Swimming Upstream at College

“It is particularly painful when those colleges at the top of the usual lists, the ones with the most resources and (as they like to claim) the most talent, fail to confront their obligations—when, as the former dean of Harvard College, Harry Lewis, puts it, they “affect horror” that “students attend college in the hope of becoming financially successful, but… offer students neither a coherent view of the point of a college education nor any guidance on how they might discover for themselves some larger purpose in life.”

— Andrew Delbanco, College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be

The gap between the ideal of a liberal arts education and its reality seems ever-growing. It isn’t that one cannot pursue an ideal kind of liberal education at a liberal arts college—the kind that focusses on self-examination, reading the great books to give meaning to experience. One can pursue that education. But what Delbanco so aptly puts is that when students arrive on campus, there is no mention of that larger vision of liberal education, no reminders that that is what we are here for.

And so education begins to merge with the language used daily, the subtle pressures from university offices and graduate employers. It is not overt, and it isn’t sinister. It is simply that in the busyness and pressures of everyday life at college, thought about the purpose of it all becomes a luxury one cannot afford. That is the great irony of a college education today.

To pursue liberal education as one thought about it before starting college, then, is not just to choose one path of two when they diverge… Instead, it is to swim upstream, against the current. It requires twice the strength over a sustained period of time, and it’s often all too easy to say simply, let’s go with the flow.

The Liberal Arts in Global Context

Liberal education today is in some quarters seen as being in decline; headlines almost daily question its value and predict its demise. It is increasingly passed over in favour of pre-professional or vocational degrees, and the rise of the glamorous Silicon Valley technology industry is encouraging undergraduates to specialise earlier. This, alongside the reality that the idea of the liberal arts college has hardly existed outside of the United States in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, and one could be forgiven for assuming liberal education’s days are numbered.

And yet, simultaneously, liberal education is expanding globally. Yale-NUS College is perhaps the flagship of this expansion, but across Asia, Europe, the Middle East and Oceania, liberal arts programs and colleges are increasing in number. Liberal education is seen as an antidote to overly rigid career and workforce structures, and a way of claiming back personality and individual meaning in cultures that demand conformity. In these circles, liberal education is to experience not decline but a surge in both interest and enrolment.

These views cannot both be right. But how should we understand liberal education amidst the two narratives? What has liberal education been, what is it today, and what should we expect it to be in future? Can we expect it to expand globally, or will such an expansion be to lose the essence of the liberal arts? How should we think about Yale-NUS College in terms of these larger trends in liberal education, and what lessons can we draw for the further expansion of liberal education into other countries and contexts? And perhaps above all, how will these different facets of liberal education affect its original political purpose of educating informed, actively engaged and critical citizens?

I’m to attempt to answer some of these questions over the next year as part of my senior thesis project at Yale-NUS. For a while I deliberated over the topic that I should focus on for the next year; and thought there were many others, and one in particular which spoke to a question I had around how small states function in the world, these questions on the liberal arts spoke much more meaningfully to my education as a whole and an interest that I’ve never particularly done anything to cultivate.

My own experience with the liberal arts has been struggling to understand what the term even meant, coming from a country where there is no such educational tradition. But I now believe liberal education is a component of personal growth not to be passed up; I feel I understand the opportunity a liberal education offers on a deeper level, and yet do not know how to make sense of this in terms of the liberal arts tradition globally. And, especially pertinent to a New Zealander studying at a liberal arts college in Singapore, I wonder whether the liberal education I’ve received is a result of studying at an American-styled institution with predominantly American professors. Is the idea unique to America today? Can it ever truly be spread globally? Or can it only spread by maintaining the people and structures present at liberal arts colleges in the United States?

I anticipate writing with increasing frequency on the liberal arts here on this blog. My blog has always been a space to hone my own thinking on topics, and to hear from readers about what books I should be reading next or who I should be talking to. So please, if you do have thoughts, get in touch.

Between the Organization Kid and Hippiedom

“The Organization Kid” are the three words New York Times columnist David Brooks used to define a generation. Brooks travelled to Princeton and other elite institutions in the early 2000s and came away scared at how “The young men and women of America’s future elite work their laptops to the bone, rarely question authority, and happily accept their positions at the top of the heap as part of the natural order of life.”

