Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Breeding Entertainment Bottom Feeders

Over the past month, I've been helping a student with a distance course in art appreciation. The first step of the lesson is that she tells me what topic she needs to write an essay and I lecture her on that topic. Since I'm not an expert in specific topics, I research the target subject (on my own time) and do my best to tell her what she needs to know. In essence, I'm giving her the face-to-face class she isn't getting through taking distance lessons. She also has to read the sections in her text book that relate to the topic at hand and then using the combined content of the book and my lecture, she'd attempt a first draft essay which I'd then help her improve in a subsequent lesson.

Since the essays have been related to analyzing specific works of art for the most part, I have asked her questions about how she feels about a certain work. After I'd asked her a few times and gotten little out of her, she told me that she honestly had no interest in art and none of the works featured in her text seriously spoke to her and that she had little interest in art in general. I did tell her that she'd better try harder to find some works she could have an interesting conversation with because her input in this regard was necessary. The problem was that she just took the course because she needed an elective and it was available and I'd told her I would be able to lecture her effectively on this particular topic.

The reason I'm capable of doing these lectures is that I took an elective in art history in college and, unlike her, I was interested in getting something out of it besides a column on my course documentation awarding me credits. While I am very far from an art aficionado, I do have a decent grounding in the basics and know a bit about the more noted artists of various eras. I've also read a few books here and there over the years about a handful of artists because my interest in their lives was piqued after taking a class.

When I was in college, I rarely missed classes and I always read my textbooks. I felt that paying huge amounts of money for a class and then not attending it was tantamount to paying for a movie and not watching it. The sentiment among many other college students was quite different. They felt that many classes were not relevant to them or their future and therefore they would just be wasting time doing more than the minimum to get by. While this sentiment was common when I was in college, it is now the default thinking in America.

In my opinion, people are looking at college as an overpriced trade school if they think it's only about learning the skill set necessary to land a particular job. This mindset is a reflection of a culture which does not value knowledge per se or the idea of being an educated person, but only that knowledge which can be directly applied to specific tasks. This creates a society of people who have a narrow view of the world and who lack the ability to appreciate or empathize with the way in which other people work, think and feel.

To offer a case in point, I will go back to my student who had so little interest in art. If you can't look at a piece of art and understand what the artist had to consider to get a particular result, then you can't understand what it is to be in his shoes. You can't know the potential for failure or the struggle to achieve a certain result if you view it simply as being something you either like or you don't. You also can't know why one picture seems to "work" and is appealing while another similar one fails. Knowing the last point in particular is something one can apply to one's own life from laying out a brochure to decorating a room. If you understand certain principles and appreciate how an artist used them effectively, you can employ them yourself.

When I ponder why modern societies have such a narrow view of education, I believe that it's because there are so many people on the planet and so many resources for accessing information when we feel we absolutely need it. When there were fewer people and books were precious and few, educated people were a more valued commodity and it was helpful to communities to have someone who devoted his life to being educated so that he could impart information to those who desired it. Nowadays, we only value the quality of toil we can extract from someone as a result of education and not the knowledge itself.

There are a variety of consequences associated with regarding education mainly as orientation for future employment. From the most practical viewpoint, it increases the chances that your skill set will be useless at some point unless you go to some effort to continue your education in a changing field. It also, frankly, creates ignorant people with little flexibility to effectively function in any workplace which evolves or restructures, particularly if the work you are most capable of doing diminishes in value and you have no other knowledge which allows you to assume another role in a different but related area. Finally, and most importantly, you create a culture full of people who live lives with tunnel vision when it comes to their interests. These are the people who are relieving their boredom through trash television and voyeuristic, bottom-feeding entertainment because they've been socialized to believe that anything that smacks of education holds no value for them because it can't be applied to a job.


Roy said...

As a person who has attend 2 "trade schools" and 1 university I have to disagree with you a bit here.

The purpose of a trade school is to learn the trade so that you can get employment doing that trade. As such, it's more about learning a craft, technique or developing a focused skill set rather than broad knowledge. Of course it's true that having a wide range of knowledge helps building more competency in any endeavor. However, in these trade schools competition is fierce and your skill level is apparent to everyone. You are trying very hard to learn the skills to become a pro in only a few years. When I was in film school I had almost no time to sleep because I had so many projects to complete and skills to learn which take time. As a result, other peripheral electives were neglected. Our school understood this and allowed our electives to be light and instructors created lessons as they related to our primary goals. The desire to gain knowledge was in everyone and it wasn't a matter of doing the minimum. Rather is was a matter of prioritizing your time.

Also, having a very focused education doesn't equate with being narrow minded or unable to sympathize with other people. In fact, I would say it's quite the opposite. Having a deep knowledge of a craft or skill where one is truly part of that artform allows a person to understand more about oneself and therefore more about the world at large. Of course, I always assume that anything one does in life should be treated as a craft or artform..

In University, this was quite the opposite and the emphasis was on gaining knowledge through research and discussion and writing. As an aside, I found the people who I attend university with to be more narrow-minded than my classmates in trade school but that might have just my experience.

Both experiences for me were valuable and if I were to give advice to someone who wanted to learn a trade I would probably say go to university first, then go to the trade school next.

Roy said...

Sorry, I reread your post again and I see you are saying the same thing I said when you said that people who neglect a broad education are treating it as an overpriced "trade school"

Please ignore my comments above ;-)

Orchid64 said...

If it helps, I agreed completely with your first comment. ;-)

I do believe both are valuable. I believe pretty much all education is valuable (trade schools, university, apprenticeships, private lessons). In fact, I think having different learning experiences broadens your ability to absorb information through different experiences.

Orchid64 said...

One interesting thought I had after reading your comment, Roy, is that it's much worse to treat college like a trade school then to actually go to trade schools. Trade schools are designed to teach you all about a "craft" (as you say) so they have an education which is deep and rich for those who work in a field. Colleges, on the other hand, are staffed by academics who are all about being educated and generally do not tailor their curriculum to suit learning a trade.

In other words, if you really only want to focus on being good in a narrow field, then you're far better off going to a trade school than going to college. Unfortunately, there is a prejudice against learning a trade as opposed to holding a degree when it comes to securing certain positions.

Also, I remembered that you're from Canada and I'm not sure that it views education the same way as America. I have no way of knowing, of course!

Roy said...

Yes I agree.

My dad was completely against me going to a trade school right after high school so I said that I would eventually go to a university afterwards, which I did.

The trade school experience was a more passionate one because my peers were very talented and I gained more from amiable competition with them than from the instructors. University, on the other hand was more of an intellectual experience and I could spend more time learning with my brain than with my body if that makes any sense. My only problem with university was most people around me were pompous and wasted time in class discussions intellectualizing trivial things as if it were the most important discovery ever. Also, I found that many students in university tended not to have a defined career path and flip-flopped from one major to another for years without graduating. This wasn't the case in trade school where everyone pretty much knew why they were there.

By the way, in Canada "College" is synonymous with Trade/Vocational School usually 3 years. And "University" means a 4 years institutional where you can earn a degree.

CMUwriter said...

For what it's worth, I always pictured college as an avenue which taught me how to thing and process new information, and not be narrow minded about different things. To a degree I thought that it was some form of training for a future career, but not much. It was only when I got into the journalism biz that I realized I had a lot to learn. I learned that college gave me the tools to learn in that hands-on environment.