I am, both by inclination and by virtue of my employment, deeply committed to the ideal of liberal arts education. What does that mean? My traditional one sentence answer is that a liberal arts education teaches you how to think. And of course, what I mean by that is that you learn a broadly applicable set of skills like effective communication, problem solving etc. but that you also learn to approach problems with an open mind and the ability to see different options and so on. There’s an old saying that is something like “to the man who only has a hammer, everything is a nail.” As educators, we should be making sure our students have a well-equipped toolbox.*
Which provides a segue to the other side of the coin: I am one of those people who questions the creeping mentality that everyone should aspire to college. What about professions that may be better suited to the trade school/apprenticeship model? Certainly carpenters, electricians, mechanics, and so forth are necessary and noble professionals. Where do they acquire these “liberal” tools that I truly think are necessary to be fully formed individuals and citizens contributing to the broader society? Certainly not in high school, where the pressure on teachers to prepare students for standardized tests leaves no time even for music and art (and social studies, it often appears) much less these more abstract goals. And even under the best circumstances, I doubt most high school students are at a level of intellectual maturity to accomplish these developmental tasks. And I don’t think we can hope that most people pick them up on their own. If anything, we are regressing on this, as people increasingly only get their news from sources they “agree with” (whatever that means) and don’t associate much with anybody, much less people different than themselves who might challenge their worldview (see Bob Putnam on “bowling alone.”)
So I am torn. I think colleges and universities provide skills and experiences that are demonstrably valuable to the point of being necessary and are not readily available elsewhere. But college really isn’t for everybody, for all sorts of reasons. So what are we to do?
(There is, of course, another argument that says that any narrow training for a specific job or even career is short-sighted in this day and age, where jobs are created and rendered obsolete at such a rapid pace. And that’s right too, but not necessary for the point I am pondering.)
*Did you know that Cameron Indoor Stadium, home to the ridiculous Duke University “Cameron Crazies” is appropriately referred to as “the tool box?” At least, that’s what us right-thinking Tar Heels know.