Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

A Good Mind is Hard to Find

Deep Furrows had a post a while back about the advantages of a general education in the context of Great Books programs. Now as in the 20s, there's still a great deal of differing opinion as to whether a broad, humanities education is a good preparation for professional life, or just for asking "would you like fries with that" in ancient languages. (Believe me, I got this a lot as a Classics major.)

The other day I had an opposite experience, one that I'm still not used to. After seeing someone with a strong resume full of IT work flounder on taking over some reporting projects that I'd put together, someone commented to me: "It really is hard finding someone with your technical background."

"I don't have a technical background," I pointed out. "I've never taken a class in database work, I just picked all this up on the fly."

I'd say this ought to be the sort of thing that puts the "education is a matter of training, and training in the proper field is essential to performance in the professional realm" meme to rest, but honestly, I do know a lot of poeple with similar humanities backgrounds who don't seem to pick up technical skills with nearly the same facility. (Though I will say, of that of the small number of other people I know with college or graduate level Classics experience, all of them can program -- mostly better than I can. Perhaps learning Greek and Latin sharpens the same skills that you use in programming and database work.)

No matter how much one may understand the concept mentally, it's hard for me as a modern American to think in terms of people not all being created equal.

Certainly, it seems to me that a general education such as provided by a great books curriculum or one of the fields in the 'humanities' (assuming that science and math are not excessively neglected) ought to teach a student enough about human nature (while providing enough experience in learning new subjects rapidly) to allow the student to do well in nearly anything. Yet it doesn't always.

As a humanities partisan, I tend to notice when people with technical degree backgrounds get stuck in the "must learn it first" mentality where, until they have a new process spoon fed to them and demonstrated in some sort of class or training session, innovation and figuring things out intuitively seems impossible. And yet (though they seldom tend to make it into the professional circles where I find myself these days) I every-so-often run into people from back in our college days who seem to have come out of a humanities education with the same benighted mentality, and a much less marketable set of skills than an unimaginative Computer Science or Marketing major.

Perhaps at root it's more a matter of the limitations of the person than the virtues of the academic field.


Rick Lugari said...

A couple months ago on Catholic radio I heard a gentleman giving a speech about education, thinking, reasoning, etc. I believe this is his site. What he said made a lot of sense. The gist of his program is to use the classics to teach kids how to think via reading and writing and that enables a kid to learn much more. I think your example of your db skills demonstrate his point about teaching methods. As someone who likes to think (shocking revelation to most, I'm sure), your words ring true. I have only a very poor public education but I have taught myself a great many skills and trades but I would not have been able to do so if I merely sought out texts rather than thinking through the underlying concepts and such.

Anonymous said...

Maybe it's the curriculum, or maybe it's the environment. Darwin, it seems to me (from what I have heard), that your homeschooling experience was different than my wife's. It seems to me that homeschooling offers this advantage because the older children are often teaching themselves more advanced subject matter. They end up learning how to teach themselves new concepts. One example I will cite is the relative proficiency my wife's younger siblings have taken up various musical instruments. That also may just be a function of more free time.

I will also posit that some of us who have been sent through some sort of institutional schooling may have escaped with some ability to learn new concepts without being spoon-fed. I wonder how my educational experience would have been had I been homeschooled. I guess I'll never know.

Darwin said...

Just to clarify, I was mainly thinking more of the type of college level education that you have (being a classics major, as I was, or taking a Great Books program like they have at Thomas Aquinas or St. Johns) not homeschooling vs. public schooling.

And as you say, Tex, ability to self teach doesn't seem to be at all restricted by homeschool vs. public school background, or technical major vs. humanities major. While I know some pretty un-adaptable people who have been technical all their lives, I've also met a fair number of people who are from humanities backgrounds and have _exactly_ the same problem.

I do continue to think that a humanities background is a good way of become well rounded, but it by no means seems to be a guarantee. I seem to know my share of people who pretty much deserve the "would you like fries with that" taunts. And I know some very adaptable and well rounded people from technical (or even Accounting) backgrounds.

LogEyed Roman said...

