TITLE: Failure and the Liberal Arts AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford DATE: June 17, 2011 12:28 PM DESC: ----- BODY: Many people are talking about Conan O'Brien's recent commencement address at Dartmouth, in which he delivered vintage Conan stand-up for fifteen minutes and a thoughtful, encouraging, and wise message about failure. We talk about the virtues of failure in many contexts, including start-ups, agile software development, and learning. O'Brien reminds us that failure hurts. It makes us question our dreams and ourselves. But out of the loss can come conviction, creation, and re-creation. Indeed, it is in failing to achieve the ideals we set for ourselves that ends up making us who we are. Your dream will change. That's okay. If you haven't seen this speech, check it out. It really is quite good, both entertaining and educational. If you are not particularly a fan of O'Brien's stand-up, you can skip to 15:40 or even 16:15 to get to the important message at its heart. I've been thinking about failure and liberal arts colleges in New England in recent days, as my daughter prepares to head off for the latter with a little fear of the former. So this talk meant a lot to me. She isn't sure yet what she wants to major in or do for a living. This has been tough, because she has felt subtle pressure from a lot of people that she should have a big dream, or at least have a specific goal to work toward. But she likes so many things and isn't ready to specialize yet. So she went looking for a liberal arts college. Then she hears a lot about unemployed English grads, students who lack practical job skills, and 20-somethings with crushing loan debts and no prospect of paying them off. That's where the fear comes in... But I think people are making a fallacious connection between undergraduate education and professional prospects. First of all, a student can go to school with a particular job path in mind, amass huge debt, and enter a profession that doesn't pay well enough to pay it off. I saw news articles in the last year that talked about problems some grads have faced with degrees in social work and counseling psychology. There is nothing wrong with these degrees per se, but the combination of low median pay and debt amassed even at public schools can be deadly. Second, and perhaps more important, many people seem to misunderstand the nature of a liberal education. They think it means studying only "soft" academic disciplines in the humanities, such as literature, history, and philosophy. Maybe that is what most people mean by the term, but I think about it more broadly as the freedom to read and study widely. Liberal arts majors are not limited to studying only in the humanities. They can study literature and also economics, chemistry, and international relations. They can study languages and also political science and a little math; history and also graphic design. They could even learn a little computer programming. The sciences are part of a liberal education. I think CS can be, too. And the small size of many liberal arts majors gives students the freedom to sample broadly across the spectrum of human knowledge and skills. The danger of a liberal arts education is that some students and professors take it as license to study only in the humanities. But the ultimate value of a liberal arts education lies not in that narrow circle, as valuable and rewarding as it can be in its own right. The value lies in intersections: the ability to understand them, the ability to recognize them, and the ability to work in them. It is most desirable to learn something about a lot of different things, even real problems and real solutions in the modern world. Put together with a few key skills, the combination is powerful. Just as it's important not to be too narrowly trained, it's important not to be too narrowly "liberally educated". So I've encouraged my daughter not to worry about her lack of narrow focus just yet. She has a lot to learn yet, most importantly about the challenging problems that will vex humanity in the coming century. Many of them lie at the intersection of several disciplines, and solving them will be the responsibility of well-prepared minds. -----