Educate For Freedom

I have blogged a number of times (some would say “endlessly”) about the shortcomings of our educational system. It is a topic close to my heart, given that I spent all of my adult life in schools and colleges. I have even written a book about the nature of education, focusing mostly on higher education (so-called) but also mentioning in passing what seems to be going wrong in the lower grades.

In any event, I have been consistent in my defense of a liberal education at the collegiate level — though as Robert Hutchins said many years ago there is no reason why we couldn’t pursue a liberal education at the lower grades. And there are some schools that have actually returned to the fundamental notion of the seven liberal arts to form the core of their grade-school curriculum for kids. But, by and large, the liberal arts, which many confuse with the Humanities, are an intellectual challenge and seem to a great many students and their parents to be irrelevant to their real-world needs after college, not practical, not the kind of thing that will lead to a job and success in later life. I would challenge that.

I recently chatted with a professor of cardiology at the Mayo Clinic who majored in philosophy as an undergraduate. When I mentioned that most of today’s students avoid such subjects as impractical he said that philosophy was the most practical course of study he had ever taken and he found himself every day drawing on his undergraduate major at Vanderbilt University. I have also known liberal arts graduates who have been successful in the world of investment banking, business, the ministry, and law. It provides a broad base of study that allows the student to take different directions as times change.

We have known for years that young people growing up in the work force change their jobs many times before they are 40. Nowadays the “millenialists” change jobs even more — perhaps because they don’t like being told what to do! This is a spoiled generation, to be sure, used to getting what they want when they want it. If it requires real work, many are simply not interested. And the liberal arts require real work.

Let’s be clear at the outset, however, that the liberal arts include not only the Humanities but also the sciences. Originally they formed the trivium of grammar, logic, and rhetoric and the quadrivium of geometry, music, astronomy, and arithmetic. Note the heavy emphasis on mathematics and science (music being regarded as a mathematical science, carefully ordered as it is and reflecting as it does the harmony of the universe!) These subjects seem esoteric these days and those seven original liberal arts — “liberal” because they free the mind held captive by bias, immaturity and shrunken perspective — have given birth to hundreds of college courses all of which claim to free the mind. But, as we know, most of those subjects are really job-training in disguise; they cater to the students’ current whims while putting blinders on them thereby forcing them into a narrow track from which they find it very difficult to escape later on.

But the original liberal arts were designed to free the minds of the young and open to them new horizons to explore. As I like to say, they put the young in possession of their own minds. This seems especially appropriate today, given the changes in career paths mentioned above. The liberal arts prepare the student for a world of change, and change is the only thing we can be certain about in this world of ours. If we ask (demand?) of the young that they take subjects that require that they use their minds, deepen their understanding, gain the ability to manipulate the symbols of mathematics and language, and learn about their past we can expect that they will be best prepared for this changing world.

The claim is often heard that those who follow such a course of study will not be able to find work after graduation; there is growing evidence that this is untrue. In addition, for those students who want to advance in the work place, it has become increasingly clear that a liberal education is extremely beneficial. As a recent study by the Association of American Colleges and Universities tells us:

The majority of employers agree that having both field-specific knowledge and skills and a broad range of skills and knowledge is most important for recent college graduates to achieve long-term career success. Few think that having field-specific knowledge and skills alone is what is most needed for individuals’ career success.
80 percent of employers agree that, regardless of their major, all college students should acquire broad knowledge in the liberal arts and sciences. . . .
When read a description of a 21st-century liberal education, a large majority of employers recognize its importance; 74 percent would recommend this kind of education to a young person they know as the best way to prepare for success in today’s global economy.

Moreover, students who study the liberal arts will be able to adapt should they want to change jobs or if they should happen to be “let go” by an unfeeling company that feels the need to “downsize.” The best possible education for now and the future is a liberal education. The evidence is out there.

The Now Generation

The psychiatrists who studied the American prisoners of war released after the Korean conflict were amazed at the success of the “brainwashing” techniques that were used on those men. Captured documents revealed that one of the secrets to that success was the claim of the North Koreans that Americans were generally ignorant of history, even their own. These young men could be told pretty much anything bad about their country and they tended to believe it because they had no frame of reference. For example, they could be told that in America children were forced to work in the coal mines and a couple of the men vaguely remembered hearing of this and were willing to embrace the half-truth and share it with their fellow prisoners. True, there were children working in the coal mines at one time, but no longer. It was precisely those half-truths that enabled the North Koreans to convince the ignorant young men of blatant falsehoods. Couple that treatment with censored mail that the prisoners received from wives and sweethearts complaining about how bad things were back home, not to mention the seeds of suspicion that were planted among the men that broke down their trust in one another, and you have a formula for success. There was not a single attempt by an American soldier to escape imprisonment during the entire conflict!

Today’s young people are equally ignorant of their history, perhaps even more so. We make excuses for these kids by moaning about how much “pressure” they are under. Nonsense! I would argue they under less pressure than those young men who were fighting in Korea, or even the generation that followed them. Today’s young people need not fear the draft. Moreover, they are the beneficiaries of the sexual revolution and are therefore free from the restraint experienced by prior generations who were told to wait for sex until they were married. In fact, they don’t seem to show much restraint about much of anything, truth to tell. And there is considerably less expected of them in school these days than was expected of their fathers and mothers. They are told they are wonderful: they feel entitled. So let’s hear no more about how much pressure they are under.

