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The utility was generally not something that could be determined in advance, but would be realized through what individuals made of their learning once outside the confines of the campus.The free inquiry cultivated at the university would help build a citizenry of independent thinkers who took responsibility for their actions in the contexts of their communities and the new Republic.“What would the United States look like if we really gave up on liberal education and opted only for specialized or vocational schools? ” The interviewer was trying to be provocative, since I’ve just written a book entitled What exactly would be the problem, he went on, if we suddenly had a job market filled with people who were really good at finance, or engineering, or real estate development?
So, what would America look like if we abandoned this grand tradition of liberal education?
Without an education that cultivates an ability to learn from the past while stimulating a resistance to authority, without an education that empowers students for lifelong learning and inquiry, we would become a cultural and economic backwater, competing with various regions for the privilege of operationalizing somebody else’s new ideas.
At the Drucker Forum last year, Helga Nowotny, president of the European Research Council, described what she called the “embarrassment of complexity” – efforts based in data analysis to dissolve ambiguity that lead to more conformity and less creativity.
She called for an ethos among business and government leaders that would instead “be based on the acknowledgement that complexity requires integrative thinking, the ability to see the world, a problem or a challenge from different perspectives.” That’s a call for integrative thinking based in liberal learning.
Is it knowledge in basic skills, academics, technical disciplines, citizenship…or is it something else?
Education is a social institution that transmits attitudes, knowledge, beliefs, values, norms, and skills to its members through formal, systematic training.It is here we see the dynamic and open-ended nature of Jefferson’s understanding of educational “usefulness.” His approach to knowledge and experimentation kept open the possibility that any form of inquiry might prove useful.The sciences and mathematics made up about half of the curriculum at Virginia, but Jefferson was convinced that the broad study of all fields that promoted inquiry, such as history, zoology, anatomy and even ideology would help prepare young minds.Our formal education system says only the academic basics are important, emphasizing the collection of knowledge without understanding its value.What about the processing of knowledge—using inspiration, visionary ambitions, creativity, risk, motivation and the ability to bounce back from failure?Unlike Harvard University and its many imitators, devoted to predetermined itineraries through traditional fields, he said, Virginia would not prescribe a course of study to direct graduates to “the particular vocations to which they are destined.” At Mr.Jefferson’s university, “every branch of science, useful at this day, may be taught in its highest degree.” But who would determine which pursuits of knowledge would prove useful?Jefferson, a man of the Enlightenment, had faith that the diverse forms of learning would improve public and private life.Of course, his personal prejudices limited his interest in the improvement of life for so many.Jefferson would have well-understood what many business leaders, educators and researchers recognize today: that given the intense interconnection of problems and opportunities in a globalized culture and economy, we require thinkers who are comfortable with ambiguity and can manage complexity.Joshua Boger, founder of Vertex Pharmaceuticals (and chair of the board at Wesleyan University), has pointed out how much creative and constructive work gets done before clarity arrives, and that people who seek clarity too quickly might actually wind up missing a good deal that really matters.