TITLE: Learning To Do Things, and the Liberal Arts AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford DATE: January 23, 2012 4:06 PM DESC: ----- BODY: Last summer, I wrote an entry, Failure and the Liberal Arts, which suggested (among things) that the value of a liberal education lies in the intersections between disciplines and ideas. This contrasts with the view seemingly held by many people that a liberal education means to study the "liberal arts", mostly the humanities and arts. The traditional liberal arts education faces a lot of challenges in the current cultural and economic climate. As colleges and universities cope with rising costs, increasing competition for students, and an unbundling of the university's products engendered by technology, undergraduate degrees filled only with history, literature, and upper-class culture -- and no obvious preparation for economic life after graduation -- creates another barrier to making a sale to prospective parents and students. The goals of a liberal education are laudable. How can we craft undergraduate experiences that help students to develop broad skills in reading, writing, and thinking? Isn't that what the traditional liberal arts do best? Timothy Burke nails the answer to these questions in this comment on his own blog:
... a person becomes most skilled at creating, making, innovating, thinking, in ways that have value in existing professions *and* in life through indirect means. Studying communication doesn't make you a better communicator, studying entrepreneurship doesn't make you a better entrepreneur, and so on. But this has huge, huge implications as a perspective for the content and practice of "liberal arts" as an educational object. ... Maybe learning to do things (creating, innovating, expressing, etc.) isn't advanced by anything resembling intensive study of a fixed body of knowledge, but by doing.
I couldn't agree more. This idea lies at the heart of my blog, in both theme and name: knowing and doing. Learning to do things is best accomplished by doing things, not (just) by studying a fixed body of knowledge, however intensive the studying or valuable the body of knowledge. Sure, at some point, you gotta know stuff, and intensive study of a domain is a useful and valuable enterprise. But we learn best by doing. My compilers students will -- if all goes as we plan and hope -- learn much more this semester than how to write a compiler. They will learn things that I can't teach them directly with a lecture. And even when I could give them the lecture, they would not learn it in the same way as when they learn it on the ground, in the trenches, one shovel of dirt at a time. Liberal arts colleges -- and universities with liberal arts cores and general education programs -- would do well to take this lesson to heart sooner rather than later. -----