“I stayed away from mathematics not so much because I knew it would be hard work as because of the amount of time I knew it would take, hours spent in a field where I was not a natural.”
— Carl Sandburg
Carl Sandburg is a poet, the author of my favorite poem. I’ve been thinking a lot about his quote this past week, which I’ve spent reading through the Zen Valedictorian articles over at Study Hacks. The articles are a better-expressed version of a life outlook that I’ve written about some on HackCollege, and which I espouse to anyone who will stand still in person: at some point, being the over-stressed, over-extended student in an attempt to be Tracy Flick will fail you. More importantly, even if it’s something that you can manage, at least for a little while, it’s still not an efficient use of your time. The students who stand out are the ones who become very good at something they enjoy. Colleges don’t tell their students that, though, and so you get the sort of student that the Zen Valedictorian articles are critiquing–over-worked and not particularly outstanding.
What tied the quote and the articles together for me, though, was this article. I agree with some of the author’s arguments (none of which are new–she’s questioning the value of master’s programs in the liberal arts), but what interested me was the comments. They followed the same narrative as they do on every article like this, which is, roughly:
ENGINEER: Liberal arts degrees, and the liberal arts, are useless. You deserve to be poor if you don’t have a technical skill.
ENGLISH MAJOR: College teaches you something beyond just skills! There are valuable experiences there! It’s not just votech!
Both arguments annoy me.
Engineers, and MSTE folks in general* seem to think that a lack of aptitude in a technical field is a sign of laziness, or stupidity. I think the Sandburg quote is the best illustration I’ve seen of why that’s not true. I’m smart–really smart. I do well in my math and science classes–as did Sandburg, I suspect. However, just like in the quote, the A that I got in AP Calculus required so much more effort of me than my A in AP Language. This isn’t an intelligence thing. The kid who got the A without any effort in that math class traded papers with me for English exercises, and–though he was bright, and a good writer–his brain clearly did not do words with the ease that it handled numbers. You don’t want engineers who have to work twice as hard to be good. It’s inefficient.
However, being able to write and reason well is a technical skill, and a valuable one. Engineers, in fact, frequently lack it–and their education does little to fix that. However, so do many liberal arts educations. It would be harder for those outside the liberal arts to keep making that same argument if liberal arts educations actually did much to force students to be good writers.
I got through my freshman year at a school which is well above average in the amount of writing it requires from its underclassmen without writing a paper longer than 7 pages. I didn’t write a paper in English that was longer than 5. If the liberal arts took a cue from their MSTE brethren and started treating the liberal arts education–at least a little–as if it was a votech environment, I think the respect given to the degrees (as well as actual measurable skills in graduates) would go up. Discussion classes with three-page papers do not do this.
College is awesome, and there’s a lot of good that comes from being around a diverse group of peers for several years, but it’s not some magical, mystical fairy land. You get better at the things the liberal arts are supposed to teach you by actually doing those things, and I often feel as if that’s not quite the focus in my classes. Students who don’t have an MSTE bent are just as valuable and employable as their mechanically-minded counterparts, and can succeed in environments where they’re allowed to do what they’re good at. However, for that to work–and for the Zen Valedictorian thing to be true–those alternative majors and degrees have to be worth students’ time and effort.
* At least the ones commenting on the internet.