Space to Make Fun

3 weeks ago

In summer, 2008, The American Scholar published William Deresiewicz’s “The Disadvantages of an Elite Education,” a foreshadowing of his recent book, Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life, which is reviewed in The New York Times Book Review, August 24, 2014, by Anthony Grafton, eminent Princeton University historian and former Phi Beta Kappa senator.  Both in the article and in the book, Deresiewicz charges the Ivies and their emulators with fostering a culture, based on the hyper-competitive status-seeking of upper-middle class over-achievers, that leads students to “waste the precious years that they should be devoting to building their souls to building their resumes” (Grafton’s phrasing of Deresiewicz’s charge).

Grafton admits that “much of [this] dystopian description rings true.”  But the coin has another side.  Deresiewicz acknowledges that many liberal arts colleges, with their engaged teachers, are places where “college is still college,” but Grafton makes the point that this is, or can be, true still in the Ivies.  He cites what must have been a wonderful educational moment.

Grafton had assigned his students “a very good–but very long–book about classical antiquity in 19th century Germany.” It seems that two of his students turned up for  seminar wearing enormous fake beards to evoke the spirit of 19th century Germanic scholarship (thereby also gently mocking Grafton) and playing “The Ride of the Valkyries” on their laptops.  By indulging in “cheerful mockery,” the two students “sparked a searching and substantive discussion.”  The Ivies can’t be as bleak as Deresiewicz claims, Grafton implies, if this kind of thing can happen.

The scene rises vividly in the imagination, and it is easy to imagine what a powerful moment it must have been.  But it is impossible to predict, to plan, or to build this sort of thing into the syllabus of a course.  This sort of thing–a pinnacle educational moment–arises spontaneously, or can arise spontaneously, if the right space has been provided. What is that “right space?”

It seems that every time we see recommendations about teaching, the emphasis is on gaining greater and greater control of the pedagogical process.  The emphasis is on design, intentionality, the careful tailoring of means to specified ends, and the measurement of outcomes that are known in advance.  I think of an interview I saw decades ago with the French minister of education, overseeing a vast but highly centralized and uniform system of formal instruction.  He leaned back in his chair and said, “I know what every child in France is doing at this moment.”  How could it have been clearer that the educational process had been reduced to an industrial model, with completely scripted, standardized operations being performed upon presumably passive students whose individualities counted, apparently, for nothing.  Let’s hope the French do better now, but how much of what passes for urgency toward educational reform in this country embodies these presumptions?

Yet where, in an educational system dominated by predictability and control, is there room for an event like the one Grafton holds up as exemplary?  That “right space” we want cannot be found in a totally controlled process.  It can be found only in a process that has design, but not absolute constraint.  There has to be play in the system, a certain looseness of construction, opening space for spontaneity, play, the creative and unexpected.  That space has to be in the design of the curriculum and the course.  It has to be in the array of possible outcomes envisaged by the teacher.  And it has to be in the manner, or style, in which the course is conducted.  How much it says, about the sense of purpose within latitude enjoyed by those students of Grafton’s, that they saw both the humor and the serious point of their parody, and how much it says about Grafton, that they felt permission to move into that space.

Nothing about such an event can be predicted, prescribed, or made to happen according to a formula.  But that’s where the best education happens.  Let’s hope there’s more of it in the Ivies than Deresiewicz thinks, and more of it in institutions of all kinds than would be supposed by those who want to design every moment for a preconceived outcome.

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How Not to Write About Higher Education

4 weeks ago

IS COLLEGE DOOMED?“, in all capital letters, bold-faced, read the biggest letters on the cover, except for the magazine’s title: The Atlantic. It being nearly fall, it was time for “the educational issue,” a phrase tucked into a round, hot pink dot just below the “A” in Atlantic.  And in the middle of the all this, a wrecking ball, caught in the moment of impact, breaking through a wall in the direction of the observer, and sending into chaotic flight an array of higher education icons:  a chemistry text, a football, notebooks, a mortar board, more books flying open as they scatter, and pieces of the wall itself, representing, no doubt, the physical campuses whose demise is indicated in the smaller print at the bottom:  ”Traditional universities are in trouble. . . .”

