STEM vs. Liberal Education a False Choice

This is college admissions decision season — a time when many young people have traditionally looked forward to an educational experience quite different from what they had (sometimes just endured) in high school. The days of checking off boxes to prove their worthiness to some future gatekeepers would be over. In college there might be requirements, but there would also be much more freedom, much more relevance, and much more intellectual excitement.

But the discourse about colleges and universities today is undermining these hopeful expectations. Everywhere one looks, from government statistics on earnings after graduation to a bevy of rankings that purport to show how to monetize your choice of major, the message to students is to think of their undergraduate years as an economic investment that had better produce a substantial and quick return.

There are good reasons for this. One is the scourge of student indebtedness. When students graduate with mountains of debt, especially from shady institutions graduating a small percentage of those who enroll, they can fall into a vicious cycle of poor choices and ever more limited horizons. They are collateral damage in a world of rising tuition. While the wealthiest families have been benefiting from enormous tax breaks, many states have dis-invested in public universities, putting great pressure on these institutions to collect tuition dollars. Middle-class and low-income students often borrow those dollars to pay the bills. And the bills grow ever greater as colleges raise tuition in part to meet the demands of rich families for campus amenities so that their children can live in the style to which they have grown accustomed.

But even students without the pressure of loans are being encouraged to turn away from “college as exploration” and toward “college as training.” They hear that in today’s fast-paced, competitive world, one can no longer afford to try different fields that might improve one’s ability to interpret cultural artifacts or analyze social dynamics. Learning through the arts, one of the most powerful ways to tap into one’s capacities for innovation is often dismissed as an unaffordable luxury.

Parents, pundits and politicians join in the chorus warning students not to miss the economic boat. Study science, technology, engineering and mathematics, they chant, or else you will have few opportunities. Other subjects will leave you a “loser” in our not-so-brave new world of brutal change. College, they insist, should be the place where you conform and learn to swim with this tide.

As president of a university dedicated to broad, liberal education, I both deplore the new conformity and welcome an increased emphasis on STEM fields. I’ve been delighted to see mathematics and neuroscience among our fastest growing majors, have supported students from under-represented groups who are trying to thrive in STEM fields, and have started an initiative to integrate design and engineering into our liberal arts curriculum.

Choosing to study a STEM field should be a choice for creativity not conformity. There is nothing narrow about an authentic education in the sciences. Indeed, scientific research is a model for the American tradition of liberal education because of the creative nature of its inquiries, not just the truth-value of its results. As in other disciplines (like music and foreign languages), much basic learning is required, but science is not mere instrumental training; memorizing formulae isn’t thinking like a scientist. On our campus, some of the most innovative, exploratory work is being done by students studying human-machine interactions, using computer science to manipulate moving images to tell better stories, and exploring intersections of environmental science with economics and performance art.

Fears of being crushed by debt or of falling off the economic ladder are pressuring students to conform, and we must find ways to counteract these pressures or we risk undermining our scientific productivity as well as our broad cultural creativity.

I’ve heard it said that students today opt for two fields of study, one for their parents and one for themselves. Examples abound of undergrads focusing on: economics and English; math and art; biology and theater. But we make a mistake in placing too much emphasis on the bifurcation. Many students are connecting these seemingly disparate fields, not just holding them as separate interests. And they are finding that many employers want them to develop these connections further. Exploration and innovation are not fenced in by disciplines and majors. Students who develop habits of mind that allow them to develop connections that others haven’t seen will be creating the opportunities of the future.

When Thomas Jefferson was thinking through a new, American model of higher education, it was crucial for him that students not think they already knew at the beginning of their studies where they would end up when it was time for graduation. For him, and for all those who have followed in the path of liberal education in this country, education was exploration – and you would only make important discoveries if you were open to unexpected possibilities. About a century later W.E.B. Du Bois argued that a broad education was a form of empowerment not just apprenticeship. Both men understood that the sciences, along with the humanities, arts and social sciences had vast, integrative possibilities.

