Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Why Liberal Education is Relevant Even for Professionals

The Wall Street Journal recently reported that some MBA programs are trying to tack on a smattering of liberal education.  Here's an article that explains the idea and why the "tack on" approach can't work.  There is a better way.   Here is Peter Lawler writing on the website, MindingTheCampus.

A Simple Fix For the M.B.A.

By Peter Augustine Lawler

Employers tend to complain that the graduates of American universities are skilled in solving particular problems but "often miss the big picture." This complaint rings true for colleges graduates in general these days, but it's an even larger issue for M.B.A. students, who hope to ultimately ascend to leadership positions in a wide array of businesses. Accordingly, the Wall Street Journal reported last week, M.B.A. programs are beginning to introduce philosophy into their curricula.

One example:  A course in "Nobel Thinking," which exposes students to world-changing ideas generated by members of our cognitive elite.  The course is taught by a professor of economics and discusses transformative economic ideas like "adverse selection." It seems, however, that only an economist could think that an insight into "what happens when buyers and sellers have access to different information" changed the world.   Nobel-winning economists do, in fact, have big-picture abstract thoughts.  But they shouldn't be confused with the thoughts of political or corporate leaders.  Adam Smith and Karl Marx--less technical than political economists--did have thoughts that changed the world.  But they didn't win Nobel Prizes and so don't show up in the course.

A liberally educated person thinks here of Socrates's criticism of the sophists, who thought of all education as technical, as ways of acquiring wealth and power.  Socrates argues that no one in a real position of leadership can succeed if he or she thinks that low.  The "utility maximizer" of the sophists and today's economists is really an abstraction.  There's no real person who consistently thinks and acts that way.  Real persons are families, friends, citizens, creatures, and responsible leaders, in addition to being productive individuals.

So the Socratic injunction to know yourself is really about thinking less abstractly and more concretely or personally.  One management professor, seemingly in this spirit, gave her students "a nonstop, 14-day discovery of yourself."  The take-away for the students, however, was the irreducible variety of interpretations and "palpable anxiety" in the face of ambiguity.  They appeared not to have made the progress described by Plato in Socratic dialogues toward discovering "who I am and what I'm supposed to do."  Without such personal progress, the best way to take out the anxiety of ambiguity is to lose oneself in merely technical goals.

It may well take more than 14 days to discover oneself.  And a whirlwind tour of art, fiction, and meditation can't make up for deep deficiencies in one's upbringing and education. That tour seems to leave the impression that we're all detached tourists in a multicultural world that offers no solid moral or intellectual guidance.
Big ideas and self-knowledge can't really be effective add-ons to M.B.A. programs.  But who can deny that leaders who hope to be more than "specialists without spirit" need them?
There's an obvious solution. M.B.A. programs should only accept students who have flourished in excellent and relatively traditional "humanities" majors such as literature, philosophy, or political science.  They should not require that their students have taken any business courses at all.  That technical training is what the M.B.A. is for.

Not only that, M.B.A. programs should do what they can to encourage undergraduate programs to focus on "the leadership virtues" such as generosity, magnanimity, and prudence, as well as "the service virtues" such as charity and compassion.  There is, of course, no substitute for actually doing the leisurely reading in philosophical, religious, and literary masterpieces required to pick up the habits of genuine reflection.

The last presidential campaign was graced by two candidates who spoke eloquently and had an admirable sense of personal responsibility of a leader.  Mitt Romney had an undergraduate literature major, which was an indispensable prelude to his acquisition of the professional M.B.A. and law degrees.  Barack Obama had excellent undergraduate instruction in political philosophy and literature (he knows all about T.S. Eliot!) at Occidental and Columbia as an indispensable prelude to his law degree.

Undergraduate business degrees devote too much time to PowerPoint presentations, collaborative projects, and narrowly technical problem solving. They seem to do everything they can to divert the student from thinking about himself or herself as a particular person.  They're not about cultivating the souls of leaders.  And that lack of cultivation, it's pretty darn clear, can't be remedied "at the M.B.A. level."

There's a simple remedy for the struggle M.B.A. programs have in getting students to think big yet personally and beyond "the bottom line":  a rather old-fashioned undergraduate liberal arts education.  And recovering the proper relationship between liberal and technical education for emerging leaders is one way among many of thinking clearly again about what undergraduate education is for.
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Peter Lawler is Dana Professor of Government and International Studies at Berry College.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Opportunity to Learn (Really Learn) Latin and Greek

For the 2014-2015 academic year, the Academy Vivarium Novum in Rome is offering ten full tuition scholarships  for University students (18-24 years old) of any part of the world. The scholarships will cover all of the costs of room, board, teaching and didactic materials for courses to be held from October 6, 2014 until June 13, 2015 on the grounds of the Academy’s campus at Rome.  The goal of the Academy is to achieve a perfect command of both Latin and Greek through a total immersion in the two languages in order to master without any hindrances the texts and concepts which have been handed down from the ancient times, middle ages, the Renaissance period and modern era, and to cultivate the humanities in a manner similar to the  Renaissance humanists.  All the classes will be conducted in Latin, except for Greek classes which will be conducted in ancient Greek.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

A Reminder of what Liberal Education is For (and for Whom)