Now, social scientists — who would rank below even the geologists on Sheldon Cooper’s hierarchy of sciences, I suspect — love to label the generations. We have read about the “me” generation and the “millenialists,” the “X” generation, and the “Y” generation. While I hesitate to lump myself together with the social scientists, I would nonetheless suggest that we call today’s young people the “Now Generation.” They, like their parents before them, don’t know diddly about their own history, much less world history. In fact, studies of recent college graduates have shown an alarming number of these folks who cannot name the first five presidents of the United States, cannot recognize the Gettysburg Address, don’t know who were our allies during the Second World War, or when the First World War was fought — or what countries it involved. Much ink has been spilled along with weeping and gnashing of teeth over these sad revelations, but very little of substance has resulted from all the angst. History is still not considered important in our schools or in this culture. As Henry Ford would have it: “History is bunk!”

Santayana famously said that those who are ignorant of their history are doomed to repeat its mistakes. This presupposes a cyclical view of history and is predicated on the notion that human beings don’t really change that much. Because events tend to repeat themselves — we seem to be constantly at war, for example — and humans have become increasingly locked in the present moment, ignorant of their own past, they will tend to fall into the same traps as their predecessors. On a smaller scale, every parent laments the fact that their kids don’t listen to them and seem determined to make the same mistakes their parents made twenty years before. History is a great teacher. But we have to read it, assimilate it, and take it to heart. We tend not to do that. History is not bunk, Mr. Ford, and we are certain to repeat the mistakes of previous generations if we continue to remain locked in the present moment, ignoring not only the past (from which we have so much to learn) but also ignoring our obligations to the future as well.

So, I recommend that a more appropriate label for the present younger generation is the one suggested above. It is certainly true, as psychological and sociological studies have revealed, that today’s youth are addicted to electronic toys, immersed in themselves, uncaring, and seemingly unaware of the world outside themselves; the label “Me Generation” does seem to fit. But my suggestion is designed to expand the domain of the label to include not only the young, but their parents as well. We all need to read and study the past in order to avoid the traps and pitfalls that most assuredly lie ahead.

Our Obsession

I knew it was bad; I didn’t know how bad. I am speaking about our obsession with “stuff,” our rampant materialism. We have all heard that 1% of the people in this country control most of the wealth. But a closer look gets even uglier. 80% of the people in this country control only 7% of the wealth. The remaining 73% of the wealth is controlled by the very wealthy and the almost-as-wealthy. The top 1% own 43% of the wealth (Think about that: 1% of the people in this country own nearly half of the wealth. Staggering!). The next 4% own 29% of the wealth. Another 15% own 21%, which leaves 7% for the rest of us. So when we complain about being part of the 99% the vast majority of us are really complaining about being part of the 80% of the people in this country who control a lousy 7% of the wealth.

And the really sobering thought is that the have-nots want more than anything to be just like the haves. Consumer debt in this country has risen an average of 7.5% every year since 1997, almost twice the rate of change in the previous 10 years. Average credit card debt now exceeds $11,000, triple what it was in 1990, and most people carry several credit cards. This adds to a total debt load for Americans of $2.5 trillion. Of this almost $1 trillion is revolving debt, such as credit cards, which is usually considered “bad debt” — i.e., debt that may never be collected and for which there was no collateral “up front.”  The average person under 35 years of age spends 16% more money than he or she earns. And this is doubly disturbing.

Most of us elderly folks had high hopes that the younger generation, the “Gen-Ys” or the millenialists whom we believed are more centered, who care more about others and their planet, were going to clean up the mess we are leaving behind. But this is not the case. Not in the least. Research shows that the millenialists are even more self-absorbed and materialistic than their parents or grandparents. Indeed, “affluenza” as it has been called, is a disease that spreads like a cancer and it is deep in the bones of the young who are not only spending their money faster than they earn it, they dream only of becoming wealthy and famous. As it happens the vast majority of them care very little about other people or about the planet.

And the cost to the planet of our materialism is very high as a moment’s glance will show. It drives us to want larger homes than we need, which waste energy; larger cars and trucks than we need, which leave huge carbon footprints; and to eat more than we should, which takes energy to produce at a time when climate change is threatening weather disasters like Hurricane Sandy and a continuation of the drought that is seriously affecting 65% of this country. We appear to be on a collision course with disaster.

One of my favorite jokes involves an ant colony that foolishly made its home in a sand trap on a golf course. A golfer hits his ball into the trap and after killing all but two of the ants with repeated, wild swings at the ball, one ant turns to the other and says, “we had better get on the ball of we will never make it out of here alive.”

Surely, we can agree that the global situation deserves our immediate and focused attention. We need to get on the ball and start thinking about others and about the planet upon which we depend totally. It might start with cutting up the credit cards; driving more economical vehicles (or using public transportation, car-pooling, or even walking and biking); turning off the TVs and spending time with our families talking and sharing experiences; saving more of our money and spending less; and learning to say “no” not only to our kids but also to our own fancies. Admittedly, this would require a radically altered mind-set and it may be much more difficult than it sounds, but it is a matter of extreme urgency given the fact that the golfer is about to take another swing.