Originally published on Medium — February 25th, 2018
The 21st century economy, with its smart hairbrushes and mushroom furniture, continues to emphasize workforce competitiveness above all else. With the looming threat of automation just around the corner, you’ve got politicians racing to change educational mottos from “search for truth” and “improve the human condition” and replacing them with “meet the state’s workforce needs.”
As the calls to get rid of funding for college programs that don’t directly lead to high-paying, in-demand jobs, and the emphasis on technical and skill-focused education pervades our national conversation, it’s important to stop, acknowledge that you’re not always right, and find in yourself a determination to honestly evaluate what you know, and what you don’t know.
There are two sides of my brain that respond to this: the idealist and the practical…ist. The first side is the type of fella that reads Faulkner, and basks in the glory of a glistening sunrise.
Let’s call him Cormac. Now, Cormac is convinced that the edification of the soul is of the utmost importance, and really the only purpose of any education. He agrees with Martin Luther King Jr. who said “ The most dangerous criminal may be the man gifted with reason but no morals. … We must remember that intelligence is not enough. Intelligence plus character — that is the goal of true education.” Any education that does not place critical thinking and creativity at the forefront, emphasizing an exposure to arts and cultures, is flawed. And idealistically, I want to side with Cormac.
Then there’s the other side, and we shall call him Kyl — er, I mean Carl. Carl is the practical fella, who sees Valentine’s Day as silly because flowers die anyway. He doesn’t tip because he thinks you probably should’ve gotten a better job than waiting tables.
Don’t get me wrong, Carl’s a great guy, but sometimes his practicality can be unnerving. And when he’s faced with this idea of job-training vs. meaningful learning, he’s torn. At the end of the day, he’s just known too many people who were really passionate about Russian and the need to find a job took a backseat to the joys of soaking in Dostoyevsky. Until all the sudden that whole “I need a job” thing became more of a front-end collision.
A lot of smart people jump to the defense of the liberal arts’ role in an advancing job market with the importance of combining art and science:
“Our culture has drawn an artificial line between art and science, one that did not exist for innovators like Leonardo da Vinci and Steve Jobs. Leonardo’s curiosity and passion for painting, writing, engineering and biology helped him triumph in both art and science; his study of anatomy and dissections of corpses enabled his incredible drawings of the human figure. When introducing the iPad 2, Jobs, who dropped out of college but continued to audit calligraphy classes, declared: “It’s in Apple’s DNA that technology alone is not enough — it’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the result that makes our heart sing.”
But here’s the thing. As much as everyone is racing to be Steve Jobs, most people just aren’t.
Ashton Kutcher is the…middle one?
You can say, “we teach them art, culture, how to think deeply, and they can take that into any job they want.” But the average student is going to take the path of least resistance, and that’s usually whatever career path their major lays out for them. As an accounting major, 90%+ of my classmates became public accountants. And that’s nothing to disparage the accounting program, they knew what they were building towards. It is the rare exception for someone to take their major in an alternative or unusual direction. And those programs like philosophy, art history, or classics generally aren’t optimizing for a job.
Okay, if we optimize for employability, that’s great for the workforce in terms of near-term employment statistics. But does that benefit mankind as a whole? The consensus in our recent Junto conversation was that it probably makes us worse off as a whole. The decisions in the future are going to be made by reasoning, and if people aren’t equipped with mental capabilities to reason, then how will decisions be made? In Fareed Zakaria’s ‘In Defense of a Liberal Education,’ he opens with a quote:
“We are drowning in information, while starving for wisdom. The world henceforth will be run by synthesizers, people able to put together the right information at the right time, think critically about it, and make important decisions wisely.” (E. O. Wilson)
We can focus on technical skills, but we have to wonder where creativity, innovation, and thoughtfulness really come from. In a future powered by critical thinking, a focus on specific skills will create the employable masses, but the leaders, those in power, will be the ones who have learned to be mindful, not just skilled.
Those with power will become more and more capable of making all the decisions while the unempowered look on, super equipped to do their jobs, but uninformed as it pertains to freedom, democracy, or anything actually important.
Think proles in George Orwell’s 1984
In the midst of our conversation, as a back-and-forth on job-placement vs. liberal education turned into a doomsday scenario, Megumi pointed out something that is maybe commonplace, but that I had never considered.
“In grade school and high school, we generalize, so that in college we can specialize.”
I don’t know about anyone else, but that structure never crossed my mind. I’ve never even thought of pre-college and college as two parts of the same story. Most people, when they get to college, discover themselves for the first time. Maybe this is why so many students get to college and are frustrated by the overwhelming need to pick a major.
“I just got here, I want to study existentialism, and stenciling, and Hebrew, and Shakespeare.”
Maybe the real problem isn’t how college is set up, but the whole system isn’t set up to optimize for life-long learning. Instead, everything before college is a blur of checklists and report cards, and then all the sudden you’ve got four years to not only figure out who you are, but choose the career that could be the rest of your life. No pressure. In books like ‘Dumbing Us Down’ and ‘Smartest Kids in the World,’ they’re already pointing this out.
“Rich or poor, school children who face the twenty-first century cannot concentrate on anything for very long; they have a poor sense of time past and time to come….; they hate solitude, are cruel, materialistic, dependent, passive, violent, timid in the face of the unexpected, addicted to distraction.”
“There are kids like Kim, who put together a petition to defend rats who were being used to detect landmines. Her friends laughed and were grossed out by the idea. ‘She wouldn’t have minded if they’d thought [it] were a good idea [or a bad one]; what had upset her was that they didn’t seem to care at all. Why didn’t they care?’”
Most kids don’t see school as a place of discovery, learning who you are, and what you make of the world, they see it as “okay, I guess.” In a letter written by Abigail Adams, to her son John Quincy Adams as he left to go to France with his father, she reminded him of his opportunity:
“It will be expected of you my son that as you are favourd with superiour advantages under the instructive Eye of a tender parent, that your improvements should bear some proportion to your advantages. Nothing is wanting with you, but attention, dilligence and steady application, Nature has not been deficient.”
I’m of the opinion that children can rise to the expectations we set for them, and the opportunity with which we present them. Matt Ross (aka Gavin Belson) had this question: “What would happen if I gave my kids 100% of my attention?” And he painted that picture in the movie Captain Fantastic. In the film, there are absolutely realizations of Aragorn’s deficiencies in his approach to parenting. But one scene puts his Walden-esque isolation approach to raising and educating his kids in stark contrast to the every-day American high-schooler.
Now, can 8-year olds be that smart? I don’t know. And I don’t think that’s the standard to hold kids to, but the overarching point is not just what global educational reforms do we need; it’s more individual than that.
Zakaria’s book, I think, summed this up pretty well: “Of course, most people read books, understand science, and experience art, not to change the world, but to change themselves. But is our current system of liberal education changing young people for the better?”
Are we, as parents, community-members, teachers, role-models, strangers, perpetuating a system that makes cookie-cutter check-boxers? Or are we stimulating a world where kids are encouraged to explore, ponder, and think deeply, often on their own, without TV or external stimuli, to really discover who they are? Maybe then, as young people grow up with that kind of experience, they’ll be prepared and eager for college, where they’ll take with them a toolkit of mindfulness and drive, enabling them to find that Steve Jobs-ian balance between art and science.
Whether this means the solution is homeschooling, or private schools, or getting on the school board and driving reform, that’s for each parent to decide. But it’s more important than ever that the bar to which we evaluate our educational systems include a focus on thoughtful consideration, and educational empowerment. Not just how well they perform in regards to the thing they just learned. Are your kids going to walk out more capable of learning the next thing they need to learn?