The sensationalist tone is continued inside, with the wrecking ball again, and more books now being buried in the detritus of the smashed campus.  The featured article, by Graeme Wood, has a slightly more tentative title, “The Future of College?,” and it deals largely with the Minerva Project, an attempt by a tech entrepreneur named Ben Nelson to launch a user-intensive, on-line instructional format that would replicate the active classroom engagement that is thought to lead to the most desirable liberal arts outcomes.  Minerva seems to be both an anti-MOOC and also a mini-MOOC; “mini” in that its total enrollment is now 33, in contrast to the tens of thousands claimed for some MOOCs, and “anti” in that the emphasis is on engagement and personal development, not the transmission of content.

The article’s advocacy of the project rests on snarky comments about traditional higher education—its biggest innovation has been doubling costs and hiring more administrators; its technology is medieval; its finances are full of perverse incentives.  This is, of course, a caricature, as if a fair picture of American higher education could be assembled from a composite of its worst dimensions.  But there’s a lot of this sort of thing around.  The advocates of creative disruption thrive on it.

To be fair to Wood’s piece, there are, buried in it, the right questions to be asking about innovation in higher education.  If, in the Minerva vision, lectures, tenure, Gothic architecture, football, and ivy are gone, gone, gone, gone, and gone, “what’s left will be leaner and cheaper.”  Likely so.  But then Wood adds, almost as an afterthought, this:  ”We have little clue as to whether the process of stripping down the university removes something essential to what has made America’s best colleges the greatest in the world.”  Well, exactly.  And this:  “Can a school that has no faculty offices, research labs, community spaces for students, or professors paid to do scholarly work still be called a university?”  I think that question answers itself.

And how’s this for exposing the likelihood that projects like Minerva are essentially parasitical on the existing higher education system:  “No one yet knows whether reducing a university to a smoothly-running pedagogical machine will continue to allow scholarship to thrive—or whether it will simply put universities out of business, replace scholar teachers with just teachers, and retard a whole generation of research.”  What Wood is pointing to here is a very real prospect:  Commodification of instruction is dependent upon a substrate of research to produce the commodity, but it does nothing to support or sustain that substrate.

American higher education has been and will continue to be a very diverse field, whose diversity reaches into several dimensions.  There are great institutions and some that are not-so-great.  There are institutions of different types, with different purposes, serving different populations.  Questions like “Is College Doomed?”, the imagery of a wrecking ball demolishing the entire sector, and blanket characterizations of higher education as “sclerotic,” (Wood’s word),  obscure that diversity, and mask enormous underlying complexity.  In that complexity there are very important questions about the impact of coming changes.  Wood identifies a couple, and that in itself makes the article worth reading.  But how much better it would have been, had The Atlantic chosen to respect the intelligence of its readers by leading with these more sophisticated and, frankly, more realistic issues.  Higher education is like the rest of life:  more complicated than we’d like to think, and rife with risk for unintended consequences.  That’s what we need to be thinking about.

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“You Can’t Say That Here!” “Oh, Yes, I Can!” “Oh, No, . . .”

3 months ago

In the commencement season just passing, we have seen a spate of incidents involving campus speech issues.  Some guest speakers withdrew from their commitments after student criticism or intimidation.  Some prospective guests have had their invitations to speak withdrawn by the college in response to criticism.  It’s important to find what’s at stake here for Phi Beta Kappa’s commitment to freedom of inquiry and expression.

A responsible mapping of these controversies would include landmarks like these:

  • Institutional commitments–and our broader cultural commitment–to academic freedom, most broadly the notion that college and university campuses should be dedicated to free and open expression of ideas in pursuit of truth;
  • The bounding principle that respect for free and open expression requires a context of community, guided by norms that differentiate its conduct from mere free-for-all;
  • The idea that maintaining such norms is indispensable to the continuing existence of a community of free expression, since that freedom is meaningless unless others are free to hear, and disposed to listen.
  • The essential distinction between discourse seeking truth, and violence or intimidation.

The big questions raised by current events have to do with the shape of those norms. But, of course, no community of any size shares a unified set of homogeneous norms. We are almost always in settings composed of overlapping communities, sharing some norms but not others, holding fast, perhaps, to conflicting norms. Many individuals will have internalized versions of this complexity. A college or university will be populated by students, faculty, staff, as well as alumni and other stakeholders, who understand themselves to be members of various different communities, as well as of the institution itself.  Also at stake, sometimes, may be the question of institutional endorsement of a speaker’s views, by conferring an honorary degree.  That’s why respect for diversity is such a big deal, a cornerstone of collegiate community.

