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A Liberal Education

A broad range of studies is the only truly vocational education by Denis P. Doyle

In those societies that believe in progress, it falls to each generation to worry about education for the new economy. The new economy, of course, is simply the economy that's new to each generation.

In the early and mid-19th century, American political and education leaders worried about the demands of industrialization and immigration. We needed a work force that could follow instructions and mind its manners. Today we worry about readiness for high-tech employment.

But if worry is a constant, it is clear that a qualitative transformation in the new economy has occurred. Not only have we entered the post-industrial era, as Peter Drucker dryly notes, we have entered the post-capitalist era.

In the post-capitalist era, management is a science (thanks to Drucker) and knowledge reigns supreme. And the preferred instrument to impart knowledge—at least in the modern world—is schooling. That is why education is today truly mass education. We can leave no one behind. Oddly enough, this development was ushered in by the greatest economic crisis in history.

Until the Great Depression of the 1930s, only a small portion of the population needed education beyond grade school. Simple literacy—the ability to sign one's name, read the Bible, follow simple instructions, figure out a train schedule and place a Sears and Roebuck catalogue mail order—was enough for most people.

Indeed, as Milton and Rose Friedman point out in their 1962 classic Capitalism & Freedom, only in the modern era has simple literacy ceased to have marketable value. In the developing world, scribes-for-hire are available to help guide illiterates through the maze of written language. (A poignant portrayal of this enduring practice is the centerpiece of the masterful Brazilian movie, "Central Station.")

Work Force Evolution

But a funny thing happened on the way to the Second World War. In America at least, high school enrollments reached all-time highs in the 1930s. School attendance (after grade school, at least) was counter-cyclical. The worse the economy, the longer kids stayed in school. They did not do so because it improved one's employability, but because there was precious little to do otherwise. The highest levels of unemployment ushered in the highest levels of education to that point in our history!

Along came the war. The most striking event on the home front was the appearance of Rosie the Riveter, who was turned into a pop-art icon by Norman Rockwell's famous portrait of the same name. The work force was transformed. Not only were technical demands higher, women joined the work force in unparalleled numbers.

Women, of course, always had played a key role in the economy, but out of sight. Women's work was typically off the books, out of the public eye, in the home, farm or small-business back office. Indeed, in the words of a folk song, "a woman's work was never done." And only rarely was it compensated with cash income. But the war effort turned Rosie into a mainstay of the economy and she never returned to the domesticity she had left behind.

Not surprisingly, America's industrial might fueled a post-war boom in vocational education.

Equally unsurprisingly, America's love affair with information technology is fueling a structurally similar boom today. So great is the demand for trained IT workers that our schools cannot keep up. Hard on the heels of Bill Gates' Congressional testimony lamenting the shortage of IT workers, the Immigration and Naturalization Service increased the number of H-1B visas from 20,000 to 200,000 per year. (H-1B visas are for non-immigrant aliens in a specialty profession.) If we can't train our own IT workers, we'll import them.

But as important as technology workers are, more important are technology users, all 281million of us. Rare is the American who can repair or understand the workings of a modern automobile, telephone, television or PC, yet users are ubiquitous. They are everywhere because—thanks to clever technology workers—the technology is so user-friendly. Thus it ever was.

Before Charles Kettering invented the self-starter, the hand-cranked automobile was user-unfriendly in the extreme. Indeed, the Economist magazine (in its 20th century reprise issue) reported a turn-of-the-last-century prediction that few automobiles would sell because the pool of trainable chauffeurs was so small.

If user-friendliness is the key to widespread technological penetration, what education is needed for the emerging high-tech world? It is tempting to think that the ticket to future success will be technology training. But as I have suggested, more important than tech workers are tech users, but not just because their numbers are so great.

Technology, whether the water wheel of Archimedes, Guttenberg's moveable type, Ford's mass-produced automobile or Chester Carlson's Xerox copier, is simply a tool. A fancy tool perhaps, a complex tool often, but a tool nonetheless. It is not an end in itself. Knowing the purposes to which it should be put is more important than how it works. People do not drive or phone or FAX at random. They are purposeful. So, too, they should be educated for a purpose.

Liberally Educated

In the beginning of this commentary, I suggested that a qualitative change had occurred in the new economy. What is it? No longer is the economy top-down, characterized by autocratic bosses and pliant workers. By and large, modern workers are self-guiding problem solvers and troubleshooters. No longer is docility and passivity positively valued. To the contrary, independence and initiative are.

For example, drivers for Federal Express are not just drivers with pre-assigned routes. They are expected to respond to the unexpected. And they do. So, too, Proctor and Gamble work teams are self-directed and set their own targets. They are what Fortune called in a recent cover story workers without bosses.

