Features & Perspectives

The latest data-filled treatise against non-elite liberal arts colleges and universities is "The Case Against Education: Why the Education System is a Waste of Time and Money." Authored by Bryan Caplan, professor of economics at George Mason University, the book argues that society would be better served if colleges and small universities enrolling students with the academic and socio-economic characteristics common among Lakeland students were vocational, in scope; teaching practical skills at an expenditure-per-student rate significantly lower than current rates. Citing numerous studies that found little statistical correlation between institutions' distributional liberal arts objectives and actual student outcomes (e.g. critical thinking skills, broadly informed worldview), Caplan suggests that students too often graduate with a lot of debt and not much enlightenment.

Even if his observations about those statistical correlations are spot on, it does not logically follow that colleges like Lakeland should limit their curriculum to vocational skills classes. During all of the years I have co-labored with LC/U faculty, there has never been a time when that body was not working to strengthen students' practical wisdom as liberally educated contributors to the institutions that structure and advance society. Those social institutions (e.g. government, education, finance, art, manufacturing, media, technology, religion) need agents who understand context and systems and can analyze, synthesize and solve problems in dynamic environments. That kind of agency, Lakeland has long argued, is best developed in a teaching-learning gestalt that applies enduring liberal arts to current and envisioned social locations and human predicaments. When we succeed, valuable human capital is developed for society's vital institutions and for ethical acts when justice is absent. We call such outcomes practical wisdom because they involve knowledge about how the world works.

Assuming value in our commitment to practical wisdom does not guarantee large scale achievement, however, let's use this Perspective space to "talk" about such achievement in terms of student interpretation and formation. Please contribute your thoughts and ideas, framing them as a response to this question: "If our distributional and core curricula comprised a major in practical wisdom, how would we enhance the likelihood that such wisdom would be a common outcome in (1) the traditional program and (2) Kellett?" I have invited Dr. Joshua Kutney to author the first response.

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