“What are you going to school for?” is one of the most common questions a college student is asked. Unfortunately, replying, “For the sake of learning in and of itself” usually doesn’t cut it. In an age of specialization and unparalleled technological advancement, many courses of study, especially those in the social sciences and humanities, have been deemed impractical and even wasteful because they lack utility and an external value in the modern world.
Thinkers such as Assistant Professor of Philosophy Tushar Irani and University President Michael Roth have posited that the intrinsic value of education cannot be ignored. In fact, this intrinsic value produces the ever-desirable skill of critical thinking. But what is critical thinking in the 21st century?
Critical thinking can be an elusive term. Its basic definition is the objective analysis and evaluation of an issue in order to form a judgment. But we will be asked to do much more than form judgments once we leave the University.
To understand critical thinking, one must first look toward the tradition of the liberal arts. Going back to its origins, the liberal arts have involved inculcating students with the skills necessary to be active in civic life, such as participating in debate, defending oneself in court, being an informed and impartial member of a jury, and taking part in military service. Coincidentally, my high school used to have a military requirement that turned into an optional battalion within the school that began around the time of the Civil War. In that age, it was seen as necessary that young people, predominantly white males, needed not only critical thinking skills, but also military skills to contribute to and improve their society. One could argue that the same push is being made today with technology, under a variety of aliases.
Currently, computer science is the best major to choose for the highly coveted first job. Comp-sci majors are in demand, just as soldiers were in previous eras and just as another profession will be given time. There is a danger, however, in over-specializing for the ever-changing modern economy. Educating someone to fit one function may work for the time being, but as time goes on new skills are demanded and older skills become superfluous in an economy that has new demands.
This ever-changing economy is exactly why the intrinsic value of education is so important. Learning for the sake of learning wins out in the long term over the short-term demands of the economy. That is not to say that a computer science major is necessarily one-dimensional. One should be wary, though, of the demands of today’s economy and their allure: promises of fortune and assurances of utility privileged over other courses of study that do not directly prepare one for a specific job.
In his recent article in the New Republic, President Roth emphasizes pragmatism in liberal education, something that critics of the liberal arts argue does not exist in the esoteric and impractical world of the arts, humanities, and social sciences.
“Pragmatic liberal education in America aims to empower students with potent ways of dealing with the issues they will face at work and in life,” Roth writes. “That’s why it must be broad and contextual, inspiring habits of attention and critique that will be resources for students years after graduation. In order to develop this resource, teachers must address the student as a whole person—not just as a tool kit that can be improved.”
As Roth chronicles in his most recent book, “Beyond the University: Why Liberal Education Matters,” critics of the liberal arts go all the way back to Benjamin Franklin and stretch forward to present-day pundits, many of whom benefited from a liberal education themselves. Franklin saw institutions such as Harvard as being elitist and inutile, merely teaching means of politeness and offering faux learning consisting of a developed vocabulary of the “classics.” Franklin, like many more libertarian thinkers today, believed that higher education was simply a waste of money and time. True learning, for thinkers like Franklin, who was entirely self-educated, happened on one’s own. With the rise of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), this kind of education is becoming increasingly feasible.
Two classes I have taken at Wesleyan also offered MOOCs: HIST 201: The Modern and Post-Modern with President Roth, and PSYC 260: Social Psychology with Professor of Psychology Scott Plous. The latter class has enrolled a total of more than 260,000 students since he began teaching it, putting the “massive” in Massive Online Open Courses. Things must get lost in translation, though, in the MOOC versions of these classes. Through a residential educational experience, we can cultivate ourselves in a way that couldn’t be done in front of a computer.