Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Education: Specific or General?

During this time of  year, students will be preparing for their college entrance exams: a very trying time not only for students but also for parents. A professor writing in the Peace Weekly notes that many students being interviewed for the exams are unable to answer the easiest of the questions. Their faces turn red and they cry, he says, which prompts him to ask a question he cannot refrain from asking: What is the reason for education?

The big difference between high school and college, he believes, is the student's decision to pick a major in college. The hope is that picking a good major and going deeply into it will enable one to find work and to succeed in one's chosen field. There would be few students who, on graduating, would not be thinking about what they will be doing with their major. There is a connection, most students believe, between picking a major that immediately prepares them for their future work--a connection that would be missing if they were to take any of the humanities, making them unable to compete in the marketplace with the better prepared students.  What is the realty? the professor asks.

He uses the example of the United States: Those who graduate with degrees from the humanities find work in many areas of life. Those who are in the field of education say the study of the humanities--though not immediately helpful in the marketplace--in the long run is a better choice in college. The days of staying on the job for a lifetime, he says, is over. A person who started off in his major and remains in that work for more than 10 years is not the norm. Persons change, work changes, just as the rivers and mountains change.

The business magazine Forbes reported last year that more than 60 percent of college graduates find work in a field outside their major. Which is the reason many are saying it is better to have a general and transferable education in preparation for both work and life.

During the Victorian days in England Cardinal Henry Newman was asked to start a university in Ireland, prompting him to write the book "The Idea of a University," from which the professor quotes the following: "A university  should be teaching a variety of subjects. Students can major in a small number of subjects but should immerse themselves in the traditions of the university and to  understand the whole outline of the system of knowledge, the underlying principles of knowledge, the breath of each course of study, their shadow and their light, the good and the bad points. General education is to cultivate the philosophic inclinations of the mind towards personal liberty, balance, serenity, the golden mean, and wisdom."

The professor ends by mentioning that about the same time as Newman, Wilhelm Von Humboldt in Germany took the initiative in starting a research university, whose ideas spread throughout the world. Now in the 21st century, the ideas of Newman are being rediscovered  and interest in the humanities is returning to the world of education, aided, it is believed, by the rapid changes in the world. The movement away from the modern specialization of education to a more general liberal arts education is, the professor says, a necessary step back into the past, where, as Newman believed, learning was valued for its own sake.  The professor would like to tell parents of high school students who are preparing for college in the humanities not to worry, for it is the most modern of the majors and the one that will give them the best opportunity for a fulfilling life. 

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