed to approach the world around me with intellectual rigor the way going to college did.
Yes of there were instructors who had a profound impact on me, and there were courses where I learned skills and ideas that were absolutely fundamental to my post-secondary education. When I remember what I learned, though, I feel frustrated at the lack of depth and breadth in the curriculum. One can only do so much repetition of US History prior to 1870, or the same few basic rules of English grammar before it starts to feel meaningless. It's possible that I'm exceptional -- I did test high, and I participated in a gifted program for several years until my grades tanked during adolescence (and no, I still don't understand my process there) -- but there's still something wrong with a system in which I counted myself lucky if we ever got to the Twentieth Century in a history course.
I mean, it was in the books and everything. We just never got that far. My first memorable formal education on the century in which I was born was in college, during the semester when I took a history of Nazi Germany course concurrently with Western Civilization II. There was a whole weekend that I spent in bed, reading All Quiet on the Western Front in a single sitting, and then having a massive existential crisis. As one does.
But I'm digressing.
The point is, as appealing as the idea of a quick, easy, and cheap credentialing system might be, and as nice as it might be to just chuck kids at some magical career launching pad and bounce them into the job market with maximum efficiency (instead of burdening them with things that make them go, "I will never, ever use this art history course in my meteoric rise as a star forensic accountant!"), career preparation is not the only objective here. In fact, focusing on it to the expense of that constellation of concepts that comprise a liberal education is incredibly short-sighted.
So here, because I feel randomly moved to write about this, is my three point defense of why everybody in the United States (and elsewhere, but I'm writing from this particular point of view) should be entitled to the opportunity to undertake a liberal education.
Thing the First: yes, you will use this.
Not all college graduates will work in their field of study. There are a lot of reasons for this (and, irritatingly, some really wildly varying statistics), but if you're stopping at an associates or a bachelors degree, one can make a good argument that what you're really doing is committing to a theoretical range of possible careers rather than one very specific one. You're probably more skilled and definitely more specialized than a high school graduate, but still far from being an expert on the minutiae of your field. And that's okay, because unless you intend to be a specialist, you probably don't need to be. That mobility is actually kind of useful. And hey, if you do end up being a massively successful forensic accountant after all, you're probably going to end up at the kinds of parties where it's socially useful to know a little about Degas, right?
There's another dimension here, too. Creativity, as researchers currently understand it, is in part about giving your mind space to play with a wide range of both related and unrelated ideas -- and do set time aside for this talk by John Cleese if you can -- but also about the ability to think both convergently and divergently. Someone who takes in a constellation of ideas instead of a tight cluster of them is going to be more capable of creative insight. That can be a big advantage in terms of problem solving and idea generation, both of which are valuable skills in any discipline.
In fact, when you ask employers -- as Axelrod, Anisef & Lin did in 2001 -- which skills are more important, it's the skills that one accumulates by doing the work and having a broad base of knowledge that are most important.
Thing the Second: living in a feudal system sucks.
If it's been a while since you thought about the way a feudal system works, it's kind of like this:
- Centralized wealth and property are held by a single individual or class of individuals, who
- Lend it to a second class of individuals at their pleasure in exchange for loyalty and service,
- Part of which includes the management of serfs, a third class of persons who are essentially (or actually) slaves.
Sharecropping is a good example of a modern thing that looks a lot like serfdom.
While the 19th Century ideas that made a liberal education popular were entrenched in the notion that the morality of the privileged classes is superior to that of the poor -- an idea that has yet to properly die off even now, but that's another issue -- this has generally mutated into the idea of education as something which enriches while also being a social leveler. Our so-called "classless society" is based on the idea that persons can start with very little and rise to great heights. The theory with education is, then, that it provides one with both the skills one needs to be a better person (albeit these days we mean that in a more holistic sense than a moral one) while also providing enhanced potential for mobility (there's that word again!) to anyone willing and able to excel.
In practice, this is hard to do. In fact, social mobility in the United States is probably harder now than it has been in living memory, and one's status is more dramatically impacted by the status of one's parents than ever. And yet, the benefits of higher education are undeniable in terms of earnings potential, social, and personal outcomes. If nothing else, the knowledge that the current culture is one in which inequity of opportunity is increasingly the norm should provoke outrage. While some of the outcomes listed in this report no doubt have their origins in already existing privilege, that these outcomes were seen across the board should tell us something. Shouldn't every person have the opportunity to do a thing that could reduce his or her chances of incarceration while improving job prospects and life satisfaction?
The fact is, a solid education may still be one of the best tools in the toolbox for fighting this inequity, or at least being less at risk to being subject to it. Not just because it provides the potential for mobility and improving one's personal lot (and in turn, the lot of one's future dependents), but because it gives those who aren't innately privileged some of the tools necessary to understand and break down that system of inequity and improve the lot of oneself and others.