I don’t think we’re Organisation Kids, but I think we have parts of that kid in us. We reject the conformity that leads to happily boring lives in a single job for life. But sometimes we find ourselves pushed towards that because it’s the “right” thing to do. We want college to force us to ask the important questions in life, to force us to confront our own character. Yet all too often we take classes that will look good on our resume. Some of us almost rejected the traditional path of a summer internship to instead spend the summer writing and travelling. But we didn’t, and worked 9-5.

Sometimes we find ourselves wanting a life without the internet. We want a private life where we can be ourselves and develop inner character without anyone watching. Other times we want followers and likes, the Instafame and instant gratification. Sometimes we want to ignore everyone in the world to be inwardly humble, to live as we believe we should live, and other times we throw ourselves at conformity to know that we are succeeding and will be remembered.

If the Organisation Kid “worked for Save the Children and Merrill Lynch and didn’t see a contradiction”, the “kid” today sees the contradiction and flips a coin to decide. We work at Goldman Sachs and do yoga and read Peter Singer, or we work at Save the Children and read The Economist. The contradiction is visible and we grasp for both worlds, too scared and too smart to leap at one and not the other.

Our dilemma is whether we become the mindless and busy conformists that Brooks was so scared of, or instead move forward into a hybrid of Organisation and Hippiedom.

Knowing more and wanting more, but seeing “easy” and wanting easy. That’s us.

Wisdom and Age, Wisdom and Education

Wisdom has no necessary relationship to age or profession.

That is despite our difficult-to-escape and very banal stereotype of someone who is wise. An aging professor in an esteemed institution’s philosophy department, for instance,  may more often than not be someone whom we would go nowhere near with the word.

For wisdom is only wisdom when it links a deeper view of the world, picking up on subtleties usually missed, with outward action. The philosopher may have bountiful knowledge of wisdom, but that does not mean they are wise.

That deeper, more subtle view of the world is more likely, it is true, to come with age. But it shouldn’t be assumed, as the stereotype pushes us to.

We do not think of education as being about wisdom; but we should. Since one need not be old to be wise, and since wisdom is likely the most important trait in living one’s life (because it affects all else), there seems no larger or nobler purpose of education than gaining a more subtle view of the world and learning how to apply that to life as it is lived.

Wisdom as a single idea cannot be taught, but it seems more possible for those constituent parts to be.

There is an opportunity cost to all that is taught and studied in formal education.  So while there may be nothing wrong with what is taught, it must be weighed against what could be taught. In this light, it is the humanities that make more of a claim through that larger vision of education.

“What University Should I Choose?”

The experience you have at university is far more important than the name that goes on your resume. A truism, perhaps, but seeing a new class decide what universities to attend (and being asked the question a number of times) made it seem worth saying.

Before one is actually at university, the things that loom large in the mind’s eye are the universities’ websites, their Wikipedia pages, their brand names and whether you know anyone there. These are the things that matter little once you’re there.

The things you will think about daily are what books you’re reading, who you’re spending time with, and what professors you’re talking to. All universities have those three things. There is less difference between them than you might think.

The differences that are worth considering are where the university is and what sense of community it has. The latter especially will define your experience.

University community should be judged not just on the superficial, but on the deeper sense of how open it is and whether or not it will let you change and grow, or if it will hold you in a straitjacket of who you once were and who others think you should be. This can be hard to discern, but visit the campus if at all possible and look for the small signs. The diversity and the differences between people can be the surest sign; homogenous campuses may not let you grow.

Most importantly, ask—and ask only of yourself—what you want to get out of university and how you want to spend four important years. Answering that question will define the experience, and even define your life, far more than whether the university starts with a Y or an H, an O or a C.

 

The Commodification of Learning

Note: I wrote this article in late 2012, in one of my final few months of high school. I originally published it on Medium, where it was widely shared. What I was getting at, really, was the value of the liberal arts, though I don’t think I fully comprehended the term back then.

You can learn a huge amount by reading a novel, examining an artwork, or watching a movie. You can usually learn a lot more by doing one of those things than you can by reading a school textbook that spoon-feeds you information.

