Episode 16: Liberal Arts, Part 2

This is part 2 of our discussion on the phrase "liberal arts" and what it truly means. (See part 1.) While the word "liberal" is often used in conjunction with politics, like many words in the English language, it has multiple meanings. Guest Brad Cook joins the discussion.

Full Transcript

Steven Meredith: You're listening to part two of a discussion about the importance of liberal education, all part of the Solutions for Higher Education podcast featuring Scott L Wyatt, the president of Southern Utah University. We join the conversation in progress.

Brad Cook: You know, one dimension that we as educators should be thinking about too are these problems that we face in our world that are often called "wicked problems." These are the intransigent problems of our time that threaten our world and our peace and stability, and these are very difficult questions and we need different types of thinking when it comes to solving these impossible problems that we face. And so I wonder about what you think about, "What are the types of cognitive skill sets, intellectual skill sets, that are needed for those types of problems?" When it comes to poverty and climate change or racism or all of these large problems that we face, what are the types of skills that you think we need in our students that can really get us off this being high-centered here?

Wyatt: Yeah. I think one of them begins with empathy to others so that when we hear an opinion that is different from what we've always believed, we don't immediately shut it off, but we look at the person as being a good person and try to learn from that individual as much as we can. I see too much in discourse that if we feel like we're losing the argument, then we start attacking the person and that just shuts everything down. So I think in some ways, it starts with empathy. I think this is why John Adams wrote that one of the jobs of education—public education—was to teach good humor and sympathies for other people and literature so that we can spend our time talking about ideas, not criticizing people. That's got to be one of the biggest keys. And I love…this is the 50th anniversary year of the assassination of Martin Luther King, and there are so many wonderful King quotes, but one of my favorites is a quote when he said—and I think we've talked about his before, Steve—but one of his best quotes was, "Intelligence plus character — that is the goal of a true education." Because you can be really intelligent and then do really harmful things. In fact, intelligence might empower you to do even more harmful things. That's why all these character traits, all these understandings and compassions, empathy, are so massively important. And I've gained a lot of that through my time at universities and I think that both of you would say the same thing. My understanding of people in other countries, people with other political ideas, I've just gained so much understanding.

Cook: You know, it seems like another value that we need to be fostering though is this idea of integrating knowledge. If you think about, if we just have science without humanity, science and technology can take us into some really bad ideas, right? [All laugh] And if it's just…if we focus just on, say, art and other things that perhaps don't immediately have application, I there's…we have to provide an education. Which I think [what] a liberal education does is a way to integrate in terms of solving these problems. We have to integrate this. Science does matter in terms of solving…technology probably is a huge variable in solving these problems. But if it isn't tempered by our ethics, if it isn't tempered by our human empathy and compassion, we could find ourselves in a really, really bad position. And maybe even as exasperating these problems rather than helping. So a good education, I think what a liberal education also does, is help a student think about integrating what they're learning. And I think higher education needs to do a better job at this, because often we have students that are taking a course in biology and we have a student who's taking a course in accounting and a student who's taking a course in a humanities…well how do they connect, and how do they relate to each other? And I think finding ways in which we can get faculty to work together in helping the students make those sort of connections—why does mathematics actually matter? You talked about, what was it? The physics of music?

Meredith: The physics of music, yeah.

Cook: Think about the chemistry of color. This is art and chemistry talking about these sorts of things. And so I think that one element of…a task that we have in higher education is to get away from our silos, get away from our bubbles—our disciplinary bubbles—and find ways in which we can communicate to each other and help students then make those connections so that they can go out and make even greater connections that help us sort of move constructively towards solving these seemingly impossible questions.

Meredith: I'll give you a great example of that double-edged sword that is the wonder of technology, but if it's not tempered with humanity, it's a problem. I teach in an online program and it's a miracle. I have students all over the country. I learn more about them from seeing their posts and discussions that I think I probably would be able to learn in a large group face-to-face class. I have more time to interact with them personally and there's something about that psychic distance from each other that allows them to be a little bit more honest and forthcoming in what they send to me. But, you flip that and you just look at social media generally—and we've been talking about the accuracy of information and we've been talking about public vitriol—there's been nothing that has fed the separation, politically, of our country more than the ability to separate into tribes and just try to beat each other up on social media. And so while it's been an amazing miracle that our  fathers would never have imagined, that we would have this much access to information, the ability to think scientifically, the ability to think as a humanitarian, the ability to think in all of these different ways that we've been talking about that a liberal education gives us is absolutely critical to actually know what is going on in the world. Because everybody that we used to imagine was giving us the straight-skinny on what was going on in the world now suddenly seems to have an opinion about what that is, rather than just reporting it. And so the ability to read and interpret a wide range, a spectrum of ideas, might be the most important skill that we teach now. It doesn't necessarily prepare you for work—it sort of does—but it prepares you for life. The ability to be able to know what you think. To understand what you think and not be overly shaped by the ideas of others, or to agree with some but disagree with others and to do so empathetically, to do so with good humor, to do so with gentility is something that technology has actually helped us lose to a great extent.

