Liberal Arts Poster Children

I was thinking last week, after another discussion of assessment, about what I would regard as a successful product of a liberal arts education. If I don’t want to have a test of a fixed body of knowledge, but I agree that we ought to have benchmarks, what represents the bull’s eye? I figure that if you can identify a successful embodiment of the liberal arts in professional and personal life, and the person who represents that successful standard feels that the content of their education produced ways of thinking about the world that led to that success, you might have a better idea about what kinds of courses and teaching approaches would favor that ultimate goal.

If I had to identify people who most absolutely represent the highest ideals of a liberal arts education, I would start with the hosts of the television show Mythbusters.

If you’re not familiar with the show, the basic premise is that they take a commonly held belief or a commonly repeated cultural trope and try to concretely test its plausibility using some version of the scientific method. This can range from “is it actually easy to shoot fish in a barrel?” to “Could James Bond really have blown up a propane tank with a pistol at 20 yards and escape intact in the movie Casino Royale?”

The show does a very good job of showcasing how they approach testing each of these myths, about the thought-process that goes into designing a test, and about the concrete use of skills and improvisational adaptation to deal with various real-world issues involved in a test. Naturally, it’s skewed towards technical and scientific skills, but the hosts also have to deal with humanistic and social questions ranging from “what are the historical or cultural origins of this particular myth (and thus, what is it that we’re actually trying to test)?” to evaluating what makes for a persuasive or meaningful test of a particular concept. If you wanted to teach someone about the core commitments underlying the scientific method, about six episodes of Mythbusters might do about as well as a semester studying the philosophy of science: they do a marvelous job of walking the audience through a reasoning process and underscoring the place of skepticism in that process.

In many ways, I’d love to feel that any graduate of Swarthmore could potentially make a valid contribution to a project undertaken in a spirit like that of Mythbusters, and figure out what you would need to do on the educational side to make that happen. There is no required subject that I would insist upon.

Jamie Hyneman, one of the MythBusters hosts, put it better than I could hope to: “You can’t expect to teach someone everything he or she needs to know. A broad foundation of experience allows you to extrapolate things with which you have no direct experience. Specialists are usually in danger of not seeing the forest for the trees. If you acquire both a broad foundation and deep knowledge in a specific thing, you become much more dynamic in that area. If one takes both of these things to extremes, something truly transcendental can happen. In my case, my college education was not specifically useful to me later, but it had an effect on me in fundamental ways that were very major in the long run.”

Hyneman, it turns out, studied Russian languages and literatures. Of the other people in the show, one graduated from film school, one with an unspecified major but who had a career after graduation as an artist, one graduated with a major in electrical engineering, and one dropped out from drama school. So I don’t think they necessarily demonstrate that to live the liberal arts, you have to study them. Their careers after school are a better demonstration of how to live the liberal arts. Hyneman has done a wild range of things in his life, as has Adam Savage. The other three main MythBusters turned their different educational experiences towards work in the film industry, specifically in special effects.

So that’s what I think is worth looking at: how to match a liberal arts education with liberal arts outcomes. I don’t think it’s true that you simply don’t need any such thing, that you should just dive into life and do stuff. But a liberal arts curriculum could be much more about diving in than it often is, much more about making use of knowledge, much more about building and making and testing. If you were the president of a liberal arts college, I think you could do a lot worse than sitting down with Jamie Hyneman, paying him a consultant’s fee, and asking him, “How would you build a curriculum designed to train a MythBuster?” If I were sitting on top of some Mellon or MacArthur money, that might be what I’d do with it before I paid for study groups and faculty workshops and so on.

This entry was posted in Academia, Popular Culture, Swarthmore. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Liberal Arts Poster Children

  1. ancarett says:

    That is a genius comparison. I could think of few people in society who better represent the intellectual basis of the liberal arts approach — always question, always demand proof and rigour — than the team on “Mythbusters”. Plus, they are royally entertaining!

  2. Daniel Rosenblatt says:

    I’d like to make another nomination, for someone who embodies what can be done with the whole other side of the liberal arts that includes the humanities and social sciences, and the side of liberal arts that says talking and thinking about things is a worthy and socially necessary activity: Ira Glass, of the radio show “This American Life.”

    It might even be really plausible to think about creating a liberal arts curriculum that facilitates the sort of work he does–perhaps even one that finds a way not only to produce such work but to make it available to the world at large.

  3. Laura says:

    I consider myself a poster child of liberal arts education. The older I get, the more grateful I am that I was allowed to ramble through many subjects, encouraged to find connections between different subjects and had the time to do fun and interesting things outside of schoolwork. God, I even learned how to work a cocktail party, thanks to being in a sorority. It’s really come in handy. I run into a few students that I know will benefit in the long run from their Bryn Mawr education. Usually, they’re not the straight A students or the ones who pursued a specific curriculum toward a specific goal. They’re the ones who took things they were interested in, fell into a major, and even as seniors, have no idea what they’re going to do for a career They’re much smarter than they look on paper.

  4. jpool says:

    Ira Glass majored in Semiotics at Brown. I’m not sure if such a thing is possible at that institution anymore, but it does seem to be a nice point for cultural theory having real world applications.

  5. swiers says:

    Or take Mike Rowe, host of ‘Dirty Jobs’. You can’t knock it, that singing in opera makes a great education and preparation for life, generally, even if you never get a liberal arts degree.

  6. Rebekah says:

    I’ve always liked this essay for emphasizing the defining qualities of a liberally educated person rather than privileging a particular curriculum.

    I first read ‘Only Connect’ while applying to colleges, when I still had only a tenuous understanding of what distinguishes a small liberal arts college from a large research institution, besides size. I credit it with my decision to attend Bryn Mawr, a decision I appreciate more than ever now that I’ve graduated.
    Life in the “real world” is uncertain, demanding, but endlessly rewarding; I find those qualities of ‘connecting’ serve me well out here.

Comments are closed.