And if blue-collar work requires more education and more independence of mind than ever before, the explosively growing white-collar service sector requires more yet. Narrow technical education does not suit people to independence of mind and spirit. Imagination and inventiveness are traits that emerge from a broader palette.

Where is that broader palette found? In the oldest form of education known in the West—a liberal education.

Liberal education has a deceptively simple history. In the tradition of Socrates and Aristotle, it was the education suited for a free man. For that is what liberalas means. Slaves were trained narrowly and vocationally. Free men were educated. And the purposes of education were to make boys men, to make girls women.

Education's promise is to give people the power to reason, the capacity to make informed judgments, the ability to solve problems, and the vision to think clearly and imaginatively. In particular, the liberally educated person is prepared to deal with ambiguity, uncertainty and the unexpected, to confront the unknown.

Changing Values

What are the liberal arts? Today they include the humanities, arts and letters, an overview of science and mathematics and foreign language. They are broad and they are deep, neither narrowly vocational nor professional. They represent what might be best called foundational knowledge, the building blocks for the "examined life."

In the old economy these traits were not highly valued, except among the idle rich, inventors and entrepreneurs. The old economy was steady and predictable. By way of contrast, one of the most important lessons we have learned about the new economy is that its scope and direction cannot be predicted. The new economy is like a 19th-century hurricane before modern weather forecasting—the only thing certain about hurricanes was that sooner or later one would hit.

Education for the new economy is not much different. All that we know is that we know very little about what will eventuate. Will we need more neurologists, more tool and die makers, more lawyers, more computer programmers? All of the above, no doubt. But how many and what other categories are unknowable.

A simple thought experiment makes the point. Who predicted—who imagined, outside of science fiction writers—the appearance and explosive, transforming growth of information technology? Indeed, with 50 million PCs spread all over America, it is instructive to remember that most users are self-taught. There was no preparation for the IT revolution because no one saw it coming. Indeed, it was impossible to see it coming.

What is knowable is that we will need a continuous and virtually limitless supply of clear thinkers, problem solvers and innovators, people who can take on challenges that cannot even be imagined today. How do we get them? Educate them in the traditions of the liberal arts. Start early and stay with it. That means the liberal arts in elementary and secondary schools, not just a few selective colleges and universities.

What are the practical implications of such an approach? Take foreign language study as an example. It should begin no later than kindergarten, and mastery of a second language should be a condition of graduation from high school (and an admissions requirement for college). This would have the added advantage of making the first language of students with limited English proficiency an asset, not a liability.

In addition to mastery of a second language, everyone should be expected to read and understand the great documents of citizenship, from the Magna Carta to the Declaration of Independence to Lincoln's Second Inaugural to Martin Luther King's Letter from Birmingham Jail.

Education properly understood is an exercise in understanding and insight, not simple recapitulation of information. For example, for the Fifth Amendment to make sense it must be understood, not merely memorized. Why cannot a judge require a mobster to reveal his secrets? To understand why the government cannot require you to testify against yourself requires important historical knowledge, to wit: When the sovereign could compel you to testify against yourself, he (or she) could call in the royal torturer to speed up the process. The Fifth Amendment signals the end of the rack and thumbscrew.

So, too, everyone should be familiar with the great documents of prose and poetry, east and west, from the Legend of Gilgamesh to the Greek myths, from The Tale of Genji to the Iliad and the Odyssey, from Dickens to Faulkner, Flaubert, Cervantes and Goethe. So, too, students should know world, national and local history in scope and sequence. As well, all students should know the major principles and applications of science and technology.

Mastering Ideas

What a liberal education is not may be as important as what it is. It is not an exercise in rote memorization, though imaginative memorization is both useful and desirable—useful because it is convenient to remember things and desirable because memory is the foundation of almost all that we do. (Imagine having to reinvent simple exercises like tying your shoes or brushing your teeth every day; memory has its plusses.) It is not an accident that Vladimir Nabokov, one of the great writers of the 20th century, titles his autobiography Speak Memory.

The list is not long, though mastering the ideas and knowledge it contains takes time and effort. Indeed, these are the great lessons conferred by a liberal education. School is not a dress rehearsal. Life is real and life is earnest. Hard work pays and pays handsomely. Anything worth doing is worth doing well. And the surest source of abiding pleasure in life is mastery of demanding material.

To be sure, none of these ideas is new. They date back to the earliest and greatest thinkers of the East and West. What would be new would be to take them seriously and embed them in the modern school. Stranger things have happened.

Denis Doyle is chief academic officer of SchoolNet Inc., 110 Summerfield Road, Chevy Chase, Md. 20815. E-mail: denis@schoolnet.com. He also is editor of The Doyle Report (www.thedoylereport.com).