by Felix J. Aquino, Vice President for Academic Affairs, Oklahoma City Community College
In recent years there has been much debate over the role of colleges and universities in society. In particular, some commentators have contended that higher education should ignore “fluff” (read the liberal arts) and focus on “practical things” (read business and engineering). The argument goes that we should defund the liberal arts and beef up our business and engineering schools.
I think this argument is wrong-headed because it ignores one essential fact: it is through the liberal arts that we learn creativity. In history, art, music, foreign languages, philosophy, the natural and social sciences we are exposed to countless examples of people and societies concocting creative solutions to the challenges they face. Through class projects and assignments we are given the opportunity to hone our creative skills, to learn to think outside the box, and create surprising and elegant (i.e., creative) solutions to challenges. These creative skills have applicability far beyond a specific college course.
Another essential fact is that creativity has economic utility. I am not talking about the economic benefit that derives from writing a best-selling novel or from making a blockbuster movie. Rather, I am talking about the economic benefit that derives from a pre-disposition to innovate. I would argue that as Americans, our economic preeminence comes from a history of creating surprising and elegant solutions to challenges. The list of American innovations is endless—some examples: the mechanical reaper, the telegraph, the telephone, all of Thomas Edison’s inventions, powered flight, the computer, the laser, the polio vaccine, the Internet. In addition, these innovations are not just technological inventions: the assembly line, overnight package delivery, standardized fast food, e-commerce, thirty minute pizza delivery, the credit card, global supply chains. The list goes on and on.
All of the aforementioned innovations came from a person or persons having an insight, an “ah-ha” moment, where there was a realization that previously unlinked elements could be put together in a new way to resolve some challenge. These new solutions can range from the sublime (the computer) to the mundane (clumping cat litter). However, what they all have in common is that they make peoples’ lives better and these people are willing to pay money for the new products and services, and thus enhance the economy.
For the reasons stated above, I would argue that our pre-disposition to innovate is, at the very least, enhanced and more likely is born from an exposure to the liberal arts. Therefore we in colleges and universities must resist calls to water down the General Education requirements in all of our degree programs and replace them with more “practical” courses. When the mind is allowed to soar and see the world from multiple points of view improved creativity is a byproduct.
I once had the opportunity to hear the former president of Poland, Lech Walesa, speak. Among his other remarks he said admiringly that the United States has always surprised the rest of the world in its solutions to problems. I think he was talking about our creativity. And I think it is something we must continue to nurture. Our economic future depends on it.