But respect for diversity comes packaged with tensions, if not contradictions. Does it entail freedom to offend others in speech? Or freedom from offense by others? What is offense? Is it when someone is made uncomfortable? Does the degree of discomfort matter? Or does it matter what sort of topic gives rise to the discomfort?  Or is offense more than discomfort?

At what point does discomfort amount to feeling threatened? Does feeling threatened amount to being threatened? What is threat? Is it danger to one’s views? One’s standing in the community? One’s person?  One’s community of primary identity?

This welter of issues holds scant promise of conclusive resolution. There is little prospect that colleges and universities can settle them for very long, let alone that a nation’s sense of its identity could be defined by settling them. We must learn to live with the idea that our different understandings of the norms governing freedom of expression are themselves objects of contention.  We must figure out how to extend our conversation to that level, by critically exploring how offense is given and taken, while continuing to keep alive the substantive discussions.

This is a very tough prescription, because admitting that the norms of civil discourse are themselves in play requires us to do two very difficult things. The first is to admit, without abandoning our principles, that they will be stronger for having been critically examined; the second is to assure others that opening their own principles to critical examination is not just opening them to unsympathetic demolition.  Both moves require substantial trust, and that may be the most delicate part; but because it is the most delicate, the most difficult and most important.

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Phenomenally Important

4 months ago

“Are the liberal arts still important?” columnist Thomas Friedman asked Laszlo Bock, “who,” Friedman tells us, “is in charge of all hiring at Google.”  He reported on the conversation in his column, “How to Get a Job at Google, Part 2,” in The New York Times (Sunday, April 20, 2014). “They are phenomenally important,” Bock answered, going on to underline their usefulness in combinations.  He told Friedman, “I think a lot about how the most interesting things are happening at the intersection of two fields.”  He then added a comment that might seem obvious, but is terribly important. “To pursue that,” he said, “you need expertise in both fields.”

What is at stake here is the character of the much-heralded “interdisciplinary thinking.”  We who praise the arts and sciences often claim—rightly, I think—that engagement with multiple arts and sciences disciplines can lead to a special kind of intellectual agility; namely, the capacity to bring different, even contrasting, sets of assumptions and framing concepts to bear on a single set of facts, to see things from differing perspectives.  This ability leads to seeing how one perspective complements another by bringing to light features that had been discounted or hidden entirely from view.

Bock’s point is that in order to do that, again, “you need expertise in both fields.”  It is not enough to know some facts gleaned from exposure to multiple fields.  In his examples, “economics and psychology or statistics and physics,” the individual would need engagement in different fields sufficient to see things both as an economist and as a psychologist, or both as a statistician and as a physicist.  Tall order.

And indeed, it seems that Bock may have been thinking of building organizational teams, rather than of bi-disciplinary individuals.  “You need,” he said, “some people who are holistic thinkers and have liberal arts backgrounds, and some who are deep functional experts.  Building that balance is hard, but that’s where you end up building great societies, great organizations.”  But it works either way—or any of three ways.  Some extraordinary individuals will gain expert-level fluency in multiple fields.  Many, many more will develop the sort of broad capacities we associate with an arts and sciences education.  And successful organizations—this is Bock’s main point—need both the deep experts and the people who can work the intersections.

That’s why the liberal arts are still “phenomenally important”: Finding and working the intersections is a liberal arts sort of thing.

Also implicit in Bock’s vision of those intersections is the idea that they remain intersections.  Sometimes people talk about interdisciplinary work as if the “interdisciplines” become themselves new disciplines.  And sometimes that happens.  Disciplines are not fixed; they evolve; they have histories.  It is important not to indulge in a fetishism of disciplines, as if they were more than systematized modes of human inquiry.  But the magic and excitement of interdisciplinary work is the confluence of differences.  It is only while the disciplines involved are still genuinely distinct that they can show complementary truths.

Once they have fused, they become, in Thomas Kuhn’s famous term, “normal,” and not the stuff of, in Kuhn’s more famous phrase, “paradigm shifts.”  If the shifting of paradigms is what we are after, then we need the intersection of intact disciplines, not some third thing, already blended.  Bock gets this: He wants to hire people who can create, and make sense of, those moments of difference, tension, and resolution.  That is phenomenally insightful.

