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Primary purpose of education: learning how to learn

Anthropology is not the point.

Nor is it the point that our governor doesn't know anything about the skills anthropology teaches.

The point is that for nearly 40 years, Florida has been trying — in the name of efficiency — to connect state-supported educational programs with specific jobs. This is, in Florida, a persistent, time-honored and foolish enterprise. Here's why: Many if not most of the jobs college graduates will want and the companies they will work for in the not-too-distant future haven't been created yet. Furthermore, most college grads will change jobs frequently. Some experts think a working career of more than a dozen job changes will be routine.

The only smart way to prepare for such a world of work, as Wall Street Journal columnist William McGurn says, is to recognize that "the key to getting ahead will not be having one particular skill but having the ability to learn skills." Learning how to learn is the primary purpose of education.

College degree programs that train students only for a specific job may be fine for getting the first job. But that's not the skill that will get them the job beyond that first one or help them keep their job as the world of work changes around them.

Similarly, while STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) programs have always been important to the nation's economy, it is not simply science but science employed imaginatively that has the most benefits for economic progress.

Albert Einstein famously said, "Imagination is far more important than knowledge," meaning that, while knowledge is what we already know, imagination is the quality of mind that employs knowledge to go beyond what we already know, to come up with new ideas and original solutions, to create new opportunities for, among other things, business.

The best kind of education for STEM majors is one that includes the arts and humanities — including anthropology — because those are the disciplines that energize and train the imagination.

We think of Steve Jobs, for example, as a STEM guy — but it was not his competence as a student of science or even technology that made Apple the colossus it is: It was his creative imagination that made the difference. "I always thought of myself as a humanities person as a kid," Jobs said, "but I liked electronics. Then I read something that one of my heroes — Polaroid's Edwin Land — said about the importance of people who could stand at the intersection of humanities and sciences, and I decided that's what I wanted to do."

As Jobs' biographer, Walter Isaacson, points out, Jobs' genius was in "combining an appreciation of the humanities with an understanding of science — connecting artistry to technology, poetry to processors."

Contrary to what some people think, a "liberal arts education," properly understood, includes both arts and sciences. My college, for example, is a liberal arts college where 42 percent of our students are science majors. STEM programs without the arts and humanities are not likely to produce graduates who can create the new world of science or business.

Donald R. Eastman III is president of Eckerd College, a private liberal arts college in St. Petersburg.

Primary purpose of education: learning how to learn 11/06/11 [Last modified: Sunday, November 6, 2011 3:30am]
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