Education background has a huge impact one one's ability to self-teach, but also to deal with tasks demanding not just mental knowledge but skill. The ability to be creative, intuitive, and precisely analytical at the same time seems something of the collection of faculties you are talking about, Darwin.

Now people vary of course in their inherent capabilities. My great-great grandmother, who could have taught Mary Poppins lessons on Victorian propriety, used to say, "The higher the polish, the more shows the grain." Also, "inherent" can include the early formation of character and talents that leave an indelible effect throughout life, as well as inherited nature.

In my experience, the RIGHT humanities education can do a lot toward developing critical and exact thinking as well as creativity and intuition. It must be demanding rigorous while cultivating intuition. Study of literature can do this, IF rigorous standards of scholarship are included and IF intuition and creativity not quashed by stale pedantry--or Political Correctness!

I have taken English classes and know people who have studied Greek and Latin classics, and in my experience, classics educatin today, polluted as it often is, retains far better qualities than English (or just "literature").

It comes to me that the really well-educated humanities types I have known love a great deal of the work for its own sake, and usually will spend plenty of their free time on it--reading, of course, but also writing (journals and/or correspondence); often music and drawing as well.

Anyone else have observations on the preferred leisure activities of these capable humanities types?

LogEyed Roman

Anonymous said...

In my experience, the RIGHT humanities education can do a lot toward developing critical and exact thinking as well as creativity and intuition. It must be demanding rigorous while cultivating intuition. Study of literature can do this, IF rigorous standards of scholarship are included and IF intuition and creativity not quashed by stale pedantry--or Political Correctness!

Thank you. My junior year of high school introduced me to an English teacher who did just this. It pushed me away from any sort of enjoyment of literature.

Darwin, you last comment, particularly the "Would you like fries with that?", reminded me of some bathroom grafitti in the engineering building. Above the toilet paper dispenser, someone had scribbled, "Business Degrees. Take one!" Adjacent to that, someone else had written, "But anyone can work at McDonalds!"

Bernard Brandt said...

Regarding the sort of education that assists in learning and thinking, may I recommend an essay which, as I recall, was crucial and central in your parents' philosophy of homeschooling:

The Lost Tools of Learning, by Dorothy L. Sayers. I believe that you can find a copy of it online, here:

The gravamen of that essay is that the tools of learning can be developed by a formal education in the Trivium: Grammar, Logic, and Rhetoric.

Fleshed out a bit more than Sayers did, I've noticed that my studies in Latin and Greek helped me very much, not only in the process of learning other languages, but in showing me how to assimilate and organize a body of knowledge and to make it useable. In short, training in Grammar assisted in the training of memory.

I also noted that the self-education which I put myself through in deductive and inductive logic, and the training which I further got from a study of the law, assisted me in the process of learning how to make connections in reasoning, and to weed out the fallacious ones. This training helped me in subjects ranging from science and mathematics to theology. In short, a training in logic, especially a practical one, assists in training the reason.

Finally, I have noticed that the self-training which I have done in Rhetoric, particularly the process of thinking up new ideas (inventio), putting those ideas into some sort of order (organizatio), and figuring out the manner in which to express those ideas (elocutio) gave me a head start, not only in composition, but in anything involving research and problem solving. In short, a training in Rhetoric assisted me in developing my imagination.

I suspect that the value of a Great Books program (perhaps similar to the value of someone undertaking a study of the Talmud), is that any serious attempt to learn The Great Conversation (as Mortimer J. Adler put it), would involve the development of tools of memory, reason and imagination, all the more so if there was a conscious effort as well to teach Grammar, Logic, and Rhetoric.

Perhaps the difference between those simply with a so-called "liberal" education and a Great Books education is that the former is a process of going through courses. The latter is a process of taking part in a greater conversation of ideas than can be found in the mass media, and perhaps even honing the tools of learning.

Kevin J. Jones said...

I hope this isn't too tangential a question, but do you have any advice for a classics major trying to get back into a compsci-type career? How does one get one's foot in the door? I have both a Classics degree and computer skills.

(Working a regular job is a bit theoretical for me at this point, since I'm on disability for illness, but I'll take what advice I can get)

But as for the benefits of cross-pollination, I've created a modest but effective language learning tool at which never would have happened without my eccentric background.