Not for School but for Life We Learn

Christine Whelan | Posted on 03/31/10

"Most schools and colleges spend too much time preparing students for careers and not enough preparing them to make social decisions."

In an excellent piece by David Brooks in yesterday's New York Times, he mentioned the plethora of research that says that happiness comes from our relationships, not our material possessions or economic wealth. 

Most of us pay attention to the wrong things. Most people vastly overestimate the extent to which more money would improve our lives. Most schools and colleges spend too much time preparing students for careers and not enough preparing them to make social decisions. Most governments release a ton of data on economic trends but not enough on trust and other social conditions. In short, modern societies have developed vast institutions oriented around the things that are easy to count, not around the things that matter most. They have an affinity for material concerns and a primordial fear of moral and social ones.

One solution he mentions is education-using college as way to teach good decision-making and social skills rather than simply focusing on landing a high-paying job at the end. I fully agree, as do the students in my class on Social Change, who objected to the University's focus on career over personal fulfillment.

The purpose of a liberal arts education-as opposed to technical training-is to teach you how to think, how to learn and how to find your purpose in the world. Indeed, high-school motto was "not for school but for life we learn." 

Wrote Wesleyan President Michael Roth in the HuffingtonPost:

The development of the capacities for critical inquiry associated with liberal learning can be enormously practical because they become resources on which to draw for continual learning, for making decisions in one's life, and for making a difference in the world. Given the pace of technological and social change, it no longer makes sense to devote four years of higher education entirely to specific skills. Being ready on DAY ONE, may have sounded nice on the campaign trail, but being able to draw on one's education over a lifetime is much more practical (and precious). Post secondary education should help students to discover what they love to do, to get better at it, and to develop the ability to continue learning so that they become agents of change -- not victims of it.

He continued:

A successful liberal arts education develops the capacity for innovation and for judgment. Those who can image how best to reconfigure existing resources and project future results will be the shapers of our economy and culture. We seldom get to have all the information we would like, but still we must act. The habits of mind developed in a liberal arts context often result in combinations of focus and flexibility that make for intelligent, and sometimes courageous risk taking for critical assessment of those risks.

David Brooks began his piece yesterday by talking about the happiness that a healthy, stable marriage brings - a greater happiness than career success, by far. Indeed, that research is one of the first things we'll talk about this coming fall when I teach an entire sociology course to 50 students dedicated to the sociology of marriage. This generation of young-adults is ready and eager to learn not for school, but for life. Let's teach them.

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