Learning to Think

The Seven Liberal Arts

The Liberal Arts (Wikimedia Commons)

Michael S. Roth, President of Wesleyan University tells CNN.com why liberal arts matter:

In recent years university leaders in Asia, the Mideast and even Europe have sought to organize curricula more like those of our liberal art schools. How, they want to know, can we combine rigorous expectations of learning with the development of critical thinking and creativity that are the hallmarks of the best American colleges?

But in our own land we are running away from the promise of liberal education. We are frightened by economic competition, and many seem to have lost confidence in our ability to draw from the resources of a broadly based education. Instead, they hope that technical training or professional expertise on their own will somehow invigorate our culture and society.

Many seem to think that by narrowing our focus to just science and engineering, we will become more competitive. This is a serious mistake.

Anna is over thirteen years away from starting college, but I am already concerned. In the two decades since I got my B.A. I’ve seen a decided shift in higher education—from learning to training. Colleges and universities are turning into vocational schools, with hyper-specialization at lower and lower levels. General education requirements are something to be gotten out of the way before the important work begins.

It’s an extension of how we’ve turned primary and secondary education in this country into extended test-prep training. Everything we do is aimed at passing the test, getting the job, which leaves no time to learn, to read, to explore, or to think.

But that’s what an education is supposed to do—teach you how to think.

In ancient times, the Liberal Arts (Latin: liber, “free”) were the educational subjects worthy of free people: grammar, logic, rhetoric, arithmetic, astronomy, geometry, and music. Slaves didn’t need an education—they were given training in what ever manual skill was necessary to complete assigned tasks. They weren’t even taught to read, let alone to reason or to understand the workings of the world.

Granted, our current educational strategies are grounded in basic literacy and math, but beyond that they focus on specific goals—pass a test, get a job—only a little more noble than the manual training of a slave.

Critical thinking and creativity—the marks of a free people—are being cast aside.

I can guarantee that Anna will gain those advantages either inside, or if necessary, outside school. But not every parent is in the position to provide a supplemental education to their kids.

And I worry for the future of an upwardly mobile, politically informed, middle class in our country when our educational system is designed to produce wage slaves.

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