Why Conservatives Should Embrace the Liberal Arts
Whether or not I am a conservative is irrelevant. In economic, religious, and political terms, there is a conservative argument to be made for the liberal arts and I am going to make it.
Just as fiscal, small-government conservatives hope, the liberal arts accommodate the variability of the free market. Just as religious conservatives of various stripes desire, the liberal arts empower individuals to care for their neighbors. And just as political conservatives profess, the liberal arts have the potential to produce the ruggedly independent citizens our nation needs.
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Traditional American Higher Education Must Transform or Perish… But There is Hope
Some are sounding the death knells of traditional undergraduate education in the U.S. Nathan Harden of The American Interest writes: “If a faster, cheaper way of sharing information emerges, history shows us that it will quickly supplant what came before. People will not continue to pay tens of thousands of dollars for what technology allows them to get for free.” Harden further asserts that Massive Online Open Courses (MOOCs) will soon render traditional education “obsolete.” If they can provide education cheaper and more convenient, how couldn’t they?
Make no mistake. MOOCs represent an incredible opportunity. Higher education has become unsustainably expensive for the average middle class student. MOOCs will hopefully expand access to education and drive down costs. As Harvard President Drew Gilpin Faust points out, they are a grand experiment, with opportunities for professors to rethink how they approach education, including education in the classroom (see Maria Bartiromo’s interview with her on CNBC).
But Harden and likeminded harbingers of the end-of-education-as-we-know-it risk conflating education with information. Ironically, in his above-cited article, Harden himself presents the crux of the matter without integrating it into his argument: “Just as information is not the same as knowledge, and auto-access is not necessarily auto-didactics, so taking a bunch of random courses does not a coherent university education make.”
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Helping our Students Unplug so They Can Upgrade their Minds and Renew their Humanity
The average American high school or college student is adept at using technology. However, many seem unable to refrain from using technology. As educators, it is our duty to provide our students with a basic set of skills: critical thinking; clear communication, both in print and in speech; and careful reading and processing of information, discerning its validity. In the process, we should cultivate their character, that they may develop greater wisdom, moral integrity, patience, empathy, and compassion in a world with a shortage of these virtues.
While technology does provide some compelling avenues for us to train students’ core intellectual skills, it does virtually nothing to enhance character development. We must encourage our students to unplug, so that they can upgrade their minds and renew their humanity. We should not discard technology; it provides useful tools. But we must teach our students that it is not the only tool and not always the best.
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Summers are for work. The myth lingers on that academics enjoy a three month vacation. Nothing could be further from the truth. We teach, but teaching is but one facet of what we do. Summer is time for everything else. (At least for those of us not teaching summer school.) Are we paid to teach? Yes, but… we can only truly teach others to achieve excellence when we continue to cultivate excellence in ourselves.
Unless I take time now in these brief months to do my own research, think my own thoughts, and write my own words, I will be of little use in helping my students hone their research, thinking, and writing. For that is what we academics are: professional researchers, thinkers, and writers. Or at least that is what we should be. There is too little time for the full-fledged pursuit of these matters September through May. Educators’ summers are for the re-creation of our minds.
I do not know whether or to what extent the following issues may contribute to the divided state of America, or whether these may be symptomatic of larger problems. A source close to me is applying to business schools. She encountered a series of strategy recommendations for raising her score on the GMAT on. The recommendations of the test preparation service include:
- In your essay, fabricate factual information to support your case. The test graders will not fact-check. You will score more points by being persuasive and writing well, with no attention to your accuracy.
- In your essay you must support either a stated position or its opposite. You may not opt for a nuanced compromise position.
- For your argument analysis, you may always assert that the premises of the argument are not valid. This may be the easiest way for you to make a superior counter-argument and, thus, score points.
To argue without any basis in fact, without compromise, and without considering the validity of one’s opponents – to the extent that this mentality is representative either of our country’s business education or of broader cultural currents, we are in serious trouble. Without the pursuit of truth, without the pursuit of reconciliation, and without considering that the opposition may have some valid claims (notably that some of their premises are correct, if not their ideas about what to do in light of those premises) – without these traits, we have only nay-saying and no hope of forward progress as a society.