Liberal Arts versus the Professionalized Expert
Warning Label: This post condenses a lot of thinking into a few words. It's a tad political but addresses some big issues.
I have long lamented the death of liberal arts education. I have even begun to wonder if the liberal arts could exist in a world inundated with terabytes of data overload heaped high in a technological nano second. In the world I see forming before me, the human being, the well being of which should matter most to all of us, can hardly begin to construct significant meaningfulness, can not build real information from all of the data, to address really significant people problems. We are people, not data. We are humans, not numbers.
Our nation seems to have become powerless to determine our own destiny as people, as human beings. The politicians, the public relations firms, the entertainment industry, the media, and others sway our attention and attempt to build some artifice of tolerable consensus while the unthinkable has been happening all around us. We live in the fog of "freedom of choice," but having the most choice about the things that matter the least while ignoring all of the elephants in the room.
I've seen the media, trying to find its way in the newly emerging social networks that appear to be abandoning traditional media forms, treating everyone as the professional expert, giving the uninformed their 15 seconds of fame. And, I see over and over, that most Americans lack the reasoning skills, the knowledge of or even access to facts, the depth of curiosity, the transformational flexibility of thought, the commitment to the common good to make a meaningful contribution.
We have become overwhelmed and stupefied, incapable of recognizing, celebrating, creating, and sharing beauty in all the multifaceted forms beauty can take. Our K-12 education system, more and more narrowly focused on less and less, is producing a product that is perhaps more easily governed, but can not govern, problem solve, or create. This education policy which places increasing emphasis on outsourcing education to private industry, is, in the long term, absolutely unsustainable. And the market place, as we have so explicitly seen in the last 18 months, is completely incapable of handling matters critically related to our common good as a nation. What if Social Security had been privatized before the crash of Wall Street? Do we want to place public education in the hands of for profit corporate America?
This is the heart of the matter for me: the process of creating--creating beauty. It is action. It is imagination. It is valued. It is liberal arts education.
I marvel that, in a time when we have the affordable technological capacity to create virtually anything we can imagine in our minds, our minds, detached from our hearts, have lost the capacity to imagine anything worthy of creation. This is the tragedy of an education system, once the envy of the world, that is focused solely on the memorization of a minimum body of information detached from the reality of the significant issues facing our world and the world our children will adopt.
I read many education blogs. We are all guilty of pumping out megabytes of bandwidth about what is broken in our field.
It is time to begin imagining what can be, what is now possible. This is the hard intellectual and creative work on which we must focus our insight, our talent, our passion, our imagination, our expertise, our collaborations, and our deepest convictions about the common good.
I think educators needed to vent our frustrations. But that time is done.
Bennington president Liz Coleman's February, 2009, TED presentation, a call for reform of higher education, is, for my mind and heart, refreshing and invigorating. She speaks brilliantly, for those who have an ear to listen, about transforming education into action-oriented artistic expression focused on the common good. She uses carefully chosen vocabulary and provokes thought designed for action. This isn't CNN: You can't just hear her and "get it." You must think carefully about what she is saying. Her words are as weighty as her message. The presentation is below. Here are just a few ideas from her 20 minute presentation about Bennington's action plan:
... The more powerful our reach, the more important the question: about what. ...
The continuum of thought and action are [the new liberal arts] life's blood, knowledge honed outside the academy becomes essential. [Experts in the field will join the faculty] in this wedding of liberal education to the advancement of the public good. Students in turn continuously move outside the classroom to engage the world directly. ...
The most important discovery we made in our focus on public action was to appreciate that the hard choices are not between good and evil, but between competing goods. This discovery is transforming. It undercuts self-righteousness, radically alters the tone and character of controversy and enriches dramatically the possibilities for finding common ground. Ideology, zealotry, unsubstantiated opinion simply won't do. This is a political education to be sure, but it is a politics of principle not of partisanship. ...
We intend to turn the intellectual and imaginative power, passion, and boldness of our students, faculty, and staff on developing strategies for acting on the most critical challenges of our time. ...
The glacial silence we have experienced in the face of the shredding of the constitution, the unraveling of our public institutions, and the deterioration of our infrastructure is not limited to the universities. We, the people, have become inured to our own irrelevance when it comes to our doing anything significant about anything that matters concerning governance beyond waiting another four years. We persist also in being sidelined by the idea of the expert as the only ones capable of coming up with answers despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary. The problem is there is no such thing as a viable democracy made up of experts, zealots, politicians, and spectators. ...
[We need those who pursue a very highly defined area of inquiry, but...] This single-mindedness will not yield the flexibilities of mind, the multiplicity of perspectives, the capacities for collaboration and innovation this country needs. ...
What do you do when you feel overwhelmed. Well, you have two things. You have a mind and you have other people. Start with those and change the world.
Her TED talk: