Liberal Education

One Cannot Live by Equations Alone: Education for Life and Work in the Twenty-First Century

One might ask why a fellow approaching seventy-eight years of age would elect to devote most of his retirement to promoting education and science rather than playing golf. The reason is actually fairly straightforward and, frankly, rather pragmatic. I was the first in my family to attend college and the second to go to high school. This has made all the difference in my life. Furthermore, people whom I never met had, over the years, established scholarships that made it possible. I owe them a great debt, just as I do the teacher at my high school in Colorado who encouraged me to apply to Princeton University.

While in college, my summer job was spreading tar on roofs. Years later, I was asked by a reporter from the New York Times what I had learned from the experience. I answered that I had learned not one but three things: that there are a lot of fine people who make a living spreading tar on roofs; that you have to spread an awful lot of tar to cover a roof; and that the secret to getting off the roof is to get an education. Actually, my parents had already sought to teach me the latter lesson, and in doing so they sacrificed a great deal on my behalf.

Why do I mention all this? The reason is that I am worried about the future quality of life of America’s children and whether they will have the opportunities that I enjoyed. And I am worried about the very underpinnings of our democracy. The principal reason for these two worries is that I am worried about education in America.

It is my opinion that our systems of democracy and free enterprise form the foundation of the remarkable success our nation has enjoyed throughout its history. The beauty of our democracy is, of course, that each one of us gets one vote—no matter how much land we own, how big a house we live in, or how much money we have accumulated. Furthermore, it is a vote that matters. We all recall the “hanging chads” episode, and there have been other elections that were also narrowly decided. So if each vote counts, should not each vote be cast in an informed fashion? That question brings me to a little quiz I once presented in an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal, where I asked “in which of the following subjects is the performance of America’s twelfth graders the worst: science, economics, history, or mathematics?” The answer is history. Indeed, a survey of historical literacy revealed that very few American adults were aware that Madison played a role in creating the Constitution, although nearly everyone knew who Snoop Dogg was (Neal and Martin 2000). Exactly what this portends for the future of democracy in America is left for others more versed in the subject of government than I, but I do believe you can appreciate why I am worried.

To a not inconsiderable degree, quality of life in America depends upon Americans having good jobs and being able to pay the taxes needed to support services such as healthcare, social security, and physical security that we have come to expect from our government. It is noteworthy that 40 percent of US employers now report they have difficulty filling entry-level jobs because candidates have inadequate skills (Mourshed, Farrell, and Barton 2012). Ironically, today there are nearly four million job openings in the United States, at the same time that over twelve million people are unemployed largely due to skills gaps (US Department of Labor 2013a, 2013b).

Particularly worrisome to me are surveys indicating that undergraduates devote less than fifteen hours a week outside of class to studying and related activity (Babcock and Marks 2010), yet the number of “A” grades they receive is near an all-time high (Rojstaczer and Healy 2012). This Lake Woebegone combination is unlikely to produce the sort of work ethic that will permit US-based companies to compete with foreign firms that are staffed with increasingly well educated, highly motivated young people willing to work for a mere fraction of the compensation sought by US workers. Over half of America’s employers consider the people they actually hire to be inadequately prepared to enter the workforce (Mourshed, Farrell, and Barton 2012).

Globalization

One of the consequences of the globalization that is now engulfing nearly all societies is that one no longer simply competes with neighbors down the street for a job. In Tom Friedman’s (2005) words, globalization has “accidentally made Beijing, Bangalore, and Bethesda next door neighbors.” The title of Francis Cairncross’s bestselling book on the effects of the communications revolution, The Death of Distance (1997), eloquently encapsulates this phenomenon. Yes, distance is dead. It was killed by modern commercial aircraft and advanced information systems—the former transporting objects around the world at nearly the speed of sound, and the latter transmitting knowledge around the world literally at the speed of light. The impact of this development is indeed profound, particularly with regard to the globalization of the employment market.

