City Journal Summer 2014

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Summer 2014
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Miguel Monjardino
A Liberal Education « Back to Story

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Until my retirement in 2006 I worked for an American multinational with global audit responsibilities. Reports arrived with varying levels of readability. The worst were written by those from the U.K. It was more than just two countries divided by a common language, as Churchill said, but rather that complete sentences, complete paragraphs and consistent verb tenses were foreign concepts.

Only marginally better than my U.K. colleagues were Americans, some of them Ivy League grads, whose fuzzy writing simply defied comprehension. Our French auditor had an engineering degrees as well as being trained as a classic pianist. His writing was the very model of clarity. It was a pleasure to read.

But by far the best reports came from our Indian staff. The subcontinent seemingly has the world's largest repository of people who think clearly and who write better in their third, fourth of fifth language than do native English speakers.
This lovely essay reminds me of Biff, our woodwork teacher at boarding school, who would not allow us to use power tools or screws or nails and who, whenever we showed him (as we were required to do) a completed stage in our work, would examine the piece of wood and then ask, "Is it square? Straight? Flat? You know, something is either true or it is not. It is up to you to decide how important that is to you." Several years later we were asked in a survey, "of your teachers, whose influence has been most enduring and most valuable?" We had superb teachers - a lot of us went on to the best universities - but a plurality of us answered, "Biff". He and St John's Mr Braithwaite would have recognized each other!
Geopolitics? Geostrategy? Miguel, I posit you knew how to think before you undertook a study of the classics.
I posted a great podcast with Ms. Brann at my Virtual Memories Show this summer. The link's at http://chimeraobscura.com/vm/podcast-highest-learning
Liberal Education emphasizes a learning system of education which provides students the choices to take courses which are varied and responds to the discovery and explorations the student needs to make. Students can experience a broad spectrum of courses and they have the possibility of meandering into many streams of knowledge to discover which their calling is and which stream they respond to.
FLAME School of Liberal Education, India.
- - - - - -
"I'll bet you could ask any graduating senior who Achilles was and get a blank stare in return. We are creating a truly unlettered, illiterate society...."
- - - - - -

Silly goose. He was Brad Pitt.
Like the Iliad, the college is full of small memorials to people who touched others’ lives. “You should see the James Matthews memorial plaque,” suggested Mr. William Braithwaite, a tutor. I did. The first lines read, “Reliable, conscientious and professional in performance of his duties, immensely strong and spiritual in character, with genuine and loving concern for his fellow man and the College.” I asked about Matthews. “He worked as a janitor in the college for thirty years,” Mr. Braithwaite replied. “He was very proud of his work, knew who he was, and what he wanted from life.

Wonderful.
This fatuous article repeats the stale assertion that a liberal arts education is required in order to think and express oneself clearly.

What twaddle !! Civil engineering majors and chemists also have to think and write clearly, and they also work in teams. The snobby and elitist notion that you have to read the Iliad (why not in the original Greek, for good measure ?) in order to be educated in just so much bulls**t. From people without any marketable job skills.
Hi Sharon. Looking back at my own undergraduate education as a Poli Sci major, I have to agree that the Political Science faculty labored long and hard trying to teach me WHAT to think. But so too did the Theology faculty. In retrospect, I really learned HOW to think in only a few classes ... And one of them was a Theology class. One of the others was a Statistics class that was required for the Poli Sci major. There were a preciuos few others. But those few were enough. As I said, knowing how to think is a transferrable skill! And it is like learning to ride a bike or swim. Once you learn how, you know how forever.

So have faith that some professor ( or two or three ) out there will do what the Poli Sci faculty will not .... Teach your child HOW to think.
Ken Puck and Sharon:

Columbia University still requires each of its freshmen to read the Iliad, along with a wide array of "the classics." (Including Dostoevsky, if not Dickens.)
Forget the Iliad, Ken Puck, kids in the modern liberal arts don't even read Dickens or, god forbid, Dostoyevsky anymore. As for poetry - Tennyson, Shelley and Keats are just foreign(ers)names to them. My daughters are both in University now, one in Science and one in Liberal Arts, and I agree with Dick; liberal arts faculties (Political Science is the worst) are little more than "liberal mind-bending" assembly plants. No one there wants to train students to think; they only want to do the thinking for them and then foist them onto the poor unsuspecting public to wreak liberal havoc. And it has worked; the truly independent-thinker under the age of 35 simply doesn't exist these days. Thank goodness for the good luck that at least one of them chose to avoid the insult of paying someone else to let him feed her four years of his/her liberal propaganda. She chose science - and now can actually think for herself.
A few thoughts on a liberal arts college education and employment...

The real question for all college grads is "What can you DO?"

I am a firm believer in the value of a liberal arts education. The things you learn are:

How to think.
How to analyze a problem.
How to communicate the result of that thoughtful analysis to others in clear prose.
How to work as part of a team.

It doesn't matter whether you learned these skills in English or History or Philosophy or Psychology or Chemistry or Mathematics.

These skills are transferrable. And these skills are very valuable to ANY employer.

BUT

By themselves they probably won't get you a job. They will allow you to succeed and prosper once you find employment, but probably won't get you hired. To get hired you need something else...some more demonstrable, quantitatively measurable, immediately productive skill. What can you actually DO for an employer today?

Can you type? Can you manipulate spreadsheets? Can you edit documents? Can you operate database programs. Can you make accounting entries? Can you run lab experiments?

