July 28, 2014

A recently published article, “Don’t Send Your Kids to the Ivy League” by William Deresiewicz in the NEW REPUBLIC has generated much national comment. I urge you to read it, particularly if you have school-aged children. Among other observations, Deresiewicz has written:

“ . . . College is not the only chance to learn to think, but it is the best. One thing is certain: If you haven’t started by the time you finish your B.A., there’s little likelihood you’ll do it later. That is why an undergraduate experience devoted exclusively to career preparation is four years largely wasted.

Elite schools like to boast that they teach their students how to think, but all they mean is that they train them in the analytic and rhetorical skills that are necessary for success in business and the professions. Everything is technocratic—the development of expertise—and everything is ultimately justified in technocratic terms. . . .

If there is anywhere that college is still college—anywhere that teaching and the humanities are still accorded pride of place—it is the liberal arts college. . . . “

As I have observed in previous blogs, higher education is, unfortunately, crossing over into traditional training objectives — and, away from its historical goals. We see the movement away from a liberal arts exposure —- with its attendant focus on the thinking exemplified by civilization’s giants of thought and contribution. Instead, we are encountering an almost exclusive emphasis on “skills training” in a specific academic discipline with the sole intent of preparing an individual for professional labor — the historical province of skills training.

A few years ago, The Washington Post published a most insightful column by Heather Wilson (“Our Superficial Scholars”} that directly relates to this unfortunate shift in higher education.

“ I have, however, become increasingly concerned in recent years — not about the talent of the applicants (for Rhodes Scholarships) but about the education American universities are providing. Even from America’s great liberal arts colleges, transcripts reflect an undergraduate specialization that would have been unthinkably narrow just a generation ago. (It is not unusual today for a “professional major” to include nearly half of the total number of hours required for graduation!)

As a result, high-achieving students seem less able to grapple with issues that require them to think across disciplines or reflect on difficult questions about what matters and why.

. . . Our great universities seem to have redefined what it means to be an exceptional student. They are producing top students who have given very little thought to what matters beyond their impressive grasp of an intense area of study.

This narrowing has resulted in a curiously unprepared and superficial pre-professionalism.

. . . We are blessed to live in a country that values education. Many of our young people spend four years getting very expensive college degrees. But our universities fail them and the nation if they continue to graduate students with expertise in biochemistry, mathematics or history without teaching them to think about what problems are important and why. ”

Coupled with our current obsession for standardized testing in the public school system, we should be concerned. Civilization has been advanced by individuals who were informed, pondered, explored and led when either circumstances or education liberated their imaginations and creative talents.

And foremost, for all of us, we need to learn to see “the connectedness of this world.”

More on Wednesday – – – – –

— Bill Walton, co-Founder, ITC Learning