In my career, I have participated in more than five hundred board meetings of Fortune 100 companies. In more than a few of these we were confronted with a decision whether to locate a new research and development facility, manufacturing plant, logistics center, or administrative office in the United States—or somewhere else. It should be of great concern that 77 percent of the boards facing such decisions have been casting their ballots for somewhere else (Defense Science Board 1996). There are of course many reasons for this outcome, but leading the list, at least as viewed by the National Academy of Sciences committee that wrote what is popularly referred to as the “Gathering Storm” report, is our K-12 educational system (National Research Council 2007). Further, the United States now ranks in fourteenth place in its fraction of young adults who hold baccalaureate degrees. For the first time in our nation’s history, young males are less well educated than their fathers—and are very likely to be less healthy as well. As the saying goes, what a time for the roof to leak—just when it is raining. The demands on our educational system are increasing. A recent Georgetown University study found that by 2018, merely 37 percent of US jobs will be available to workers who have only a high school diploma or no diploma at all—down from 72 percent in 1973, and 44 percent as recently as 1992 (Carnevale, Smith, and Strohl 2010).

Standardized tests have shown only a slight improvement in scores among students in America’s public schools over several decades, in spite of the second highest rate of spending per student in the world. Further, the improvement that has occurred is largely concentrated at the fourth-grade level—and few US firms employ fourth-graders. Worse yet, the longer our children are exposed to our public schools, the more poorly they perform. This is particularly true in math and science. Yet various studies have shown that, in recent decades, between 50 and 85 percent of the growth in the nation’s gross domestic product can be attributed to advances in science and technology, as can two-thirds of the improvement in productivity—this in a society where less than 5 percent of the workforce is composed of scientists and engineers. So if science and engineering are so important to our companies and our nation, how are we doing?

Well, our fifteen-year-olds now rank twenty-second in science and twenty-fifth in mathematics among the thirty-four member nations of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (2010). In terms of the fraction of baccalaureate degrees awarded that reside in the field of engineering, the United States ranks seventy-ninth among the ninety-three nations considered in a recent study (National Science Board 2012). The only countries behind us are Bangladesh, Brunei, Burundi, Cambodia, Cameroon, Cuba, Zambia, Guyana, Lesotho, Luxembourg, Madagascar, Namibia, Saudi Arabia, and Swaziland.

But, one might ask, if we have been doing so poorly at providing a K-12 education to many—correction: most—of our children, why has our economy over the long term performed so well? A major reason is that we have been importing a significant portion of our finest scientific and technical brains. About two-thirds of the engineers receiving doctorates from US universities have been foreign born. Increasingly, these students are saying they will return home upon completing their education and, presumably, compete against us; inexplicably, our government clings to its aversion to granting H1-B visas and green cards to individuals possessing critically needed skills.

The invention of the iPad, the Blackberry, GPS, and the iPhone—all rooted in much earlier fundamental research performed in such fields as solid state physics and quantum mechanics—created jobs not only for scientists and engineers but also for factory workers, salespersons, advertisers, and musicians. One recent study reported in the Journal of International Commerce and Economics stated that, in 2006, the seven hundred engineers working on Apple’s iPod were accompanied by fourteen thousand other workers in the United States and nearly twenty-seven thousand overseas (Linden, Dedrick, and Kraemer 2011). Steve Jobs told the president of the United States that the reason Apple employs seven hundred thousand workers abroad is because it can’t find thirty thousand engineers in the United States (Crovitz 2011).

So what does business need from our educational system? One answer is that it needs more employees who excel in science and engineering and, more generally, a workforce that is exposed to enough science and mathematics to function in the rapidly evolving, high-tech world. But that is only the beginning; one cannot live by equations alone. The need is increasing for workers with greater foreign-language skills and an expanded knowledge of economics, history, and geography. And who wants a technology-driven economy if those who drive it are not grounded in such fields as ethics?

Ethics

During my teaching years—well before Enron, Arthur Andersen, and Bernie Madoff made headlines—I included passages about ethics in the courses I taught in Princeton’s engineering school. To my amazement, in their year-end assessments, the students invariably indicated that they would like to have had more material devoted to the topic of ethics! In this regard it is worth recalling that when Johnson & Johnson and Enron, firms strongly grounded in technology, were confronted with ethical crises, they took precisely opposite directions and encountered precisely opposite outcomes. The difference wasn't because the leaders of the two firms had an inadequate understanding of thermodynamics, chemistry, or differential equations. Rather, it was because the tone at the top evidenced starkly different values of the type one derives from exposure to the humanities.

