I study politics, take philosophy classes, and do research on religion. As many would agree, I’m about to be left jobless.
During my high school senior year, my friend was genuinely concerned about my future employment prospects, and he asked me: “Look, what are you going to do in life by pursuing political science?”
Truthfully, I had no idea. It was as if I had to fabricate ambitious dreams to justify the discipline of my choice with statements like: “I want to be a politician” or “I am going to grow into a journalist covering controversial political issues.”
The irony behind this is that while I was signing up for liberal arts education for the education itself, I found myself constantly doubting its practicality. The meaning of education, which extends to the way we think about liberal arts education, has transformed into an economic value.
The merit of liberal arts education is predicated upon its ability to distinguish itself from vocational schools. Yet, our current system of liberal arts education has turned into institutions that manufacture people into individuals of productivity.
On YouTube, there are many videos that offer tips on selecting majors and minors for college students. They highlight which majors have the greatest financial return and which ones are practically “useless.” Some even come up with sound tips like “Major in what makes money and minor in what you love.”
In other words, many see education as an investment. The amount of time and money you pay for your education should bring you a bigger financial return.
In today’s hyper-competitive, capitalistic world where people’s sense of worthiness is often measured by their economic outcome, this logic makes sense. The downside of this is that liberal arts education has failed at achieving its inherent goal.
By definition, liberal arts education refers to the kind of education that cultivates a free human being by fostering intellectual capability. After two years of going through liberal arts education in a university, I realized its goal is not being realized. So here are my observations on the three key aspects of liberal arts education that continue to plague the supposedly free nature of our education.
1. Standardized system
We subscribe to a systemized approach to education. It is a system in which students have to take standardized testings to be admitted to many schools. After enrolling, students are obliged to fulfill a fixed number of credits hours and major courses to graduate. It is a system.
Here is another kind of education system: In Korea, by the end of middle school, you are expected to at least have a good idea of whether you are a humanities kid, a STEM nerd, or an artsy one. After just nine years of education, you are asked to figure out which path you have decided for yourself for the rest of your life. Our global average life span is around 72.6 years old, so it is questionable to expect kids in their early teenage years to decide their pathways of life. Yet, it is a system that we subscribe to.
Here’s a funny anecdote:
One day, a little girl saw her Mom cooking fish. She noticed that her Mom always chops off the head and the tail of every fish that she cooks. So she asked: “Mom, why do you chop off the head and the tail of the fish everytime?”
The Mom didn’t know how to answer her, so she answered: “I don’t know. That’s how your Grandma always did it.”
Disappointed, the girl went to her Grandma and asked her. The Grandma, too, did not know the answer to the girl’s question and replied: “I have no idea sweetie. I watched my mother’s way and did the same.”
The girl still couldn’t handle her curiosity and visited her Great Grandma to ask the same question. The Great Grandma then said, “What a funny question, my Dear. Back in the days, I cooked with a pot that was too small to fit an entire fish, so I had to cut off the head and the tail.”
What does this story illustrate? That we often don’t understand why things are done a certain way. Yet, it is a system — the way things are just done — that we subscribe to.
The great French philosopher Jean-Paul Satre would refer to our unquestioning attitude toward the standardized educational system as “bad faith.” Satre criticized absolute claims, such as “That’s just how things are done,” to be self-deceiving. Such a determinism, he claimed, shackles our own freedom to explore other truths that transcend beyond the existing ontological facts.
One must be aware of the difference between having guidance and subscribing to a system. What formal education makes us do is the latter.
While acknowledging that the experts in educational philosophy meticulously designed our formal education, we have to ask ourselves questions like: is our education system adapting to the changes as fast as the world is changing? Is the system that we have been sustaining traditionally still viable today?
2. Tyranny of dominant views
Jordan Peterson once mentioned that the humanities and, to a certain extent, social science fields have been dominated by the left. On the other hand, some, like Noam Chomsky, argued that academia is dominated by the right.
Whether left or right, what concerns me more is that academia is dominated by English-led research and literature. Many top-tier colleges are institutions that teach and generate works primarily in the English language.
A language does not exist in a vacuum but interacts intimately with culture and the thought of the population that utilizes that language. Accordingly, a language itself bears consequences on how we think and produce our knowledge. It also attracts a certain linguistic group of people to academia.
In institutions where English is the primary language, we need to pull in more students from different backgrounds as well as more professors from different backgrounds to engage and explore the ideas. On an international level, given that English is already acknowledged as a global language by many, the way that English is applied in our lives should be cross-cultural.
A case in point: I study in an Arab country in English. With the same language, if I had studied in the U.S., I would not have been exposed to the kind of conversations revolving around post-colonial thought as I am now. During my adolescent years, I was taught by American teachers most of the times, the values that I was taught back then were different from the ones that I am encountering now. My cross-cultural experience has been allowing me to shape a rather holistic view of how I think about the world and how it came to be. When a language is applied in contrasting cultural contexts, it allows us to step out of our own cultural paradigms.
Education, when dominated by one view, is nothing but a propaganda tool. We must be able to engage in disagreements in the safe space that we call school. By doing so, liberal arts education may be able to step closer to its goal of nurturing intellectuals who freely engage and develop knowledge.
3. Elitist Academia
Despite the fact that groundbreaking research is happening in higher education institutions, academia feels so distant from the public.
To many, academia is a whole bubble that operates separately from society. Yet, academia — like languages — does not exist in a vacuum. Often times, what is discussed and discovered in academia translated into public policy that affects the greater public.
Yet, we still often separate members of academia as “elites.” The kind of mechanism that we use to communicate with this beyond writing 300-page books in which one-fourth of it is dedicated to the literature review and unpacking difficult theories. Elite-natured academia should be transformed. Liberal arts education should be more accessible to people to develop their critical thinking ability.
Elitism serves as a barrier to critical thinking for others. Even if scientific research has been funded by a large pharma to support their products, the public rarely has an inclination to question the data when it is presented on TV. Liberal arts education’s duty to nurture critical thinking ability not only extends to those who can afford the money to attend college but to all populations who will be equally affected by its works.
One of the fundamental issues that inevitably lead to academia and higher education institutions to be elitist is the ridiculous cost of higher education. Pursuing education after college is expensive in many countries. Higher education confined to those who are financially capable of affording education. This is also one of the reasons why education is being treated as an investment. If you are spending so much money and taking out student loans just to afford the education, wouldn’t it be normal for students to expect monetary rewards in return?
Education scientists have said that if you go through twenty years of formal education, seventy percent of your intelligence will be destroyed. As Sadghuru puts it, you will become a “knowledgeable idiot.”
Of course, formal education has its benefits. I come from a country that emphasizes the importance of education and prides itself on being one of the smartest countries. Yet, suicide remains the biggest cause of death among youths in South Korea. People say that our standards of living have risen with the rise of education, but are we really improving the quality of our lives, or are we becoming knowledgeable and miserable idiots?
In the Q&A session where Sadghuru engaged with a 20-year-old college student who sought his advice on life, Sadghuru asked back a profound question to the student:
“Are you preparing for the university or the universe?”
In the same way, we must ask ourselves: how do we shape our education to be for the universe? Are we living for the university of the universe?