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Knowledge Is Good

4 months ago

On April 7, 2014, The Washington Post‘s column, “The Monkey Cage,” published a guest essay by researchers at Dartmouth, Harvard, and Princeton, called “The less Americans know about Ukraine’s location, the more they want U.S. to intervene.”  The title pretty much speaks for itself.  It summarizes the conclusion drawn from a survey designed to show how much respondents know about Ukraine, and how they think the U.S. should be handling the crisis.  There is an inverse relation between the possession of knowledge, in this case, and readiness to use force.

Well.  I have always hoped that there would be some sort of relationship between the possession of knowledge and our capacity to make sound practical decisions, decisions that could be called matters of value.  Without prejudging the specifics of the case of the Ukrainian crisis, at least it appears that having some facts at one’s command does put the breaks on a hasty decision.  That’s a good thing, even if action is eventually required.

And so we see, yet again, the vindication of the motto on the base of the statue of the founder of Animal House‘s Faber College:  “Knowledge is Good.”  Knowledge makes it possible to reflect, since, without some facts, reflection itself is impossible:  you have nothing to reflect on.

Years ago, I was sitting in a presentation where a man who researched the nematode parasites infesting grackles was displaying a huge chart containing vast columns of data concerning infection rates in colonies of the birds in Arkansas and Minnesota.  There were raw numbers, percentages, comparisons, trends, forecasts, etc.  A good friend of mine, a theologian, was sitting next to me.  He leaned over and whispered quietly, “Aren’t facts wonderful?”

I have no wish to emphasize that it was a theologian, specifically, who found the appearance of actual facts so impressive.  It could, really, have been anyone.  Really, it could.  But there is something wonderful about the capacity to be struck with delight by facts.  I recall an exchange of letters, decades ago, with a dear friend.  He was in Sri Lanka; I was in England.  From our islands of study at the ends of the Eurasian landmass, we had an extended epistolary conversation about life and meaning.  This was long before email, and even long distance phone calls were a big deal.  For those reasons, there is a paper record of our thoughts.  I was studying English philosophy and had written something offhand about the role of chance in our lives, deprecating the appearance of pattern and meaning.  You might as well try to find significance in the fact that a raindrop fell where it did.  I got my comeuppance.  My friend replied that he found wonder exactly there.  He was studying Buddhist mindfulness.

I came around.  Facts are wonderful.  Maybe not all of them equally so, and evidently not all of them to all of us. And the world is certainly full of false trails, appearances of significance where none resides.  But even after we have gotten the defenses in place against overreading, we have to keep the door open to the amazingness of what there is, and the amazingness of our ability, sometimes, to know it.  Sometimes—this is the point of the guest column in “The Monkey Cage”—knowledge is even useful.  The world is big, Wendell Berry wrote somewhere, and you never know what you might need to know.

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The Big Conundrum

5 months ago

A few years ago the Phi Beta Kappa national headquarters had a staff member whose professional background was journalism. Behind her desk, positioned so that visitors to her office could readily see it, was a neatly hand-printed sign. It bore an equilateral triangle with the word “GOOD” at the apex. One bottom corner was labeled “FAST,” and the other, “CHEAP.” Beneath the triangle was the instruction: “PICK TWO.” In other words, we can get things done. But if you want it good and fast, it won’t be cheap.  If you want it cheap and good, it won’t be fast. And if cheap and fast is what you want, it won’t be good.

This is pretty much where we are with regard to support for public higher education in this country. Let me be a little clearer about how the corners are labeled. Let’s say that “Good” means “Education that prepares people for careers, citizenship, and fulfilling lives of meaning and value.” “Cheap” may be, in this context, a stretch, but the idea is about spending as little public money as possible on public higher education, so let’s call it “Modestly funded.” For the corner labeled “Fast,” I will stipulate a concept of success that encompasses both access and completion; higher education needs to be available and accessible to a wide swath of the populace, and those who undertake it should be able to complete it. To capture both dimensions, let’s call this “Successful.”

So our new sign bears a triangle with these labels: “Good,” “Modestly funded,” and “Successful.” Again the instruction is: “PICK TWO.” That is, we can choose among these options:

  1.  A higher education system that is good, and modestly funded. It won’t be big enough to accommodate many people. It will produce a small elite, and contribute to socio-economic stratification.
  2. A higher education system that is good, as defined above, and successful. If success means wide access and completion, and good means comprehensively educating, then it can’t be modestly funded.
  3. A higher education system that is modestly funded, and successful (in terms of access and completion). There’ll be lots of coverage, but it won’t be very good.  Economic pressure will drive this system toward a narrow vocationalism.

