Why We Need More Intellectuals in the World

“Intellectual” is not a bad word. In fact, I tend to think that it is one the more important words in the contemporary world. I realize that it has taken a negative connotation with some today, that some hear the word and think of ivory tower elitism, but I’d like to suggest a different perspective.

I’m far from an ivory tower academic. Yes, I am a University administrator and professor. Yet, my work is largely applied. I have a love/hate relationship with most traditional avenues for the dissemination of scholarly work. I’m far more disposed to public scholarship and vetting my ideas in the open and public square. I have a bent toward action and real-world experimentation. At the same time, I wholeheartedly agree with Kurt Lewin when he wrote that, “there is nothing so practical as a good theory.” I can’t resist visible head nods of affirmation when I read or hear reference to Mortimer Adler who wrote, “It is man’s glory to be the only intellectual animal on earth. That imposes upon human beings a moral obligation to lead intellectual lives.” I believe that ideas matter.

I came across that Adler quote again recently when I was facilitating a book discussion with colleagues. When I talk to people outside of academia about my value for nurturing the intellectual life in myself and others, I find that more than a few people interpret that as some sort of detached University language that is altogether separate from the real world, from the realities and problems of life near and far. It is sometimes as if the word “intellectual” has taken on a negative twist, that it is in contrast to more favored words today like action, impact, or results.

Pulling out my handy, old-school paper Concise Oxford English Dictionary, I see the following definition for “intellect” and “intellectual.”

Intellect – “The faculty of reasoning and understanding objectively. A person’s mental powers. A clever person.”

ORIGIN ME from L. intellectus ‘understanding’, from intellegere [see intelligence]

Intellectual – “Relating to or appealing to the intellect. Having a highly developed intellect. A person with a highly developed intellect.

Or, from a more popular online source, Wikipedia offers this description of an “intellectual.”

An intellectual is a person who engages in critical study, thought, and reflection about the reality of society, and proposes solutions for the normative problems of that society, and, by such discourse in the public sphere, he or she gains authority within the public opinion.[1][2] Coming from the world of culture, either as a creator or as a mediator, the intellectual participates in politics, either to defend a concrete proposition or to denounce an injustice, usually by producing or by extending an ideology, and by defending a system of values.

Don’t we need and want people who engage in “critical study, thought and reflection about the reality of society, [people who propose] solutions for the normative problems of that society”? Given such definitions and descriptions, I proudly strive to have my name included in the same sentence with the word “intellectual.”

Weaver was right. Ideas have Consequences, as he stated in the title of his 1948 attack on nominalism. The intellectual is an important part of navigating our commercial culture. It is part of living the examined life. It is a perspective that insists that the pursuit of truth, beauty and goodness remain relevant and important aspects of a vibrant society.

This is why, while I embrace and pursue many modern innovations in education, I also remain an advocate for strong liberal arts colleges as one piece of the larger higher education ecosystem. I don’t see them as the only means to the examined life, but they continue to have a valued role, granted that they don’t insist on maintaining some sort of educational and intellectual monopoly. It is why, while I embrace good work and thinking around workforce development, I also contend that curiosity and the love of learning are far more important to our education system than tests and standards…if we are going to nurture thoughtful people and not just a larger average test score.

At the same time, the intellectual life is too important to only be present in large concentrations within our top higher education institutions. I would love to see it, in increasing measure, in the pubs, public gatherings of all sorts, K-12 schools, early childhood centers, homes, workplace, and infused in our community efforts. As I see it, an intellectual is someone who values the life of the mind and seeks to use that mind for good, and I’m for more of that in the world.

Do We Need Liberal Arts Schooling or a Liberal Arts Education?

Faculty are nervous, at least some of them. The higher education headlines highlight questions about online learning, the affordability of higher education, open learning, high school / college dual credit programs, competency-based education, alternate credentials and a growing focus on workforce development and professional programs. Amid such changes, I see a growing number of faulty, especially those in the humanities and liberal arts, speaking up about what is lost with each of these areas, even while others in the liberal arts are among some of the greatest champions for one or more of these developments. I read heartfelt as well as carefully thought-out responses to these movements, and there is much to learn from such texts. I particularly appreciated Martha Nussbaum’s 2012 text, Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities.

The case for the liberal arts has not changed over the years. The liberal arts prepare literate and thinking people. They seek to cultivate good citizens who will promote and uphold the principles of a democracy. They equip one to fully embrace the life of a free person. They help one explore the life of truth, beauty, goodness. It is not difficult to agree with such outcomes. However, are we talking about the liberal arts or a formal liberal arts curriculum? Are they the same? Were they the same for people in the past?

