Thursday, November 15, 2012

Only the Comfortable Have Time to Ponder

The only people free to ponder great ideas are the comfortable people, a student said during a discussion last week. She mentioned the Greek writings that suggest "free men" had time to think, since slaves and craftsmen did the "work" of their society. Her question to the class was if anyone has time to invest in a traditional liberal arts education when most graduates are going to be slaves to their debts.

Calling students "slaves" is a rhetorical move, one that suggests the person has no choice. Of course, Nietzsche and plenty of other philosophers have suggested the "slave mentality" is a choice to surrender freedom. But, students aren't necessarily mature enough to recognize the longterm implications of student loans or why pursing a purely vocational education shortchanges them later in life. Therefore, the "system" seems to relying on the fact students are ignorant — and the system (society) has emphasized credentials over learning.

Rhetoric, speech, and other communication skills courses tend to be trimmed from core curriculum requirements when space is needed for the latest and greatest vocational trends. Universities that once required five or six communications courses have reduced the number to two or three. There are still holdouts, but when students and their parents demand to know the vocational value of classwork we offer only vague assurances that communication skills are vocational.

I explained to my class that choosing a university reflects a choice to accept either the vocational model or the liberal arts model of education. Where a professor works reflects either core values or values the professor eventually embodies. Everyone in the system makes choices; most of us do embrace the vocational model.

Higher education wasn't a vocational pursuit until the Land Grant universities rose to prominence. The "Ag and Mining" (A&M) engineering schools also made vocation their clear, unapologetic focus. "Technical Institutes" represent a further emphasis on vocational skills. Pursuing a career (earning money) became the reason to attend a university, as opposed to attending to become a better citizen and community leader.

Our political leaders still come from the universities known for educating leaders. The elite institutions have resisted becoming too vocational, trying to maintain a humanistic undergraduate core. You could argue that "leadership" is a vocation, with Harvard and Yale preparing lawyers with clear paths towards public service. But, generally, these institutions have traditional liberal art undergraduate programs; it is their graduate programs that we might consider "vocational."

My students observed that only a tiny fraction of people have the opportunity to attend either a liberal arts college or an elite institution. Higher education is a gatekeeper, a "sorting hat" one student said, that determines if you will be in the "One Percent" or the "99 Percent" later in life. The future One Percent will be allowed to ponder the big questions at their elite schools, while the rest are trying get a diploma to get a job.

I'd like to resist such simplistic (and statistically accurate) assumptions. Why can't we spend time pondering philosophy, art, history, and language? Why must every class on a checklist aim towards raw skills and memorized knowledge? What about nurturing the ability to discuss and explore big ideas?

"Yeah, that's a great dream, but I have loans to repay."

I need a way to convince young people that they aren't trapped. They can broaden their educations in a variety of ways, many within the flawed system we have. Why not double-major across disciplines? What about trying at least a minor in the humanities? Students can schedule courses that will encourage them to ponder the big ideas.

"Slavery" to material concerns can shortchange your eventual material "success" in our society. The most emotionally successful people are know, those who took the time to consider and ponder big ideas, are also the most financially successful. By resisting the lure of a purely vocational education, these individuals stumbled into the best vocational training available: the classic humanities core.

The best computer programmer I know studied Classics and is fluent in Greek and Latin. The best lawyers I know studied rhetoric or "liberal arts" as undergraduates. The best doctor I've met studied art alongside biology; he said learning to "really see" the body helped him as a diagnostician. I can attest: he saw things before I mentioned them. My wife has engineering degrees and a communication degree. Having a broad educational foundation promotes success.

Sadly, my students are convinced they need to obtain (not necessarily earn) degrees linked to careers. Only the comfortable have time to ponder, my students argued, and they did cite good evidence for this claim. At least that's a good sign: they were pondering big questions during the discussion. Maybe they will come to appreciate such discussions in their mandatory communication courses.

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