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Front Porch | Liberal education: Human and national development and good citizenship

There is a critical and necessary emphasis on STEM education (science, technology, engineering and math) globally and in The Bahamas.

With breakneck advances in fields such as biotechnology, nanotechnology, artificial intelligence, genetics, communications and information technology and other areas, STEM education is critical for the development of national economies and the global economy.

But technological education must be complemented by liberal education. In his book, “In Defense of a Liberal Education”, author Fareed Zakaria cites Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook who notes: “Facebook is as much psychology and sociology as it is technology.”

Zuckerberg understands the need to have broadly educated employees and a staff complement with knowledge and education in a broad array of disciplines.

At home and abroad there are many university-trained individuals who are schooled in certain disciplines, indeed, often highly schooled in a particular field.

But many of these professionals are not broadly educated, lacking in a liberal education, which Zakaria defines as how to think, which includes: “how to write”, “how to speak” (rhetoric) and “how to learn” or acquire knowledge on one’s own.

In 1854, John Henry Newman (Cardinal Newman) who famously converted from Anglicanism to Roman Catholicism, where he eventually was elevated to the College of Cardinals, defined a liberal education as a “broad exposure to the outlines of knowledge”.

A broad exposure to knowledge includes an appreciation of the humanities including literature, history, philosophy, religion, music, art and other subject areas.

A dear friend, now deceased, was an avuncular Caribbean Jesuit beloved by the students at the college at which he taught. With his wizened face, the octogenarian priest, short in stature, disabled in one arm, was a sort of modern duplicate of Socrates.

Literature

The priest friend was an authority on Caribbean literature. He taught the songs of Bob Marley as poetry in his survey class of West Indian literature.

A masterful writer, he joked after the removal of a portion of his colon that he was now becoming expert in the use of the semicolon. He loved the classics, including the lessons and stories they taught about truth, beauty and goodness.

Toward the end of his life he noted that he was finding greater sustenance and comfort in the classics than the Christian Scriptures, though he loved both. He could not imagine his life without the benefit of the liberal arts.

Through the humanities and a liberal education he found meaning and purpose and the joy of being human, as well as ways of dealing with tragedy, loss and disappointment.

A broad exposure to knowledge as a part of a liberal education also includes a basic understanding of the history and civics of the country in which one lives.

Coincidentally, it is disturbing the number of private and government-operated schools that do not mandate basic civics and history at the secondary school level.

There is a certain civic and cultural literacy, which all Bahamian students should possess upon graduation as members of society.

The vast ignorance of our parliamentary system is appalling. When certain university lecturers opine on our system, with scant knowledge of its basic workings, we are failing miserably to inculcate an appreciation for our democratic heritage.

This ignorance was on spectacular display during the recent brouhaha concerning the dismissal of Bain Town member of Parliament Travis Robinson as a parliamentary secretary after he voted against the government during the national budget debate.

Many simply did not understand the fundamental principles of democracy and Cabinet government at stake, and instead based their arguments on personalities.

Extraordinary

Despite many more Bahamians with tertiary education, there is an extraordinary deficit of liberally educated Bahamians not even remotely commensurate with the number of Bahamians who enjoy a university degree.

Often some of the more liberally educated people in a society are the self-taught, many of whom never attended university, but are more widely read and are lifelong learners.

Attorney Sean McWeeney and the late Keith Duncombe, both brilliant attorneys, were naturally gifted with fine intellects. Still, both men, who articled at home, built on their intellectual foundations by becoming voracious readers.

From Parliament to the pulpit and from corporate offices to the cubicles of journalists and throughout the professions, there is a woeful lack of broad knowledge of the humanities and the liberal arts; an often pitiful understanding of basic Bahamian civics and history; and often weak to deplorable writing, speaking and research and learning skills.

Listen to what often passes for political debate in Parliament and in the press. The intellectual fallacies often pile up as high discarded conch shells after a holiday weekend at Fish Fry.

Some of our domestic favorites are false equivalencies, incorrect analogies and the argumentum ad populum or argument to the people, sometimes known as the bandwagon approach, meaning that what is popular must be correct. The latter is a particular favorite of many politicians and radio talk show hosts.

Because of an inability to think in depth, many of us are incapable of sussing out an intellectual fallacy, especially the cavalcade of fallacies masquerading as substantive arguments that often surround debate on matters of public policy.

Indispensable

In a column adapted from his commencement address at Sarah Lawrence College on May 23, 2014, Zakaria describes the three types of thinking he believes are indispensable to a liberal education.

He notes the role of writing in thinking by quoting the columnist, Walter Lippmann, who, when asked his thoughts on a matter reportedly replied: “I don’t know what I think on that one. I haven’t written about it yet.”

As the adage goes: “To write is to think.”

Many countries, including developed ones, suffer from a poor quality of writing. But it is alarming when such poor writing is found at the highest levels of the public service, in journalism, at the highest levels of business and in the teaching profession.

The daily newspapers often complain of the inability to find capable writers. Government publications are often replete with grammatical and logical errors.

There is also an overabundance of jargon and overly technical and sterile verbiage, of which George Orwell famously warned in his celebrated essay “Politics and the English Language”.

Zakaria also notes the importance of speaking and rhetoric in a liberal education: “The seminar, which is in many ways at the heart of a liberal education… teaches you to read, analyze, dissect and, above all, to express yourself.

“And this emphasis on being articulate is reinforced in the many extra-curricular activities that surround every liberal arts college – theater, debate, political unions, student government, protest groups. You have to get people’s attention and convince them of your cause.”

So much of our public debate is incoherent and often illogical because even many of the professionals or commentators who opine on various topics, are often incapable of mustering clear and consistent arguments beyond emotionalism and arguments from tradition, such as, “We have always done it this way!”

Unfortunately, the latter is often the cry of some church leaders who have demonstrated an inability to engage in meaningful dialogue in the public square.

Lifelong

Zakaria observes the role of a liberal education in lifelong learning: “The final strength of a liberal education is that it teaches you how to learn. I now realize that the most valuable thing I picked up in college and graduate school was not a specific set of facts or a piece of knowledge but rather how to acquire knowledge.”

Zakaria continues: “I learned how to read an essay closely, find new sources, search for data so as to prove or disprove a hypothesis, and figure out whether an author was trustworthy. I learned how to read a book fast and still get its essence. And most of all, I learned that learning was a pleasure, a great adventure of exploration.”

With the advent of nascent democracy by the Greeks in the 5th century BCE, which placed greater power in the hands of the populace or the demos, various Greek philosophers thought that the citizenry had to be better trained to run the society.

The thinkers saw a direct link between freedom or liberty and democracy. The word liberal refers to liberty, not to ideology as in conservative or liberal. The necessity of a broad education was linked to maintaining freedom and liberty in a society.

Liberal education, both formal and informal, improves an individual’s professional life. Moreover, it is critical to good citizenship and one’s quality of life from the enjoyment of beauty to one’s ethical conduct.

While technology can improve the quality of education, genuine educational reform must include a thorough grounding in a liberal education, which may lead to happier, more productive and better citizens.

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