Consider some of the texts that will be read in many formal liberal arts curricula. They are texts from antiquity, and often more recent literary works. Among many others, one is likely to read Whitman, Hemingway, Shaw, Salinger, Sandberg, Tolstoy, Faulkner, Frost, Twain, Blake and Austin. Interestingly, what these authors share in common is no formal college liberal arts education. The student of history and government will study US presidents like Washington, Van Buren, Lincoln, Taylor, Cleveland and Truman as well. None of these people had a formal college education either; with Washington, Lincoln and Johnson having only one year of any formal education between the three of them. Yet, many of these people had liberal arts influences. Many read widely and nurtured disciplined habits of the mind that we might associate with a liberally educated person. They were self-directed and lifelong learners who read, wrote, spoke, and lived the principles often identified with a liberal arts education. Is this what we really want, not just people with liberal arts credentials, but people who live with a liberal arts world view?

The liberals arts are about more than courses, credits, degrees and programs. As such, perhaps the debate for a formal liberal arts education is not as critical as one about the importance of the liberal arts in an individual’s life and community. In other words, if one truly wants to defend the value of the liberal arts, then perhaps there is need to think more broadly than formal schooling, instead looking at ways to encourage and nurture a value for the liberal arts in the world beyond school. It is one thing to read Chaucer to pass the quiz, test and class; and yet another to read such a book in evening after a long day of work.

The University does not own the liberal arts, nor does any particular school or department in higher education. By narrowing the debate about the liberal arts to the method of learning…to formal programming, we may risk losing the spirit of the liberal arts. The liberal arts is about knowledge, skill and disposition. The “how” is not as central. It might be for some proponents of formal classical education, but not as much for the broader community of liberal arts advocates.

If the debate is really an economic one, with employees of liberal arts programs fighting for the viability of their jobs and programs, that is one thing. Yet, it is a qualitatively different thing to discuss the value of a liberally educated person. One can shared that value without necessarily advocating that more people should study at liberal arts colleges or pursue liberal arts degrees, or that a formal liberal arts education is worth the cost. In other words, for the sake of the liberal arts in contemporary society, I suggest that it is time to carefully separate the two. Both are worthwhile discussions, but the program is not the only possible route to promoting the liberal arts. In fact, I suspect that investing more time, energy (and resources) into the promotion of the liberal arts in society may well benefit the programs. Just look at what CSI did to criminal justice and forensics programs, or what Indiana Jones did for archeology programs in the past. After all, I’m pretty sure that Shakespeare didn’t get his start in the lecture halls, but rather in the public square (or rather the theater).

College is Not Enough & The University Doesn’t Own the Liberal Arts #collegeand

Dale Stephens, author of Hacking Your Education and founder of Uncollege, takes the vision of unschooling and applies it to higher education.  He points out that learning and getting an education is much more than attending classes at a University.  For many high school students, they are given a few options.  You can go college, join the military, or get a job.  Stephens helps young people discover a fourth option, one that embraces a commitment to learning that is just as rigorous as many college experiences, but that also allows them to pursue entrepreneurial opportunities at the same time.  He challenges the idea that college is the only choice that leads to success, but he also challenges the idea that college is the only path that leads to deep, substantive, transformational learning.  Like many who embrace the spirit of unschooling, Stephens shares a compelling case for a life of learning beyond school.  We learn through play, building new and meaningful relationships, experimentation, exploration, work, reading, travel, community engagement, finding others to mentor us, leveraging the vast pool of resources in the digital world, and participating in a variety of communities and groups with shared interests.

One does not need to abandon the pursuit of a college education to learn from this message.  I’m a University administrator, professor, and a lifelong student (with a bachelor’s degree, two master’s degrees, a doctorate, and coursework at 20+ Universities), and I have no problem endorsing Stephens’s message.  Many University faculty and administrators promote the value of a solid liberal arts college education, noting that it equips people with the capacity the think well, live well, write well, and communicate well.  And yet, it is in some of those liberal arts classes that students learn about George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Harry Truman, Andrew Jackson, Grover Cleveland, Frank Lloyd Wright, William Faulkner, Ansel Adams, Jack London, William Blake, Robert Frost, Thomas Edison, and Henry Ford.  They never earned a college degree.  We can extend that list by hundreds with highly successful people in multiple industries and parts of the world today. We can add thousands more by touring the history books.  One may respond by arguing that these are exceptional people, that they are exceptions and not the rule. My point is not that avoiding college will make a person successful.  It is that the proposed outcomes of a solid liberal arts education are possible beyond the walls of the University.  I know many who attended liberal arts colleges and left with little respect for the great books, little interest in reading something that isn’t required for a class or job, and a fear of public speaking.  I know others who never attended college and they have an unquenchable thirst for knowledge, a love of the classics, and they live as a contemporary renaissance man or woman.  Steve jobs never finished college, but in a 1995 interview, he specifically noted that the vision and innovation behind Apple comes partly from their commitment to the liberal arts.  The University does not own the liberal arts.

