The Pyramid Ideal

I recently posted a brief exposition describing a challenge program I foisted on the honors students at the university where I taught for 37 years. There were several comments, but one from my fellow blogger, John, which was most encouraging, prompted me to explore a few thoughts connected with his remarks. I have blogged endlessly (some would say) about education, but it is close to my heart and I am sorely dismayed by the present state of education and seem always to be coming back to the topic closest to my heart.

It does seem to me that the ideal image of education would be the notion of a triangle, or pyramid, that stands on a broad base and tapers to the top. England followed this model for years with its public schools providing the broad education in the arts and sciences — mostly the former — while the university (or “uni”) providing the finishing touches in the way of specialization for the professions. Some American colleges and universities adopted this model but, of late, that model has been largely displaced by a more practical one that stresses job preparation and pretty much ignores education altogether.

Let’s one clear about some things: education should NOT be confused with job training or with mere schooling. There are manny people who have spent years in school — some with PhDs if you can imagine — who are not well educated people. And there are those with poor or inadequate schooling who are well educated people, which is to say people who have continued to read, think and grow as intelligent adults.

But in this country by and large we have been sold the idea that schooling and education are all abut preparing for a job or, as we like to call it, a “career.” This started years ago in order to keep young people in school and when it was clear that those who had a college degree made more money in their lifetime than those who lacked the degree. It’s when the colleges and universities started to be all about money, to be businesses run for profit. Whatever the reason, higher education, so-called, took a wrong turn and lost its sense of its proper purpose — which is to put young people in possession of their own minds, to prepare them for life, not work.

The model that provides the best idea of what education should be all about is that of the pyramid, as I suggested above. The base should be broad and strong and should start in the grades — or high school at the latest. That base should provide students with knowledge about literature, history, civics, mathematics, and the sciences — both the social sciences and the hard sciences. Those who go on to college should then begin to narrow that base and learn more about less. And at that point they might learn some of the basic skills that will prepare them for specific jobs. But the data show us that folks change their minds about what they want to do with their lives, and how they want to make a living, several times before they are forty. So the broad base is essential.

The broad base allows the young person to change direction. One who is trained in one field and who becomes disenchanted with that field after a few years cannot, as things now stand, change direction without going back to school and learning new skills. One who has had a broad base in the arts and sciences — what have dismissively been called the “elitist” liberal arts — does have that ability. They have learned to use their minds and how to learn new things on other own — without having to go back to school.

The data suggest that those with a liberal education make the most successful employees, ironically, because of those skills I have mentioned, skills of communication in speaking and writing, a broad perspective, and a lively imagination. They therefore have that flexibility I mentioned above, the ability to change direction later in life. And, moreover, the data suggest that they make more money in the long run than those with a narrow focus — even though the initial job may be hard to find. But, then, these days that seems to be true for all of those who graduate from our schools of “higher learning” no matter how early they started to prepare for a specific job — a job that is often not there when they graduate.

And that’s the rub. No one at the age of seventeen or eighteen can know what jobs will be available to them when they are twenty-one or twenty-two — no matter what someone tells them. The only certain thing is that things will change. And the best way to prepare for change is to have a pyramidal education, one with a broad base that provides a solid foundation.

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4 thoughts on “The Pyramid Ideal

  1. Hugh, thanks for expanding your thoughts on this subject. Giving one the ability to “change directions” is essential. I would add to personal thoughts. My profession demanded the training as a mathematician and a business person. One without the other would have been a disservice. With that said, the humanities courses offered so much to my training, such as a Public Speaking, World literature, psychology, etc.

    The other comment is an educator noted that innovation occurs at the intersections of disciplines. If every member of a team had the same training, how would innovation creep in. Many good ideas come from customers or people closest to the production or customers. So, being able to witness or be a conduit for ideas is as important to those who have to make it work. Keith

  2. You already know that I fully agree with you, and am distressed by what passes for an education in this country today. Education is so much more than just the teaching of facts and skills … it should be about broadening horizons and teaching young people to think for themselves, rather than to accept what they are told as fact. We are going in the wrong direction, as is the case with so many other things these days.

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