Tag Archives: liberal education

Polonius Defends Liberal Education

Polonius“By indirections find directions out.”

-Polonius from Hamlet

Polonius usually isn’t the guy to pattern essays on, but here I make an exception to make a point. I was recently lamenting the demise of the liberal education model in public school. At my district students will more than likely graduate having taken more electives than core courses (by core I mean English, Social Studies, Math, and Science). The “when will I ever use this?” line is being used increasingly (and not just by students). As a result, “career” classes which teach workplace “skills” are becoming more and more required in high school.

It is clear that the benefits of a well-rounded (i.e. liberal) education are no longer recognized. To steal from Arthur Bestor, apparently people think the West was settled by people who took classes in “How to be a Pioneer,” or American late 19th and early 20th century ingenuity owes its proverbial status to schoolroom manipulation of gadgets.

Of course it hasn’t always been this way. According to Wikipedia, in Confucianist China civil servants were tested. “The examination tested the candidate’s memorization of the Nine Classics of Confucianism and his ability to compose poetry using fixed and traditional forms and calligraphy.”

That test hundreds of years later influenced the Brits. According to CivilService.Gov.UK, if you wanted to join the treasury in 1855 you had to be prepared to answer questions on the first three books of Euclid and translate a passage out of Latin, German, French, or Italian.

Just for fun, here are sample history and grammar questions from the Brit. test:

  • What were, at different times, the titles of the Chief Magistrates of republican Rome?  Name the first and last of the 12 Caesars and the principal writers of the Augustan Era.
  • Construct sentences exemplifying the use of the relative pronouns in the possessive and objective cases.

I blame the change on Pragmatism (Dewey, James, and Pierce) but that is a topic for another post. The interesting question is not why the change away from liberal education, but rather why did people in the past think things like grammar, Roman History, the books of Euclid, and composing poetry were valuable prerequisites for civil servant jobs in the first place?  (Certainly they are not considered so today.)

I think there is more than one good answer here, but today I’m talking about creativity. All good jobs require problem solving. Not just fixing “problems,” but also answering the question, “How can I do things better?” Ingenuity, creativity, getting answers that work that are unique, thinking outside the box, whatever you want to call it, usually comes from analogical thinking. It comes from seeing an analogous situation in some seemingly disparate field of knowledge, and applying it to the field at hand. A requirement for this (sadly absent today) is the belief that all knowledge is related.

For instance, the notion that form must follow function. Some people understand this. But the person who really understands this is the one who sees that it applies in the composition of paintings, of literature, of governments, of music, of cars, of buildings, of poetry, of clothing, etc. Not only does he get the notion better because he sees it in different subjects that he is familiar with, but he is used to the notion that he can get ideas to solve his problems in government from poetry or painting, that he can get ideas to be a better builder by studying music or cars. In short he can “By indirections find directions out.” Or to make Polonius’ line better suit my needs, “The educated individual can make any directions find directions out.”

After all, if you can find a defense for liberal education in Polonius, answers can be found anywhere.