“And when science proposes to art besides that peace-full sea
I’ll be that cat with a ring on a pillow shouting finally”
Aesop Rock – “Water”
Seth Godin’s clarion call for education reform recognizes the need to create students who are knowledge-able and not simply regurgitors of the status quo. His critique of the standard education in k-12 and beyond in the United States adopts a global perspective concerning the status of US education next to other developed competitors. Sitting next to Dan Edelstein’s article concerning innovation and the liberal arts, it’s clear that the death of our collective power to innovate and adapt in the next fifty years is inscribed in our inability to understand the role of the liberal arts as the foundation of technical and social knowledge. Simply stated, the inability to reason beyond given structures is stymied by a myopic view of technical knowledge as the only goal of education. STEM education threatens the ability of the liberal arts to exist thus destabilizing a cornerstone of democracy itself by transforming educational systems into productive mechanisms narrowly focused on economic applicability. Ironically, the loss of the liberal arts and humanities within the vision of education is supported by broader philosophical initiatives to make the study of philosophy a luxury of the rich at best and a waste of time for the poor at worst.
Parker Palmer grapples with ethical issues involved in collective action problems in an institutional context. The growth of massive bureaucracies as tools of governance in private and public sectors signals the need for understanding the individual in relation to the collective and the ethical problems that may arise from this social arrangement. Palmer calls for more students to develop an ethical sensibility that they can carry into their work lives as they assume positions within larger organizations that harness the collective power of individuals for larger purposes. The modern firm, however, has the power to reshape the globe through its reach and requires those working within it to understand their place and responsibility within it. This sensibility is best cultivated by a liberal arts education that stresses open-ended inquiry. Creating an ethical and philosophical sensibility is difficult. It does not fit well on multiple choice exams, it’s not easy to quantify and ethical questions are rarely “answered” full stop.
Philosophy, for example, is not full of “facts” that one can put on a test and the skills developed in a philosophical education require the close attention of skilled teachers who push and challenge students to think harder about the basics of their existence. While these skills aren’t the best for building widgets, they are part and parcel of humanistic education that develops a well-rounded reasoner and community participant. Philosophical inquiry requires creativity and carefully articulated views that promote innovative thinking.
Technical, widget-centric education has its place but the delivery method is outdated. Rote memorization, standardized testing, and sage on the stage lecturing does not engage the fundamental skills required to be knowledge-able and thus deprives students of the practice needed to connect the dots. The writing is on the wall. The labor market itself is changing as we escape the mental cage constructed by an education system designed to stamp out compliant and quiescent industrial workers. Employers are seeing the strength of a liberal arts education as automation threatens those with market-reactive, technical degrees. The power to innovate comes from an ability to understand the status quo and improve upon existing information to bring something new into the world.
Our culture is ill-equipped to understand the power of ideas favoring instead a materialistic vision of innovation through gadgets predicated on an economic normativity governed by efficiency. Smaller, faster, more accessible and more arms on the information age Swiss Army Knife conforms to the techno-utopian desire to be free from bondage and inconvenience but the question remains whether we’re actually better off with each successive technological advancement. Innovation seen in this way does not advance the human race beyond its immaterial confines that draw the limits of our collective understanding. We’re little more than apes with gadgets and this presents a dangerous situation as we fail to understand the ramifications of our technological advancement. The middle of the 20th century saw humanity invent the possibility of our collective destruction and we huberistically proclaimed that we had mastered the atom. Today, we can pluck information out of the air and communicate at light speed through a global network. This new capability brings new responsibilities and we need to first understand our selves in relation to our technology before we crack on toward the next new thing. This understanding will require the careful cultivation of students who have outgrown the sage on the stage classroom.
We cannot continue to rob children of the opportunity to buck the status quo by asking why one study is more useful than another. Technical knowledge needs to be interpreted and contextualized. The liberal arts are up to this task. The reverse is also true: the liberal arts need to understand the impact technology has on the world if we’re going to understand the advancement of our social being. Students can and should specialize and become excellent at one thing or another. Conceptually, however, the well rounded student will have a foundation in both the arts and sciences. The segmentation and funneling of students into vocational education that ignores the arts while touting itself as higher education is a farce. We cannot let one vision obliterate the other and say that our view is stereoscopic.