Wednesday, June 22, 2011

"Why did we have to read this book?”

Last time I heard Professor Louis Menard speak, he emphasized that value of a liberal education was "knowledge for the sake of knowledge." He lamented the dwindling number of people graduating with degrees that celebrate knowledge over its practicality. He told us that something like a fifth of all university students are non-traditional students, and that the majority of majors are technical fields. He explained, though, that the liberal arts system of education has not actually been around for a very long time. In the 1880's Harvard made an undergraduate degree mandatory to enroll in its Law School and Med School. Other universities followed suit.

That one decision revolutionized the role of universities in the United States. Students were required to navigate four years of requirements in vastly different fields of study, and hopefully find an interest along the way. They were told to not worry about their career until the end of their collegiate stint. That things would just work out.

Other countries, disagreed with this model of tertiary education. The British model pigeonholes students into their career right after their secondary education (which is already somewhat specialized). The French model gives most people access to a first year of university studies but requires them to pass a test after that year proving they are capable of finishing their studies. Both of these systems require that 17 year old make decisions about their future careers and do not give them a way out.

Enter globalization. Competitiveness is king. The world is flat. And if you don't watch out your job could be sent half-way around the world over night.

With so much uncertainty it seems almost irresponsible to risk irrelevancy by studying something that doesn't guarantee one a job, especially when degrees can cost upwards of $200,000. And that's what is happening. The trend has been an increase in technical degrees like engineering and a decrease in traditional liberal arts degrees.

I'm getting degrees in Political Science and Latin American Studies. Does that mean I'm not worried about getting a job? I am actually terrified about not finding a job.

But there is a reason I am not pursuing a technical degree.

I went to a high school that is comparable to MIT. By the time I graduated I knew how to program in Java, Ruby, Python, and C. I had taken Differential Equations, and Complex Analysis. In short, I knew more math and engineering than I ever wanted to know. When I got to college I decided I wanted to pursue the social sciences I didn't get the chance to in High School.

I have loved every single moment of it. I have read the same treaties and books the founders of our government did. I have learned the languages of the Americas (Spanish and Portuguese), and have studies their cultures. And, you know, every new language is a new job market.

What I'm trying to get at, is this: the way I see it, college is meant to change the way one thinks. It is an artificial environment meant to stimulate its students. For many, college is the first time they have been somewhere like this. The stimulation is important because the students are constantly being challenged to break with their home paradigms. Though non-liberal arts education is obviously stimulating in the area the student is mean to study, I question how stimulating it is in areas the student is not meant to study (my guess would be not very). For example, a British studying chemistry will only take chemistry classes, and maybe one research paper writing class.

So, what's the point of this? Well, I have no problem with being practical about education. I think it's a great idea, actually. Unfortunately, I am afraid technical degrees sometimes short-change the student in areas they aren't deliberately studying. So as we think about ways to change education, we should keep in mind what we are forsaking for competitiveness.

Written by Jacob Hanger. Based on:


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