Looking for “Changemakers?” Try your Local Liberal Arts College

Conservatives education reformers have spent the better part of 40 years running down the idea that a liberal arts education is something most Americans should strive for. They aggressively promote vocational education with the argument that there are a plethora of “good, high-paying jobs” just waiting for any eager young man or woman who would reject the pursuit of college (and so-called college prep education in high school) and be willing to roll their sleeves up and get their hands dirty.

Skills and trade work is nothing to sneer at– they are valuable and rewarding vocations and important parts of our economy. But you will note these conservative elites never send their own children to such schools (much like the charter advocates, they are cool making a profit off it and telling you how great it will be for your children but have no interest in putting their children where their mouth or money is). Even if you know you want to be an auto mechanic or welder; a cosmetologist or baker; a teacher, nurse, or accountant you also need a basic liberal arts education.

Why? Because the world we live in is always changing. And soft skills, the ones not directly applicable to your current or envisioned day-to-day tasks, are what give you the capacity to navigate the constantly shifting currents of our economy (not to mention our political and social world). They are what get you promoted. They are what help you move between industries. They are what help you find work.

David Brooks wrote a piece about this in the New York Times recently, though he may not have realized it. Brooks was grappling with how social movements in the non-profit sector are promoting change through developing agency skills in young people. He saw this as a break with the past, as I suspect most Americans would.

For millenniums most people’s lives had a certain pattern. You went to school to learn a trade or skill– baking, farming or accounting. Then you could go into the workforce and make a good living repeating the same skill over the course of your career.

This is not true. In fact, every word of it is wrong.

For millennium’s most people toiled on small subsistence farms or worked as unfree labor in public works, grand estates, or military service. Schools have only existed as you know them since the 19th century. The German model that most of the world uses was not just about teaching the basic skills necessary for the early industrial world, it was about passing along culture from one generation to the next. It emphasized religion and ethics along with the rights and obligations of citizenship. They were not designed to teach you a repetitive skill or trade. In the United States, they were created to arm young people with the broad knowledge necessary to be citizens in a democratic society.

Beyond that, there is nothing rote about the trades Brooks chose to highlight in that passage. Bakers are prized for their creativity and artistic work. For god sake, hundreds of thousands of Americans literally watch people bake cakes and cupcakes on TV to see these things! Farmers have always had to adapt to ever-changing circumstances– from market pressures to local environmental changes. And accounting is an enormous field that is under continuous redevelopment due to changing standards and institutional pressures.

Indeed, you’d find this to be true of most trades. Brooks sees these changemakers as a unique break with the past. Young people being trained to think critically and respond to challenges themselves? Promoting agency in young people? Employers who want their workers to see problems and figure out a way to solve them? This is all very confusing and topsy-turvy to Brooks.

The truth is that there is nothing unique about this “changemakers” idea. Everything described here is part of a liberal arts education. Brooks doesn’t seem to grasp that. The reason you read Beloved in high school or your freshmen college lit course isn’t because it is directly applicable to your “trade.” It is not because English professors suspect you will have your house haunted by the child you killed by your own hand.  It is because tough works like Morisson’s fosters the sort of “cognitive empathy-based living for all” mindset Drayton describes. You don’t need to take that course in world history because the Han Empire has a lot of relevance to your work as an x-ray tech. You take it because understanding the past in a global context helps you understand the geopolitical reality you live in today. It helps you see how other people and cultures have dealt with change over time. It opens your eyes to commonalities and differences between people. You stop seeing other people as simple abstractions and lazy caricatures. It makes the world a more gloriously complex place. These liberal arts courses complicate the world and force you to ask tough questions. They are the critical thinking foundries where changemakers are forged.

We don’t need to rejigger the curriculum in our schools to create changemakers. They were already designed to do so. What we need to do is stop telling parents and children that those soft skills that make up the development and deployment of changemakers are worthless. Creating changemakers means you have to stop telling young people to defer to adults and to look to authority for answers. Instead, they must be encouraged to think critically about the world and to go out and be the change they wish to see in the world.
This isn’t just the schools’ job either. We as parents and adults play a huge role. It means we have to give up the cheap and easy answers to social and political problems in our daily discourse. It requires compromise and thoughtfulness. It demands that we take a larger view of things, challenge our assumptions, and continue to grow and change. More than anything, we must model change for our kids. Do you come home and complain about work? Try to find a solution– whether it means looking for another job, addressing concerns in the workplace, or leading change in your institution. Do you disagree with something happening in your local community? Organize like-minded people to advocate for change. Run for office. Volunteer to help people already working to create change. Do something.

This isn’t just about making our society more ethical and just– though it does tend to lead to that result. It also has practical results for our (and our children’s) future employment. The young person who is solving problems in the school will be the one who keeps their coworker from making a dangerous mistake on the job. They will be the worker who can switch industries when they get laid off. They will be the leader who solves problems on a project. They are the entrepreneur who addresses a market gap or a community need. They are the politician who sees a way to solve a major problem. They will be the parent who raises empathetic, kind, and loving children.

The liberal arts are not a luxury reserved for the rich. They are an essential part of modern life. And it is never too late to start learning them.

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