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The Liberal Arts Pedagogy vs. the “Other Education” of Texas A&M

October 28, 2011

A while back, I received a letter via the University Honors listserv (although I’m vaguely aware that now, “University Honors” is called something like “Honors and Undergraduate Research,” which represents a restatement of focus that’s a discussion for a different time) inviting me to participate in a discussion on Texas A&M’s commitment to becoming a top-10 public university. The email phrased it as such:

Join your fellow Aggies in an interactive dialogue aimed at identifying individual and collective responsibility to distinguish a Texas A&M education as a national benchmark for excellence.

This goal of being a top-10 public university in the nation is part of something called Vision 2020, which I honestly haven’t read about in detail and probably should do more research before I can responsibly address this topic. (However, I’m too lazy and I’ll blog what I want to.) At the time of receiving the email, however, I was quite aware of my ignorance of university educational philosophy and of Vision 2020 in general, and so I didn’t give any thought at all to participating in the discussion.

Everything changed when I was linked on Facebook to a guest column in the Battalion from a student whose subhead asked readers to tell him why excellence was worth the effort.

Gerald Spencer

Gerald Spencer, Photo from The Battalion

At first, the article seemed like a manifesto of the “average” lazy college student from an average, lazy college student. This student spoke candidly about things that would curdle the hopes and dreams of most liberal arts professors:

I am a history major. I’ve spent four and a half years here. In that time, I haven’t learned a single thing, other than a handful of very interesting, but useless facts.

If the methods I learned while studying were the focus of my education, then I learned how to write a 10-page paper in one night, how to scrape by with the least amount of studying and how to spend hours in a room without really learning anything.

If the leaders in that room want A&M to be a top-10 university, then they have to deal with people like me, who represent the average grade point ratios. Many students believe that college is no more than a check-mark demanded of them by society.

How do you motivate people like me to be excellent students? How can we extend the shared responsibility of making Texas A&M a top-10 institution to every student here?

How can professors work with such students? If a student does not have intrinsic motivation to learn, then how can anyone else tell him or her to have that motivation?

…Many of the comments in the Facebook discussion (and to the article itself) blamed the student:

Why do we have to engage him? He is a grown up, he needs to put his big boy pants on. There are many fantastic opportunities to learn at TAMU in the classes. It is not our job to motivate him, he needs to come ready to learn, after all he is paying for the education. I would have given my right arm to go to Poland for example with the history department.

…Other comments tended to react to the article as if Gerald simply didn’t know what he wanted to do, with varying degrees of criticism for his ignorance:

As an adult, he should know why he is there. It is no one’s fault but his own for not researching more into a topic of study. Motivation and initiative are required to be successful in any educational or career atmosphere. It’s sad that he felt that he should be so negative about his experience at TAMU. Sounds like he just didn’t really care about his education, otherwise he would have seen his experience there in a different light.

But as another commenter pointed out, this isn’t the full story of the article. In the first passage I quoted, the ellipsis I placed cuts out the crucial paragraph. Here it is:

The education that I cherish right now is the one I received while serving as a student leader, through four years in the Corps of Cadets and the Memorial Student Center. I told those in attendance that it felt like there was a complete disconnect between what I was being taught in the classroom and what I wanted to learn at Texas A&M.

In other words, even for this “average,” “lazy,” “unmotivated” college student, there is something that he cherishes. Something that motivates him. It’s just something completely outside of the classroom. In fact, he does know why he is here, and he does know what he wants to learn; there simply is a “complete disconnect” between what is taught in the classroom and what he is looking for.

Student leadership. Extracurricular involvement. Service.

When I saw these lines, I realized that, in many ways, I completely agreed with Gerald. And in fact, I’ve written about the importance of student organizations and extracurricular involvement as well.

I think that people in the university system get too caught up talking about “technical” education (or “professional,” or “vocational” education) vs. “liberal education” (and indeed, on Facebook, the discussion trended toward that dichotomy). And so, the person who originally linked to the article, in responding to a comment of mine, tried to frame “business majors” and “engineering majors” (to represent the technical philosophy of education) against a more well-rounded “liberal arts” education philosophy. He pointed out that technical education focuses on teaching people how to *do* something, while the liberal arts education teaches people how to *think*.