I found my students to be fascinated by real-world ethical dilemmas—some profound, others rather trivial. As an example of the latter, I would describe a situation that occurred when my wife and I were traveling in Nepal and observed that some of the locals had formed enterprises wherein they would trap small birds, hold them captive in tiny cages made of sticks, and offer to release one of the birds from its cell if a tourist paid a dollar. The evening we arrived in Kathmandu, one of my traveling companions became an instant celebrity when he agreed to release all the birds being held prisoner outside the entrance to our hotel. The next morning, it somehow evolved that I should be that day’s benefactor. I refused, however, reasoning that if no one paid ransom, the locals would stop treating birds so cruelly. The question for the students was, who was the more ethical, my friend or I?

A more profound example of an ethical dilemma is the canonical case where the mayor of a small town, having but a single fire truck, receives an urgent telephone call from the fire chief. The chief hurriedly explains that the local grade school with twenty children trapped inside it is on fire and so is the old-age home with one hundred senior citizens. The chief wants to know where to send the fire truck. I do not believe the answer to that dilemma can be found in technology.

Certainly when it comes to life’s major decisions, would it not be well for the leaders and employees of our government and our nation’s firms to have knowledge of the thoughts of the world’s great philosophers and the provocative dilemmas found in the works of great authors and playwrights? I believe the answer is a resounding “yes.” And were that the case, I believe many individuals and institutions (read: Wall Street banks, oil companies, and more) would have better reputations.

The written word

A topic in which our educational system at all levels does not seem to be receiving a passing grade is communications—particularly, but not only, written communication. The firm I led at the end of my formal business career employed some one hundred eighty thousand people, mostly college graduates, of whom over eighty thousand were engineers or scientists. I have concluded that one of the stronger correlations with advancement through the management ranks was the ability of an individual to express clearly his or her thoughts in writing.

In this regard I am speaking only of the barest fundamentals. If you happen to see someone running toward the edge of a cliff, for example, there is a difference between shouting “don’t, stop” and “don’t stop.” Or if the person happens to be running because he or she is being chased by a lion, it is probably counterproductive to call out, “There is a lion chasing George, shoot him.” This is not rocket science—and I know, I am a rocket scientist! We are amused by such linguistic transgressions, but I assure you that I have seen far worse in formal business correspondence. The most flagrant violators are my fellow slide-rule-bearing colleagues, many of whom have never really accepted the notion that every sentence deserves a verb! Then there were the letters General Electric once sent to thousands of its suppliers concerning GE’s quality-control program—printed under an embossed letterhead that had the word “Electric” misspelled! When I called this to their attention, they insisted that I was the only one who had noticed it . . . and that they still had two hundred thousand more sheets of that stationery in stock!

The liberal arts

Then there is the question whether a life can be truly fulfilling with only knowledge of magnetohydrodynamics, quantum mechanics, and matrix algebra and no exposure to the beauty and utility of Beethoven, van Gogh, and Shakespeare. Did I say utility? Indeed I did. While the learned study of such works “merely” for their inherent beauty would seem to be sufficient reward, there is more—much more—to be gained. Consider the broad reach of literature. Some years ago, a friend of mine and I wrote a book on Shakespeare that was published by the firm that produced the motion picture Shakespeare in Love. They titled our book Shakespeare in Charge (Augustine and Adelman 1999). The thesis of the book is that by understanding Shakespeare one can better understand business. That is true because business is about people, and no one ever understood people better than Shakespeare did.

Another friend of mine, the actor Michael York, and I have gained a great deal of pleasure from putting on little skits wherein I describe a business dilemma I have actually encountered and he then acts out—from memory, I might add—what Shakespeare would have advised under the prevailing circumstances. Be assured that I will remember those passages far longer than any book I have ever read, or written, on the abstract theory of management.

