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Sunday, March 29, 2015

Zakaria and Ivy Graduates Keep Defending the Liberal Arts, but clearly the liberal arts didn't teach them to think

 The problem with working on changing education is that everyone has an opinion. You went to school didn’t you? So, you are an expert. And, if you have a well known name because you were on TV a lot about entirely different issues, you are still an expert on education. Fareed Zakaria has published a book on the value of a liberal education and a part of that book appeared in yesterday’s Washington Post. Here is a quote from that article to give you an idea about his point of view:

public officials have cautioned against pursuing degrees like art history, which are seen as expensive luxuries in today's world. Republicans want to go several steps further and defund these kinds of majors. "Is it a vital interest of the state to have more anthropologists?" asked Florida's Gov. Rick Scott. "I don't think so." America's last bipartisan cause is this: A liberal education is irrelevant, and technical training is the new path forward

Since I am always talking about education, I can tell you that this is a very typical response to what I say. Earlier this week I was asked about Shakespeare: “Don’t you think kids should still read Romeo and Juliet?” And in a different conversation the same day, when I questioned the wisdom of teaching algebra: But algebra teaches you how to think.  My usual reply is that it is sad that these people never were able to think before they learned algebra.

The issue is neither liberal arts nor algebra nor the idea of training everyone to become a programmer. I think people should learn what they want to learn. What a radical idea! Teachers should be guides and mentors, not fountains of knowledge. Learning should be fun. We should not “teach evolution” nor should we not teach evolution. We should not teach Dante or Cervantes (which any Italian or Spaniard will tell you we must teach). We should let kids follow their own interests. What are their interests by the way?

The Bureau of Labor Statistics polled several hundred children who live in and around New York City (in 2012) who were between 5 and 12 years old. These are the career aspirations that they found the kids had in order of most desired:   

  1. astronaut
  2. musician
  3. actor
  4. dancer
  5. teacher
  6. firefighter
  7. policeman
  8. writer
  9. detective
10. athlete

In the U.K. they surveyed 1,000 children aged 6-16 and the results were similar.  They found that the top ten dream careers for children were:

1. Professional Athlete
2. Performer
3. Secret Agent
4. Fire fighter
5. Astronaut
6. Veterinarian
7. Doctor
8. Teacher
9. Pilot
10. Zoo Keeper

Since it was the STEM Centre that did this survey they determined that were all STEM careers and wasn’t that wonderful?

Could we just let kids be firemen (in simulation) until they get bored with that and then let them keep a simulated Zoo? Could we let them try to be detectives and astronauts  (in simulated worlds) or let them try to be actual writers and actors if that is what they want to be?

Why wouldn’t it be the school’s job to make sure that the fireman curricula taught about the physics of firefighting, and the chemistry of what causes fires, and how to deal with stressed people, and how to address the public in a crisis? Are these things STEM or are they the liberal arts? Who cares?

Could we let an aspiring actor play Romeo but allow him to research the part and think about how to rewrite Romeo for modern times and to learn why Verona was different from modern day Duluth? Why can’t we help our aspiring musicians learn to think hard about music, write music, and figure out how the music business works? Could all those things teach you to think too?

What definitely does not teach you to think is learning the right answer to put on a multiple choice test about Romeo and Juliet, or Cervantes, or Dante.

The problem here is that any university graduate (especially ones from the Ivies it seems) think that the courses they were forced to take in college have broadened them and made them better people. (This is the very definition of Cognitive Dissonance.) They never got to live an alternative life however. They never got to do something other than sit in a classroom and listen to lectures and prepare for tests or write essays about subjects they were forced to study, but may not have found very interesting. People are different. They should be allowed to be different.  

Our idea of education is a very elitist one. We are worried that everyone should have to read Romeo and Juliet. But why? How often does that come up in real life? We don’t need literature in order to discuss these same life issues. Discussing life through the works of Shakespeare sounds appealing to intellectuals, but it really is the hard way to do it and may never actually get the attention of most of the population who could be, and should be, in these same discussions.

I,  on the other hand, am worried that everyone should be capable of asking hard questions of politicians who spout nonsense and that everyone should learn to do something that is valuable in the society in which they live so they can earn a living. By no means do I think that they should be taught only technical skills but neither do I think that kids should be forced to study the liberal arts.

We learn to think by thinking. We think even as small children, amazingly, without the help of algebra or art history. What happens is that people stop kids from thinking by telling them the truth and failing to have  conversations with them that might challenge their beliefs or force them to defend their ideas. We learn to think through intellectual engagement and intellectual combat, not through indoctrination. 

Our entire notion of school is wrong. We need to stop “teaching” and we need to start letting kids explore their own interests with adult guidance. There is no need to defend the liberal arts. Make the choices interesting and then give them many choices. By this I do not mean choices of courses to take. Enough with courses and classes. Let them choose experiences to have. It is our job to build potential experiences for them, guide them through the ones they have chosen, and offer alternatives when they change their minds.


jake said...


As always, I fully agree with you. I 100% believe in your approach and it is exactly what I am trying to achieve at The Pacific School of Innovation and Inquiry.

As you already know, your vision of education works! I put it to the test on a daily basis and the learning I get is vastly superior to the old, regurgitation model.

I have learners developing engineering and media startups. They are actively engaging "real world" clients and are getting the closest experience I can give them to how it actually all works. The learning that they have done is incredible and their growth has blown me away.

I am 100% on side. Please let me know how I can help you.

Professorredbag said...

Engines for Education was a significant validation of my own beliefs about learning and how it can be facilitated. It is emboldening to know we are not alone. My beliefs (approach) and methods have been challenged by status quoers in all 7 countries where I have worked over the past 20 years as a facilitator of learning (aka teacher), despite most of my students setting records of academic and personal achievement.

I would appreciate any comments on the Approach, called PRIME, the description of which can be found at

Thank you Mr. Schank.

HangZhouMan said...

"which any Italian or Spaniard will tell you we must each" --> "teach".

Great post. you can delete my comment and fix the typo. when i am at my most passionate i would have at least 14 typos in something this long. well done!

Tim McClung said...

have you had any conversation with the folks at Lumiar Schools..they seem to have embraced what this article's message wholeheartedly

Unknown said...

Roger, I am sorry to say the key misunderstanding in this blog post is evidenced in the very first sentence : “The problem with working on changing education is that everyone has an opinion”.

Why is that a problem ? Only someone who thinks education is about getting the proper technique in place would make such a statement.

It seems to me education is as much about forming character and disposition as it is about learning facts and figures. Its about initiating kids into a culture. That’s also why everyone is entitled to an opinion.

In German, the word for education is “buildung”. Just reading the word perfectly communicates the central idea of schooling: it’s about forming the next generation for a certain purpose.

Bearing that in mind, the idea of having kids choose their own area of learning is patently silly. Every 10 year old boy wants to be a fire fighter; if he was told that is what he would spend his time on at school I bet even he would be shocked.

Someone said after his own accomplishment that he was able to do what he did because was standing on the shoulders of giants. First elevating people by understanding the past is what education is about - and what is not grasped here. Western culture is premised on Shakespeare, on Greek philosophy, on Rousseau, on Darwin, on knowing one’s own history. Skipping it all in favor of letting the kids roll their own “fireman’s curriculum” isn’t the way to go.