The “How” And The “What”

Over the summer, when I read Fareed Zakaria’s book, In Defense of a Liberal Education, I learned about the recent founding of the Yale-NUS College in Singapore. I was smitten (and was even looking for the best flight deals so that I could visit — couldn’t quite find that!). I love what they’re about, and I’m excited to keep up with their program.

Just this morning, I read Michael Roth’s short article in The Atlantic, “American Liberal Education is Happening in Singapore.” This is a very good piece, for it continues to clarify the debate in this country between liberal arts learning and vocational training. Here is Roth talking about this issue in the context of visiting Yale-NUS College’s grand opening:

Here we were, in Singapore, to launch a new American-style college, while back in the United States the principles of that model—broad, contextual, and conceptual study—were under enormous pressure. The irony wasn’t lost on any of us. Education leaders across Asia have become interested in moving away from exam-dominated curricula and their requisite memorization and toward experiential, interdisciplinary learning aimed at exploring connections between research and action. Having traditionally insisted on early vocational specialization, universities in India, Korea, and China are now considering how best to encourage the inquiry, collaboration, and experimentation that are key to the American traditions of liberal education. These are traditions that I, as the president of Wesleyan University and author of Beyond the University: Why Liberal Education Matters, champion.

In an earlier blog post, I referenced the attempt by Governor Walker’s administration in Wisconsin to re-write the University’s mission, a rhetorical move that would have upended The Wisconsin Idea and the sensibility behind liberal arts ideals. Walker’s sentiment isn’t a one-party position, however; the tension between liberal arts and vocational learning is a national conversation about the purpose of an education.

This conversation, however, is built on a false dichotomy. And false dichotomies can cordon people into camps that they themselves would abhor being part of. “For many Americans who labor in the fields of liberal education,” Roth continues in his article in The Atlantic,

it has recently felt like a drought as financial support and public understanding dries up. During this time of arid anxiety—in which so many pundits and policymakers are calling for quick utilitarian nanodegrees or certificates—even defenders of broad inquiry often find themselves promising to quench the public’s thirst for a return-on-investment with a vocational justification of liberal-arts education.

So, it seems that education leaders and teachers have to make a choice: either join “Camp Vocation” or “Camp Liberal Arts.”

This must be resisted.

First of all, it can cause otherwise well-intentioned teachers to take up, on the one hand, a purely utilitarian stance on education — i.e., learning as simply a means to an end, that end being, for many in this country, a well-paying job. Or, it can cause one to adopt an atavistic position on a liberal arts education resulting in teachers and education leaders dismissing anything innovative in teaching and learning and hunkering down with “the way things used to be.”

Why on Earth would we settle for this either/or thinking?

This is why I love LifeReady. McDonogh’s Plan finds a third position and answers the shared call to, on the one hand, honor the deep value that a broad liberal arts education affords students while, on the other, simultaneously preparing young people with the skills to be strong, contributing citizens for a global-minded, pluralistic, and unknown world. It does so — and this is where I think Roth’s article could use a little development — because LifeReady sees pedagogy as the way forward when talking about how to develop in students the capacity to problem-solve, to collaborate, to innovate. Roth continues,

Like many others, I have defended liberal education by demonstrating why vocational training alone is inadequate—but often pointing to the long-term career benefits of broad learning. In an effort to appeal to students and their parents, I’ve learned how to make arguments for the utility of contextual and conceptual learning; I can cite the evidence for the lifelong economic advantages of a broad course of study; I’m able to point to illustrious examples of “innovators” who draw on their humanistic study to productively “disrupt” an economic sector.

I like all of what Roth says, and I agree. But what he doesn’t address is the pedagogy itself; he stays at the level of the “what” in coursework, but he doesn’t get to the idea of the “how.” Both are critical, for they nourish each other as they combine to clear a path past the unfortunate dichotomy I mention above.

When done well, pedagogical frameworks, like Project-Based Learning, deliver core liberal arts content — what we’ve always taught (and for good reason!) — via an approach that awakens the faculties in students that will serve more practical ends. To be fair, Roth does mention Dewey and the value of different “perspectives and methodologies.” It’s that final word, “methodologies,” that gestures towards the “how.”

Perhaps either/or vocational training/liberal arts makes for good news. It doesn’t make for good thinking, though. I prefer to live in the world of both/and.

What do you think?


About kcosta380

Kevin J. Costa is the Director of The Curiosity Shop at McDonogh School (Owings Mills, Maryland), the school's Community for Teaching & Learning. He is the founding director of the school’s Institute for Shakespeare and Renaissance Studies, an interdisciplinary program that explores the plays and history of Early Modern England through a scholar/practitioner approach. Kevin is also education director for the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company in Baltimore, MD. He holds a PhD in English with a concentration in Shakespeare, Renaissance literature, and drama, and has taught at the secondary and postsecondary levels. Kevin has trained in classical theater at the American Conservatory Theatre in San Francisco, and he was the recipient of a National Endowment for the Humanities award to study the teaching of Shakespeare at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, DC, where he now serves as a teaching artist for the Library’s National Teacher Corps. Active on stage and as a director with the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company, he is also a proud member of the Shakespeare Theatre Association, an international organization of Shakespeare theater companies.
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3 Responses to The “How” And The “What”

  1. Wright Abbot says:

    I could not agree more with the necessity of avoiding either/or thinking on the issue of education’s purpose. One can certainly think that way for oneself–it is easy to see how an individual might do well to be predisposed to see education from a utilitarian standpoint, for instance–but clearly states and countries need both people who are focused on a single pursuit and people who focus more broadly so that they can adapt nimbly to changing conditions and perhaps even be agents of positive change. On some level, I feel that this idea should be self-evident.


  2. kcosta380 says:

    Self-evident, indeed. Sadly, that’s not evident (enough) in the discourse. Thanks for your post.


  3. Pingback: #MustRead Shares (weekly) | it's about learning

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