Washington Post Acknowledges Value of Writing and Liberal Arts Education


I came across this excellent article on The Washington Post regarding the value of liberal arts education in a STEM-obsessed educational environment:

Here are some highlights:

Our culture has drawn an artificial line between art and science, one that did not exist for innovators like Leonardo da Vinci and Steve Jobs. Leonardo’s curiosity and passion for painting, writing, engineering and biology helped him triumph in both art and science; his study of anatomyand dissections of corpses enabled his incredible drawings of the human figure. When introducing the iPad 2, Jobs, who dropped out of college but continued to audit calligraphy classes, declared: “It’s in Apple’s DNA that technology alone is not enough — it’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the result that makes our heart sing.” (Indeed, one of Apple’s scientists, Steve Perlman, was inspired to invent the QuickTime multimedia program by an episode of “Star Trek.”)

Once upon a time, it was a given that a liberal arts education was supposed to make a person “well-rounded.” The high cost of education has led a sound-bite driven mass movement to think of college as an extension of corporate training camp.

The reality is that job-training isn’t and never was the mission of higher education.  Suggesting such a thing to administrators and the general public is to ask for rotten tomatoes or condescending arguments about how much college costs and that “well rounded” doesn’t pay the bills. Well, actually, it does.

I’ve said this before: to think of college as job training is a lose/lose situation.  Most college students these days take an average of 5-7 years to graduate from undergraduate. More and more, corporations are (unreasonably) requiring potential employees to have master and doctorate degrees, adding another 2-5 years to the higher education track.  No wonder people graduate with mortgage sized loans they can hardly hope to repay.  Nonetheless, most students and faculty are aware that the jobs we have now will look very different and demand very different skills 5 years from now then they do today.  Still, let’s ignore the elephant in the room.

Loretta Jackson-Hayes wisely proposes:

A scientist trained in the liberal arts has another huge advantage: writing ability. The study of writing and analyses of texts equip science students to communicate their findings as professionals in the field. My students accompany me to conferences, where they do the talking. They write portions of articles for publications and are true co-authors by virtue of their contributions to both the experiments and the writing. Scientists are often unable to communicate effectively because, as Cornell University president David J. Skorton points out, “many of us never received the education in the humanities or social sciences that would allow us to explain to nonscientists what we do and why it is important.”

To innovate is to introduce change. While STEM workers can certainly drive innovation through science alone, imagine how much more innovative students and employees could be if the pool of knowledge from which they draw is wider and deeper. That occurs as the result of a liberal arts education.

To her lucid argument, I would like to ad that a liberal arts education equips students with critical thinking skills and creative thinking, so that graduates may be prepared for the jobs of today AND tomorrow, five or ten years from now. While specialization will continue to evolve, critical thinking and meta-cognition (the ability to draw connections between seemingly disparate variables of information) will remain the constant in a world that rewards innovation and adaptability.

To see the full Washington Post editorial, click here.

Teaching Writing and About

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