Blog on the Run: Reloaded

Friday, May 6, 2011 7:56 pm

Quote of the day, value-of-a-liberal-arts-education edition, with elaboration at no extra charge.


… from commenter “Jes St. Lawrence” on the Inside Higher Education website, where the value of a liberal-arts education is being hotly debated in light of movements in some states to tie college/university funding to job placement:

Yes, the job market is changing rapidly, so what we really need are more narrowly-educated people. Brilliant.

The Liberal Arts have always been a tough sell because the name of the degree isn’t the name of the job. Some people can’t get past that, and by “some people” I really mean “stupid people.” Recognizing the skill set involved in a major called “history,” for instance, and connecting that skill set to appropriate jobs, is apparently too complicated to explain to a governor.

Amen. When I was starting to look at colleges almsot 35 years ago, my parents told me that no matter what I thought I wanted to do when I got out of college (at the time, be a DJ), I ought to get a good liberal-arts education because, although it might not prepare me for that job, it would prepare me for a career.

And so it has. The job I wanted, I actually got well before I finished my bachelor’s; indeed, that DJing helped pay my educational bills and kept my student-loan levels manageable. But I’ve had, by my count, five distinct careers in the 29 years since I graduated from college, including one in a field that arguably didn’t exist for almost 15 years after I graduated, and that liberal-arts background has been valuable — no, invaluable — in all of them.

In my current line of work, I tell kids that a rigorous liberal-arts education will prepare them not only for the jobs they want to do but for the jobs they will want that don’t even exist yet. And I know it’s true, because that is exactly what my liberal-arts education has done for me.

I think it’s perfectly appropriate to discuss how well our colleges and universities are doing their jobs, and for public institutions to have their funding tied to that outcome. But for that process to achieve its desired outcome, we need define those jobs better. What do we expect our colleges and universities to do for their students — to prepare them for a job? A career? Citizenship? What are the criteria for assessing progress toward those goals?

And before we can do that, we need to decide what we want our kids to be — not do, be — when they grow up.

Here’s my vote:

Lots of people can, to use one example of a currently marketable skill, build, maintain and query databases. I want American kids to be able to do most of the following, find someone who can do the parts they don’t know how to do, and to understand the need for all of it: Query a database. Know which databases to query. Know where and how to get them. Know what kind of queries will tell them whether the college president, or the corporation president, or the U.S. president, is a criminal, and how to prove it. Know why it’s important to prosecute him if he is a criminal, and what bad things are likely to happen if he is a criminal and we don’t prosecute him. And be able to explain to someone else why all of this is important.

I want citizens in full, because the kind of country we chose in 1787 to be demands that we have them. And if we want nice things, we need to pay for them.

Now we just need to figure out how best to get them. Let’s get started.

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