Liberal Arts Education in the USA

In 1983, H. Ross Perot, engineer millionaire, led a panel charged with the mission of improving Texas schools. At that time, education in Texas was widely different depending on where the student was educated. Urban schools were on the rise and wealthy suburban districts offered enrichment and amenities alien to poorer schools. The disparity of educational experiences was evident. The result was a panacea of quick fixes designed to dismantle the educational structure and to force a paradigm of accountability on the schools. Unfortunately, this came at a cost.

The attitude at the time was adversarial at best. “We’ve got to drop a bomb on them. We’ve got to nuke them. That’s the way you change these organizations,” was the opinion of Perot toward existing programs. In his view, schools should be run like businesses, or better yet, like factories. The administrators were the managers, the teachers were the technicians and the students were the end products. All that needed to be done, in the view of the panel, was to create a series of hurdles and train students to conquer them. Strict testing was created, which has metamorphosed into the monster Texas teachers know as TAKS. It was a simply linear equation designed to get all students from point A to point B in a designated time frame. There was one problem, the students were human.

And therein lies the crux of the problem with humanities in the United States educational system. We have become so focused on providing end products that we have forgotten that learning isn’t a goal, it’s a process. Humanities programs, and by that history, art history, all of the arts and literature should be included, are the emotional record of humanity on the planet. When we ignore the lessons of our past, we risk repeating the foibles of our forebears, yet time and again humanities programs are gutted to make room for technology. Technology isn’t bad, but without the key lessons of our human history, we ignore the morality of our past and that in the end can cause us to jump to seriously bad conclusions.

If you look at the recent history of college majors, you will find that they almost always lag behind the actual need of the culture. For example, in the 1970’s and 1980’s being a business major was important. Everyone was going to be a CEO. They were going to make Big Bucks fast. There were too many bad decisions that destroyed companies. Then recessions hit and businesses shrank and all those BBA candidates ended up working for far less than they ever dreamed. Then computers came along in the 1990’s. Being a computer science major was the in thing. Ten years later, the dot com’s go bust and everyone’s working for Kinko’s. Now the golden major is engineering. Everyone thinks engineering is the wave of the future. So how come there are experienced engineers with graduate degrees looking for work? The lesson is that you cannot predict what profession is going to be necessary or hot or even in existence in ten years. So why are schools trying to plug all kids into the same rigid mold? The answer is, because they can.

When we ignore our history, we also ignore those things that make us strong. Too many people want to declare that “history is bunk” in a type of childish denial of things that have come before. Other people accept the shallow conventions of the day as offered in tabloids because they have never been taught to analyze and appreciate the mode and method of dissent. We risk too much when we have a culture that is ignorant of DaVinci or Foucault. We must know more of how we came to be where we are in this point in time and the only way to do that is to retrace our steps. Somehow we as humans have used our fragile brains to create this civilization. Why do we behave as we do? What decisions down the line led us to this point in time? These are important questions that can’t be tackled using an algorithm-it takes knowledge of our emotional past to unravel the knotty realities of our present. We need good teachers with deep knowledge to impart the information as well as the method of extracting such information. Our students cannot continue being spoonfed. And that is part of the problem of teaching to finite goals. I like to call it “regurgitative learning”. In this testing mode we give students answers, test them and then don’t require them to retain the knowledge. How is that learning? We need our students to be passionate about learning, not about information. And to do that we need passionate, educated and well-informed teachers. Colleges aren’t pushing that type of learning these days. There’s more money to be had training engineers.

So in the final analysis, we are in the phase of outlining knowledge, creating stuff, but we don’t know whether it is for good or evil. It is only through our emotional analysis and our deep consideration of our collective past that we can realize our potential. We must not deny our students the key to Pandora’s box. They will have to seek that knowledge for good or ill, but only through the lens of life’s past lessons can we weigh which is which.