Answering Questions, Dispensing Wisdom

Posted: June 23, 2011 in Culture, Economics, Education, Philosophy

Articles signaling the death of the liberal arts degree, or more generally, the liberal education it’s meant to signify, seem to be popping up with alarming regularity, especially since the job market for new college graduates has tanked at the same time their indebtedness has skyrocketed. As with most debates, both sides have their points, which I won’t pretend aren’t worthy of consideration. However, I discern significant confusion about what a liberal education is, as distinguished from what one gets from a trade school or professional school, or indeed, what one might expect by forgoing higher education or even dropping out of high school.

This confusion is on full display in a Salon article by Kim Brooks entitled “Is It Time to Kill the Liberal Arts Degree?” (I’ll use title case even though the article doesn’t.) The author takes the stupid, obvious, journalistic approach and poses the question, articulates the pro and con arguments, but then refuses to answer the question. Brooks is effectively talking out of both sides of her mouth on the topic. Still, the implied conclusion (yes, kill it!) is clear from front-loading the article with infantile demands that liberal education justify itself in financial terms and by dismissing its true merit as irrelevant, permanently one might suppose, in the first two sentences of the passage quoted below:

I’m not asking if a college education has inherent value, if it makes students more thoughtful, more informed, more enlightened and critical-minded human beings. These are all interesting questions that don’t pay the rent. What I’m asking is far more banal and far more pressing. What I’m asking is: Why do even the best colleges fail so often at preparing kids for the world?

For Brooks, as with many parents sending their kids off to the academy, “preparing kids for the world” is tantamount to paying the rent. She sought answers to her naïve questions from administrators at her alma mater, who apparently revealed themselves to be intellectual lightweights by passing her from one to another without even attempting to address her questions. There was a teachable moment, squandered by the director of career services and multiple deans, who come off as cowards wearing cheap, folding suits. I can forgive the author, perhaps, for her liberal arts degree not yet having matured enough to provide the perspective and circumspection to understand the issue better, but for those providing the education itself, the failure is appalling. The task falls instead to those willing to defend liberal education in the comments section at Salon.

If I appear more than usually twisted about this, there are reasons. There is currently an epidemic of misunderstanding and confusion about all manner of things. Perhaps this has always been true. At any rate, people don’t know where to go in search of answers and often as not don’t even know how to ask their questions. This became painfully clear to me recently when I followed the link in a craigslist ad for writers and stumbled headlong into I created an account and have been answering questions, but my overall impression is that few of the “experts” offering answers (judged on quantity, not quality or accuracy) have any real expertise, just lots of opinion. In fact, the underlying purpose of the website is a platform to serve Google ads and earn money in connection with being awarded the best answer, not to be a clearinghouse of useful information. Further, the questions asked often cross boundaries of propriety (lots there about pregnancies and missed periods, as though the answers based on scant information could possibly be of much help). I answered a question whether school is necessary to experience real life, vaguely similar to Brooks’ concerns above. At least the other answers recommend school for things beyond making money, though that justification is lurking there, too.

Information is cheap and easily available everywhere online these days, but sorting through it, contextualizing it, and forming out of it knowledge (or curating it as many are calling it these days) is in rather short supply. Dispensing wisdom gained therefrom, well, that’s another thing yet again. To whom did we used to turn for wisdom? We almost certainly distrusted the verbose, egg-headed, absent-minded, ivory-tower, professorial types. No, we turned to people who had experienced and witnessed enough suffering and heroism, the ragged edges of the human condition, to quietly distinguish themselves as possessing authority: family doctors, clergymen, war veterans, bartenders (or is that just a movie cliché?), and the elderly. Sadly, the bloom is off the rose with all these former sources of authority. Physicians are now mere technicians, not unlike car mechanics; clergymen are all divested of trust, since we now regard them warily as a class of potential pederasts and pedophiles; war veterans are frequently either coldblooded killers, soulless killers, sufferers from PTSD, or all of the above; bartenders are now hired mostly for their looks; and the elderly, they’re just forgotten.

Brooks could have used a real liberal arts type to respond to her with some hard-won wisdom. Who can be relied upon to do so without promoting some hidden agenda?

  1. Grace says:

    One of the things that many people forget is that a liberal arts degree does give a student a hard set of skills to be used in the real world. One such skill is the ability to write cohesively, which is necessary at many jobs. After learning how to churn out a ten-page paper the night before it is due in school, it becomes second nature to write job-related reports and correspondence under strict deadlines. A liberal arts degree also teaches one how to analyze information and data, not just understanding fact, but also understanding that how you ask a question can impact its results. Such skills are useful when trying to analyze and understand behavior for either market data or political use. Then again, whether any skills are useful or not depends on the presence of jobs to begin with.

    • Brutus says:

      I’m in fundamental agreement with you, Grace, but it seems heedless to me to deny Brooks with an “is not-is too” reversal. I’ve disclaimed this approach on my blog numerous times.

  2. Lou Tafisk says:

    No arguments from me, but I would add that the folks in HR making the hiring decisions normally do not have liberal arts degrees. So to get a job, liberal arts graduates have to pitch their skills to business majors, a group that is rather unlikely to understand that those skills accompany a liberal arts degree. It’s not a good situation.

    • Brutus says:

      Your comment corresponds with my experience, Lou. It’s ironic that the things needed most in many job situations are what’s lacking in the people doing the hiring and therefore difficult to recognize as worthwhile in job applicants.

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