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Basic vs. Applied; Theoretical vs. Practical; Knowledge for Knowledge’s Sake vs. Knowledge with Action in Mind

There is much talk these days about the “value” of higher education in the United States. The talk gets confused with immediate employability and the need for a technologically-based society to have sufficient STEM workers. It’s further confused by intense focus on the cost of higher education compared to entry-level salaries of graduates. This has led to studies on the “return on investment” in job earnings. Connected with this are snippets of public discourse about first job salaries of humanities’ graduates versus others; these often reflect poorly on education in the humanities, but they rarely tell the story of life-long learning and critical thought that make humanities grads notably successful in the long-term.

This rhetoric has led to some more recent pushback in the popular press, about the value of the humanities to societies. Sometimes, the argument can be practical, responsive to the concerns of today. For example, I spent time a few days ago with an environmental scientist who believes that the public discourse about the environment cannot be elevated through mere presentation of scientific findings. He is putting his energy into the support of artists and humanists to use their crafts to communicate the spiritual and emotional value of environmental features under threat. This is a creative and important way of connecting fields that are often seen as disconnected. Others will note that problem-based humanistic endeavors, while important, are not the sole purpose and value of the humanities.

Talking to alumni of Georgetown, regardless of what they ended up doing in their careers, produces a common reflection on their years at Georgetown. They learned to think. Their studies of the humanities and other disciplines were integrated and impactful. They read the masters. They were exposed to fundamental questions that every person should face — questions of what is real, how knowledge is possible, the nature of faith, meaning in human lives, the importance of community, and the sources of human happiness and suffering. Sometimes, the alums’ catchphrase is “knowledge for knowledge’s sake.” They think of their time in higher education as moments of intense self-discovery though exposure to these knowledge domains. The knowledge gained had lasting value to them (regardless of their career choice) because it centered them and offered permanent guideposts for decision-making.

In some sense, the debate about the value of STEM versus the humanities is unhelpful. We as individuals need both the humanities and the sciences. Further, within each domain we need theory and applications. Some faculty and students thrive in the realm of the theoretical. They develop principles of their field or of their lives based on immersing themselves in fundamental thoughts and writings. They use their energy to advance them — the faculty member by pushing the concepts further; the student, by striving to comprehend the framework of the concepts, manipulating them to understand the field.

At this moment in the United States, however, I feel the pendulum has swung to the emphasis on the practical, the short-run, the easily measurable. With formal education packed into the younger formative years, glorifying the short-run benefits of higher education risks a suboptimal society. Its weakness would be the inability for thought leaders to draw on knowledge from multiple fields. It would discount the wisdom of the ages; it would miss the emotion and spiritual values generated from the humanities that have spurred human action in the past.

I find extreme positions on these issues interesting but myopic. Of course, we could redesign liberal arts higher education to attempt to maximize the return on investment as measured in first five-year income. Of course, we could redesign the liberal arts higher education system to expel all obviously “applied” knowledge and preparation for occupational outcomes. In doing so, we would gradually create a faculty whose foci were myopic. We would limit ourselves and our horizons.

Having on the same university campus faculty and students who vary on the dimension of theory and applications is good for both. “Knowledge for knowledge sake” in unanticipated ways often produces the basis for the wisest course of action. We need to celebrate it.

So, what I value in US universities is a blend — of the basic and the applied, the theoretical and the practical, “knowledge for knowledge’s sake” and “knowledge with action in mind.” The two sides do indeed need each other, and the world needs both.

2 thoughts on “Basic vs. Applied; Theoretical vs. Practical; Knowledge for Knowledge’s Sake vs. Knowledge with Action in Mind

  1. On December 24, 2014, I received The Provost’s Blog and thought it would be interesting to read his meditations on the significance of Christmas in the context of a university in the Catholic, Jesuit tradition. This could be done from a wide variety of perspectives, whether religious or not. Instead the posting of that blog was completely secular, with no acknowledgment of the sacredness of that time in the Christian calendar.

    Today Catholics and many other Christians enter into the most solemn celebrations of the liturgical year, the Triduum celebrating the Lord’s Supper, the passion and crucifixion of Jesus, and his resurrection. Once again The Provost’s Blog does not even acknowledge the sacredness of this time for a university in the Catholic, Jesuit tradition. These postings contribute to a far-reaching secularization of Georgetown University’s identity, and I would be interested to know more about the Provost’s thoughts and intentions in this area.

  2. Provost Groves: I look forward to your posts each week, and without exception I find them to be insightful, thought-provoking, and wise. I appreciate your take on the STEM-humanities debate in higher education, and I generally agree with many of your conclusions about there being a false dichotomy in such dialogues.

    I would like to add another perspective, both as a liberal arts graduate and as a proud Georgetown alum and staff member. When I talk to people outside of the University about the value of a liberal arts education, almost no one disputes the lifelong value of a broad-based humanities education for either the individual or society. In particular, I almost never hear disagreement from those with an upper-middle class background, who constitute the majority of students at most top tier institutions, or from those above the age of 40, who were fortunate enough to obtain a quality higher education without leveraging themselves into unsustainable student debt.

    However, when I speak to people of my middle-class background and under-40 generation, what I hear more than anything is that today’s college student of average means faces a Sophie’s choice: either risk long-term underemployment and financial instability to obtain the sort of education that most of us value as an essential ingredient of an intellectually fulfilled life, or else obtain the skills and credentials necessary to be able to afford their higher education, to say nothing of the ever-increasing costs of housing and transportation.

    I believe that this is the real problem facing not only students, but also institutions of learning throughout the country today. No matter how noble or high-minded in spirit, I would submit that any defense of the humanities that does not address this underlying concern risks further alienating those who would stand to benefit most from the invigorating intellectual exercise that a study of the liberal arts provides.

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