Reconceptualizing the Value of Liberal Arts Education | David Banash | TEDxWesternIllinoisUniversity

Reconceptualizing the Value of Liberal Arts Education | David Banash | TEDxWesternIllinoisUniversity

August 31, 2019 4 By Ronny Jaskolski


Translator: Tanya Cushman
Reviewer: Peter van de Ven We live in a really strangely
remarkable time where everything is possible, right? Everything is possible. Stuff is possible that when I was growing up
was utterly unimaginable. And I can’t tell you how grateful I am to not have had to grow up
with social media. Just think about that for a second. Elon Musk is developing
private space travel, and they’re landing rockets
on barges out at sea. Like, that’s happening. On the other hand, there’s a website called Twitch
that you might know about. Do you all know Twitch? Do you know what happens there? Kids stay in their room; they are not out
landing rockets on barges. They live in completely imaginary
worlds of video games – completely virtual worlds – and they watch one another play live, and some of them are so successful at this
they never have to leave their room. They stay there, and they get paid
because people pay to watch them – it’s so fascinating and amazing
to watch them play these video games. So we live in a totally different world, and everything tells you
that absolutely anything is possible. Anything is possible. You can become anything;
you can do anything. And at the same moment,
we’re seeing transformations in education. We’re seeing transformations
in the university and with education. And while we have
these bold, broad visions, What are our visions like in education? What are our visions
like for K through 12? What are our visions of education like
for the university, for community colleges, for places like Western? Is everything possible? I wonder. And in fact, I was sitting home, watching the circus that is
our current presidential campaigns and just the insanity of the whole thing. But here are the candidates
trotting around on the right, on the left, laying out their visions of education. I think I’m going to pick on John Kasich because he had a town hall
just a couple of days ago. Couldn’t believe it – I was sitting there, and John Kasich
laid out his vision of education. and it begins well. Kasich comes out, and he says, “Here’s my vision of education. You will go to your community college
or to your four-year school or university, and the incoming student
will meet a guide.” He had to use the word “guide” – “You’ll meet a guide.” I thought, “Wow, man, that’s awesome.” You know, some guides.
That’s a good thing. Education means “to lead out.” We need some guides. All right. I’m with you. He said, “Your guide will help you
find your purpose.” Man, like that’s what education
is supposed to do in a way, right? Like this is the whole thing. This is John Kasich,
the Republican Governor of Ohio; he sounds like some hippie from the ’60s, talking about like finding
your purpose and stuff. And I thought, “All right.” And then he gives a vision
of what that guide would do and what that purpose would be. And he says, “The purpose of that guide
will be to say to the incoming student, ‘What do you want to be?’ And the student will tell, presumably,
the guide what they want to be. And then the guide
will present the student with a list of the jobs
that correspond with that desire, the salaries of those jobs and your chances of getting that job. And if the student keeps
their choice of their purpose, they will be handed a curriculum to qualify with the credentials
to get that job. And that is the vision of the university
that John Kasich is putting forward. And I was a little disappointed. In this world where
everything is possible, where everything
is being revolutionized, where we could do anything – that vision of education is so narrow
that it is breathtaking, all right? And I’m picking on John Kasich, but we could equally pick on
the Obama administration and their notion of community college and its connection to these
very narrow notions of vocation. Right now, in this world
where everything is possible, where everything’s being transformed, we’re having a historical
disinvestment in education at the K through 12 level
and at the university level. We’re going through it
here in Illinois right now, but it’s happening all over,
everywhere in the country. We’re taking money out,
we’re taking money out, and the vision becomes
more and more narrow. And the idea is, well,
education is just to get you a job. It’s just this utilitarian thing. It’s this small thing,
and we can’t spend all this money just, you know, teaching you
how to read novels or to be a philosopher
thinking about the meaning of art or whatever it might be. And I think this is a really dangerous
time for us in education and to be a student, quite frankly. It’s a very dangerous time because we had much bigger dreams
in the mid-20th century. We’ve had people tonight
talk about things like the GI Bill. When you look around a campus like this, you see a university where a nation and a state were pouring money into dreams
