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.
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.
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.
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.