Sorting Through What Life Has to Offer

Becausse I believe that a liberal arts education is essential for business if it’s to have any real future and to serve a purpose … because of all that, I teach a course in Engineering Management at Portland State University.  The course for these graduate students heading into management and leadership in engineering and high tech is, I’m happy to say, a popular elective called, simply, “Writing and Presentations.”

About halfway through the term, I teach the art of writing a good essay because I’m sure that, if you can write a good essay, you can write just about anything—certainly anything in the realm of business or technical writing, and that’s what most of these students will face.  This quarter, as we worked our way through the essay “how-to,” I asked them to write an essay about whether college should be job training.  Specifically, I asked them this:  “What’s the point of going to college?  Is college supposed to be job training?”  Then I asked them to consider the relative advantages of professional schools (engineering, business, architecture) and a liberal arts education.

Most of my students are from other countries—India, Turkey, Botswana, Saudi Arabia and China—so I didn’t know what to expect.  I wondered whether they’d argue in favor of the more specialized educations offered by universities in other nations where students attend “the economic university” or “the software engineering university.”  Too, I thought they might commend a mechanical engineering curriculum, steeped in determinism and honed for immediate usefulness.

Instead, many of them presented informed, even inspired, arguments in favor of a broad education.  They pointed out it enables critical thinking, bolsters communication, and supplies substance to what otherwise can be empty financial gyrations.

An especially insightful observation, offering a perspective I hadn’t actually considered myself, came from a young man from Bhutan.  He had this to say:

“Consumerism has become the norm of the current global economic system.  As a result, every educational institution is systemized to supply trained workers for new industries.  The shifting demand of intellectual paradigm to meet the needs of consumerism has suppressed the value of a broad education system.  Consequently, professional schools have taken a tunnel vision approach to education and have focused on preparing students for a specific line of work.  A fresh entrant in college, who has barely turned 20 years old, has to focus on narrow topics such as marketing, accounting, engineering, etc.  This essentially hinders the student’s perspective, forcing them to prepare themselves within narrow topics.  In fact, it is too early an age for students to distinguish their actual talents and apply them to serve humanity.”

What a refreshing idea—that talents, ingenuity and intellect should “serve humanity.”  But that wasn’t the surprise.  Of course we should be preparing students to be contributors in meaningful ways.  As educators, if we’re not doing that, what are we doing?   No, that wasn’t the surprise.  What caught me about what he said was that students who find themselves in professional schools at too tender an age are, in his view, robbed forever of the chance to know their own talents and abilities well enough to figure out where best to use them.

Professional education assumes that’s all water under some bridge.  Having sorted through all that life has to offer prior to age 20, we’ve chosen, say, marketing as our life’s work.  But without having explored language, culture, philosophy, logic and history, how would a student know if marketing was “it”?  That’s what the young man from Bhutan is saying.

(The thing I like most about teaching is how much I learn from my students.)

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