There is an insidious ideology making its influence felt today. It concerns the purpose of school, especially before college, but even during college. It is now popular, and even required, that students—beginning in high school—are to choose something that is generally given a glamorous name like “career path” or “career track” or just “pathway” or “track.”
Requiring a student in high school, or even early high school to choose a career has several problems—and not the least of these is that education was never traditionally intended to prepare for a specific career, certainly early schooling was not; preparation of that sort was something saved for advanced, graduate work at a university level, or as something to be learned as an apprentice to someone. To put it another way: a specific form of work was something you generally learned at work. How to think was something you learned at school, something far more important than the specifics of a certain career or trade.
Our English word school comes from the Greek “skholē” meaning leisure, or philosophy. Leisure of course is not generally associated with work, and philosophy of course comes from the Greek “phileo” meaning love, and “sophos” meaning wisdom. Hence love of wisdom. And until very recently, school was reflective of this.
For the majority of history, school was something reserved for the wealthy, the aristocratic, those who had “leisure” time. It is very unlikely they would have ever dreamed of turning school into preparation for a job, a career, for that was never its purpose. School or education was meant for the enrichment of the mind. It was meant as an instrument to hone and to sharpen one’s mental faculties. It was meant to teach one how to think, it was meant to teach one an appreciation of language, of art, of history. It was meant to teach and demonstrate the greatest triumphs, and greatest mistakes of the past, so that we might learn from them.
Now if much emphasis is given to any of these subjects that traditionally comprised one’s education, it is because one happens to be going into a field where knowledge in these areas is necessary. Or at least, deemed necessary. It has however been forgotten that knowledge in these areas has been, and is an essential grounding and foundation to any job or career. Skill sets can in many if not most cases be taught as training for a particular job, by the employer. Employers however would have a much harder time, and less impetus, to teach history, ethics, classics, logic, and other foundational and integral subjects of study.
U.S. News reports that: “Employers readily identify the creative, communicative and problem-solving acumen traditionally associated with liberal arts majors as the most valuable attributes of new hires (McNutt).” The liberal arts, the focus of a traditional education, have a foundational value that the more specialized skill sets of STEM majors can never replace.
People who can think, who know where they and their country stand within the context of history, and who can communicate effectively and fluently with both the layperson and the expert, will always be in demand. In contrast: expertise in Microsoft Office or computer programming will not always be in demand and certainly not in a way that education can meet. Technology—especially with things like computer programming changes so fast that by the time one graduates with a degree in such an area, there is a danger that the knowledge and more specialized skills acquired will already for the most part be irrelevant.
Plato will not become irrelevant—and certainly not with the speed of technology intensive fields. The syllogism has worked the same way for centuries and it has worked well and been found useful—it is only the teaching of logic and sound thinking that has declined. Homer’s Iliad has been deemed worthy of study and enjoyment for thousands of years, it is only recently that classics have begun to be thrown to the wayside. Latin and Greek were long deemed valuable courses of study, affording their students many advantages—now it is HTML and the language of what is passed off as “science” that is diligently imbibed as a new wine found more intoxicating and less expensive than the old. In short, a very small number of people—who happen to have the advantage of being alive—have in an astonishingly short number of years decided to raze whatever values and systems that the vast state that G.K. Chesterton called the “democracy of the dead” long deemed noble and worthy of study and practice.
McNutt, Mark. “There is Value in Liberal Arts Education, Employers Say.” U.S. News & World Report (2014). Electronic.