where anything would be possible in higher education and in K through 12. And we’re looking at something
much, much different now, and we should think about that. And we should think about
these narrow ideas of vocation, this idea of purpose
and this idea of utility – that your education should be useful. And I will put it to you
that the notion of use in education is extraordinarily difficult
to wrap our heads around. And I want to take a famous example. How many of you all know
Steve Jobs and who Steve Jobs is? I see a few hands going up. If you’ve read the biographies
and seen the films and all that? Some of you may
and some of you may not know, and so I want to point out
something about Steve Jobs’ biography. Steve Jobs was a college student
in the early 1970s, sort of ’72, ’73, and he went to a liberal arts school
called Reed College, which is up in Oregon. Reed College is a very strange,
wonderful little school, and Steve Jobs showed up there, and even for Reed,
Jobs was a little weird. Spent his time sort of like eating apples
and wandering through orchards, and not going to class
is basically what he did. Finally, Steve Jobs was sort of wandering
in and out of classes and thinking about stuff, and he wandered into a calligraphy studio. You all know what calligraphy is? We can’t even write in cursive anymore,
and I’m talking about calligraphy. But calligraphy is this
extraordinarily ornate art of writing. It has roots all the way back
in the ancient world. It’s perfected in the Middle Ages. If you’ve seen illuminated manuscripts that were created by monks
in the Catholic Church with the very beautiful letter forms,
etcetera – this is calligraphy – often written on animal skins, etcetera. So Steve Jobs spent a year and a half
basically living in a calligraphy studio learning a medieval art. He was basically learning
how to take inks with very simple pens and to draw letter forms
on animal skins and paper. For no apparent reason
other than that he thought it was beautiful
and compelling and interesting. And the man who taught him
had been a monk who simply did this to keep alive
the traditions of the Catholic Church. Now, imagine Steve Jobs showing up at John Kasich University
and meeting his guide. (Laughter) The guide says, “Well,
what do you want to be?” And Steve says, “I don’t know. I’m kind of interested
in electrical engineering; I’ve heard of these new, weird things
called computing, and I don’t know.” The guide says, “Engineer! Here’s what you need to do,” gives him a list of courses,
sends him off. I guarantee you
calligraphy is not on the list. (Laughter) It’s not. Because is it useful for an engineer
to devote a year and a half of study to an obscure medieval art
practiced by monks or failing tradition? Doesn’t seem useful. Doesn’t seem like that
is going to help your vocation if you have a very narrow
definition of vocation. But it turned out to be
the making of Steve Jobs. And it turned out to be the making
of the entire experience that all of us sort of in
the Apple universe are living. If you’ve got an iPhone in your pocket
or you work on a Mac, the way that Father Palladino
taught Steve Jobs to make letter forms, taught him about the relation
between serif fonts and non-serif fonts and the relationship between letter forms brought him the consciousness of design
that is in everything you see on a Mac. In fact, it was graduates of Reed College
and Father Palladino’s students who were called
into the first early Mac teams in order to design the first proportional
and scalable fonts on a personal computer. It changed computers
and how people interacted with them and the way they used them. And it’s still changing it today. And that’s the echo of that thing that no one, no guide who was coming in
to set you up with a job, could possibly imagine would be useful. And this is what’s useful
about universities. Universities are the sort of place where someone like Father Palladino,
practicing an ancient medieval art that seems to have absolutely
no relationship to the modern world, that art can be kept alive. And that art and that knowledge
can be maintained and conserved, even when it’s not being
immediately useful, and it can be maintained and conserved so that it can explode in significance
that we can’t possibly imagine. One of the amazing things
about universities like Western and other land-grant
universities in the U.S. is that we poured money
into building these kinds of institutions all over the country so that students,
students like you guys here and all the students
who are on this campus today, could have the kind of experience
like Steve Jobs had. Which is to say you could encounter people that were doing things
that you’d never expect, that you wouldn’t think about, that were sometimes ancient, that sometimes seemed completely disconnected
from the world you were living in, and then they would explode
in significance in ways you couldn’t possibly imagine. And you certainly couldn’t explain
