Students, academics and employers debate the merit of general knowledge

Ben Wolford

Weighing the value of a liberal education

Amy Douglass is an integrated social studies major and doesn’t see how a course in science could possibly further her career.

“I feel like it’s a waste of time and energy that could be spent toward history-related things,” the Kent State sophomore said. “If I’m not going to be using it every day, why waste my money on it?”

It’s a question politicians and higher education administrators across the country are wrestling with every day. And as Ohio continues to be the poster child for the struggling economy, it bears a special urgency in this state. In fundamental terms, the question is simple: Is there more value in a general education or a vocational one?

The answer is more elusive.

For most people – academics and employers – that answer is a shade of gray. But for a lot of students at Kent State, the issue is much more black and white.

“Some of the LERs (Liberal Education Requirements) could be more tailored towards my major,” said junior history major Brad Baranowski. This semester he’s taking Seven Ideas that Shook the World, a basic course in physics.

“It’s interesting. The professor I have is a good professor,” he said. “But for history, you have to take so many sciences. In my career, I’m not ever going to say, ‘Hey, I feel like splitting the atom.'”

Students who recognize the importance of LERs still said they wouldn’t take them if it were up to them.

“They’re important because they help you to become a more well-rounded person,” said junior zoology major Matt Eggert. “But I would much rather focus on zoology or biology classes.”

Education philosopher George Harrison, a professor emeritus of Kent State, blames the tendency toward training for specialized skills on societal forces.

“We have to recognize that there is tremendous, tremendous cultural and social pressure on students to see education as preparation for a certain kind of doing and not just, so to speak, well-roundedness,” Harrison said. “So (liberal education) is a notion that is very hard for students to entertain.”

And that cultural emphasis on teaching marketable skills, Kent State President Lester Lefton said, is undermining the university’s goal of creating an informed society. It’s killing critical thinking.

“Finding facts is easy,” he said. “Interpreting them, putting them in a context and understanding what they mean doesn’t come from learning how to use Microsoft Word.”

It’s the task of a liberal education institution to teach citizens how to interpret, contextualize and understand facts, not just know them, Lefton said. And when the going gets tough economically, such thinkers become even more important.

“There’s always going to be a need for workforce development,” he said. “But there’s a greater need for entrepreneurs, for scientists, for thinkers, for leaders, for political theorists.”

David Ellison would like some thinkers.

He owns the D. H. Ellison Co. architecture firm in Cleveland and said he’s had trouble hiring Kent State graduates. He has had to fire two of the five he did hire, at least partly because they lacked a broad foundational knowledge of other disciplines.

Ellison dug up a quote from the Roman architect Vitruvius that mirrors his philosophy.

“‘The architect should be equipped with knowledge of many branches of study and varied kinds of learning, for it is by his judgment that all work done by the other arts is put to the test,'” he recited. “And so I think the broader the education for an architect, the better. In fact, it’s almost like you shouldn’t even become an architect until you’ve got a broad liberal arts education.”

In other industries, the liberal curriculum is less imperative, but couldn’t hurt, said Tom Clevenger, a partner in the Northeast Ohio-based accounting firm Bruner-Cox LLP. Rather than a philosophy course being intrinsically valuable, he said, it’s the skills that come from learning such a discipline that are useful.

“We deal with clients, we deal with the public, we deal with the IRS, we deal with shareholders,” Clevenger said. “So communication skills, whether it’s writing or speaking, are very important. Typically, in liberal arts there’s more writing involved.”

But some wonder, in practical terms, how much can really be gained from a big LER lecture class.

Leonne M. Hudson, associate professor of history, teaches a United States Formative Period course that would have made a decent militia – 360 students. Even so, he said he’s been able to make the course productive.

“If it were smaller, maybe they would be more willing to interact with their professor and their colleagues. I think they’re just more tentative,” he said. “The size probably works to them not being as open to discuss. But over the years, I’ve been able to do some of that even in a large class, bring out some discussion.”

Harrison, in some of his works, has made the case that a university must not only teach the facts of a subject, but it must also teach the foundations of the subject so that students understand the “organizational processes” behind it. A subject such as biology or economics or political science is merely the result of a human effort to add structure, to make sense of the world.

“How did the subject get to be the subject?” Harrison said. “When you were 15 years old, you knew some biology even if you had never taken a course in biology because you’d looked at a flower, because you saw leaves turn red, you saw leaves fall. But what you didn’t do is you didn’t put those biological events or experiences into a logical order.”

Hudson thinks he has been able to get at that in his history courses.

“Not only do I deal with facts and, of course, the content,” he said, “I try desperately hard to deal with the ‘why’ question in history – why things happened the way they did. In other words, I try to bring some analysis to my classroom lectures, and in that case, it’s more than just fact-based.

“And most of the students are ‘getting’ the analytical aspect of the course.”

But there’s still an expectation that something tangible must come from education, an unfortunate condition, Harrison said.

The idea occurred to him at one of his first job interviews when he couldn’t convince the interviewer he majored in history for its own sake.

“The interviewer asked me, ‘Why did you major in history?’ I said, ‘Because I like it.’ So she said, ‘Well yes, but why did you major in it?’

“She couldn’t understand it,” Harrison said. “That’s terribly revealing,”

He said some things should be learned if only to enhance the human experience.

“What the humanities reveal is that larger world of hope and desire and tragedy.”

Contact administration reporter Ben Wolford at [email protected].