Jeremy Whitty is an Associate Professor in Operations and Quality at IE and also the Course Director for the MSc. in Pharmaceutical Medicine at Hibernia College.
However all is not lost, if we know this, we can act. But we need to act fast, the Egyptian Empires lasted three millennia, imperial Rome graced the world for fifty decades, American hegemony lasted fifty years. The speed and extent of change in the world today has never been seen before and by and large we have no idea how to cope with it. If the aim of the liberal arts is human excellence we are a tragic generation rushing into this new age ignoring the best minds of the past, ignorant of their experiences and how they investigated and comprehended situations that may not be the exact same but certainly comparable to our world today, for the basic questions remain the same. How can we be good? What are the most suitable political structures? Is there a God? As Mark Twain once said, history does not repeat itself, but it often rhymes.
Many dismiss the writings of those who went before us, they say we want to read books written by pre-industrial dead white men some of whom had slaves, most of who had syphilis. In many cases that charge is true, but given the mess we are in, if the disease ridden D.W.M. can cast some light on our current predicaments, surely we should take any help we can get?
Education is society’s means for perpetuating itself. Without time given to thinking, to framing questions and appreciating aesthetics can we say the education standards of today are what we wish to pass on to the next generation? Can we say the primary, secondary or tertiary education systems today encourage personal excellence? Schools and universities are currently being exhorted to teach students the tools required to operate in modern society. This is silliness because no school can replicate the shop floor, the dynamism of the stock exchange nor the stress and skill required to do a heart transplant. The old understanding of school is changing: we are now training apprentices who will end up in their chosen professions by decisions made at eleven or twelve. Worse, we are not even teaching them the practical skills these professions require, our schools and universities are not creating the conditions to nurture independent enquiring adults who would see further because they stand on the shoulders of giants.
The liberal arts education is the most effective use of scarce resources. Liberal education only requires books, encouragement to question and the intellectual tools to solve problems. Training apprentices away from a workplace is a total waste of those resources, a waste of capital in equipment that has little resemblance to the equipment or issues in industry and in Ireland at least, a waste of six years of a teenagers’ life. This phenomenon is giving all education a bad name. It would be a lot easier for companies to train an individual grounded in a liberal education because he will have the mental ability to adapt and learn. One should remember that the liberal arts also bring joy and hope to the student helping her treasure the value of learning because of the enjoyment and sense of achievement it brings.
It is worth emphasising that a liberal education is not divorced from work, it has a direct influence on the work we do. We as workers should be artists, if we were stone masons we should see the cathedral that will be built at the end of our efforts, not just the shape of the stone the individual is cutting. We should know what we are doing and why, we need to know all the relationships between our work and the final goods or services our customers use, then we will do our jobs better, constantly innovate and always seek to improve and add value (in all its meanings) to society, ourselves and the organisations we work for.