Sunday, June 9, 2013

Liberal Footnote

On June 6 of this year Harvard issued three reports addressing the fact that enrollments in its humanities programs are declining. This page provides links to those reports. The term, humanities, is a latter-day broadening of what used to be called the liberal arts. The current agitation at Harvard—which is matched, per Wall Street Journal, at many other colleges and universities (“Humanities Fall From Favor,” also June 6, 2013)—is that education has gradually been accepted as entirely and absolutely linked to future employment. What with the enormous cost of education, the burdensome loans that they demand, any curriculum that does not lead arrow-straight to a well-compensated job must be avoided. And the humanities seem useless—unless your career-choice is to teach them.

Now for the footnote portion of this post. It is well to remember that the liberal arts once represented the education of free individuals; that’s what that word “liberal” means. The Online Etymology Dictionary helpfully notes that once that word was contrasted to “servile” or “mechanical” education—thus to the education of people who had to work to survive. This means that the humanities are suitable only for the independently wealthy—whose contributions to society would take the form of public service of one sort or another.

As those with real experience understand full well, all higher level work—I don’t care whether it is done in business, non-profit, military, government, or academic positions—needs above all well-developed powers of insight, judgement, communications skills, and intellectual discipline—not mechanical skills. One tends to learn such of those latter skills as may be needed on the job. The significant exception is the medical profession—typically acquired as a higher degree after the foundations are already laid. I have one daughter who became a midwife—after acquiring a liberal arts degree.

The real solution for the preparation of a genuine leadership class, it seems to me, is to absolutely demand a liberal arts education as a foundation—say three years. After that, chase the pragmatic, by all means. Unless your lottery ticket scores.

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