I woke up this Saturday morning to a beautiful fall day in Austin. The morning was chilly after a cold front blew in yesterday. The wind blew hard from the north through overcast skies. It felt colder than the posted temperature. I walked briskly into the gym underdressed for the cold, but the distance was short, and I would soon be warm. By the time we departed for a pre-Christmas lunch at the Domaine shopping area, the sky was blue, and a bright sun warmed us while we walked to our restaurant. While most of the northern states are covered in heavy snow, Austinites basked in above-freezing weather under sunny skies.
While chatting with my wife during lunch, I kept glancing at my cell phone to get the latest football score. As impossible as it seemed, my alma mater, Colorado School of Mines (CSM), is playing in the NCAA Division II championship football game today. It appears that technical college students can also play sports. We spent most of our lunch together discussing my time at CSM. I admitted to her that I did not enjoy my years studying engineering. It wasn’t fun because most of my memories are of my hard labor: difficult classes and minimum wage employment to make ends meet. The course work was uninspiring and rigorous. It taught me to think logically and in exacting detail, something that survived my college years. One cannot ‘wing’ engineering courses.
The few required humanities courses were also uninspiring, except for my second humanities course during my freshman year. My professor was a rural Texan who had an English Ph.D. from the University of Texas. The required reading was several anti-technology books, like Thoreau’s Walden. He told the class to read it over the weekend and be ready to discuss Thoreau’s book in class on Monday. I gave it a quick read and showed up for class only to be given a 20-question pop-quiz of Walden quotes with missing sections for us to complete from memory. Within a few minutes, I knew that I failed this quiz.
After taking my first series of hourly engineering exams, I was having a rough semester and decided it was time to ‘get real’ on my studies: no more winging it. Our next reading assignment was Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. My professor told us to read it over the weekend and we would write a paper in class on one of the chapters. I headed to the library and read deeply. I made notes and outlined the major points. Pirsig’s theme of deeply caring for technical creations resonated within me. Instead of seeing this assignment as work, I discovered that thoroughly understanding a subject had benefits. When I sat for the written exam, words tumbled out of me. Miraculously, I received the highest grade in the class on the paper. I discovered that knowing a subject well was both beneficial and inspiring, although it did require hard work.
I currently sit on the Board of Trustees of a small liberal arts school. It was founded when Texas was a country, prior to being admitted into the United States. The university’s initial purpose was to educate future Methodist pastors in the humanities. Now, the largest major is business. Classics has the smallest number of graduating students. One of the differences between my engineering university and liberal arts colleges is that liberal arts majors are required to take courses in multiple disciplines while CSM concentrates on specialized technical courses. To graduate within four years in a technical field requires specialization to master the subject.
In the United States, Science/Technology/Engineering/Mathematics (STEM) is dominating universities due to its robust job markets and higher salaries. When I reflected on my life and compared it to a small liberal arts education, I can see advantages in having a more blended education. I noted to my wife during lunch how most of my technical colleagues started out with good paying jobs but did not usually progress into management without obtaining a graduate school degree. My son graduated with a liberal arts degree and later earned an MBA. Within ten years after graduating from his liberal arts university, he has professionally progressed much faster than I did. His blended education has benefited him.
As I scanned the 2022 world news, climate change (record breaking summer and winter weather), pandemic (Covid, flu, RSV), economy (inflation), and Ukraine (war with Russia) dominated the headlines. All involve technical expertise paired with critical thinking skills. To solve these problems in our post-modern world, it will take more than just a technical or humanities degree. I am most impactful when I can gather data, organize it into meaningful information, and communicate it to gain consensus towards solving problems. I fail when I reply solely on micro calculations or macro concepts. Technical and humanities skills must both be used.
I recently completed the Old Testament section of my next book on vocation. I first built an Excel spreadsheet of all Biblical words (Hebrew and English) associated with vocation, then sorted the data into categories. I researched other author’s publications on the same subject for their analysis and conclusions. I then spent time writing the section so that the reader can clearly understand both the analysis and conclusions, along with supporting footnotes. Once a draft was completed, my wife provided her critiques and corrections. More feedback is still needed before it is ready for publication. My technology and humanities skills are being combined in a publication that was once considered solely a humanities project.
The world needs all ways of thinking to solve the many complex issues facing humankind. The liberal arts college where I serve has a required program named Paideia (Greek for education or upbringing), an interdisciplinary approach to education. Instead of solving problems within a discipline, Paideia requires the student to relate their current subject to multiple courses. For example, it requires English majors to connect mathematically, and chemistry majors to connect to psychology. Instead of waiting until after graduation to apply interdisciplinary concepts, it is done during undergraduate studies.
Thinking back to my youth, it should not have taken a failed Walden exam for me to discover the need to think critically. But God created each person uniquely and some, like me, discover truths under duress. In the end, the truth did come out and I am grateful.