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A liberal education is essential in helping the U.S. remain a beacon of democracy

ShellyPAUL080510_optBY PAUL R. SHELLY
COMMENTARY

The ironies of modern life in the United States, and our need to make sense of them, or alter them, to me, are among the best reasons why college-level, liberal education is vital to virtually all Americans. By "liberal" I do not mean left-wing; I mean education that includes exposure to philosophy, ethics, history, the arts, language, literature — collectively known as the humanities.

Education geared to a specific career is important, but in this day and age, career opportunities and sometimes entire fields of knowledge, advance or lose importance. On the other hand, it has been known, since the founding of this republic, that well-rounded education, which to me includes the ability to think both creatively and analytically and understand others' points of view, has enduring value for the individual, the community, and the nation.

Yet today, too many decision and opinion makers are inclined to constrict the value of the college experience by reducing it to the transfer of knowledge necessary to land individuals a good paying position in a given job market. There are such market pressures not just inside but outside academe according to Boston College president J. Donald Monan in an essay last year, who noted that there are constrictive "pressures upward from high schools" and "pressures downward from a growingly professionalized and differentiated society."

 

As Americans in the 21st century, we are encountering an unprecedented era, full of possibility, full of irony, full of concerns. Meanwhile our understanding and appreciation of the idea of "the common good" is in jeopardy. For example:
  • We have made ourselves able to communicate globally, almost instantly, across our planet and can physically transport ourselves to most parts of the world in a matter of hours or days. Yet, we often cling desperately to our parochial perspectives.
  • We know more than ever before about endless outer space and infinitesimal inner spaces. Yet we have lost a too much of our curiosity about what remains to be discovered.
  • We have more different kinds of resources, technological devices and "stuff" than ever before. But we often miss what the Amish have known all along: how such material things can leave us feeling empty and hamper our community life and our spiritual development.
  • We devalue workers while we put consumer loyalty on a pedestal, a trend starkly portrayed in the hit movie "Up in the Air"
  • Awash in labor saving devices, we seem to have less time to be mindful, relaxed or creative than ever. Many of us have opted to eliminate for our children the very thing that gave us greatest joy when we were young: free play.
  • We are militarily the strongest nation today and yet we fail to fully grasp how people in other nations see us, and that lack of understanding could be the greatest security weakness in a war against acts of terror that are often rooted in religion and ideology.
  • We have led in breaking barriers of discrimination against minorities, women, and gays, and yet many of us, who can choose to, flee to cloistered communities where people "like ourselves" live.
  • We have fantastic instruments for mass communication and education in television and various vehicles for accessing and sending data, text, and images but we spend much of our time with such machinery pursuing banal fare.

Beyond preparing individuals for a livelihood, colleges offering liberal education can help individuals better understand and cope with the world as it is in the 21st century and find joy, meaning and fulfillment within the human community.

Liberal education is essential in helping the United States remain a beacon of democracy. In an essay in defense of the humanities recently, English professor John Crisp posed this question "Is it too much to hope that voters with a better grasp of history, philosophy and literature would elect better leaders?" I think we have long known the answer to his question.

There are awesome challenges before us now, and on the horizon, that we must answer as individuals, as communities, and as citizens of a state, a nation and a global village. Liberal education is desperately needed to aid in this effort. Let's not undervalue it.

Paul R. Shelly, MSW, is director of communications and marketing for the New Jersey Association of State Colleges and Universities. He serves on the board of Greater Trenton Behavioral HealthCare and is active in the Trenton Ecumenical Area Ministry CROP Walk and Jersey Shore Chapter of Surfrider Foundation. He resides in Ewing, NJ.

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Comments (1)
1 Wednesday, 08 September 2010 15:30
Jake Schirra
I had the benefit of receiving an intense liberal arts education in high school, which included an intense study of Latin, Philosophy, many English, American, and World Literature Classics, and many other humanities. While I may not remember every point Aristotle made in the Nicomachean ethics, by studying the humanities my mind has been crafted to dissect and express any idea. Studying philosophy helped me to understand ideas, art gave me the appreciation of truly beautiful ideas, and Latin and Literature gave me the means to express ideas of my own.

But in college, every student is faced with a difficult dilemma: does one build a liberal arts background, or specialize in the hope of landing a better paying job? Because the modern economy is becoming severly more specialized, it is increasingly difficult to pick up any profession without prior training in today's job market.

For example, it is almost impossible for a Philosophy major to work on an engineering design team. Why? Because the philosophy major has not taken any of the classes that have specifically groomed the engineer to accomplish his task. The philosophy major is perfectly capable of learning how to be an engineer, as the liberal arts degree has taught him or her how to think and digest and express ideas, but he or she is at the back of the line for the immediate engineering job.
However, a student who does study to be an engineer in college but who has no training in the humanities is also sorely limited in the modern job market. Because the engineer has little practice in writing, speaking, or expressing ideas, he or she will have difficulty advancing the corporate ladder from the design team to a management position because he does not have the refined skill to understand the perspectives of the people he or she is managing, or how to communicate properly and effectively to the employees, crucial elements in the business world.
We find that both a liberal arts background and some specialized training are extremely beneficial in today's job market. The interesting paradox to this reality is that high schools are becoming more particular; magnet schools and focused computer science classes are growing in popularity every year. Consequentially, this change of focus in high schools has provoked the universities to now emphasize or employ a core curriculum of the liberal arts.
The roles of these educational institutions have switched, to the disadvantage of the student, for the student could benefit more from taking specialized classes in an institution of larger resources and funds, such as labs, databases, etc., instead of learning in an insufficiently funded high school specialized class.
If a liberal education is indeed essential to maintain America’s status as a beacon of democracy, then the only way to prevent the decadence of American culture without hampering a student’s chance at obtaining a position in a focused field is to start humanities studies in high school, which was the traditional system. Progress has gone too far in education by throwing out the foundational studies that shape the way western culture thinks for the sake of an edge in the job market. Universities are recognizing the value of a liberal arts education, so why shouldn’t high schools? If a student receives a well-founded humanities education where he or she learns how to think, write and speak, that student will not only be able to learn in concentrated fields with a higher comprehension, but also be able to take those specialized classes in an institution with the resources to give them a full educational experience. The engineer would have already learned how to communicate his thoughts and identify with people, giving him or her the edge on other engineers looking for a management position. The philosophy major would already have had a background of philosophy, and could advance to higher thought or use more time to take classes in other fields, thus expanding his perspective and giving him or her the opportunity to pursue another field, such as engineering or business management.
The liberal arts education has enabled me to reason, write, and appreciate the many joys of life that are hidden from us unless we know where to look. I am thankful that I was taught where to look in high school, so that I can fully appreciate them here at college.

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