Sunday, August 17, 2014

"...with only a bare bones understanding of what it means to be alive..." PART SIX

Here's the next part of the huge discussion which broke out on facebook after my post on the liberal arts (part two, part three, part four, part five):

Toni I'd like to say perhaps were not approaching this correctly? Sure we can pick on the lesbian gender studies major and his inability to get employment (there really is such a man, I met him), perhaps we should ask why employers shy away from those trained in critical thinking? I have found in my life that even when I have zero experience in an arena, I generally do alright, especially in the early stages. What we lack in experience we make up for in ingenuity.

Ron That's the thing, liberal arts majors do, indeed, know how to learn. That's the process. On the other hand, liberal arts majors, if they did it correctly, also ask questions. They point out what are perhaps better ways of doing things. They can be very threatening to their immediate superiors in this respect. At least that's my speculation.

I try not to ask too many questions at work, myself.

Matt Ok, I'm back at least for a few minutes. I'm at a conference and swamped so apologies if I have failed to generate sufficient word count and in a timely enough manner.

I stand by my assertion that YOUR OPENING LINE sounded arrogant and condescending. Why did I mention it? Because it is out of character for you to sound that way, unless it's for a laugh, and particularly directed at a working class individual. So I mentioned it to say, hey Ron, did you really mean to be this way or was it a miscommunication? Especially since the whole cartoon is a strawman argument that pits two stereotypes against each other so that a third stereotype, the right-wing elite who is using anti-intellectualism to divert attention from issues such as regulation, accumulation of wealth, environment, etc.

But, we managed to stumble on an interesting argument, which is the idea that a Liberal Arts education is necessary (not always but mostly) to be a critical thinker. And i don't agree. I think a Liberal Arts ed can do much to develop critical thinking by exposing you to the worker of other critical thinkers, to develop practices, etc. But, the critical thinkers I know had it before they got to college and you, Ron Reeder, are a great example of that. You have been a critical thinker since I met you in 6th grade. College was a great way for you to hone that but you picked it up earlier. So did I and many of the other wonderful folks we knew before college that we bonded with way back when. So from where does this come from, I don't know. And it's not just an academic questions for me - we're trying to figure out the best way to nurture what appears to be a capacity and thirst for this type of exploration in our 8 year old.

As for why Liberal arts grads don't get hired? I can't speak for retail, food service,etc. But having hired new college grads, they fall into two buckets - those who have an immediately applicable skill and those who do not. Degrees like Engineering, Finance have obvious applications. Some, like English actually do too - if I need a writer, this is a difference maker. All the rest (including both my degrees) fall into the "should go to grad school" category. If you want a white collar job and you don't have a skill degree, you're best bet is sales. I know, yuck. Sounds horrible. That was my first job and I did not love it. But it exposed me to the area I was interested in and good at and got me on my way. Once you have a couple years of work experience, college degrees mean nothing to me.

So if you didn't get a job because they are afraid of critical thinkers, be glad you got away - that place will suck to work. In my (admittedly unusual high-tech) world, critical thinking is a plus. Business is all about problem solving and innovation, especially in tech, so that style of thinking is appreciated.

Ok, got to go but rest assured I'm not abandoning the thread!

Wait, one more! I like your examples but I think the Obama thing is sort of counter to your assertion - wouldn't you think that many folks who voted for him were the liberal arts educated types?

Ron Okay, Matt, I'm gonna hit these comments quickly. I hope. Probably not quickly.

Anyway, no apologies necessary for a lower word count. As you know, I can get verbose, especially if I feel like I'm defending myself from an unfair accusation. So, I'm glad you're still hanging in there with this.

Okay, so I was right in my speculation that it was the opening line that you found to be "arrogant and condescending." Good to know. For starters, thank you for trying to help me out. I appreciate that. I've been blogging for twelve years now, and, even though I feel like over a decade's experience with struggling every day both to formulate and articulate my views on numerous issues has made me a decent essayist, I also know that I'm certainly nowhere near perfect, and it's highly probable that I'm going to write things that aren't crystal clear from time to time. Any help is appreciated, especially from a guy as intelligent and reflective as you. So thanks.

Now, having said that, I feel like we've gotten into some super ultra subjective territory here. That is, I think the only possible way to interpret that opening sentence as "arrogant and condescending" is to completely take it out of the context in which it is presented.

Let's take a look at that context, at least, as I see it.

First and foremost, the most eye-catching aspect of the post, is the cartoon, which presents an option between studying the liberal arts and going to trade school, with the liberal arts option clearly presented as something only for a "loser." Yes, yes, the liberal arts student is the one saying "loser," but the idea is to create a sense of judgmental irony; he's the real loser in this depiction, not the trade school student, who is presented as just a regular guy trying to live his life, not trying to lord it over others like the a-hole liberal arts student does. The message is completely clear: don't study the liberal arts because it's for losers; instead, learn a trade because you'll have a much better life.

