Vocational education prepares us for the world we can imagine. Liberal Arts education prepares us for all we can’t imagine—which is most of it.
Amazingly, Dan Gilbert, author of “Stumbling on Happiness,” challenged the idea that we’ll be miserable if we don’t get what we want. Our “psychological immune system” lets us feel truly happy even when things don’t go as planned. Many of us, particularly teachers and parents, feel like we must help kids achieve what they want so that they will be happy. Intriguing research now supports how often our beliefs on what will make us happy are wrong. Imagine: if we always got what we wanted, life would just be a series of predetermined steps towards a predetermined end. But that’s not what the happy life is! Happiness is an ongoing process, not an end.
Interestingly, this kind of ongoing happiness is an outcome of liberal arts education. The liberal arts teaches us to work though things, to analyze, evaluate, synthesize: not just follow steps towards a predetermined end and not just shipping a product, though we of course need these. Perhaps it’s the “human condition” that we often need to fumble around some before discovering what we really need or where we really belong. For instance, in academics, which kind of chemistry experiment do you think would benefit your child more: one where you follow exact steps, or an experiment where students are making decisions based on observations and then writing up findings as though for a research journal or grant request?
Now that our economy is relatively weak, we hear louder cries to put people to work. The pressure towards vocational and technological education is on. Whenever this happens, the pressure against liberal arts education increases. Vocational and technological education teach you skills for the workplace, it’s true. But in the dynamic workplace of the future, a rigorous liberal arts education will be more desirable than ever before. Employers will be needing individuals who can think critically and creatively, solve problems, and adapt to change. Moreover, what is life without a philosophy? By exploring diverse topics and disciplines, students gain a panoramic view about the world and an understanding about themselves and their potential roles in this world. With a rigorous liberal arts education, we become equipped with the insight, context and skills we need to succeed professionally and personally in this ever-changing, increasingly complex world.