This integrative tradition of pragmatic American liberal education must be protected. We must not over-react to fears of being left behind. Yes, ours is a merciless economy characterized by deep economic inequality, but that inequality must not be accepted as a given; the skills of citizenship acquired through liberal learning can be used to push back against it. We must cultivate this tradition of learning not only because it is has served us well for so long, but because it can vitalize our economy, lead to an engaged citizenry and create a culture characterized by connectivity and creativity.

Cross-posted with Washington Post and the Huffington Post

Aspirations for Liberal Education

Last week I was on the road for Wesleyan, and I attended admissions events in Los Angeles and Bangkok. On my way back from Thailand, I stopped in Singapore for the opening of Yale-NUS College. I wrote about this in The Atlantic.

Here are a couple of the key points:

Liberal education in American history has often been powerful because it has challenged the status quo. Liberal education today that is worthy of the name must recover the capacity to be untimely so as to equip teachers and students with the courage and the ability to resist the demand for the narrowly vocational.

As I celebrated the establishment of this new college, I found myself recalling that American liberal education at its best has little to do with the debate about a “common core” or about distribution requirements. This tradition is about freedom as the practice of inquiry. That’s why in 1829 David Walker talked about education when calling for slave rebellion among his fellow African Americans: “I pray,” he wrote, “that the Lord may undeceive my ignorant brethren and permit them to throw away pretensions and seek after the substance of learning.” That’s why, almost a century later, W.E.B. Du Bois criticized the call for education to be more vocational, writing that “there is an insistence on the practical in a manner and tone that would make Socrates an idiot and Jesus Christ a crank.”

I also thought of Jane Addam’s commitment to empathy and to affectionate interpretation, and of John Dewey’s “practical idealism.” Addams supported learning that enabled one to better understand and act on points of view quite different from one’s own, and Dewey envisioned a pragmatic liberal education that would address the pressing problems of the day with a variety of perspectives and methodologies. My highest aspiration for the new “American-style” college in Singapore is the aspiration that Walker and Du Bois, Addams and Dewey had for liberal education: to promote freedom as a good in itself and to be a vehicle for expanding individuals’ knowledge of themselves and the world.

These are points I’ve made in Middletown — and anyplace else I get the chance. You can read the full article here.

 

Get Prepared but Don’t Just Get Narrowed!

Happy Labor Day and first day of classes! The following is cross-posted from The Daily Beast.

There is a tradition in this country stretching back to Thomas Jefferson of lofty ideals for our colleges and universities. Liberal learning is said to prepare one for autonomy and for citizenship. As Ralph Waldo Emerson emphasized, it also led one away from the crowd; it helped one escape mere imitation and opened access to authenticity. Finally, education offered the opportunity to discover work that would be meaningful — to find one’s “passion.”

But, as I describe in Beyond The University: Why Liberal Education Matters, there is another tradition stretching back just as far questioning the “real world” relevance of these lofty ideals. Is it right to speak of “finding meaningful work” when available work might necessarily involve drudgery and worse? Is it right to emphasize citizenship and finding one’s passion to students who first and foremost are desperate to find a job? Such questions, so much on our minds today, were especially urgent for freed African slaves and their descendants at the beginning of the 20th century.

In 1903, Booker T. Washington voiced the following complaint about education for African-Americans:

There were young men educated in foreign tongues, but few in carpentry or in mechanical or architectural drawing. Many were trained in Latin, but few as engineers and blacksmiths. Too many were taken from the farm and educated, but educated in everything but farming.

Washington was a passionate advocate for an intensely practical education for ex-slaves and their descendants. He was born a slave on a small farm in Virginia and after the Civil War found work in the mines of West Virginia. After his education at the Hampton Institute, Washington was convinced that only by achieving economic success would blacks ever be recognized by white Americans as full members of society. Education should make people self-reliant, in Emerson’s ideal sense, but for Washington self-reliance was first and foremost the ability to earn a decent living.

