I ran across a headline recently that spoke to the value of a liberal arts education. Some thirty-five years ago, when I was approaching the idea of a post-secondary education, those kids with apparent academic ability only considered universities for future learning while those kids who were less academically inclined would often be directed toward colleges. There was really no in between. Colleges were kind of stigmatized at the time, at least among my peer group, and unless they were fine arts programs or chef school, they were deemed second-rate. Soon after, the pendulum began to swing in the other direction and as kids with college degrees began working in successful careers while philosophy majors and sociology majors became waiters and retail workers, the stigma disappeared and college degrees became more coveted.
I was one of those philosophical waiters.
I have the highest regard for skills. Particularly the ones I lack, which are innumerable. I could begin a list of all the things I can’t do but it would take too long. Most anything mechanical is beyond me. Technology feels like it left me behind. I’m wired one way and each of us is wired differently. I accept that and embrace it. But I can’t help but think that as we, as a society, have gravitated toward skills based education, perhaps we’ve lost a little something along the way.
In the same way we don’t value teachers and nurses and care-givers nearly as much as we should, I think that we’ve lost some respect for liberal arts and the humanities. In the course of human history, thinking has always been the most important element. No pyramid could be built, no bridge could be designed, no skyscraper erected, without the combined efforts of the labourers who suffered so terribly throughout history, the engineers who had the vision to create miracles, and the intellectuals who created the environment for such endeavours.
In these interesting times, I’ve become more and more convinced that those who are best able to understand today and tomorrow are the ones who have studied yesterday.
If we’re lucky, some of us will live the better part of a century. But most of us are too busy living to really look around. In the same way I rely on a plumber or an electrician to keep me safe from harm, we still need historians and philosophers to steer us away from danger. Who better than a historian to explain to us the current onset of fascist tendencies? Who better than a sci-fi writer to put a mirror in front of us to show us what we’ve become and where we may be headed? Who better than a philosopher to illustrate that human nature has changed little in the course of millennia and that if we can learn about Ancient Greeks, perhaps we can learn about ourselves?
I learned more about civil rights from folk music than I ever did in school. I learned more about Canada’s First Nations Peoples from novels and museums than I would have in university or college. I learned more history from the internet than I ever did from a text book.
I’m scattered on this but I suppose the essence of my thinking is that the opportunity to learn and educate each other is everywhere and when we disregard, or at least undervalue, some of the most elemental things, we do ourselves no service.
When we stop learning about ourselves, we’ll forget who we are. And when we forget who we are, we become less than we should be.