Four-year college isn’t necessarily for everyone. Start with that proposition. How could one argue with such a practical thesis? I agree, but not for the economic reasons Mitch Pearlstein cited in his recent essay on postsecondary education (“Who — who? — will take the road less traveled by?” June 2).
Four years of college is not for everyone because we all learn differently. Howard Gardner laid out this thesis brilliantly 40 years ago in his book “Frames of Mind.” He outlines many kinds of intelligence: linguistic, mathematical, spatial, musical, personal, bodily and kinesthetic intelligence. We are each drawn to different modes of interacting with our perceptual and physical universe early on, and we hone those preferences throughout our lifetime. Some are drawn to abstract concepts, others to working in the physical world.
But the arguments against four-year college degrees made by Pearlstein (a man who, incidentally, holds several university degrees) are not about learning styles, but more about economics. The picture he paints is dire. Do you really want your kid living in your basement as a college dropout with a mountain of debt? “Shake your head if the answer is ‘no’!”
The cost of higher education today is appalling and in the near future the country is going to have to find some political remedies for this situation. But that is not the subject of this essay. My task here is to defend the intrinsic value of such an educational experience, especially at this time.
I mention for starters that, for those who are interested in learning, four year college offers more than the football games and drinking-and-sex social culture that is presented in stereotypes. Students are in college primarily to expand their thinking and interact with their professors. They learn that ideas are interesting. History has lessons to teach us. Logic is important when sorting through the barrage of lies and myths perpetuated by today’s so-called internet and the trolls and “fake news” it disseminates.
And that brings me to the greatest argument for higher education: the preservation of democracy.
We are all (at least potentially) voters. We all have a say in our electoral system. Some of us are also candidates, putting ourselves forward to help solve the problems of living in common: roads, poverty, health care, to mention a few. In order to preserve our democratic system, we need to have tools to understand modern life and to understand ourselves. The study of ideas and thought advances this process.
For democracy to succeed, we must understand individual freedom (John Stuart Mill’s “On Liberty”), believe in equality (“All men are created equal” from the Declaration of Independence) and practice tolerance (the Enlightenment philosophers and Voltaire’s famous quotation “I may disagree with what you say but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”) The study of logic and ethics from Aristotle may also help you discern trolls’ posts and arguments from actual reality. The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius may remind you of the basic obligations of being human.
On an individual level, study in college will introduce you to curiosity about how others experience life (Virginia Woolf’s novel “To the Lighthouse,” an interior study), to what flexibility in thinking demonstrates (Carl Jung or Machiavelli), or to compassion from reading (Victor Hugo, Charles Dickens or Sigrud Undset’s “Kristin Lavransdatter,” the first novel that ever caused me as a young girl to cry while reading.)
As part of a project initiated recently by the advisory board to the Department of English at the University of Minnesota, we asked a variety of people in a host of working situations why they supported the idea of a four-year liberal arts education and how that education prepared them for the world of work in a changing time. Here are some of the responses:
Doug Baker, chairman and CEO of Ecolab: “A liberal arts education teaches people how to think, speak and write clearly, evaluate their own and other people’s ideas and acquire new knowledge. It trains students to thrive in subjectivity and ambiguity, a necessary skill in today’s world where few things are constant.”
Wayne Gisslen, author of “Professional Cooking” (now in its ninth edition): “My first job after graduation was for a management position in a manufacturing firm. I was interviewed by the president of the company. During the interview, I said something apologetic about not having taken business courses. He shook his head. ‘You can learn that here. What I want to know is, Can you think? Can you communicate? Can you analyze? Looking at your grades as an English major, I’m guessing you can do those things.’ ”
Bob Kierlin, founder and former CEO of Fastenal: “Over my life I have noticed more English majors doing work that seems unrelated to their field of study. I have found English majors doing excellent work as computer systems specialists, telecommunications experts and even a go-to expert in vacuum cleaner repair!”
Tim Nolan, attorney and author of several books of poems: “Really, what you are doing often as a trial lawyer is you’re taking information in, you’re distilling it and then you’re telling a story. And if you’ve got a jury, you’ve got to tell a compelling story in an interesting way.”
David Hartman, director of business development at Luther Westside Volkswagen: “My father often asks me how much of my high-priced education I use in sales. I tell him that as an English major I was taught to read, interpret and feed back. In sales my ability to tell a story, to relate to the customer, is at the core of the process.”
And finally, a testimonial on lifelong learning from Charles Neerland, retired business consultant: “The study of language is at the heart of liberal arts. Even in the internet age, the word is still the beginning. Keats said: ‘Truth is beauty and beauty is truth.’ Because of my education in liberal arts I have a dim sense of what that means. How lucky can a guy get?”
Judith Koll Healey is a Minneapolis writer.