But every day, I see people choose to read a textbook they’ve already read a dozen times over a new novel, because they can see an immediate reward for reading that book. Namely, that reward is better grades.

But getting better grades doesn’t mean you’ve learned more. Getting a better grade on a topic usually shows that you’ve trained your brain to regurgitate information on a given topic so well that your brain isn’t even conscious of it anymore. It wasn’t learning beyond the point that you understood the concepts – from there, it was simple memorisation.

In other words, people choose to learn less, simply because there is a more obvious reward that society offers by reading something less insightful that they already understand to a certain extent.

I think the rewards should be given to the people who choose to broaden their minds by learning about a larger range of topics, rather than those people who devote themselves to being able to recite their textbooks.

Yet no one gets credit for reading a book that is unrelated to school. It doesn’t go on their report, and doesn’t contribute to grades. In the mental equation that all students carry out, the most obvious payout comes from continuing to read the already-familiar textbook over a new book on an entirely new subject.

This is the commodification of learning. Learning becomes a process where an economic value is attached to the outcomes, in the form of good grades that (eventually) are said to lead to a better job. Yet not all learning is assigned an economic value – only very specific, measurable, tangible learning that is done in a classroom is assigned this value in the form of grades.

The result of this commodification is that the incentives facing students are wrong. The incentives should be geared toward encouraging learning and understanding of a range of topics, not the recital of textbooks and basic knowledge that all high school students have. The incentives brought about by this commodification of learning lead to homogenous thinking and lack of creativity – undesirable traits in the world today.

To fix this problem, we need to either:

– Commodify the learning of everything.

or

– Ensure everyone realises that learning, in its true form, is an uncommodifiable concept.

Commodifying the learning of everything would involve giving individuals credit for the books they read, the topics they learn about, the subjects they speak on, and the artworks they create. In some ways, it’s fixing a problem by throwing more of the problem at it. But that might just work.

If everyone were to realise that learning cannot be truly commodified, then greater consideration could be given to individuals who exhibit learning beyond their textbooks. This attaches intrinsically recognisable value to all learning, without making that value economic, and thereby commodifying learning.

I don’t know which solution is better. But what I do know is that education, where it’s currently headed, shows no signs of creating broad-minded, creative individuals. And that seems a mighty big failure of twenty-first century education.

Selling the Liberal Arts

This is how the Council of Independent Colleges, an organising body for many small liberal arts colleges, describes the liberal arts:

A liberal arts education means studying broadly—taking classes in many different subjects—and building skills that are geared toward more than just one profession. By studying the liberal arts, students develop strong critical thinking, problem solving, and communication skills. Liberal arts students learn to approach questions flexibly and to think across multiple disciplines. These are skills employers say they value most, even more than a specific major. In today’s labor market, career paths are changing rapidly, and graduates must draw from a variety of skillsets to adapt to challenges and capitalize on opportunities.

I understand the attempt to appeal to what future colleges students think they should want by highlighting the liberal arts in an employment context. But doing so anchors these future liberal arts students to the idea that their time at college is about maximising their employment opportunities. Before they’ve even started college, they’ve given up on what the liberal arts are meant to be about.

Yes, this approach might succeed in attracting more students to the liberal arts; but it does so with the wrong reasons, diminishing the chance of a liberal education actually being received. For studying at a liberal arts college does not mean you are receiving a liberal education; the latter is, of course, up to what the individual makes of it.

The approach makes even less sense when, in a rather inane dialogue meant to explain the liberal arts, the same website describes liberal education as being about “the abilities or skills appropriate to a person who’s free.” Which is it? Are the liberal arts a fast-track to a management career, or about learning how to be free in a deep sense?

The confusion over how the liberal arts are sold means that most of us liberal arts students, and most of our professors, aren’t sure what we’re meant to be receiving or what to be teaching. Is it employable skills? Or how to be wise? The difference could not be more stark, and it explains why in my time at college I’ve had to do assignments ranging from an infographic (because employers love that, my professor said) to being asked to write my own eulogy.

If the liberal arts are to mean anything beyond being a new marketing strategy for small colleges, we (and I mean students, professors, and college administrators) must promise what we actually mean. Only then will students expect to have their lives fundamentally changed at college, and be open to the experience.