The utility of an abstract analysis of this sort is not that it captures reality precisely, but that it clarifies patterns that would otherwise remain vague and indistinct. If it is the case that something like this dilemma of being able to have only two of three desiderata applies to American higher education, then it is easy to see how that system’s history has run. Prior to World War II we had Option #1. After the GI Bill and the blossoming of student aid we got Option #2. The pressures of the last decade are pushing us toward Option #3.

Now complicate the picture by adding two ingredients: the private sector of colleges and universities, with their supporters, tuition streams, and endowment income, and honors colleges, state-funded, nested within public universities. These are islands of Option #1 within a sea of Option #3, with the private monies of the independent institutions supplementing whatever public support is also enjoyed there.

We are now in a position to see that the current drift in American higher education is toward stratification, as argued in Suzanne Mettler’s article in The Chronicle Review, “Equalizers No More,” March 7, 2014. “College-going,” she writes, “once associated with opportunity, now engenders something that increasingly resembles a caste system: It takes Americans who grew up in different social strata and widens the divisions among them.” If, as seems increasingly obvious, this is a bad thing for the country, we have to find an affordable way to restore Option #2: broad education for all of life for as large a proportion of the population as we can manage.

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It Helps to Pay Attention

5 months ago

The advertisement on the television was touting the advantages of sedation dentistry. A  calm man was resting confidently in a dental chair, while a smiling, white-coated technician stood waiting to begin some reliably painless procedure. I turned to the fridge to secure an item for the meal I was preparing. When I glanced back up at the television, only seconds later, a fleet of revolving concrete trucks was speeding along a highway, evidently on their way to pour dozens of cubic yards of heavy gray slush into a cavity somewhere. Oh, wait! Not the same ad. I had missed a critical transition.

It’s important to keep track of the story line, to know when one narrative has ended and another begun. Otherwise, the confusions can be alarming. This sense that the narrative has changed, that we have come to be in a different story, arrives in reading “Equalizers No More,” Suzanne Mettler’s article in The Chronicle Review, March 7, 2014.

Mettler’s case is that “the American system of higher education . . . has gone from facilitating upward mobility to exacerbating social inequality.” Her view is that it contributes to a “caste system.” “It takes Americans,” she writes, “who grew up in different social strata and widens the divisions among them.” This she characterizes as “political failure, a breakdown of representative government that no longer provides effective mechanisms by which Americans can pursue a better life.”

These are sweeping charges. What’s the case? Mettler points to the loss of the conviction that higher education is a public good, not merely a private advantage.  She cites the Founders, the Morrill Acts, the GI Bill, the student loan and Pell programs from the sixties—the well-known litany of elements in the construction of the very unsystematic system we have seen in place for the last half-century.

But, she argues, something happened several decades ago. “The real problem,” she writes, “is that in recent decades, public policies have functioned far less effectively than they did in the mid-20th century to ameliorate inequality in college-going.” How? Through erosion of Pell grants as a proportion of tuition, through withdrawal of support by the states, and by the opening of the field to the for-profit players, of which a number have since been exposed for predatory practices.

All this Mettler diagnoses as a failure of “policy maintenance,” a lapse in attention structurally similar to my taking the concrete trucks as a continuation of the dentistry commercial, when in fact things had changed radically. And that lapse she lays at the feet of the polarization and partisanship that everyone, I think, of every persuasion, would agree has infested our national and increasingly our state governments in recent decades.

I don’t think that it is a partisan or contested, or even, in our national self-understanding, a contestable proposition to say that all Americans should have a fair chance of exercising their abilities to better their lives. Mettler offers prescriptions about how we might get nearer to that point, and stop sliding further away from it. Those prescriptions may or may not be to the liking of every member of Phi Beta Kappa. And certainly it is not the Society’s business to enter into politics. But whatever our preferred remedy, the problem is one we should pay attention to, and work toward solving.