See "Why I Teach Plato to Plumbers" by Scott Samuelson, published in the Atlantic Magazine:

Once, when I told a guy on a plane that I taught philosophy at a community college, he responded, “So you teach Plato to plumbers?” Yes, indeed. But I also teach Plato to nurses’ aides, soldiers, ex-cons, preschool music teachers, janitors, Sudanese refugees, prospective wind-turbine technicians, and any number of other students who feel like they need a diploma as an entry ticket to our economic carnival. As a result of my work, I’m in a unique position to reflect on the current discussion about the value of the humanities, one that seems to me to have lost its way.
As usual, there’s plenty to be worried about: the steady evaporation of full-time teaching positions, the overuse and abuse of adjunct professors, the slashing of public funding, the shrinkage of course offerings and majors in humanities disciplines, the increase of student debt, the peddling of technologies as magic bullets, the ubiquitous description of students as consumers. Moreover, I fear in my bones that the supremacy of a certain kind of economic-bureaucratic logic—one of “outcomes,” “assessment,” and “the bottom-line”—is eroding the values that undergird not just our society’s commitment to the humanities, but to democracy itself.
The problem facing the humanities, in my view, isn’t just about the humanities. It’s about the liberal arts generally, including math, science, and economics. These form half of the so-called STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) subjects, but if the goal of an education is simply economic advancement and technological power, those disciplines, just like the humanities, will be—and to some degree already are—subordinated to future employment and technological progress. Why shouldn’t educational institutions predominately offer classes like Business Calculus and Algebra for Nurses? Why should anyone but hobbyists and the occasional specialist take courses in astronomy, human evolution, or economic history? So, what good, if any, is the study of the liberal arts, particularly subjects like philosophy?  Why, in short, should plumbers study Plato?

Friday, April 25, 2014

Distribution of BA Degrees by Field of Study

Some big changes in the fields that undergraduates study occurred between 1970 and 2012:

For a discussion of this chart, see this article by Catherine Rampell in the Washington Post.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Wendy Ruderman on Police Corruption in Philadelphia

Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist, Wendy Ruderman, will be giving a talk on her new book (co-authored with Barbara Laker), Busted: A Tale of Corruption and Betrayal in the City of Brotherly Love.  The talk is on Thursday, April 24 at 7pm in the Ashbrook Center at Ashland University, and is free and open to the public.  Copies of the book will be on sale at the talk.

Wendy Ruderman has a master’s degree from Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. She has worked at several media organizations, including the Philadelphia Inquirer, WHYY-TV and 91FM, the Trenton Times, the Associated Press, and the Bergen Record,before joining the Philadelphia Daily News in 2007. In 2010 she, along with Daily News colleague Barbara Laker, won the Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Journalism for their series "Tainted Justice," on police corruption in Philadelphia. Two years later she became Police Bureau chief for the New York Times before returning to the Daily News in June 2013. Wendy and Barbara Laker teamed up once again to write Busted: A Tale of Corruption and Betrayal in the City of Brotherly Love, based on their award-winning series. The book was published by HarperCollins earlier this year.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

URCA symposium

Quite a few history and political science majors gave presentations in the College of Arts and Sciences 2014 Undergraduate Research and Creative Activity Symposium this week: Lindsey Richey (on James Madison and British Commercial Policy in the Making of the U.S. Constitution, 1783-89), Kelsey Golec (The History and Development of the Ohio Juvenile Justice System), Zachary Hoffman (Frederick Douglass and the Ideals of Manhood),  Joseph Griffith (the 'Almost Chosen People': Lincoln's Use of Scripture and Biblical Allusions in the Gettysburg Address & the Second Inaugural), and Johanna Mateo (Latin America: The Impact of Spanish Colonial Rule). That gives a pretty good idea of the variety of interests that students pursue in the department.  Congratulations to all you participants and the organizers of the symposium.  For more information and even some photos, see here.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Would You Hire Socrates?

This op-ed by Scott Samuelson in the Wall Street Journal gets it right on the value of studying the liberal arts.  Studying the humanities does pay, but "thinking of the value of the humanities predominately in terms of earnings and employment is to miss the point. America should strive to be a society of free people deeply engaged in "the pursuit of happiness," not simply one of decently compensated and well-behaved employees."

Here is the whole article: 

The myth that studying the humanities doesn't pay was recently exploded by the Association of American Colleges and Universities and the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems.

Their study, released in January, analyzed Census Bureau data on the education and occupation of about three million U.S. residents. It found that "at peak earnings ages (56-60 years) workers who majored as undergraduates in the humanities or social sciences earn annually on average about $2,000 more than those who majored as undergraduates in professional or pre-professional fields."

Their study showed that the overwhelming majority of employers are desperate to hire graduates who have "a demonstrated capacity to think critically, communicate clearly, and solve complex problems." These are the very skills that we associate with the study of the humanities

As someone who teaches philosophy at a community college, I'm grateful for such efforts to defend the liberal arts from the current assaults against them. But I have my doubts that selling philosophy as a path to future riches is going to be effective. How many parents are going to pay for their kids to take Ethical Theory so that they can perform better at Goldman Sachs? I've yet to have a student read Aristotle's "Metaphysics" and exclaim, "This is really going to pay dividends at IBM!"