I recall reading an interview with the head of a design firm. At the time of the interview she was beginning a large project and spoke about hiring designers :

She had a large project for a kitchen appliance maker. This project had a hard deadline 8 weeks away. She had to hire almost a dozen designers - short term - to complete the project. They HAD TO be able to quickly do beautiful renderings of stainless steel objects in Adobe Illustrator. (Toasters, microwaves, refrigerators etc.) Since she had a hard deadline there was no time for a learning curve .... The people she hired for this project had to start producing on day one.

She went on to say that she would probably end up hiring at least 3 or 4 of these newbies full-time. And while she said she is looking for the most talented and creative people she can find for those full-time hires, she admitted that you might be second coming of Michelangelo and Da Vinci ... But if you can't render stainless steel toasters in Illustrator she'll never find out about it! Because if you don't exhibit that necessary skill she won't even look at your portfolio! Intellectually, she knows she needs the most talented and creative designers to grow her firm for the future ..... But pragmatically she has to get toasters rendered TODAY!!!! So she'll end up hiring the most talented and creative from among those who can render stainless steel toasters.

Point being that, to a prospective employer, your undergraduate liberal arts degree means you are smart, thoughtful, analytic and have up-side potential. But things being as they are, what can you actually DO .... Today?
The ancient Greeks gave us several words for the activity of the mind in pursuit of knowledge here praised; none of them relates to the practical accomplishments of daily living, namely, work.

The Greek word for "leisure" (schole) provides a clue to that division. "School" was originally conceived as the condition of not needing to work in order to live; then as a place where knowledge (episteme), as opposed to an employable skill (techne), is pursued for the purpose of cultural enrichment (paideia). The study of literature and philosophy, grammar and rhetoric, ordered and enlarged the mind, while music refined the sensibilities. None of these pursuits were available to or needed by manual laborers, whether enslaved or not. They were however the distinguishing skills of free men (thus, the liberal arts) in their eventual role of leaders of the State. And they came, even then, at a very high price.

The Great Books curriculum, which I believe originated at St. John's, is a vestige of that ancient and intellectually enriching tradition. The curriculum elsewhere, however, isn't the same; much has slipped into it that is at best transient, and more often merely idiosyncratic.



Employers justifiably complaining about a lack in "communication skills" seem to be suffering from the same affliction as their potential hires. It's not a lack of ability or training in communicating. It's a lack of ability and/or training in thinking. They lack clarity and they lack clarity because our education system is so atrocious.

Just today I read a statistic about the University Majors that enjoyed the highest SATs. Unsurprisingly it was those majors that would be considered classical: literature, STEM, religious studies, classics. Shocker.
I'm surprised no one has mentioned the existence of Thomas Aquinas College in California. It is unabashedly Catholic, but also as dedicated to the Great Books and the seminar method as is St. John's.

To answer scotClass's question, I'd say, given the mess we're in, it is clear we need more people who can think clearly--something a true liberal education *should* instill in the mind of those who have received one.
While I agree that there is an inherent value to a liberal arts education, the question left unanswered (unaddressed) is how many liberal arts graduates does society actually need.
While I agree that there is an inherent value to a liberal arts education, the question left unanswered (unaddressed) is how many liberal arts graduates does society actually need.
Among the lesser-known practitioners of the liberal arts was Sherman Kent, whose 1949 "Strategic Intelligence for American World Policy" gives a glimpse of how one can move from being a professor of history at Yale University to Assistant Director of the C.I.A. Office of National Estimates. Kent's division of intelligence into knowledge, organization, and activity, however, operates within the horizon of a Baconian agenda: "knowledge is power." The liberal arts, however, aim at the attainment of truth in all its forms, not just "through research guided by a systematic method" (p. 156).
Heard it explained that the purpose of our high school education was to provide assurance, a testament, that the holder of the degree was competent in "reading, writing and arithmetic." An employer could take the HS grad knowing he had been sufficiently educated.
Now a college degree is required, especially since giving their own tests is now frowned upon, prohibited even, by our ruling class of careerist politicians. Wouldn't want to discriminate or make anyone "feel bad about themselves."
It is easy to skate through college---the degree is barely a guarantor that the holder knows his backside for the hole in the ground.
I favor giving a rigorous test, like that for CPAs, lawyers, etc. And promulgate class rank. That provides an incentive to pay attention and serves to aid in selection.
It often appears to me that thinking clearly, critically and for oneself is no longer the goal in American education, at any level. In fact, it is discouraged.
We have elites that arrogate unto themselves the prerogative of doing our thinking for us, then dispensing our wisdom to us for a fee, together with he promise of a subsidy.
We have an elitist political class running a prep school for voters.
Personally, I fell for at several of our best universities and it took twenty years to overcome the bias.
It is as if the ruling class is not concerned with competence or productivity among our population, merely that they vote the right way, for a centrist government with their betters in charge. Those masters and "getting theirs."
Am I being too cynical here?
"Plenty of staff in the women's studies department, though"

Bravo, Ken.
Our earliest colleges taught men to become ministers...Then the Land Grant Act taught men to become farmers. Thus, though liberal arts are indeed worthwhile--I have a PhD. in literature--our schools from the beginning were concerned with teaching for jobs.
I cherish an immersion in the humanities. But, much older and now retired, I also have a new interest in science.
Our young people will spend a fortune for a 4-year degree. How are they to pay for that?
I don't think the Iliad is required reading for undergraduates anywhere anymore. I'll bet you could ask any graduating senior who Achilles was and get a blank stare in return. We are creating a truly unlettered, illiterate society. Brave new world and all that.

Plenty of staff in the women's studies department, though.
Thank you so much for sharing your insight.