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Learning what to think is less crucial than learning how to think

There are a number of things the educated are supposed to receive from their education. Increasingly, the tendency of a college education is toward the development of skill sets and how to interact in the appropriate manner with the professional world after our four years of extended adolescence.

My own view is a little more in line with the famous quote from America’s original master of words, Mark Twain: “I never let my schooling interfere with my education.”

Even better is this one, from the great German philosopher Immanuel Kant: “Man must develop his tendency towards the good.”

It is in the spirit of these two quotes that I approach education, and it is in the spirit of these two quotes that I criticize the education so commonly received in America.

Doubtlessly, the good professors I’ve had outnumber the bad many times over and across all subjects. I’ve taken a fairly diverse collection of classes in my five years at the University, including history, philosophy, astronomy, sociology and, of course, journalism. If education has anything to do with learning or self-improvement, that diversity is crucial.

Too often I hear people complain of gen-ed requirements. And their complaints are understandable. College is expensive. What sense does it make to charge people for classes their future employers have no interest in them taking?

But this view is shortchanging the possibilities of a college education. If you merely want to learn the tricks of a particular trade, there are trade schools for that. A state college such as this one ought to have gen-ed requirements; in fact, they ought to be a bigger bulk of the load.

When I first came to college, I had the cynical view of philosophy that all they were engaging in was a kind of mental masturbation, making up problems and never finding solutions to any of them. While it may still be true that the more philosophy you take, the more you realize how few answers there are, the problems are actually very real.

But it isn’t even the problems that make philosophy and the sciences, subject matter shunned by those interested only in thrusting themselves into the working world, so important. What’s important about these subjects has less to do with the material learned and more to do with the manner with which it is learned.

Going through journalism school has given me an appreciation for extraneous courses. Though I have learned lots of important things from intelligent, moral people, there are other things about journalism school which are frightening.

In many cases, the journalism student is stripped of individuality and creativity to achieve the totally artificial ideal of objectivity. Taught to write in Associated Press style to achieve uniformity throughout the nation’s papers, journalism students are effectively reduced to assembly line workers, having a particular system for the processing and distribution of information but not so much in the way of analyzing it.

My argument is not so much that this is inherently a bad thing. Lots of reporters, including those working for The BG News, do extremely good work using those very skills, functioning as a watchdog against administration and other powerful people.

Rather, I think everybody could benefit from taking different classes, particularly philsophy and the sciences. These classes introduce a mode of thinking absent from courses designed to teach skills, basically exercises in memorization. In philosophy, what is learned is not any truths — if anything, you learn how little you actually know.

What is learned is an approach, one that forces you to evaluate information and arguments and weigh them against one another, separating arguments and claims that are valid and are doing actual work from those that are unsound and ought to be rejected.

Enhanced philsophy and science education could only benefit the student and the nation, doing far more than equipping people with various skills sets or knowledge and enabling them to discern the truth from the fiction. In an age with an increasingly politicized news media and more uncertainty about the world than ever, such classes could only help people see through the fog.

If I were going to add anything from myself to the Wikiquote page from which I took the Kant and Twain quotes, I’d say the goal of education ought to be enabling students to see the difference between good and bad, right and wrong and, maybe most importantly, truth and bullshit.

Respond to Kyle at [email protected]

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