Despite all of this, a solid college education is a good and valuable investment.  It is a learning community that is rich with opportunities, but not if you are simply talking about taking a series of classes and earning a bachelor’s degree. That will not adequately prepare someone for life beyond college. I do not recommend that students allow their college years to be dominated by some sort of cloistered college experience. “College and…” is my suggestion.  There is value in college and…travel, road trips, work, community engagement, entrepreneurial efforts, personal exploration and experimentation beyond the classroom walls and the campus boundaries, using the digital world to build a broad and substantive personal learning network, and participating in diverse groups and communities beyond the college. Many colleges recognize the importance of this as they offer more travel study options, are deeply engaged with community activities and social causes, give students opportunities to work on cutting edge research and innovation, provide resources to help students with internships, provide entrepreneurial centers to help students start their own businesses, emphasize things like service learning, and help pair students with mentors beyond the University. Going to college and not exploring these learning experiences leaves one with an incomplete education.  The true spirit of the liberal arts cannot be contained within a classroom or school.  It is about cultivating refinement, but is even more about liberation, exploration and transformation that extends for a lifetime and well beyond the school walls.

While I appreciate many things from the unschooling movement, the reality is that certain vocational paths will continue to require a college education.  For those aspiring to be doctors, lawyers, and P-20 teachers; for example, skipping college isn’t typically an option.   However, if one wants to be ready for life beyond college, then it requires getting deeply involved with life beyond college…it requires “college and…”

10 Future of Higher Education Discussion Starters, Quotes, & Predictions

1. “The future looks like this: Access to college-level education will be free for everyone; the residential college campus will become largely obsolete; tens of thousands of professors will lose their jobs; the bachelor’s degree will become increasingly irrelevant; and ten years from now Harvard will enroll ten million students.” from Nathan Harden in The End of the University as We Know It.

2. “College is Dead. Long Live College!” from Amanda Ripley in Time article by that title.

3. “Higher education does have real problems, and MOOC’s, badges—certificates of accomplishment—and other innovations have real potential to tackle some of them. They could enrich teaching, add rigor, encourage interdisciplinarity, reinforce education’s real-world applicability, and make learning more efficient—advances all sorely needed.” from Scott Carlson & Goldie Blumenstyk in For Whom is College Being Reinvented?

4. “We have also learned that our university must be intimately engaged in primary and secondary education so that future students come to us with the necessary skills that will help them thrive in an academic environment.” from John Petillo (President of Sacred Heart University) in Assessing the Future of Higher Education.

5. “For decades, the growth of knowledge and development of culture and industry was heavily dependent upon what went on inside major research U.S. universities. Today, it is no longer clear that universities will continue to be the dominant site (or model) for the generation of new knowledge.” from Overview of The Future of Higher Education 12/11

6. Regarding MOOCs, “Disruptive because many in the higher ed community worry that unless they’re careful, universities will go the way of newspapers and the music industry: give their product away for free online and lose customers in the process.” from Ida Lieszkovsky in MOOCS and the Future of Technology in Higher Education

7. “As lecture content is moved online, instructors will be able to re-think the classroom experience.  A new model for peer-to-peer and peer-to-faculty interaction will need to be created, as this is one of the most fundamental components of classroom learning.” from Chris Proulx in 5 Ways Technology Will Impact Higher Ed in 2013

8. “On-campus tuition will continue to rise, to cover increasing costs for services and facilities. This, in turn, will further reduce enrollments, and campuses will become less diverse, accessible only to students from affluent families. Online education presents a huge opportunity to reverse these trends and improve the economic health of public colleges and universities.”  by Jeb Bush in Commentary: Online Courses Can Ed higher Education’s Financial Crisis

9. “The liberal arts education has outlasted other forms of pedagogical training. Indeed, one might go so far as to argue that the modern world is the by-product of minds trained in the liberal arts tradition.” from Dr. Tillman Nechtman in The Liberal Arts in the Modern World: A Defense

10. “We believe that universities and companies will begin to create and license online courses and use them in a smaller, contained/closed environment.  MOOCs won’t go away, but the real traction will be the use of teaching technologies brought down to smaller groups of people that will more closely mimic the best of the current classroom environment.”
by Dayna Catropa & Margaret Andrews in MOOCs to MOCCs.