Value of a liberal education

A running current through my mind has been the value of a liberal education. My officemates from China and Vietnam have talked about how they didn’t have hobbies growing up, since their parents strongly encouraged them to study hard, to the exclusion of everything else. This can be very efficient in creating people who are very good at a very narrow skillset. However, when it comes to working as a team or public speaking, they are at a disadvantage to many students from the US. Even worse, if it turns out that they don’t enjoy doing the job that they were trained from a young age to do, then it can be very difficult for them to find their own path.

I was inspired to write this post when a fellow Ph.D. student, Mike Wiser, posted this as his Facebook status earlier this month:

Virtually every time I’m evaluated on my ability to talk about science, I realize that outside of my math and science classes…and possibly the math team…the activity most beneficial to my career from when I was younger was the years I spent in various choirs. Because of that training, I can project without yelling, I automatically adjust my breathing so I don’t have to pause in the middle of a sentence, I know how to give an audience the impression that I’m making eye contact with many of them, etc. Similar advantages can be had from a background in theater. This is something to keep in mind in an era where subjects other than math and reading are being squeezed out by high stakes testing: even for many of us in technical fields, there can be a direct transference of skills learned in an arts context into daily professional life.

I was lucky to have parents who encouraged me to explore diverse activities like martial arts, music, and wilderness search and rescue, and I was lucky to have a school and community that supported these as well. I consistently use these in my daily life, and I continue to explore new hobbies and ways of relating to myself and the world. For example, I can’t do martial arts anymore because of a surgery, but I have learned so much about my self and my body through Iyengar Yoga, which I started practicing about a year and a half ago. I wouldn’t be as eager to try these out had my parents not gently pushed me at a young age.

There is so much more to say here about critical thinking skills and a breadth of education at the university level, but I’ll leave that to another post…

What kinds of activities have you done growing up that ended up helping you in your current aspirations? Alternately, what do you wish you had the opportunity or encouragement to do?

6 thoughts on “Value of a liberal education

  1. When I was is nursing school, much of my skills as a caregiver came from my time practicing these during recesses and social times provided to me by the Ann Arbor public schools. Since I’ve moved on to MSU much of that free time is now cut or becoming unavailable, to make time for, as you mentioned, rigorous test preparation.

    My father runs the environmental field trop program for the Ann Arbor public schools. The program includes field trips to water treatment plants, gravel pits, and winter survival experiences. About 30% of his job is defending the program from the heavy budget cut hammer, despite this being one of the only outside of school educational experience the k-12 gets. The squeeze is only getting stronger. It is huge shame.

    Cool blog post brent, i’ll read more of these later! Look forward to moving into raft in august

    p.s. late august is the next big diving season! You mentioned you were interested back in the winter, i’ll keep you posted when i’m making trips out, if you’re still interested.

    • Thanks for reading!

      > When I was is nursing school, much of my skills as a
      > caregiver came from my time practicing these during
      > recesses

      What did you do during school recess that helped with caregiving tasks?

      > About 30% of his job is defending the program from
      > the heavy budget cut hammer, despite this being one
      > of the only outside of school educational experience
      > the k-12 gets.

      I’m really sad to hear that. It seems teachers everywhere agree that standards-based teaching and funding is a bad idea, and I think this is what we get for it. Things are viewed “non-essential” if we don’t have a test for it :(

  2. It’s worth noting that the “liberal” in “liberal studies” refers to those studies worthy of a free person (see Seneca’s Letter 88 for an ancient elaboration of this point). This existential psychologist would go so far as to argue that the hobbies we freely choose to learn like martial arts in your case (or music in mine) form an important foundation of self-knowledge (e.g., the bodily knowledge you describe) and responsibility. Arguably, we need this more mature individuality to freely pursue personal goals while respecting the passions of others.

    Children who are coerced through education, motivated solely by extrinsic motivations like pleasing a parent or avoiding punishment, never really learn how to have a passion or to follow it. If you want to read research on this point, consider work on the overjustification effect (e.g., Deci, Koestner, & Ryan, 1999) which shows that when people are motivated extrinsically (e.g., by reward) rather than intrinsically (e.g., by free choice), they put in less effort, enjoy activities less, and fundamentally lead less meaningful, authentic lives.

    This is all a long-winded way of saying I enjoyed your post and agree with it.

    • In response to your post, I read through the Wikipedia article on progressive education and enjoyed it a lot. I’m definitely in that camp. It’s amazing that Dewey in 1897 was advocating the same kind of active engagement that we are fighting for today in the classroom.

      I had heard of the overjustification effect. It puts into stark relief our entire work-for-money system for me, that we have to work against our economic system to feel motivated at work. I’m reading a book, “What the Best College Teachers Do”, and I just read a section on deemphasizing points, so that students are learning for themselves instead of seeking a high grade.

      I’m glad you enjoyed my post. I see that my posts are shorter than some other blogs, but I think that’s okay for now.

  3. I am surprised how often random-thing-I-learned turns out to be useful or helpful. (As shown, in fact, by that PolicyMic article I just had published that referred to an incident in Michigan history. I assure you, I did not read that book on Michigan history thinking, “hopefully I’ll find something here I can compare to the current political situation”!)

    • That’s how I’m learning to view reading scholarly articles. Even if it turns out the paper is not addressing the exact issue I’m looking for, I’ll still read it and take notes, just in case.

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