I write a lot of copy for higher education websites and recruitment campaigns, and I am fully aware of the skepticism that greets proponents of the humanities these days. In the past few years, liberal arts institutions have been challenged to defend their very existence (or at least their tuition), as their students struggled to find jobs after graduation. The new mantra is: follow your passion (e.g., writing)…but make sure it leads to a real job on day one (e.g., writing software).
All this negativity hurts the feelings of sensitive English majors like me, and more importantly, it’s just wrong. For many critics of liberal arts education, practicality trumps all; they are ignoring the lessons of the tech revolution. Remember: “it’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that…makes our heart sing,” to paraphrase that poet Steve Jobs.
Of course, there are little things like massive student debt to consider. But I’m not here to defend the cost of liberal arts education, just the theory.
The reason I’m on this rant has less to do with higher ed, and more to do with…lower ed. A recent project I worked on introduced me to a K-12 program that is so interdisciplinary in nature that it could turn even would-be poets into scientists. The program is called a Trail to Every Classroom, sponsored by the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, and it is part of a family of programs (Forest for Every Classroom, Park for Every Classroom, Iditarod Trail to Every Classroom) that utilize place-based service learning concepts.
Imagine if the Appalachian Trail ran through your town, somewhere between Georgia and Maine, and you had teachers who used the Trail to teach math, science, reading, writing, art, music, and history lessons. Now imagine that these lessons also incorporated projects that benefited the local community, increasing knowledge about and connection with the place where you live. Restoring a stream, inventorying species, reclaiming a park, solving local problems.
After experiencing this kind of curriculum, students would have gained plenty of “practical” skills like measuring, using microscopes, calculating, analyzing, observing and communicating. Their perspectives on the world around them would have significantly broadened. What’s more, they would have developed problem-solving and critical-thinking skills––which is what every college promises to do. Believe me, I know.
These kids will be the liberal arts majors of the future and when they graduate from college, damned if there won’t be real jobs waiting on day one.