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Something’s Broken Here

6 months ago

Patrick Leigh Fermor has been thrust before us repeatedly in the last few years. In 2005, New York Review Books brought out the two then-available volumes of his account of walking across Europe to Constantinople in 1933-34, A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water. Leigh Fermor’s death at the age of 96 in 2011 brought a spattering of commentary; Artemis Cooper’s biography, Patrick Leigh Fermor: An Adventure, came out in late 2013; and the editorially reconstructed missing final volume of the walkathon emerged in Britain last fall and in America a few weeks ago. I have finished it, though Leigh Fermor had not.

Called The Broken Road, volume three takes us from the Iron Gates of the Danube to somewhere in Bulgaria, short of the planned destination. And then, in a coda, the story resumes on Mt. Athos in Thessaly, among the celibate but wine-swilling monks. That is, it skips the destination of the journey. Leigh Fermor had set out from the Hook of Holland at the onset of winter, 1933, bound for the city on the Bosporus. Istanbul. Or, as he called, it, Constantinople. Byzantium. Tzarigrad, the City of the Czars.

Oh, he got there, all right. In life, apparently, though not in narrative. The story as laid down stops before his arrival, then pops back into being with intense clarity of focus after his departure. Hence the title of volume three. But is it the road that is broken? Or the trip? The traveler? The narrative? The concept of a destination?

Leigh Fermor must have been an amazing personal presence. He gets on with virtually everyone, from scholars to shepherds. He charms sophisticates and peasant girls, dances with fishermen, waltzes with the minor nobility of Mitteleuropa. He becomes functional in new languages in days, enough at least for conversations of the sort that happen over Bier, Wein, slivovitz and raki. He describes the German winter and the Hungarian spring. He goes hungry; he feasts; he shivers; he sweats. He paints the castles, the mountains, the rivers, the forests, and the towns in portraits of flowing words. He is given and loses, or gives away, trinkets and treasures. He walks. And walks.

It is as though the walk across Europe demanded a conclusion greater than any mere actual city, more than could have delivered by mere rounds of still more partying with yet more groups of polyglot midnight revelers. The trip needed some kind of ultimate consummation, an arrival in heaven of the sort recounted by medieval Russian pilgrims in the Hagia Sophia. But Leigh Fermor had been finding such heavens all along the way, in huts and castles, using his scraps of Hungarian and Bulgarian to reach into the human meaning of–it seems–hundreds of lives as he traveled. What grandeur, what revelations, could have remained?

It is tempting to conclude that Leigh Fermor didn’t write the Constantinople bit of the story because he sensed what an anticlimax it had to be. Or maybe he wrote it, rewrote it, and rewrote it again, only to trash it, seeing that it was anticlimactic. (Maybe when I read the biography I’ll find out!) Or maybe the mystery is better than the arrival at knowledge.

Ending a story about a trip is a real trick. You can always go home. But that works neither for Odysseus nor for Bilbo Baggins. Home has a way of not being there anymore. Someone call Thomas Wolfe. Or Hermann Hesse’s Han Fook, or the original Peter Pan.

Alternatively, you can settle where you got to, and live happily ever after. Let’s see, though. That didn’t work out so well on Pitcairn Island.

Or maybe, like Leigh Fermor, you find a way to finesse the idea of a destination. You slide quietly past the point that had, after all, given shape to the journey. Forgoing the conclusion that would have made sense of it all by ending it, you just keep going till you stop.


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Arts & Sciences: Putting You in the Driver’s Seat

6 months ago

As the national and world economies evolve, securing new jobs and crafting fulfilling lives will depend critically on ingenuity—the ability to see things in new ways, generating creative ideas, products, and services; and on innovation—the capacity and willingness to create novel means to success. Businesses competing on a world stage will increasingly need leaders and employees who can create, innovate, and collaborate at home and across cultures.

Phi Beta Kappa believes firmly in the intrinsic value of studying arts and sciences for their own sake. We are also keenly aware that higher education faces a crossroads as parents, students, and decision makers focus on the cost of education and its return on investment. Moreover, a new survey by Gallup released last week points to a startling disconnect between how business leaders and college administrators view college graduates’ workforce readiness. Therefore, in this “sound-bite” culture of concise expression, we at Phi Beta Kappa are raising our voices to say to policymakers and business leaders that arts and sciences drive just the ingenuity and innovation we need.

Success in a globalized world requires knowledge of and adaptability to other cultures.