Washington’s fame was as a teacher, institution builder (especially at the Tuskegee Institute), fundraiser, and spokesperson for the view that American blacks needed an intensely practical, vocational education. He appealed to ex-slaves and their descendants who were looking for a path out of poverty, and he appealed to whites who appreciated his decision not to demand much in the way of political or cultural change. Washington was an “accomodationist,” willing to work within the structures for legal subordination of blacks in the South as long as he was able to promote black economic advancement. His message resonated with wealthy industrialists, high-toned educators, and even presidents. He was the most famous black man in America at the end of the 19th century.

Born shortly after the Civil War, W.E.B. Du Bois came into his own just as Washington was reaching the height of his fame. Du Bois was a prodigious intellectual with a slew of degrees–bachelors diplomas from Fisk and Harvard, eventually a Ph.D. also from Harvard (he was the first black person to receive one there) with continued graduate work in Berlin. He was a classics professor and a historian who wrote sociology (highly praised by Max Weber), poetry, plays, and fiction–to name just some of the genres in which he worked.

Washington was impressed by the American desire for material success and wanted to build progress for African Americans based on their ability to be successful in the economy. Du Bois, on the other hand, emphasized political and civic equality, along with the Jeffersonian notion of “education of youth according to ability.” Education was at the core of the differences between the two. “The pushing of mere abstract knowledge into the head means little,” Washington had written. “We want more than the mere performance of mental gymnastics. Our knowledge must be harnessed to the things of real life.” Du Bois agreed, but he wanted to broaden what might count as “the things of real life” so that the pursuit of happiness wouldn’t be reduced to the pursuit of dollars:

The function of the university is not simply to teach bread-winning, or to furnish teachers for the public schools, or to be a center of polite society; it is, above all, to be the organ of that fine adjustment between real life and the growing knowledge of life, an adjustment which forms the secret of civilization.

Du Bois was acutely aware that the “fine adjustment” between life and knowledge was especially problematic in a society of oppressive racial inequality, a society that had denied many blacks the most rudimentary education in the years after emancipation. He was committed to the ideal that education was a path to freedom, but he also acknowledged the fact that different people need different kinds of educational opportunity:

How foolish to ask what is the best education for one or seven or sixty million souls! Shall we teach them trades, or train them in liberal arts? Neither and both: teach the workers to work and the thinkers to think; make carpenters of carpenters, and philosophers of philosophers, and fops of fools. Nor can we pause here. We are training not isolated men but a living group of men–nay, a group within a group. And the final product of our training must be neither a psychologist nor a brickmason, but a man.

Educational institutions should aim to stimulate hunger for knowledge — not just contain it or channel it into a narrow path destined for a job market that will quickly change. Education should not teach the person to conform to a function, a repetition of slavery, but should provide people with a wider horizon of choices.

Du Bois repeatedly defended liberal education against those who saw it as impractical. In an address at the Hampton Institute in the beginning of the century, he lamented that “there is an insistence on the practical in a manner and tone that would make Socrates an idiot and Jesus Christ a crank.” At one of the centers of industrial learning for blacks, Du Bois argued that its doctrine of education was fundamentally false because it was so seriously limited. What mattered in education was not so much the curriculum on campus but an understanding that the aim of education went far beyond the university. And here is where Du Bois issued his challenge:

The aim of the higher training of the college is the development of power, the training of a self whose balanced assertion will mean as much as possible for the great ends of civilization. The aim of technical training on the other hand is to enable the student to master the present methods of earning a living in some particular way . . . We must give our youth a training designed above all to make them men of power, of thought, of trained and cultivated taste; men who know whither civilization is tending and what it means.

The differences between Washington and Du Bois, and the tensions between the lofty and practical ideals for higher education, are instructive for us today. Sure, we must pay attention to what our graduates will do with their education, and we must give them the skills to translate what they learn in classrooms to their lives after graduation. But we shouldn’t reduce our understanding of “their lives after graduation” to their very first job — which should be the worst job they’ll ever have. We must recommit ourselves instead to ensuring that a broad, liberal education is also pragmatic — in Washington’s words, “harnessed to the things in real life,” to productive skills valued beyond the university. By doing so, we will also achieve what Du Bois championed: practical idealism based in lifelong learning.

