Educating 'Architects of the Future'

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A discussion of liberal education must start from a working definition. For me, a liberal education is one that offers students a broad acquaintance with as many of the arts and sciences and humanities as possible. These are not offered in cafeteria or snack-bar style, but on a largely prescribed basis. Strong emphasis is placed on the interrelationship among various disciplines. Little or no time is spent on refining skills peculiar to particular occupations. Information is purveyed primarily to develop, rigorously, students' capacities to think through new problems, and beyond that to understand and to develop rational, responsible values and a purpose to activate those values.

This definition will let us get on to the new questioning of the value of such an education. It develops primarily from the increasing difficulty college students are reportedly having in finding employment that draws directly on their college training--at least so far as the arts, humanities, and "softer" sciences are concerned.

I could offer the answer that liberal education has never purported to prepare students for employment, that its object is to develop knowledge and learning as ends in themselves. I have never understood what this means, and I suspect that reliance on this argument today would be liberal education's fatal opiate. It won't do to look at the frustrations of philosophy majors driving taxicabs and baccalaureate-carrying bartenders without also taking account of a national unemployment rate that is the highest it has been in half a century, and of tens of thousands of skilled, experienced steel makers and automobile workers who have lost their jobs permanently.

What is happening? The elements are complex. One involves the equation between people and technology. So let's inquire a bit into the effect of scientific invention on the three dimensions of the values of liberal education: economic, civic, and individual. The development of high technology greatly enhances all three of these dimensions of liberal education's values. Liberal education is becoming the tribunal in which it will be determined whether technology, using this term broadly, will release or will destroy the human potential.

In the middle 1960's, a Presidential commission on which I served carefully analyzed the relationships among automation, technology, and employment. We found the evidence clear that advancing technology was creating more jobs, at virtually all skill levels, than it was destroying. I am sure this was true in the 1960's. I believe it continued to be true during the 1970's. I don't think it is true today.

My guess is that within a year or so (probably after the next election, for this is an unpopular subject), we will start serious reconsideration of whether the 40-hour work week should be reduced. I don't believe there is any other answer to what technology and the increasing pressure from foreign competitors paying lower wages are doing to unskilled work in this country.

Yet the question here is a different one. Reflecting a certain elitism, it is about how much of what kinds of college education will best qualify young men and women to compete for and contribute to the preferred business and professional roles in a high-technology economy and society.

I wonder how many of the thousands of young people rushing today into narrowly specialized courses know what is ahead of them. Most people are now making between two and three major career changes, from one line of work to another, during their work lives. Concentrating a college education on getting that first job, in a narrow high-demand area, can be like taking a short cut across quicksand.

Everything in the American economic prospect points toward an increasing demand in the professions and in commerce and industry for young people with broad educational exposure, a capacity to think and communicate, and a competence not only to solve new problems when they arise but to take the initiative in seizing on' new opportunities when they are presented. The narrower a student's education, whether the specialization is in engineering or in one of the humanities, the more restricted that individual's lifetime opportunities are likely to be.

In the converse terms of the system's needs, it is in the area of new ideas that this country can continue to outstrip the rest of the world. My colleague Paul Barton, who is president of the National Institute for Work and Learning, points out that we create the future economy through education as surely as by working miracles on silicon chips, and that education's assignment is not just to keep up with "the changing world of work"--in fact, the changing world of education will determine the future of work.

Turning to the civic dimension of liberal education's values, it is clear that technology's awesome exploits increase the importance of a broadly informed electorate. Changes in technology mean that more and more members of the American community know less and less about the issues they are relied upon to decide.

Free government's central concern is that as its issues become increasingly complex, the media--democracy's essential mediators--are, with notable exceptions, reducing their reporting of these issues to smaller and smaller capsules, emphasizing whatever is spectacular, unpleasant, frightening, negative. The proffered excuse that this is simply a matter of giving the customers what they want is an irresponsible plea of nolo contendere.

It could be democracy's obituary that as its problems became more intricate, its culture a seamless web of science and humanity, its critical events were reported publicly in more abbreviated, oversimplified, caricatured form. It could lead, equally, to democracy's fulfillment that as technology's promise increased, the teaching triumvirate of the schools, the media, and politics began to work together to make the highest and best use of that enlarged scientific promise.

Education, liberal education, will have to assume the leadership in this situation. Politics probably lack the capacity to maintain a pace of social change that will keep up with technology's ferment, except as education inculcates in formative minds an understanding of change. The political process becomes essentially inertial unless both democracy's leaders and a working majority of its members are as well-trained in the social as in the physical sciences of change.

Though some of us look back 50 years to a liberal education characterized by a course in "The Underlying Ideals of Western Civilization," we look forward to an education for our children and theirs in which part of the core curriculum would be entitled "Change." The courses might include Computers and Society, Genetics and the General Welfare, Scientific Invention, and the Human Purpose. For if it is in education more than in politics that the free society's capacity to administer high technology will have to be developed, this cannot be done by training specialists in narrow skills. Liberal education's superior opportunity and probably critical obligation is to prepare broad-gauge, value-conscious, highly motivated architects of the future. Nothing less.

Finally, a few words regarding the third dimension of liberal education's values, which has to do with individuals' roles, not as workers or citizens, but simply as human beings.

This is so largely a personal matter that it is best dealt with quickly. Having inherited two generations of liberal education, married another, helped raise one more, with confidence now in a further extension (and knowing firsthand of no other lifestyle), my objectivity about this subject is zero. Yet this is the most important dimension of all. We know that a liberal education has given our lives breadth and richness and satisfaction of enormous measure. Yet trying to analyze the elements of this is like looking at a mountain with a microscope--it disappears. One of liberal education's authentic architects and giants, the late Stephen K. Bailey, summed it up best: "The reason for liberal arts is so that later on in life when you knock on yourself, somebody answers."

We risk smugness and total error in implying that a liberal education has put our lives together better. Yet T.S. Eliot speaks to this point, and to the ultimate purpose of such an education, in his "Choruses, from the Rock."

Where is the wisdom
   we have lost
   in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge
   we have lost
   in information?

Lost? No. Only temporarily mislaid in a welter of mid-century confusion or materialistic hyper-rationality induced at least in part by a "techni-cynicism" that falsely attributed dominion to scientific invention and eroded human self-confidence. It came to be assumed, without adequate basis, that the only things that are true are those that can be proved in science's terms.

Part of our liberal, liberating learning is a faith that denies that assumption. When we claim "faith," it is in a different sense from the meaning Lucius Chapin, the first president of Beloit College, would have given that term. Yet he would understand, and I think approve, our finding in science's unlocking of what can be only some of nature's secrets, new confirmation that a larger mystery still presides.

Realizing all there is to do on this "spaceship called Earth," if its passengers are to make the highest and best use of the human opportunity, in some way mocks pygmy doubts about whether science can be used constructively, whether people can be kept busy at their peak capacity, whether democracy's process can be restored. These aren't questions of can, but of will.

Believing deeply in our hearts what our heads may sometimes question, that the future continues to be a good idea, we look, to buttress our faith, to the tradition of liberal learning--with hope and trust as limitless as our everlasting gratitude.

Vol. 03, Issue 31, Page 24, 18

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