But this is an incorrect framing…or, at the very least, it may be useful, but it is irrelevant to the point that is actually being addressed. This underlying, unanswered point, even though it comes from a history major, could easily have come from a business major or an engineering major as it critiques and challenges all classroom learning, because all classroom learning can fall prey to what I’m about to describe.

Classroom learning is too much about facts. Theory. Conceptual frameworks. Material.

So, that’s why I can say that for me, the “professional” vs. “liberal” education dichotomy doesn’t really address what I want to talk about (and what I think is being missed from Gerald’s article). For example, many of my classes in business school don’t teach me how  to “do” things. Or rather, they do teach me how to “do” things, but those things are somewhat irrelevant to what I’d actually be doing on the job. And, even though I’m definitely not an engineer, I hear several engineering majors make similar remarks — they are learning stuff in class that no engineer would ever do on the job. (As a caveat, in most of these cases, that “stuff” is generally things that someone or something would do, but perhaps it would be automated by computer program, or outsourced to someone who specialized in that role. Or it would be something that even if you needed to know it, you could easily do research on the job for it, so it’s less important to know how to do that thing than it is to know how to research and solve problem.)

The Most Effective Way to Learn: An Example

Suppose I want to achieve a goal, and that goal requires me to work with other people. Perhaps in a formal organization, but perhaps not. I have to understand how to work in that organization. I have to understand how to work with others.

So, how might I go about learning how to work with others? Maybe I’ll take “technical” courses like various management courses. There are certainly classes on organizational development and structure.

What I will find in management classes is that I’m not really learning how to operate in an organization. I’m learning facts. Theory. A conceptual framework for organizations. Even worse, the conceptual framework doesn’t work well when applied…it’s either too simplified (and thus fails to account for the messiness of real world situations), or there is no bridge between theory and application in the first place, so it’s a mystery how you would even begin to apply it (and the theory doesn’t give you a roadmap for applying itself).

…so, management courses may not be the best. But maybe I can take a more well-rounded approach, and take liberal arts and social scientific courses? Since I’m dealing with people, maybe I want to take courses in psychology, sociology, and economics. Maybe I want to learn how to deal with diverse organizations, so I take courses in gender studies to round myself out (don’t want my male privilege showing, after all!)

But once again, these courses teach me facts. Theories. And they have the same problems of the management courses in that the conceptual framework is either too limited and clean for a messy real world…or there is no way to interface the theory with practice.

There is one way to learn how to work with an organization…it’s not easy…there aren’t pat answers. But when you begin to figure it out, it is quite satsifying. What’s the way? By being in an organization. You don’t regurgitate answers and then get graded. Rather, your grade is whether your organization can accomplish certain goals.

I’ve written about this in my article on the importance of extracurricular organizations, but I think that this crucial difference has become the foundation of many A&M traditions, integrated in A&M culture. The importance of the “other education,” the eschewal of which makes one a “2%er,” is that it is comprised of the hands-on experiences that teach what theory never can. And so, maybe it’s an exaggeration to say that someone who is only focused on school work has only participated in 2% of what all was offered educationally at the university level…but that hyperbole is the point. When someone gets an opportunity to serve as a leader, everything else seems utterly irrelevant in contrast. And that’s what Gerald means when he says:

…it felt like there was a complete disconnect between what I was being taught in the classroom and what I wanted to learn at Texas A&M.

It’s interesting that the proponents of liberal arts education will often say that instead of preparing students for specific careers, they are teaching them broad modes of thinking that will be applicable in many careers. If that is the case, then we should expect that students from liberal arts majors are broadly employable, or at the very least, that they don’t have a particular employability crisis. (And who knows…maybe that is the case. I haven’t done the research.)

But at least anecdotally, it seems to me that firms of all stripes care about extracurricular involvement, and more importantly, student leadership. And it seems that they care about it for the same reason that liberal arts proponents say liberal arts education matters: because student leadership teaches modes of thinking that are broadly applicable to many careers rather than being specialized to one career. So, whether Gerald worked with the Memorial Student Center or whether I worked with Texas A&M Fencing, it doesn’t matter…because the skills aren’t specific to these organizations. That’s what makes the “other education” so valuable. Now, what about liberal arts?

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