by Joe Mondello
Recently, the Governor of Florida was bemoaning the sorry state of education in his fair domain. Too many tenured professors. Too much emphasis on research (imagine - research at an academic institution). And, worst of all, too many anthropologists. That’s right. We have a glut of anthropologists. And while we’re at it, let’s throw in psychologists too (supposedly the most popular degree at Florida schools). There are just too many non-science and non-business graduates with poor job prospects crowding out our small pool of engineers and accountants.
As is always the case with political rhetoric, much heat is generated without producing much light. Recently, in a column for the St. Petersburg Times, Donald R. Eastman, the president of Eckerd College, a small, private Liberal Arts institution in St. Petersburg, Florida, made a very simple, but profound point. He commented that “Learning how to learn is the primary purpose of Education”. In these modern times, we are most likely to have several jobs during our careers. Often times, these jobs will require learning new skills or enhancing old ones. We never stop learning – and learning is what education is all about.
Again, to quote from Mr. Eastman, “College degree programs that train students only for a specific job may be fine for getting the first job. But that’s not the skill that will get them the job beyond that first one…” As you progress in your career, your interpersonal skills, your communication skills, your innate sense of what is ethical and not merely legal, will be challenged and will require that you keep well-informed about the world around you.
The Liberal Arts, in and of themselves, can provide great careers in such fields as teaching, communications, or the social sciences. Indeed, those that pursue such vocations have a very important role in this world. They are, as Kurt Vonnegut once pointed out, the canaries-in-the coal-mine. Through their study, research, and instruction, they are the first alarm when we begin to lose that sense of compassion that helps separate humanity from the animal kingdom.
But the Arts also have a second function. They are the building blocks of innovation. As Donald Eastman infers in his column, these disciplines, coupled with STEM programs, create scientific applications employed imaginatively. And responsible business leadership helps to allocate resources to the most promising applications and makes them available to benefit society. It is this coupling of Arts and Sciences, Arts and Business, that provides our society with entrepreneurs such as Steve Jobs and Bill Gates.
There are many skilled positions in business and science that go begging for applicants, but everyone, regardless of their career choices and average salaries, should have a sound footing in the social sciences that produce great citizens, not merely great billionaires. Studies in Psychology, Sociology, and - dare we say it – Anthropology, strengthen students’ ability to discern the nuances of an issue and analyze situations in business or science that will provide them with all the right questions and not necessarily all the right answers. This is how you avoid living in a moral vacuum. This is how societies are far more likely to produce a Dr. Schweitzer than a Dr. Mengele.
In educational terms, our universities are learning centers, not trade schools. The author T. H. White sums up the discussion quite well in his book, The Once and Future King when the wizard Merlin says:
“Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting. Learning is the only thing for you.”