How My Liberal Arts Education Is Teaching Me To Think In New And Better Ways

Posted by Jahnavi Jayanth in Education
December 19, 2016

Imagine this with me now, there’s a vast field with multiple craters in it – all of varying depths. Your objective is to be in the deepest crater at all times (you are, of course, allowed the time to find, then travel to this crater, but the faster you do, the better.)

Here’s the catch: there’s a new crater popping up every so often, and each new crater is deeper than the previous one. So, you may be in the deepest crater at this moment however at the next moment when a new crater pops up; you will no longer be in the deepest one. It would be time to get out of the crater you are in, find the new one and get in there. You may or may not know that a new crater has popped up because you’re stuck thinking you’re in the deepest one, and when you realise you may not have the know-how to get out of this one and enter the new one.

Take some time to think about what you would need to know to solve this challenge and be successful in this field.

“Because it isn’t engineering itself that isn’t wonderful, it’s just the narrow idea that people have concocted and stuck to, about what a successful engineer needs to be that is really sad,” my friend at my liberal arts college dismally stated. He added, “Bioengineering is my passion and I’m doing it right now. Just differently.”

A liberal arts education, as one might understandably mistake, isn’t about studying literature or history alone. As tempting as that might sound, a liberal arts education is an education created for a free citizen, for them to cultivate the wide-ranging, deeply intellectual skills that are required for being active citizens of a democracy.

You can become an engineer through a liberal arts education; you will simply be an engineer with knowledge and skills that go far beyond (broader) the technical knowledge of engineering. At my school (Minerva Schools at KGI) liberal arts education is one such, that my three science-savvy peers and my economics and philosophy loving self, are currently undergoing with the purpose of being equipped with exactly this. We want to gain a deep understanding of our own fields of study, however we want to gain the skills that will allow us to see beyond it to integrate ourselves into the rest of the world on our own terms. At Minerva, we’re gaining the skills that will make us adaptable lifelong learners so we don’t get stuck behind only knowing static content, but constantly regenerate and grow as our fields and the world rapidly changes.

“It’s not about learning what to think or do, it’s about learning how to think or do,” added a second classmate passionate about software engineering and technology. You can know the prescribed solution to thousands of problems and know the existing knowledge in your field like the back of your hand, that’s what an excellent traditional education will give you. However, he challenged, what would happen when tomorrow you’re faced with a new problem – one that isn’t in the guidebook now? “And that’s where a liberal arts curriculum that contains a problem-solving unit, training you extensively on skills like drawing analogies, reverse-engineering abstractions, solutions and identifying the right problem will help you,” the third classmate piped up – his eyes shining. Those were the topics we had explored in class and, in the co-curricular project that morning.

He then started reminiscing of how he had studied more than four years of social sciences in his school, “I spent years detesting all the non relevant dates I had to memorise and how many types of rocks there were and where. Why did I need to know that about the social sciences, when all I wanted to do was build a plan for human settlement in outer-space?” And then with a grin went on to say how, he at first, got annoyed with how the social sciences presented themselves at Minerva and with a wider grin said, “I love them now. Because we’re learning about how complex social systems work and have worked in the past. So, now I not only know how to explore the idea of human settlements in outer-space, I can talk about why humanity needs it, even in terms of societal structure and where humanity is headed.”

Our curriculum, based on the Science of Learning, in the first year (foundation year) focuses simply on four broad 21st century areas of skill, allowing the students take over how they want to employ these skills in the fields of their interests in the consecutive years.

In the first year, each of these courses tying back to a broad field of study, such as natural sciences or social sciences uses content from the field, for example, the Big Bang Theory and theories of economics – as vehicles to teach us what are called Habits of Mind and Foundational Concepts (HCs). These are essentially tools for your brain to automatically function a certain way in order to produce the desired effect or tools that allow your brain to be flexible and adaptive to adopt/learn the right skill when it recognises the need for one.

For example, from the course that is reflective of the Arts and Humanities school, we learn how to think critically and communicate effectively. From the course that is reflective of the Computational Sciences school, we learn how to use mathematical and formal logic to distill arguments to their purest form and from the course that is reflective of the Natural Sciences school, we learn how to find appropriate evidence for an argument, rounding back to course one where we think critically of this argument again and then communicate it effectively.

As someone interested in economic policy and societal design and as someone who used to utterly lack the skills or the interest for programming, I found myself learning that an extremely efficacious and risk-free way of testing alternative economic systems would be to test them through computer simulations as opposed to real life policy change that might unexpectedly, adversely affect lives. Instead of taking end-of-semester examinations, because those aren’t effective ways of testing our knowledge, this is the project that I conceived and am working on, under the mentorship of professors from the above mentioned fields.

Think back to what I asked you to imagine in the beginning, what have you concluded? Would you rather – gain very deep knowledge about the crater that is deepest now and all the craters before it, and be stuck there forever, or would you rather – gain the skills to know when to scan the field, be able to scan the field when necessary and shift between craters?

Or would you ask yourself how you can build the next crater, the deepest, newest change? That is liberal arts thinking.


Image source: Arijit  Sen,  Hindustan Times/Getty Images

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