Everybody appreciates the geeks, who bear us the gifts of the technology only they understand. They know their math and science, heroes for our time. They usually won't knock you over with quotations from Shakespeare, or pause in mid-byte to drink deep from the waters of philosophy, art and music, but if the microchip is the food of love, the geek is the faithful lover.
We depend on the geek to compete in the global economy. That's the conventional wisdom, anyway. But the conventional wisdom examines only half the issue. If math and science are the roots of the future, the liberal arts are its fruit and flower. Fruit and flower are not getting the attention they deserve.
Maybe it's the post-Sputnik mentality, born when the Soviet Union launched the first man-made object to orbit in space. That was in 1957. The United States was humiliated, exposed as lacking the know-how to weave the magic. Outrage became outcry, to teach more science, more math. We quickly caught up and moved swiftly ahead, and the urge to emphasize math and science, cheating the liberal arts, lingers still.
We still suffer from the notion that art and music are for wimps, weepers and dilettantes. Despite all the art museums, all the venues for concerts the politicians have established in the nation's capital, the pols are usually still uneducated and uninterested in the arts. They may say they appreciate a liberal education, but they usually don't. They continue to throw money at the hard sciences, relegating the tasks of nurturing the soul and sensibility to those who pursue art for art's sake.
Congress and the White House should educate themselves in a report by the Thomas Fordham Institute, "Beyond the Basics: Achieving a Liberal Education for All Children." It shows how the emphasis in public school education is too much on math and reading, how teachers teach to the test. What the students learn is crucial, but what they don't learn hurts.
Teachers who feel pressure for their students to pass basic skills and standardized tests substitute "drill and kill" techniques at the expense of "problem solving" and conceptual thinking. Not only is there diminished time for art, music, languages, literature, history and civics, but the green-eyeshade men in Washington and the bean counters at City Hall allocate fewer funds for liberal arts. School counselors discourage students considering courses in the arts, literature and music.
Well-meaning policy makers, as well as business leaders more concerned with competing in the global market, stress what the bureaucrats reduce to alphabet soup, called STEM -- Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. No one doubts the importance of such skills, but man cannot live on bread alone, even if he designs and builds a better oven. "In the long run, America's true competitive edge," write Chester E. Finn and Diane Ravitch, both former assistant U.S. secretaries of education, "is not its technical prowess but its creativity, its imagination, its inventiveness, its people's capacity to devise new solutions, to innovate, to invest new organizational as well as technological forms, and to eke productivity gains out of what others see as static situations."
Reading skill alone doesn't necessarily contribute to deeper understanding. "Why is it that the more we emphasize reading in the early grades the less well our children read by the time they reach grade eight?" asks Core Knowledge Foundation founder E.D. Hirsch, who hits hard at the "knowledge deficit." Writing suffers, too.
The continuing popularity of Jane Austen's novels -- Hollywood can't get enough of them -- seems to be an anomaly. They're popular because audiences love the eloquent language and appreciate the author's critical eye, the irony and wit that make her sentences sparkle. These works are enriched by a moral core that emerges in the content of relationships, where action is determined by character. We can hope the movies Hollywood makes will take audiences back to the written word, to delve deeper into its riches.
There's a craving among both young and old today to understand a world enriched by fine writing and the arts, an expanded appreciation for what English poet Matthew Arnold described as "knowing the best which has been thought and uttered in the world." When my father, who never got past the eighth grade, took me to Florence years ago, he sat for an hour before Michelangelo's David, overwhelmed by its power, and lamented that he had not discovered it when he was younger. It's never too late to develop an appreciation, but a head start pays great dividends.
President Bush once described education as "the great civil rights issue of our time." He's right about that. The bias against the study of the liberal arts is another prejudice we can do without.