Founder’s Letter – Back To The Future
I remember a study conducted by IBM Corporation during the 1970’s, a time when IBM dominated both corporate America and the world, the acknowledged leader for innovation in new business products, including electric typewriters and computers. I’ve lost my source for the published report, but I’ve not lost the conclusion of their internal study. At the time, IBM reported that employees with liberal arts degrees advanced more rapidly in the company than employees with more specialized professional degrees. These generalists were life-long learners open to new ideas and challenges in an industry experiencing rapid change. They were learning on the job as the modern computer age took shape around them. They adapted and flourished.
Today, we are a nation of specialists. Colleges and universities advertise career preparation for what are the top employment sectors in today’s global economy. Many high schools take the position that the subjects that matter are ones most “relevant” for employment and participation in a consumer economy. This approach reduces the space for studies in literature, history, philosophy, general science, and the arts.
What are we losing? A recent New Yorker article (March 6, 2023) proclaimed “The End of the English Major” and went on to document the disappearance of majors across the humanities with examples from ASU, Tufts and Ohio State, schools that continue to attract record enrollments. During the past decade, the study of English and history at the collegiate level has fallen by a full third. Humanities enrollment in the US has declined over all by seventeen per cent. What we’re losing is any studied connection to what it means to be human and the connections to a shared human experience. In democratizing higher education for all (a noble goal) even our top-rated colleges and universities became career training centers more than centers for understanding heritage and culture through the written word.
Phoenix Friends School aims to prepare our middle-school graduates for choices of high school, of course, but more importantly, we aim to prepare them for a world probably unlike the world we know today. To understand a rapidly-changing world, it may help to know our shared past and the complex historical trends that brought us to this point. To understand the diversity of human experience, readings from world literature could help put our young students in the shoes of those unlike them – unlike but still sharing basic human emotions, aspirations, and familiar challenges. At Phoenix Friends, we believe past models of education are as valid today as fifty or one hundred years ago.
While recognizing the pressure for students to achieve rewarding employment in the future, we explore the seven liberal arts, the classical curriculum covering humanities and science, as a foundation for learning and for living fully. There’s a very good chance our framework for life-long learning will prepare our graduates to navigate the headwinds of life in an ever-changing world.
I just had a stroke, and doctors are reporting vivid surprise at my neuroplastic recovery. Nobody can say for sure, of course…but…my parents had us learn languages, play music, participate in the play, play sports…and I loved the liberal arts education I got in middle school, in high school, and in college. Surely the learning brain, even when it’s older, is more neuroplastically agile when it’s…used to learning in lots of different ways?
Here is a nod to the generalists in our society and I would rather hire one of those than a highly trained and specialized person unless it was for some kind of microscopic research.
“Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World” is a 2019 book by David Epstein in which he expands on the points from his previous book “The Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance” to make a more general argument against overspecialization.