I still recall my college search, and my first few semesters at uni, talking with my dad about the purpose of education which, he claimed, was to learn how to think critically, and work with others to loftier heights. I still agree with this. But lately, I’m also willing to argue that education today – no matter what the learning is about – is also about learning how to be relevant.
Just this afternoon, I tried to make the argument (though maybe not as successfully, or succinctly as I intended) that geology majors are as adequately prepared as others for medical school, or some gainful employment that has human implications because (a) when we look at outcrops, we approach them as a surgeon would a patient: observing symptoms to diagnose a cause; and (b) the geosciences – like any science, and arguably, any major – has taught me which are the right questions to ask, and how I can apply my personal skill set to answer these questions. (This, however, isn’t to say that I’m not poorly prepared for medical school at the moment, because the truth is that I know nothing of the system that is the human body – a deficiency which I’m well aware would need remedying should I ever decide to pursue an MD.) Nonetheless, it seemed to me that my conversation partners got lost in the idea that somehow, my lack of “life science” knowledge was an analogue for lacking the necessary mindset, methodical approach, and research skills needed to succeed in a field like medicine, were I to decide that’s where my interests lie.
It was this that made me realize how I struggle sometimes to convince others – and reassure myself – that geology is inherently important to the greater good….even if the processes I study don’t operate on the same timescale as humans. Sure, because the principles of geology are founded largely on common sense, for example, I understand how geology might appear to be an inherently “easier” science. However, I would argue that better understanding the world around us is immediately relevant, because it directly influences how we interact with this world; for example, better understanding the hazards posed by Earth’s ever-active, ever-dynamic systems can, one day, be *the* reason why human lives are saved in the event of a natural disaster. I would also argue that it’s only because of my liberal arts education (which I have been extraordinarily privileged to receive) that I’m learning to be confident in defending my academic pursuits against any detractors who would posit that, “my studies aren’t relevant to society because they haven’t aided my acquiring the mental flexibility necessary to (a) utilize my inquisitive mindset, research skills, and critical thinking ability in addressing any problem, and (b) apply my discoveries to the advancement of mankind.”
Therefore, especially seeing that 2012 is an election year, I’d encourage people to reflect on what they believe the purpose of education is, what role they believe education will play in the development of our collective future, and thus, what level of support we should dedicate to education as we move forward. Should we only teach that which has an immediate, and direct impact on humans, or the economy, et cetera? Or do we instead teach our youth how they can, with a sufficient amount of mental flexibility, make themselves relevant in fields (be it geology, the arts, sciences, or humanities) that, as Robert R. Wilson said, “…may not inherently help defend the country, but [that] will help keep the nation worth defending”?
Disclaimer: I’m sure there are many things I don’t address here, or serious shortcomings in what I say, or arguments to be made that this post is kind of like, “Well, uh, yeah. Duh.” or, “What the heck is he even trying to say?” Regardless, I intended this merely as a way to record some of my own thoughts (“middle school girl writing in a diary” style, ya know?) while providing a forum that could be the nucleus of a thought provoking discussion, should anyone who reads this feel inspired to begin one. Should anyone feel inspired to discuss this at greater length, please, I welcome any and all conversation about any and all things.