IN DEFENSE OF LIBERAL ARTS EDUCATION - 4 April 2015

Origami Crane Mobile - Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Massachusetts

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Sometimes I wonder why some people can't understand what I'm talking about. Despite being as rational and literate as I can be, it's hard to know why some people might look at me like I'm from another planet when I'm explaining something that makes perfect sense to me. For sure, I know it takes two to communicate and half the problem of understanding is mine. Still, when I'm doing everything I know to try to explain a concept yet I'm not being able to break through, I wonder if what I'm talking about is so foreign that the communication can't happen. I wonder what might be going on that limits understanding new and different concepts. The first thing that comes to mind is this: if you are trained to a single solution and a single approach to things, it's probably very difficult to understand new and different. What type of education tends to teach multiple answers and multiple solutions? A liberal education.

I completed my Master's degree in Aerospace Engineering in a single semester of very deep immersion in school. Due to timing, I did the whole second half of my masters in that single semester after not doing anything technical math-wise in about seven years. To say I was in over my head is to understate the situation.

Because I was seven years removed from my previous work and, in that time, computer technologies became much more common, there were courses that took for granted a student's general understanding of some technical concepts. I took one of those courses. It was Numerical Methods, which is the study of numerical approximation of mathematical analysis. Essentially, the course explored how to get a computer to calculate things like curves and such using ones and zeros.

While I liked to claim I understood math fairly well, I did not understand this type of math very well at all. In fact, a better claim would have been that I knew how to manipulate math formulas versus actually understanding them. You see, the instructor for this course was a fairly theoretical kind of guy who tended to talk over the heads of us students. For the first couple of weeks, I remember spending a lot of time at every one of his office hours trying to understand how to do the homework. On one occasion, I must have frustrated him because he commented out loud during one of our sessions to no one in particular, "Should I tell these students how to answer the question, or just let them flounder?" That was the last time I went to his office hours. And, that course turned out to be the only B I got that semester.

After the fact, I remembered a story he brought up. His wife was a high school calculus teacher. He explained that there was a continuing discussion at home about the benefit of the cookbook approach to calculus versus truly understanding the math. The cookbook approach is essentially about memorization and recognition. You memorize formulas. Then, your exercises are about recognizing when to apply the formulas. This memorization and recognition approach was mostly my experience of calculus through high school and most of college. I didn't really grasp the meaning of that until many years later.

The benefit of the high school approach to math is it's fairly easy to understand and implement for most folks. Memorization isn't too hard, and recognition isn't too much of a problem either. Because of my good skills at this approach, I felt confident I could derive formulas and find solutions for anything.

I was wrong.

I remember trying to analyze concepts based on formulas I memorized that eventually only turned into logic circles. I could not prove things without needing the very things I was trying to prove. Clearly, that's not sufficient. Not until later did I recognize that depending on manipulating a given set of formulas over and over left me with a very limited palette to tackle a very unpredictable world of challenges.

Why is this important? It goes back to what I mentioned at the beginning, a liberal education. By having a very deep technical education, I was highly skilled at the specific technology in which I was trained. But my training didn't make me adaptable to new situations and circumstances. That's the problem with technical training - too often it is about single answers rather than the more nuanced view that comes with a liberal education.

Certainly, I'm not saying technical skills aren't necessary. In fact, I would be the first to support Science Technology Engineering and Math (STEM) education in general. But, if all you get in STEM education is "how to manipulate formulas," what you know might not be very adaptable to today's new and different challenges.

A liberal education gives you an ability to understand things beyond the formulas. It gives you the skills to connect dots that have never been connected before. It makes you flexible. It makes you adaptable. It helps you form a good argument. And, it helps you root out those arguments that don't make sense. Liberal arts skills enhance everything you've done with your technical skills. The most telling part of this logic is: if it's hard to understand the benefits, a bit more liberal arts education would probably solve that problem, too.

Cheers

Tom Hill