Who Needs History?

GizaPyramids1I recently told a mom about a kindergarten lesson on the Nile river, Egyptian agriculture and crocodiles that ICS will use next year.  “Even I don't remember that stuff,” she said. “Why does my son need to know it?” Like me, this mom is concerned that her child can get along with others, qualify for a good job, and make his way in the world.  Where does King Tut fit into that?

As Headmaster of Archway Veritas, a K-12 school in Phoenix, Erik Twist has heard questions like this for many years. His answer is one we embrace.

Classical schools educate children for the lifelong pursuit of truth, goodness, and beauty. These are fine, lofty goals, but moms and dads want to know that liberal arts education is not some arcane throwback that leaves kids book-smart, but unprepared for the modern economy.

In fact, schools like ours deliveSlide1-4r what the marketplace demands: well-rounded, critical-thinking, focused and mature graduates who are prepared to be entrepreneurs, innovators, and leaders in the 21st century. Not just proficient test-takers or Jeopardy contestants.

For the classical school, the pursuit of truth, goodness, and beauty is not sanctimonious sentimentalism but the very foundation of a flourishing and competent human being. Despite evidence to the contrary, many schools think kids benefit from learning skills-based proficiencies and pedagogies committed to increasing their self-esteem.

The classical school understands that the most valuable employee in today’s marketplace is self-motivated, clear thinking, articulate and focused. An education that envelops students in the rich literary beauty and philosophical wisdom of the past, in rigorous and inspiring mathematics and science instruction, in hours upon hours of civil discourse, analytical writing, and memorization is an investment in their hearts and minds that pays dividends long after the last standardized test has been taken.

Writing in the Harvard Business Review Tony Golsby-Smith observed, “People trained in the humanities who study Shakespeare’s poetry, or Cezanne’s paintings … have learned to play with big concepts, and to apply new ways of thinking to difficult problems that can’t be analyzed in conventional ways.”

Slide1-2“Any great work of art,” he continued “whether literary, philosophical, psychological or visual—challenges a humanist to be curious, to ask open-ended questions, see the big picture. This kind of thinking is just what you need if you are facing a murky future or dealing with tricky, incipient problems.”

He couldn't be talking about Gaza, hydro fracking , or urban renewal in cities like Camden or Detroit, could he?

This is the kind of thinking a classical, liberal arts education has always worked to cultivate. From the very first day of Kindergarten, because starting at 18 is much too late. A successful undergraduate experience is best understood as a continuation of a well-designed K-12 education.To get it wrong in those first 13 years of elementary and secondary school is to be limited by the difficult and ineffective work of intellectual and moral remediation thereafter.

HBR authors are not the only ones who recognize the value of a liberal education. As seen in the graphic below (click to enlarge), enormous majorities of 21st century companies seek employees with the skills a liberal education delivers.

Slide2-3One would be hard-pressed to find schools around the country more committed to answering this call. Classical, liberal school graduates—steeped in history, philosophy, and ethics; in physics, chemistry, and calculus; in clear writing and rhetorical skills—are among the most focused and purpose-driven students in the country. They are thoughtful, engaged, and articulate, ready to meet the needs of a complex and competitive 21st century economy.

As Erik and I talked, I was reminded of “Frank,” an old friend and ICS supporter. Attending a small liberal arts college in New England, he studied Art History. His senior thesis was on the Italian Renaissance painter, Corregio. 

After nearly 25 years as a successful investment banker, working in London, Sydney and New York, Frank said people still ask him “How did an art history major get hired at [Big, Famous Bank]?” 

As Erik points out, it’s because Frank knows how to think. Just like the future ICS students who will learn about the Nile, the pharaohs, and crocodiles.