And that's the crux with this. What makes the better life? Why, making good money, of course. Don't concern yourself with the great questions about existence. That stuff is for losers. Just make good money and you'll be fine.

Obviously, I TOTALLY disagree with that, which brings us to the next feature of the post, the text I included. There are a total of six sentences, which include "Hmmm" and "Screw them for eternity." Not a lot to digest, but clearly to be considered in light of the accompanying cartoon, presumably the first thing to which the reader's eye goes.

My opening line, or, at least, what I'm trying to do with the opening line, starkly portrays the false option offered by the cartoon below: dim reality with a good job versus life of the mind with a bad job. I mean, that's what I get out of the cartoon--don't worry about all that fancy book stuff; it's not nearly as important as good money. So I pull the subtext up and make it clear. This is what the cartoonist is telling us. And if that's the option, I'll take less money because having a really good understanding of the world is far more important to me.

In the second paragraph, I become more direct. I reject the false option: trade school and college are not the same thing. I then attack the cartoonist and his ilk pushing this non-equivalency--when you make college and job training the same thing, you're necessarily telling people not to concern themselves with a deep study of what it means to be a human being. So screw them.

So that's what I was trying to do, and that's how it continues to read to me. In order to assume that I'm attacking the guy who goes to trade school, it seems to me, you have to ignore everything else going on in the post, the cartoon and its message, the second paragraph, in which there actually is an attack, at the cartoonist, as well as the overall context of what I post most every day on facebook.

I think I should also add, even though it's ultimately hard to know for sure, that the post has gotten fifteen "likes" so far. So, if what I wrote reads as an attack on working people, then it's easy to assume that all fifteen of those people liking the post are totally down with that. I mean, like I said, it's hard to tell why anybody "likes" a particular post on facebook, but like I also said, we're in super ultra subjective territory with this exercise in parsing how the meaning of this post is perceived. Personally, I think those fifteen people fully understood my intended meaning.

On the other hand, you've got four "likes" on your comment first calling me arrogant and condescending, so who knows? Of course, I've been getting that here and there for my entire life, so maybe it was just time to call Ron out for his arrogance and condescension, regardless of the post's clarity.

Super ultra subjective territory, indeed.

But that's how I see it. I think you've seized upon one sentence, really only half of a sentence, and disregarded everything else going on with the post to arrive at your conclusion. So I think it's an unfair and totally subjective judgment. On the other hand, I don't think you're being insincere with this, and think of you as a deeply reflective person, so it's something for me to think about in future writing, for which I again thank you.

On critical thinking and a liberal arts education:

I think I'm defining critical thinking differently from how you are, Matt. I don't really date my ability as a critical thinker until some time during the early 90s when I was studying RTF at UT. I was writing essay after essay after essay, having to consider film and television from multiple perspectives, Marxist, feminist, Freudian, anthropological, art/auteur, semiotics, and on and on and on. It was in trying to reconcile what are sometimes profoundly different viewpoints into something coherent that it all clicked. Suddenly I was seeing arguments and underlying assumptions in ways I never had before. Suddenly I was questioning stuff, in a solidly academic way, about my entire life, about existence in America, as a man, as a white person, as a citizen, as an artist, and so on. That is, this is when I became able to generalize critical thinking to all areas of existence, and not just within limited subject areas.

I used to think I understood argumentation up until that point. But I didn't. I mean, sure, I think I approached life with a sort of critical spirit, a willingness to question everything, but it was unfocused, and usually coupled with an inability to look at assumptions and ideas that aren't explicitly stated.

I never would have come to that point if I hadn't studied the liberal arts. So sure, I think a person can do this on his own. It's not impossible and I'm sure it happens. But I, personally, would have never done it outside the context of college study. I'm kind of lazy unless I'm really into something, and at that point it was film.

I thought I was there to learn how to make movies. Instead, I opened my eyes for the first time. Kind of an accident, really.

Finally, Matt, you wrote "I like your examples but I think the Obama thing is sort of counter to your assertion - wouldn't you think that many folks who voted for him were the liberal arts educated types?"

Yes, one would think that.

Of course, critical thinking is something for which one must make an effort, even when trained in critical thinking. And advertising, which is essentially what modern presidential campaigning has become, is damnably effective in getting people to think irrationally. Not to mention the fact that the entire American political discourse rarely rises to the level of critical thinking.

This all adds up to a completely different, but related, discussion about what a society might look like if EVERYONE were trained in critical thinking. But for today, suffice it to say that liberals piss me off almost as much as conservatives.
Part seven, the final installment, tomorrow!