The death of Liberal Arts?

The other day I started thinking about my career path, and contrasted it with the career path that my children will most likely take. When I grew up in the 80’s, the Baby Boomer generation dominated the culture at large. That means that people from that generation were instrumental in defining how many of us viewed our unfolding futures. The mantra when I was young was that to be successful, you go to college, get a 4 year degree, and then you can get a good job and live the American Dream. My fellow Gen X’ers can attest… sometimes we feel like we’ve been handed a load of bullshit.

The reality of what many of us discovered is that getting a 4 year degree did help us get a job. However, the idea that we would be happy in these jobs, or that we could find fulfillment in them is a pipe dream that was rarely fulfilled. I can attest that my four year degree in Liberal Arts did a lot to help me become a rational and skilled thinker, but it did nothing to teach me skills for my eventual career. I wouldn’t trade my experience in my undergrad at all, it was a rich time of learning. But for my kids, I’m telling a different story.

For my children, I’m encouraging them to look in to the trades. Whether it’s the traditional construction/manufacturing areas, or healthcare, or even skilled technology/media. If they chose to go get a 4 year degree, I’m certainly not going to stop them, but unlike my experience, I’m not presenting it as the only path to achieving success. Why the change of heart? I believe that the Internet has fundamentally changed what it means to be a liberal arts thinker.

In my youth, it was the scholars and academics that held the key to deep knowledge. If you wanted to learn something deeply, you had to first learn how to access that information. Liberal Arts folks like myself were masters at navigating academic libraries. We knew where all the materials were, and we knew how to find what we were looking for. Often that involved being able to page through a book, using it’s index and table of contents, to narrow down if it had any bits of knowledge for us. It was a very experiential and physical method of learning, but it’s what we mastered.

Fast forward 25 years, and the global information revolution has happened, and completely changed how we learn and research knowledge. No longer do we need to be masters of esoteric shelving systems, or archaic indexes. Now, we can use natural language queries to simply ask powerful computers for what we are looking for. The vast, combined, store of knowledge of humanity is literally at our fingertips. It’s simply a Google search away.

Though others may disagree with me, I don’t think this has led to the death of higher academic learning either. Just because you need to pass through a paywall to read academic articles does not mean that they are no longer relevant. I can’t even begin to imagine how much better my academic work would have been if I had access to the tools that we have now. To be able to create a hypothesis, test it, and then draw conclusions of that test, all in a single evening without leaving your computer, is insane. There’s a lot of garbage out there, but, to quote a famous show from my youth, “The Truth is Out There”.

So why the emphasis on trades? Is it because I don’t believe that my children should learn “how to learn” like I did? Not at all. I believe that we need to restructure how we educate in this country. Because of the intense emphasis on getting a 4 year degree, the high school years have turned into benign and neutered learning experiences. Much of high school is simply teaching some basic facts so that people can muddle their way towards what is supposed to be their eventual goal, that 4 year degree. We need to return to making High School a powerful learning experience that teaches kids how to think broadly. We need to bring Liberal Arts back into our kid’s teenage years.

We need to start graduating robust, well rounded, thinkers from high school. Not just people who are looking at getting by until they get to the “real” educational experience in college. Kids young minds are fresh for molding, and a solid Liberal Arts background is what we should be instilling. Then, when they get out of high school they can start to think about what they want to do with their lives. Plus, they can avoid the massive crushing debt that many people in my generation have found themselves in.

This also means that we need to start doing something that is incredibly difficult for me… distance my search from happiness and fulfillment from what I do for a day job. I’m talked about my own career angst in the past, so I won’t drag that out here, but in general I believe we need to change the conversation for our youth. Many of the most fulfilling careers out there are ones that may not be glamorous, but they can provide a solid income so that you can do the things you love in your personal time. This is certainly not the message I grew up with, and it’s one that I struggle with almost every single day. But, as I look at the world my kids are inheriting, it forces me to challenge my experiences.

As often happens, I’ve now rambled for close to 1000 words, and perhaps I’ve made sense, or maybe I’ve left some things even muddier than before. What I’m hoping in this exercise is to get people thinking about what it means to be a real-thinker in the Internet world. How do we take this incredible access to knowledge, and reshape what we expect out of our lives? Is it time to re-think what we look at as the normal educational path and change it up? How do we build up strong adults, who are perhaps much braver than my generation was?

Gen X’ers went along with the status quo because our parents told us to. Those that follow us see the boomers as the aging grandparents who “don’t get it”. That freedom is something we never had, and it opens up new possibilities, not just for our kids, but for us as well. I know plenty of people my age who would love to shake up the status quo. Maybe our children will lead us.