to your parents beforehand, before it happened. So what’s missing from the world
of “we can do anything,” that anything is possible, is this notion that in the world of education,
we need to also make everything possible. We have a long tradition of doing that, but it’s not cheap, and it’s difficult,
and it’s hard to see. And if we reduce the idea of vocation
to its narrowest form, which is lining you up with an occupation and choosing the kind
of paycheck you want to get, very few people are going to have
that opportunity. And nowhere are we
going to talk about, actually, why even if Steve Jobs
hadn’t gone on to Apple, that calligraphy might have changed
his life in good ways, as it did for his teacher,
Father Palladino, because his teacher
practiced that art for vocation in its much older, much more Catholic, much stranger sense
of a way of being in the world and relating and discovering a purpose
and making a beautiful world. And not for a paycheck, guaranteed. In fact, as a monk,
he had taken a vow of poverty. It wasn’t about a paycheck. These experiences can still happen here, and I don’t want to make it like I’m just talking about
some crazy elite like Steve Jobs, some world-historical genius, because I see it all the time
in students here at Western. I want to talk about
just one student, very quickly, that I had back in 2005, 2006, a young woman named Ayana. Ayana had come, and she had come
with the idea of vocation, and her family had definitely
sent her here with the idea of vocation. As she once said to me, “The establishment has gotten behind
the idea that I will be a teacher, and that I will have this vocation because this is a stable
and a good thing to do.” And so she had sort of done the thing
with the family and the parents, got the whole thing lined up –
“I’m going to teach.” And while she got into
the English Education program and was training to be a teacher, and while she was doing that, though,
she was at a remarkable university, where in addition to those classes, she was taking classes
where people are practicing very ancient and relatively,
at least not narrowly, useful arts. Reading Shakespeare, for instance. Reading medieval novels,
having writing workshops on essays. Taking courses in women’s studies
and African American studies and philosophy and history – none of which immediately
leads to anything. And Ayana got interested
in a lot of that stuff; she got more interested
in literature and the reading of it and the writing workshops
and creative nonfiction than she was in the vocational
path of teaching. She didn’t have that calling, but she didn’t know
where the other stuff was leading. She was also, at the same time, developing a passion
for the history of soul music, and she was starting – she had a small radio show,
here, that she did, where she would play
these crazy records that she found, and she was record collecting, and then she was writing
and doing all this. And basically, What did her parents
see or think was going on? Or what did other people think? What does it look like from the outside? It looks like you’re a crazy person who basically wants to read about people
who don’t exist, doing imaginary things and listen to music
that no one listens to anymore. And where’s that
on John Kasich’s guide’s chart? And where’s that going to lead? Well, Ayana was doing exactly what
a university is set up to have happen, which is to discover your vocation and to figure out
what your vocation might be. And in fact, she invented
a life for herself that had questions at the heart of it
about, What was a good life? How should you live in the world? These very ancient questions
that we keep alive and make available in philosophy and literature
and history and the liberal arts so that you can invent yourself
in different kinds of ways. And she did exactly that. And instead of becoming a teacher, she went back to Chicago with her degree, and with the experience she got here and an education that wasn’t immediately
legible to anyone, even to her, and she ended up at WBEZ, where she now has a radio show
called “Reclaimed Soul.” She’s a radio producer; she is a writer. She has an absolutely fantastic career. Ayana Contreras at WBEZ – I invite you to look her up
and see the amazing work she’s doing and listen to what
she’s putting out on the radio, particularly her show, Reclaimed Soul. So what happened to Steve Jobs
also happened to her in a very small way, which is to say he invented a life
that you could not anticipate because he devoted himself to things that didn’t have their use
labeled to a paycheck immediately. But if we’re going to have that experience
available not just to the elite, not just to the children
of the wealthiest, we’re going to have to reimagine what’s possible
at universities like Western. And as we turn more
to the community college model, we’re going to have to ask
what’s possible there as well. I hope we can have a world where we commit to a world
of possibility in education. Remarkable things happen. Thank you. (Applause)