Sunday, February 19, 2012

Liberal Arts as Evergreens

Matthew Yglesias highlights the importance of liberal arts disciplines:
"In order to do well in courses on 19th Century British Literature or Social Anthropology or Philosophy or American History in a properly running American college, what you need to do is get pretty good at reading and writing documents in the English language. These are very much real skills with wide-ranging practical applications. Clearly relatively few people are professional writers, but a huge amount of what goes on at the higher levels of a typical business is a steady stream of production and consumption of reports and memos...Outside of office work, a big part of the difference between a hard-working individual who's pretty good at his job and a person who's able to leverage his skills and hardwork into an entrepreneurial or managerial role is precisely the ability to research things and write up plans. Everyone knows that a kid growing up in rural India is obtaining valuable skills if he gets better at English, but this is equally true for a kid growing up in Indiana...

"Computers are going to put accountants out of business long before they start hurting the earnings of talented interior decorators."

This is why, at the community colleges everyone looks at as local job training centers, these disciplines are called "evergreen." However, notice that developing these skills in the liberal arts requires a great deal of personal attention. You don't learn to write if no one is grading your essays, and you can't be a critical reader without some mechanism to regularly check your understanding. This is why small class sizes matter. Large lecture classes can easily turn into the data stream that is, in fact, less valuable in an age when so much information is at our fingertips.



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