Which brings me to...
Thing the Third: a little thing called being a good citizen.
This is kind of the intersection of points one and two, but the short of it is that the world we live in isn't just one complex system. It's a complex system comprised of complex systems. You yourself are a bundle of complex systems, and not just biologically. Your body, your cognition, your emotions, your philosophies, your politics, your beliefs, your family and social relationships, your identities and social locations...every last one of these things can be (and probably is) complex, informed by history or socio-economic factors or tradition, etc.
Going back to the Greeks, there's was a concept that those who are free (i.e. not slaves) must have enough education to understand the system in which they live, work, and vote. There's a practical dimension here -- one wants to make the right choice, after all -- but being knowledgeable and a skilled critical thinker makes it more difficult to be duped or controlled by others. One can only question those in power (or question the worthiness of those who might wish to be in power) if it occurs to you to ask the question and then interpret the data.
The hope -- and admittedly one I don't see borne out as often as I'd like -- is that given an education that requires students to learn to think (as a liberal one must; rote knowledge is only half the objective), one can be a better judge of the information presented to him or her. Is a candidate speaking honestly and logically, or is it a bunch of spin and bullshit? (Side note: that Frankfurt essay is also worth the time to read, as is the follow-up.) At the very least, one hopes that someone gets the chance to absorb the difference between fact and opinion.
I mean, we don't always get what we want in this arena. No, not even from people who are supposed to be able to do this professionally. The present culture is one in which some groups are overtly and proudly immune to objective data, while others excitedly tout bad or incomplete data when it supports their position. It's like American anti-intellectualism is at an all-time high. Still, if a person even gets a flicker of "hey, wait..." when confronted by fallacious logic where he or she might not have done before, that's at least worth the price of admission, right?
So why did I just spill 2,000 words on this, other than the fact that I am That Nerd, and feel compelled to talk about this thing that I care about so much?
Well, one, because it matters. As I've said a couple of times to friends, one of my big frustrations with the current state of things is that much of it seems to be the result of people not taking a more holistic view. It's thought -> response, without the reflection step. When someone shouts that we should slash taxes because he or she achieved great things without the use of any public assistance or material support whatsoever, and people support that, I think that demonstrates not only a failure of imagination but of logic and systemic thinking. Is paying taxes unpleasant? Sure. But as Oliver Wendell Holmes once said, "I like to pay taxes. With them I buy civilization." Last I checked, schools, roads, sanitation, emergency services, social programs, etc. are useful and improve everyone's quality of life. Yes, everyone's. And I have yet to hear of a billionaire raised without ever using a road, garbage collection, or a flush toilet.
Two, with the trend toward missing that reflection stage, I think a lot of people don't actually stop to think about why we learn the way we learn. I think a lot of people think it's just kind of a given, when really it isn't. That's a shame, because given a rationale, most people are more willing to do a thing than if they're told that "this is just the way it is." I also think that we miss the point when we make education just about that employment outcome instead of talking about it as something that benefits the whole person, as well as society. It's possible I'm being both romantic and old-fashioned here, but oh well.
Third, the inequity piece and the financial implications are increasingly a very big deal right now. The possibility of a student loan interest rate hike is very real, and any outcome to the issue could have a broad impact on our economy, and particularly on minorities. Do we really want to perpetuate an arrangement that further strips access from those who need upward mobility while further entrenching ourselves in a system which disproportionately benefits those whose positions are already decidedly comfortable? Is it really a good idea to hammer the middle class even harder than we already are? And hey, aren't we still kind of in a mortgage crisis? Doesn't making everything harder to afford just increase volatility and the potential for default in both student loans and housing?
So yes. This is a thing for me. Sometimes I spin on it with the same intensity as the cat/bread combination in that ridiculous energy drink commercial. I think that I wouldn't really understand the terrible implications of that North Carolina pastor's words (or, more generally, the ease with which a population can be turned against an "other" when they are afraid or poor or angry) without the history classes I finally got in college. My brain connects these things, plays with them, turns them over all the time. It always has. And I'm incredibly happy I have the tools for it. I want anyone who wants them to have them.
Actually, I want a fair number of people who don't want them to have them too so that they'll at least be able to present their position cogently instead of screaming at me. And then I want a lot of people to agree with me that this is important, and for us to treat it like the valuable thing it is. And the only way that will happen is if people talk about it.
Which I just did, at more length than most people are going to want read. Which is a little frustrating, but I'm accustomed to that feeling in this kind of situation on a pretty frequent basis too. So.