Towards Living a Meaningful Life: Education for Living, and a Lifetime of Change
Frederick J. Antczak
Conference Keynote, the National Association of Communication Centers 4/21/17
One of the great things about functioning as the founding dean of a college, a privilege I’ve had here for 13 years, is to be in on the ground floor as the ethos of your college is developed and its traditions come into being.
In my office, one of those traditions has been that we all continue to get back at intervals to the classroom—including the Dean. Well, one of my office colleagues was telling me the other day that in her current Speech class a student told her about how initially skeptical she was of going to the Speech Lab. She had a hard time imagining what could possibly go on there that would help her. Nonetheless she went. The report came back that “It is awesome” and that she will be going back for more.
Perhaps that student reflects the skepticism of our time about higher ed. What could possibly be in it for me? Can there possibly be life outside of the narrowest understanding of STEM? How will this get me a job? We don’t need speakers, we need technologists in this state—we need to bank “human capital.” There are plenty of those voices and some are in high places.
The incumbent Governor of Wisconsin famously attempted to replace “the search for truth” from the system mission, substituting “to meet the state’s workforce needs.” As for all this stuff about equipping students to live a meaningful life, what does that have to do with higher education? That clearly is a private good to which taxpayers shouldn’t be asked to give public support. As the Governor of Florida put it,
We don’t need a lot more anthropologists in the state. It’s a great degree if people want to get it, but we don’t need them here. I want to spend our dollars giving people science, technology, engineering, and math degrees. That’s what our kids need to focus all their time and attention on, those types of degrees, so when they get out of school, they can get a job.[i]
Well, I can’t vouch directly for Anthropology in Florida, and in deference to my snowbird older sister, I won’t reflect on the likely usefulness in that state of social gerontology. I only know that at Grand Valley State University, and probably at your university, anthropology and the social sciences and the arts and humanities are, like science and math, about individual empowerment. Teaching people how to speak their thoughts is especially about individual empowerment. There is no more disruptive technology than the liberally educated and articulate human mind.
I very much hope you’re paying attention to the clarion voices of those who see the inherent value of a liberal education. A great example was tucked away in an article at the bottom of a newsletter. An alumna of Art & Design, Julie Upmeyer who lives in Istanbul these days, wrote:
Observing educational philosophies here in Turkey, as well as in other countries throughout the world, I have a new respect for the American concept of a liberal arts education. I am grateful that in addition to my fine arts courses at GVSU I was also able to study such diverse topics as geology, tae kwon do, ethics, marketing, and the scientific revolution. This has greatly benefited my practice as an artist, as well as my life as a human being. I believe experiences from one field are certainly applicable and greatly beneficial to any other, especially for an artist.
As a sculptor and creator of three-dimensional things, I’m often frustrated that my work is generally viewed as a two-dimensional photograph, or as a zero-dimensional digital image. My current body of work is exploring just that, the mathematical and physical relationships between one, two, and three dimensions. My ability to digest math books and apply them to the creation of sculptures and other art works is a direct result of my diverse and general education. I have learned how to learn, which enables me to continue doing so now and far into the future, in whichever country I choose to live.[ii]
I suspect Julie is exactly what Grand Valley had in mind when our mission statement was originally drafted, extolling the virtues of a liberal education and its importance to shaping lives, professions and societies. She has both something to say and the ability to say it. Speaking only for myself, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have chosen this line of work if all I was accomplishing was training people for a first job—where these days the average college grad spends an average of 18 months.[iii] And that’s a figure that continues to drop.
And yet, that initial start in life weighs heavily on students and parents, perhaps especially if they are first generation students. So sometimes we have to be crazy like a fox about it—we have to be like my colleagues in Computer Science, who require Speech and a second communication course of their students. Initially it is hard for budding computer scientists to understand why this is, but the faculty know that while their ability to code and design systems will initially open doors, all of their future opportunities will come because they can use those technical skills in concert with their communication skills—through speech, moving those skills beyond the classroom, out into the world and beyond their first job.
Never far from our minds should be the reality that-- large as that first job looms in the minds—and the adrenal glands—of students and parents, not to mention of Governors of Florida—the day is longer than 8 to 5, and life is so much deeper than a paycheck. We will not just be employees or even entrepreneurs, but we also have to find ways to be human beings. Our students need to be prepared for, in the famous phrase of Theodore Roosevelt, “citizenship in a republic.” What a disservice we would do to students, and the res publica, if we provided them with only bread (or worse yet, bread and circuses).
I hope all of these examples illustrate that we are “in the business,” AND committed to the vocation, of squeezing more juiciness from the fruit of life than a first job.
It is a good idea to remind students that their portfolio represents their work for a particular purpose, but that who they have become in doing that work is an altogether more profound and more influential matter—empowering not just for workers, but for informed citizens and empathetic human beings; influential not for 18 months in the first job, but for the future, foreseeable and unforeseen, changing ever more rapidly and unpredictably. Liberal education of the articulate mind and the eloquent heart is education for living, and for a lifetime of change.
For, notwithstanding some states going vocational to the most myopic degree, there is nobody, even among the most avid advocates of a “practical” education, who can say what skill sets will be needed—and outdated—so few as five years from now. Certainly there is nobody who can tell us what the makeup of the workforce will need to be ten, much less twenty years on—that is to say, this so-called practical education becomes most impractical exactly the sweet spot of our students’ work lives. Yet at this moment when there’s an oversupply of folks who advocate this drab and desiccated version of education that would leave our students at some imponderable risk of vocational--and moral—obsolescence in the very short term. At the same time, we’re seeing more and more articles in popular magazines like Time magazine[iv] the Atlantic[v] and National Geographic[vi] about longevity. The first person to reach 150 is already alive, the Daily Mail[vii] proclaimed with wondrous specificity (I guess one truly practical implication would be, mind your IRA!). But here’s the most practical question about education, a question our students will have to be able to answer articulately in times and circumstances that neither we nor they nor the Governor of Florida can anticipate: what can make a life that long worth living every day?
The education we offer must address more than the first job—it must move our students toward a meaningful live. And today we can say it does—we who work at Grand Valley, and we who work with Communication Centers. We can look back in satisfaction at a year when we had great success in transforming expectations for short term private goods into something durable and adaptable, something that enriches public AND private life, now and in a longer, brighter future.