Wyatt: Well, and to…yeah, the percentage of students who get their news from Facebook is a surprising number. And the number of students who de-friend people who express ideas they disagree with is surprising as well. So we tend to become more and more and more surrounded by people who think the way we think [and] less exposed to people who disagree. If somebody puts a post on my Facebook page that I'm irritated by…I can give you a great example of this. So I had somebody friend me from another part of the country who had my same last name, and he was just trying to decide if we were related. We couldn't figure out whether we were or not, but overtime, I came to learn that he thought very differently than me. So, on Abraham Lincoln's birthday, I would post a really nice quote from Abraham Lincoln, and then he would post a comment saying what a horrible disaster, awful thief, traitor Lincoln was to the country.

Cook: Wow.

Wyatt: And then he'd post pictures of things that related to that. And then I would say, "Well that was kind of interesting." And then my friends would beat up on him, and then he'd beat up on them, and it just kind of…he was still fighting the Civil War, and my friends thought we had won it. [All laugh] And ultimately—I was entertained by him—but ultimately, he de-friended me because he didn't want to be exposed to ideas that he disagreed with. He didn't like that. And I think that the examples of that among young people is…there's so many. I have so many of these millennials tell me, "Oh I just de-friended him and her and him and her…" And then, if that's the main source of news—just as one example in this world that we live in today,—then we just start this group think that, "All I know is what people who think like me think." And we become more and more and more gridlocked in every aspect of our lives. It's a troubling thing for me. This is one of our main goals is to get people to not only avoid de-friending those who have different ways of thinking, but to also find more successful ways of communicating as a receiver and as a speaker.

Cook: President, I've heard you speak about this and I really like your thoughts on this as a philosopher but as a professional educator: when I ask the question, "What is the purpose of a higher education?" There are lots of answers to this. But it's not only just about career and workforce development, it's not only about personal enrichment, but there's something bigger at stake too that relates to citizenry. What are your thoughts about the role that higher education plays in a healthy democracy?

Wyatt: Yeah, so if we go back to 1776 and sit in that world, those who founded this country were creating something that really had never happened before. It was the first time that a group of people had sat down and, through careful deliberation, created a form of democracy. And that was dependent upon the people be educated enough, engaged enough, thoughtful about other people enough that the people themselves could kind of be in charge. [It had] never been successful before and one of the fun pieces of this comes from the Massachusetts' Constitution that John Adams wrote where he said that, "It shall be the duty of legislators in all future periods of this commonwealth to cherish the interests of literature and the sciences." And he goes on to talk about natural history, to countenance in inculcate the principles of humanity, general benevolence—we're going to teach general benevolence—public and private charity, industry, frugality, honesty—right there, one of our responsibilities according to John Adams is to teach honesty—good humor, social affections, generous sediments among the people…it's a wonderful writing and a great description of what the founders of this country thought was so important for the people who would end up being those who governed. And I think that our job is as important to help people be financially independent, or I should say, it's no more important to do that than it is for them to help maintain this great country and the governance of it. How do you know when you're reading a newspaper whether you're reading something you can believe or not? How do you communicate with people that have opinions that are far distant than yours? We struggle with this in this country today, and I don't think there's ever been a time where it was more important to teach these broad principles that bring us together, rather than push us apart. And the more narrowly focused that degree is, the more difficult it is for us to talk to people who have another narrowly focused world. [Laughs] The "T" part of your description, Brad, is what connects us to everyone else. Not just simply helps us have a broader capacity to be successful in the workforce, it's what connects us to everyone else and without that connection to everyone else, a democracy cannot survive. It's dependent on us caring about each other.

Cook: I think it's particularly important now when we start seeing the atomization of the country around tribes of ideas, politically or socially, when we're not talking to each other and we're in our information bubbles. We're believing only that information that appeals to our biases. This is not what an educated person does. An educated person is able to sort out and have some information literacy skill set to try and sort out falsity and truth and to have an open mind in the sense of being able to speak to others and listen thoughtfully. I worry about the decline and degeneration of civil discourse. I worry that, in the age of alternative facts, whether we're going to have the proper informed convictions and inter-cultural literacy and then personal integrity that's founded in good information. I think that's what a higher education is about too. Really fulfilling these ideals that we're talking about from the fathers and mothers about creating a healthy democracy. And a healthy democracy is good information and people having the critical skill set to be able to sort out what is true and what's false. So I think that there are larger stakes involved here.

