Dawn Reader

Dawn Reader
from Open Door Coffee Co.; Hudson, OH; Oct. 26, 2016

Thursday, February 14, 2013

The Liberal Arts ... Lost Again?

I don't like watching the State of the Union.  I don't care who the president is, really--either party.  I just find the whole thing so scripted and predictable.  All the standing, the sitting, the standing.  It reminds me of that kids' game we used to play along with the song "The Grand Old Duke of York. / He had 10,000 men. / He marched them up the top of the hill, and then / He marched them down again. / And when they were up, they were up, / And when they were down, they were down, / And when they were only halfway up, they were neither up nor down."

We youngsters stood, sat, squatted as the lyrics advanced.  All so ... meaningful.  (BTW: The infallible Internet tells me that the song goes back to the War of the Roses.)

Here's a silly YouTube video involving the song: Link

I did watch the State of the Union this year--though not all that willingly.  And I found myself, by evening's end, wondering if, once again, the liberal arts--the humanities, in particular--are going back up on the shelf of neglect in our cultural closet.

Take these words from the speech: 

Tonight, I’m announcing a new challenge to redesign America’s high schools so they better equip graduates for the demands of a high-tech economy. We’ll reward schools that develop new partnerships with colleges and employers, and create classes that focus on science, technology, engineering, and math – the skills today’s employers are looking for to fill jobs right now and in the future.

Hmmm ... I don't see anything in there about art, music, literature, dance, foreign language, history, etc.  An oversight?  Not likely.

I've been watching--with considerable alarm--over the past few years as more and more people--especially people of power and influence in politics and education--are coming to equate education with job-training.  High schools becoming vocational schools.  Colleges becoming vocational schools.

Now, there's nothing wrong with vocational schools.  People who know they want to be carpenters, say, or electricians, or welders, or computer technicians, or whatever should have the opportunity to take courses that lead to whatever certifications they need to practice those crafts.  But job-training should not be the principal mission of a high school--and certainly not of a college.  Job-training is what you undertake after your formal schooling--that's my view.  Why?  Because that's when it makes the most sense, when it's the most relevant.  It's when you kind of know what you want to do with yourself.  Most young people tend not to know.

When I was in primary and secondary school, I wanted to be a cowboy, Robin Hood, an Alamo-defender (one, of course, who survived), a catcher for the Cleveland Indians, a star on Broadway.  I didn't turn out to be any of them--though I have driven Alamo rental cars.  The point is: I had no idea what I wanted to do--or even what I was really capable of doing.  Thank goodness the schools then didn't focus on job-training.  Instead, they sought to educate us generally, knowing that a broad education is the best way to create agile, flexible people who can quickly adapt to whatever the ever-changing job market requires.  The few vocational courses that our school offered--shorthand, for example--are virtually worthless now.

Hiram College had the same philosophy.  The only specifically "vocational" program at the school during my time there (1962-1966) was teacher education.  But you couldn't major in it.  You fulfilled all the distribution requirements; you majored in an academic discipline--then fulfilled Ohio's requirements for a teaching certificate.  (The exception: elementary school teachers, who could major in "elementary ed.")

All of us at Hiram took math, science, English, history, art, foreign languages, philosophy, music, physical education (!!)--the best preparation, in my view, not just for the "job market" but for "Life."  It's not novel to notice that many  jobs today did not exist when I was a student; it's not novel to remind everyone that many of the jobs of tomorrow are unknown today.  Narrow training makes it much harder later on when employment opportunities metamorphose.  Also, exploring all those fields in high school and college helps us discover what interests us--what inspires us; it helps us figure out where our talents lie.

But beyond the merely vocational aspects of education are some far more important ones.  We live in a voting democracy--a type of government that requires educated people who can think critically in a variety of ways, who can look at issues from an array of perspectives.  We diminish the quality and effectiveness of our democracy when we de-emphasize history, literature, art, music, and the other humanities--when we send to the polls people who have been principally trained, minimally educated.

We see the sad results today.  People who don't know what to think until they watch MSNBC or Fox.  People who think history began when they were born.  Who think literature is too "hard"--and/or irrelevant.  Who think other cultures are silly, quaint--or dangerous.  Who spend all their leisure time in pursuit of entertainment and pleasure, and, if they don't find it, complain that they're "bored."  Who know nothing about the arts.  Or other languages.  Who think science is a belief system. 

Mark Twain wrote over and over again about the terror of mobs--most famously, of course, in the Col. Sherburn episode in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.  Twain's view of our species darkened as he grew older--for many reasons.  He suffered grievous personal losses (as we all will): the deaths of loved ones, the betrayal of "friends."

But what most frightened him was our fierce intent to keep ourselves ignorant.  He knew there was nothing more deadly in a government such as ours.  Nothing made us more dangerous to one another.  Nothing prepared us more for mob behavior.

I find horrifying the image of a bunch of well-trained technicians who know little but their own jobs.  Who celebrate only what they already know.  Who read and view only what they already agree with.  Our schools haven't prepared such people; they've cheated them--condemned them.  And, in a very significant sense, damned them.

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