Even before the financial upheaval, “business executives operating in a fast-changing, global market had begun to understand the value of managers who could think more nimbly across multiple frameworks, cultures and disciplines” reported Lane Wallace in the New York Times.  Students of the arts and sciences are accustomed to engaging with widely disparate subjects in a variety of disciplines. They are well positioned to see the world broadly and to act boldly.

Those with a broad grounding in the arts and sciences grapple with and learn to understand a variety of perspectives different from their own.  The late Charles Vest, former president of the National Academy of Engineering, noted in Heart of the Matter, that all of the “technological skills of which we can conceive will not solve our world problems if we do not build and adapt a base of human and cultural understanding; ethical and moral underpinnings; sensible rules of law for the 21st century; and integration with the insights, inspirations, and communications of the arts.”

When recalling the benefits of his education, AOL founder Steve Case said the liberal arts and sciences enable one to “look at the world as sort of a mosaic and kind of see how the pieces come together. I think that gives you a perspective that I found to be very valuable.”

Arts and Sciences education promotes creative thinking that can lead to groundbreaking ideas and problem solving across disciplines.

According to the 2011 book, Academically Adrift, students majoring in the liberal arts and sciences see “significantly higher gains in critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing skills over time than students in other fields of study.”

Former CEO of the Seagram Corporation Edgar Bronfman, realizing the benefits, has advised those interested in pursuing a career in business to study the liberal arts and sciences. “Curiosity and openness to new ways of thinking—which is developed in learning about the world around you, the ability to critically analyze situations, nurtured every time we encounter a new book, or . . . art, music, or theater—ensures future success more than any other quality.”

Many professionals in other fields see the same benefits.  Ninety percent of Nobel Laureates in the sciences agree that the arts should be part of every scientist’s and technologist’s education. Eighty percent can point to specific ways in which their arts training directly enhanced their innovative ability.

Bronfman also provides a much needed corrective to those focused exclusively on first jobs and salaries. “In developing the ability to exercise those traits, you will not only be successful in business, but in the business of life,” he said. “As our society becomes increasingly technologically focused and we build better, faster and more remarkable machines, where can technology not replicate human thinking? In being creative, nuanced and [in the] understanding of human needs, wants and desires.”

Businesses benefit from employees who can think critically and creatively, skills gained through broad-based education.

According to a 2013 AACU/Hart Research Survey, 95% of employers said their companies put a priority on hiring people with the intellectual and interpersonal skills that will help them contribute to innovation in the workplace. The liberal arts and sciences foster the exercise of imagination and creativity, fundamental ingredients in innovation.

We should not lose sight of the irony that, while some American leaders question the value of the arts and sciences, countries like Singapore and China see an arts and sciences education as key to innovation. To become global leaders, reformers in these countries “have latched onto American-style liberal, or general, education as a way to foster more nimble and adaptable thinkers,” says Gerard A. Postiglione, an education professor at the University of Hong Kong.

Apparently, Google agrees.  Jane Penner, the Head of Investor Relations at Google and a member of ΦBK, has a BA in English Literature, an MA in English, and was a Ph.D. candidate in the humanities.  Although she never anticipated her current path, she maps the connections between literature and the narratives motivating investors in her recent talk, “Humanities Gone Google.”

The arts and sciences have made their mark in American business and culture. An impressive number of innovative companies were founded by arts and sciences graduates, some of which are included in Phi Beta Kappa’s new infographic, chArts & Sciences: CNN, FedEx, and Amazon, reddit, Walt Disney, IBM, JP Morgan Chase, Hewlett-Packard, The Carlyle Group, America Online, American Express, Pinterest, Goldman Sachs, Delta Air Lines, Bank of America, Blackstone Group, Sherwin-Williams, Texas Pacific Group, Time Warner Cable, Edison International, NBC Universal, Capital One, eBay, Avon, Proctor and Gamble, Caesars Entertainment Group, Darden Restaurants, Kraft Foods, Starbucks, Pepsico, DirecTV, and more.

An arts and sciences education puts you in the driver’s seat toward a fulfilling career and personal life.  In this way, they are like the metaphorical star in Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116, “Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.” The value of the star is not exhausted by the fact that it is useful for navigation. And so it is with the arts and sciences.


Seizing Opportunity

8 months ago

14-SOTU_Word-cloud.RedIn his 2014 State of the Union address, delivered on January 28, President Obama vowed to expand opportunity for more American families. Discussing post-secondary education, the President called for greater access to apprenticeships and improved job-training programs better aligned with the skills that employers demand.