Thinking about education with Washington and Du Bois

I’ve spent much of the summer not far from Great Barrington, Massachusetts, the hometown of one of the great figures of American intellectual history, W.E.B. Du Bois. Born shortly after the end of the Civil War, Du Bois came into his own as another black public intellectual, Booker T. Washington, was reaching the height of his fame.  I turned to Du Bois and Washington because their debate about education seemed so relevant to contemporary discussions of liberal learning and practicality. I was led in this direction by the Princeton philosopher, Kwame Anthony Appiah, whose article on Du Bois in the New York Review of Books is particularly incisive.

Washington’s fame was as a teacher, institution builder (especially at the Tuskegee Institute), fundraiser and spokesperson for the view that American blacks needed an intensely practical, vocational education. He appealed to ex-slaves and their descendants who were looking for a path out of economic impoverishment, and he appealed to whites who appreciated his decision not to promote political or cultural change.  Washington was an “accomodationist,” willing to work within the structures for legal subordination of blacks in the South as long as he was able to promote black economic advancement. His message resonated with wealthy industrialists, high-toned educators, and even presidents. He was the most famous black man in America at the end of the 19th century. At around that time, the younger Du Bois was a prodigious intellectual with a slew of degrees – bachelors diplomas from Fisk and Harvard, eventually a Ph.D. also from Harvard (he was the first black person to receive one there) with continued graduate work in Berlin. He was a classics professor and a historian who wrote sociology (highly praised by Max Weber), poetry, plays and fiction – to name just some of the genres in which he worked.

Washington recognized the American desire for material success and wanted to build progress for African Americans on their ability to be successful in the economy. Du Bois, on the other hand, emphasized political and civic equality, along with “the education of youth according to ability.” Education was at the core of the differences between these leaders. Du Bois rejected the head of Tuskegee’s anti-intellectualism. “The pushing of mere abstract knowledge into the head means little,” Washington had written. “We want more than the mere performance of mental gymnastics. Our knowledge must be harnessed to the things of real life.” Du Bois agreed, but he wanted to broaden what might count as “the things of real life” so that the pursuit of happiness wouldn’t be reduced to the pursuit of dollars.

The function of the university is not simply to teach bread-winning, or to furnish teachers for the public schools, or to be a centre of polite society; it is, above all, to be the organ of that fine adjustment between real life and the growing knowledge of life, an adjustment which forms the secret of civilization.

Du Bois was acutely aware that the “fine adjustment” between life and knowledge was especially problematic in a society of oppressive racial inequality, a society that had denied many blacks the most rudimentary education in the years after emancipation. He was committed to the ideal that education was a path to freedom, but he also acknowledged the fact that different people need different kinds of educational opportunity.

If these things are so, how foolish to ask what is the best education for one or seven or sixty million souls! Shall we teach them trades, or train them in liberal arts? Neither and both: teach the workers to work and the thinkers to think; make carpenters of carpenters, and philosophers of philosophers, and fops of fools. Nor can we pause here. We are training not isolated men but a living group of men, –nay, a group within a group. And the final product of our training must be neither a psychologist nor a brickmason, but a man.

Education is for human development, human freedom, not the molding of an individual into a being who can perform a particular task. That would be slavery.

As Frederic Douglass had emphasized after he had escaped from slavery, people strive to know just as they strive for freedom. Educational institutions aim to stimulate that hunger for knowledge – not just contain it or channel it into a narrow path destined for yesterday’s job market.  Education should not teach the person to conform to a function, but should provide people with a wider horizon of choices. (That’s one of the reasons excessive student loan debt is so pernicious – it effectively reduces choices.)

The tension between Washington and Du Bois on education reminds us of issues that should be top of mind as we prepare for the academic year. Sure, we have to pay attention to what our graduates will do with their education, and we must give them the skills to translate what they learn in classrooms to their lives after graduation. But we shouldn’t reduce our understanding of “their lives after graduation” to their very first job — which should be the worst job they’ll ever have. We must recommit ourselves to ensuring that a broad, liberal education is one that is “harnessed to the things in real life,” as Washington said. By doing so, we will also achieve what Du Bois championed: the vital link between education and freedom.

cross-posed with huffingtonpost.com