The big picture of your child's future

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 27 October, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 27 October, 2010, 12:00am

'My daughter needs a job after college. Why should she waste time and money in general education classes? She will have the rest of her life to look at paintings, listen to music, read literature, dabble in history and dissect frogs.'

Admit it: the argument for training in college - specific skills that can be used on day one in a career - may seem more powerful than the rationale for true education. None of us wants to see our children graduating smart but penniless.

God bless those practical skills, but let me sketch out one parent's justification for liberal arts and general education.

First, the dreams and aspirations that sustain us throughout our lives are more likely to come from a classic novel or philosophic idea than from a lesson on tax accounting, as financially valuable as that may be.

Compelling ideas and aspirations lead us on to what we want to be. Skill training prepares us for what we may have to be. Give our children the opportunity to soar.

Second, the world is a big place filled with many ideas. Most personal and world conflicts, I think, arise from people whose world is quite small and filled with very few ideas.

Let my child play mental table-tennis with Aristotle, Marx, Lao Tzu, Jefferson, Freud, Einstein, Mozart, John Lennon, Darwin, and Lady Gaga, preferably all in the same semester. Let ideas pour like new wine. If my child has to be drunk at least once during college, let it be the intoxication of thought in all its forms.

Third, life is shorter than I thought and shorter than my child thinks. If the jar of our living has to be filled faster than we might wish, let's at least put in the big rocks first.

Am I assuming that a rock concert, an opera, a ballet, a sculpture exhibit, a poetry reading or a science fair somehow constitutes a bigger rock than pricing a widget? Yes, emphatically.

Fourth, art imitates life more than I ever would have believed. Think about it: in art, we take an inner mental concept, combine it with a physical material, and end up (if we're lucky) with art.

In life, we take our inner hopes, combine them with our surrounding environment, and end up with ... reality. Every act of imagination is practice in creating the reality we desire. In art, we learn how life works.

Finally, give my child a general education because, in truth, he doesn't really know what he wants right now.

At 18, he thinks he knows. So did I. So did you.

But do us all a favour: show our children the big picture before getting out the microscope. Geography, biology, anthropology, sociology, psychology - let all the '-ologies' out of their cages, even for a semester or two, so that at 40 there are no apologies.

General education and the liberal arts aren't out to compete with 'serious' subjects that lead directly to careers.

Broad knowledge and deep feeling help our children figure out which career they want - and, more importantly, why.

Art Bell, PhD, is a Hong Kong professor of management