These are worthy goals; access to the basic dignity of work should be the birthright of every American. But more is needed. Full access to the ladder of opportunity depends not only on training for the first job, but also on education that equips learning for all of life. That means that the benefits of arts and sciences education must be as widely accessible as possible. Everyone deserves a shot at this kind of learning, and everyone can benefit in some way.

Phi Beta Kappa believes in the intrinsic value of studying arts and sciences for their own sake. It is also true that higher education faces a crossroads, with parents, students, and decision makers focusing attention on the cost of education and its return on investment. For this reason, we think it is necessary to talk about the contributions of the arts and sciences to individual success and the well-being of our society. These benefits are also a critical part of their value.

Students applying for college today can expect to hold a variety of jobs through the course of their careers. In fact, a recent study by the U.S. Census Bureau found that young Baby Boomers have held, by age 46, an average of 11.3 jobs. We can’t predict how many jobs lie in wait for members of the class of 2018 and beyond.

But we can predict that their ability to thrive professionally—and to live meaningfully—will depend on their capacity to grasp new situations, their flexibility in adapting to them, and their resilience in repeating the process. By engaging students in a variety of subject matters, disciplines, and different points of view, the arts and sciences provide education for the unpredictable.

Immediate Returns: Important Professional and Life Skills

An arts and sciences education expands opportunity by developing important professional and life skills that provide immediate returns. “By studying art, science, the humanities, social science, and languages, the mind develops the mental dexterity that opens a person to new ideas, which is the currency for success in a constantly changing environment,” noted Proctor & Gamble President and CEO AG Lafley for Huffington Post Business.

Hiring managers know this too. In a survey conducted for Northeastern University this past July among hiring decision-makers nationwide, an overwhelming 73% said that being well-rounded with a range of abilities is more important than having industry expertise because job-specific skills can be learned at work. According to research sponsored by the Association of American Colleges and Universities, 80% of employers say that students should acquire knowledge in the arts and sciences.

Lifelong Economic Opportunity in Shifting Job Market

An arts and sciences education provides lifelong economic opportunity in a constantly shifting job market. When read a description of 21st century liberal education, 74%  of employers in a 2013 AACU/Hart Research Survey said they would recommended this kind of education to a young person they know as the best way to prepare for success in today’s global economy.

Responding to concerns about whether college is still worth it and whether liberal arts majors provide a solid foundation for long-term employment and career success, AACU and NCHEMS recently compared earnings trajectories and career pathways for liberal arts majors to those majoring in science and mathematics, engineering, and professional or pre-professional fields like business or education.

Their report may surprise some. It found that at peak earning ages (56-60 years) workers who majored as undergraduates in the humanities or social sciences, often thought of as the softer side of the arts and sciences, earn more on average each year than those who majored as undergraduates in professional or pre-professional fields, about $2,000 per year more.

The University of Texas recently established an online tool to display the salary outcomes of tens of thousands of graduates. David R. Troutman, the UT system’s director of strategic initiatives, stated that comparisons show that liberal arts graduates “are making a solid living five years out.”

Broader Intellectual and Personal Horizons

Exposure to great theories and new ideas through the arts and sciences expands many of life’s dimensions, including the intellectual and personal. Arts and sciences education equips us for the search for value and meaning. Exploring the issues and ideas inherent in the arts and sciences breaks old boundaries of thought and understanding, stimulates interest in the new and unanticipated, and supports creativity.

After a time, we become accustomed to seeing things from different points of view. This expectation enriches communities as well as individuals. For example, Encoded Textiles Arizona weaves together bar code technology, Arizona State University students, and traditional language to share the stories of Arizona Navajo elders with new audiences in compelling ways.

In summary, then, arts and sciences education expands opportunity by enlarging our vision so that we can see opportunity, by increasing our flexibility to meet it, by enhancing our creativity to deal with it in novel ways, and by making the unforeseen manageable, not upsetting. In these ways it enhances our career options, our capacities as citizens, and our abilities to seek meaning and value in a changing world. Education of this sort, and not just first-job training, should be accessible to everyone.

Phi Beta Kappa is committed to the belief that an arts and sciences education is learning for all of life and should be available to all. Learn more about Phi Beta Kappa’s National Arts & Sciences Initiative. Then, join with us to ensure that more students can seize the opportunity.

Love of learning is the guide of life.