Wyatt: Yeah, and you can be a conservative or a liberal politically and still benefit greatly by this liberal education. [Laughs] It's one of our jobs. It's one of our leading responsibilities. The founders of Southern Utah University were largely farmers, ranchers, and miners who were competing to build a branch campus of the University of Utah in a very small, rural community. And that branch campus' focus had nothing to do with farming, ranching, or mining. It had everything to do with training teachers because they knew how important education was—in this red sand desert of Western America—that they had to have an educated people. And I think it is so interesting that a group of people whose occupational skills required farming, ranching, mining, those kinds of things, but this school didn't offer—in its first year—didn't offer any classes in those subjects. They were learning how to read, how to write, how to think. They were learning about music. They were learning about ideas.

Meredith: And the founders were planting trees that they were not going to see the fruits of. They recognized not only the importance of it but the importance of that to future generations. That to create the stability of the community and the stability of that part of the world, you had to have educated people.

Wyatt: Yeah, you'd think that if they were being self-motivated, they would have started a university, or a branch of a university, that would help them with business in mining, how to be better agriculture—and ultimately, the college did all those things, and it was helpful and needful—but the start was this broad education to just get teaching.

Cook: So that is a broader level conversation about the importance of higher education and liberal education, but what do you think a good education does for an individual person? What do you think in terms of its…what are the benefits? And I think we can come sideways into what a liberal education does as well this way. [All laugh] When you think about it, how does an individual benefit—not just financially—but what are the other qualitative benefits you see?

Wyatt: Yeah. So we've talked about how important this broad education is to be prepared for the workforce and the changing workforce and also how important it is for America. And then what are the individual benefits? We've got a lot of studies on that, don't we? We've got a lot of studies. Studies show that a person with a bachelor's degree will live longer, report better health, be less likely to be dependent on welfare, more likely to be happy. There are so many studies on that. Less likely to go to prison, more likely to vote, more likely to provide service in her or his community. And I think that's the benefit of this broad education, that we get to learn about others, we develop more empathy…it's what we are. It's what we need.

Cook: Yeah, the phrase comes to mind here, "The truth shall make you free." And in ways, what education does is give you options. It frees you up [not only from] from superstition and ignorance but it frees you up for life choices. You have skill sets that allow you to do more than just one particular thing. So it's a liberating experience. But even more specifically—and I think some of our listeners may say, "Well you know, it's all kind of still pretty abstract"—but I think when the misperception that liberal arts majors are unemployable, the data just doesn't show that. The AAC&U, which is the American Association for Colleges and Universities, has done a studies that show that over time, liberal arts majors do as well and in some cases better than our STEM graduates except for, say, engineering and computer science. So liberal arts majors start out at a lower salary typically than STEM majors, but over the course of a career, actually surpass them in many ways because they get into leadership positions. And that's because liberal arts majors end up providing value to companies because of the skills that they have, the way that they see the world, the way they can integrate ideas and problem solve and lead and work with people and all those things. So one misperception is that these degrees lead to nowhere, and in some ways—this is not my term, but I've heard it—these are pretty much degrees that can lead to everywhere. So I think that's a very sort of pragmatic thing that I hope that our listeners take away from here, is that we often get caught up in anecdotes or about the theater major who couldn't get a job, but if you were to look at that major over the course of his or her career, they're likely to do very well. So in some ways, I think we undershoot the mark if we just reduce the value of a liberal arts degree to just a paycheck and career readiness. And I think that's what we're also discussing here is that offering degrees that have quick employment connections, I think there's some risk there if we're not paying attention to the quality of learning that is happening, or we could very easily educate someone into such a narrow silo that in a few years, even by the time that they graduate, that field has moved beyond their very specific vocational skills.

Wyatt: Well, we're a good example of that. Brad, you're not working in international relations.

Cook: Right. [Laughs]

Wyatt: I'm not a professional philosopher. And Steve, you're not…

Meredith: I'm a part-time musician, but not in any of the areas in which I was classically trained.

Wyatt: You're a classically trained musician, but you're really a technical guy.

Wyatt: Well the benefits of a liberal education are vast. And as we work at a university that is a large family, we value greatly those who are teaching accounting and business and engineering, nursing, as well as value greatly those that teach anthropology and literature, political science, history, all the others. And I think that what we're talking about today is that all of them have a very important place and that our engineering students need to learn things from the liberal arts, and the liberal arts majors need to learn things from—and by liberal arts majors, that means philosophy, anthropology, literature, political science, those kind of majors—they need to learn things from computer science and our music majors need to understand a lot about technology.

Meredith: And business.

Wyatt: We all need to learn as much as we can about everything else to fill out the top of that "T" and then to provide perhaps more than one deep dive for the other part of the T-shape. Anyway, this has been a delight and will be a continuing discussion.

Meredith: I look forward to it. You've been listening to Solutions for Higher Education, a podcast featuring Scott L Wyatt, the president of Southern Utah University. Our in-studio guest today has been Dr. Brad Cook, the provost of Southern Utah University. Thank both of you gentlemen, we'll be back again soon. Thanks for listening, bye bye.