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 canâ€™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.