In My Own Words
Thoughts on Education, Artistry, and Leadership

Of late, there have been a series of challenges to college education. The lackluster economy, politics, evolving education technologies, and attention-grabbing commentators (not to be confused with legitimate journalists) have all affected the way colleges and universities go about their missions.

Particularly, liberal arts colleges and universities are questioned for having "un-focused" curriculums.  Instead, some like Florida governor Rick Scott would like to focus higher education spending on science, technology, enginerring, and mathematics (STEM) to the exclusion of humanities studies. Alex Tabarrok, professor of economics at George Mason University, agrees.

I do not.

Prof. Tarrabok's recent essay in the Chronicle of Higher Education argues that studies in the humanities should not be subsidized, and that fields deemed "valuable" to society should be.

"There's nothing wrong with the arts, psychology, and journalism," he says, before spending three paragraphs expounding on what is wrong with studying in those fields. For instance, he argues that graduates in these fields "are less likely to create the kinds of innovations that drive economic growth." Prof. Tarrabok's essay is not uneducated, however.

Rather, he poses an interesting intellectual challenge. Are we educating students the way we should be? Are we creating citizens who will contribute to society? No, we're not, Prof. Tarrabok suggests. 

"A big part of the problem is that the United States has paved a single road to knowledge, the road through the classroom ... for 12 to 16 years," he says.

From here, Prof. Tarrabok proposes the government and our society is hyper-focused on college education, to the exclusion of apprenticeships, vocational programs.

"Why should a major in English literature be subsidized with room and board on a beautiful campus with Olympic-size swimming pools and state-of-the-art athletic facilities when apprentices in nursing, electrical work, and new high-tech fields like mechatronics are typically unsubsidized (or less subsidized)?" Prof. Tarrabok asks.

To answer that question, I propose, we need individuals trained in the liberal arts.

First, I admit my bias as a product of a liberal arts college, as Prof. Tabarrok should for being the product of a public research university. (And to further even the playing field, both of Prof. Tabarrok's research university alma maters have "beautiful campus[es] with Olympic-size swimming pools and state-of-the-art athletic facilities," as do the instutions from which I graduated, one a liberal arts college, the other a major research university.)

The root of the question here is about how to prepare young adults to be productive and contributing members of society. I propose that, to do this, every citizen in that society needs these abilities:

  1. To identify and assess a problem,
  2. To apply a broad domain of knowledge to the problem,
  3. To apply domain-specific knowledge to the problem,
  4. To formulate a plan based on that knowledge to solve the problem,
  5. To persevere in the face of challenges and unknowns, and
  6. To accurately and adaptably communicate the problem, the plan, and the solution to diverse audiences.

Any competent college graduate should be prepared to do these things. However, a liberal arts college will prepare its students better, especially on the second and sixth points.

By design, a student of the liberal arts should have a more broadly developed base of knowledge from which to innovate. He or she will be been immersed in an environment where everyone does not think alike, and therefore has learned to be an adpatable and effective communicator.

In short, liberal arts graduates may be precisely who we need to solve the problems facing higher education.

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