For example, when faced with the question whether to sell a business that had been a loss-leader for four straight years or to hold out for a better offer, I was swayed by Shakespeare’s advice to a, shall we say, not overly endowed Portia, who has finally received an offer of marriage and is debating whether to accept. “For I must tell you friendly in your ear,” her friend Rosalind advises, “sell when you can: you are not for all markets!” (We sold!) Or, as I listen to a poorly prepared briefer struggle to answer a question posed at a board meeting about the merits of the project that he or she has just been extolling, I am put on alert by having read the passage from Shakespeare wherein Antony is asked to describe the crocodile he has just bragged about seeing in Egypt. Antony’s only problem is that he has never seen a crocodile—nor has he ever been to Egypt! The resulting conversation goes like this:

Lepidus: What manner ’o thing is your crocodile?
Antony: It is shaped, sir, like itself; and it is as broad as it has breadth: it is just so high as it is, and moves with its own organs: it lives by that which nourisheth it; and the elements once out of it, it transmigrates.
Lepidus: What color is it of?
Antony: Of its own color, too.
Lepidus: ’tis a strange serpent!

And chances are, the proposal before the board of directors is also a strange serpent!

There are of course the so-called more practicable liberal arts disciplines, such as history, geography, and economics—not to mention psychology, languages, and political science. Each of these offers important subject-matter content, but even more important is what one learns about critical thinking, logic, and expression. And how can one operate a business that has many employees and customers around the world without possessing sensitivity to historical events? A major competitor of the firm where I worked once hosted a lavish dinner in Paris for a delegation of prospective customers from the People’s Republic of China. Happily—for us—the small flag placed in the center of the dinner table was that of the Chinese People’s Republic! But in the spirit of full disclosure, the firm I led once included in an advertising brochure an image of the British flag—upside down! (Actually, that is fairly easy to do.)

But where does that leave such fields as, say, music and art? When I worked at Lockheed Martin, we did not have a music department—though we did have a graphics department. And as a one-time aerodynamicist I have noted over and over that aircraft that are attractive to the eye more often than not fly better than ones that are ugly. Science, given its association with nature, is replete with examples of artistic magnificence, be it the patterns generated in bubble chambers or the color images of microscopic stress patterns in solids.

A few years ago I took the railroad across the Old Silk Route—even today a twenty-three-day adventure. On the train was a college student who had brought along a guitar. During the periodic stops at villages along the way, the passengers would get off and mill around the station platform where the locals were selling food to hungry travelers. The student would take out his guitar and begin playing American folk music, and a crowd would gather and begin singing along with him—perhaps it was more like humming, given the language mismatch. After some twenty minutes, the train would prepare to depart, and everyone, passengers and locals alike, would run around shaking hands, laughing, and patting each other on the back. I have since remarked to several secretaries of state that that young man did more for America’s image than all our diplomats since Thomas Jefferson. Interestingly, none has challenged my assertion!

Facing a perfect storm

As you have no doubt surmised, I am not a Luddite. I am a firm believer in the constructive effect properly managed technology can have, with its potential impact in the field of education being no exception. But probably no pursuit other than religion has more successfully resisted change over the centuries than higher education. The student, teacher, blackboard, book, and piece of chalk have been the coin of the realm. In fact, a highly regarded Princeton professor once stated that the objective of education is to transfer knowledge from the professor’s notebook to the student’s notebook without it passing through the student’s head!

But I view what I see as a trend in the application of technology to pedagogy with both a degree of optimism and a degree of trepidation. How will the humanities fare in the university of the future, with its emphasis on computerized and distance learning? It would seem that our higher education system, arguably the mightiest arrow in America’s competitiveness quiver, is facing a perfect storm. Government support is declining, and tuition is rising; international competition for student and faculty talent is intensifying; and a technological revolution in pedagogy is gathering momentum.

It is easy to articulate the case for investing in science and engineering, because the results are largely tangible: CAT Scans, vaccines, GPS. It is more difficult, but no less important, to make the case for the humanities, where one learns critical thinking, values, teamwork, and the art of expression. Think, for example, how you, as an innocent person accused of a crime, would like to be on trial before a jury that had no familiarity with civics, logic, psychology, or philosophy.

The good news is that America is still blessed with the finest university system the world has ever seen. According to the most recent ranking of world universities, five of the top six universities in the world and twenty of the top twenty-five are located in the United States (Times Higher Education 2013). But if they are to maintain those positions, change will be inevitable. Pan American Airways, Sears, Kodak, and the Penn Central were also once at the top of the heap.

Community colleges, for example, in addition to performing their all-important college preparation function, will need to rebuild programs that enable individuals to learn trades as apprentices. More exposure to the liberal arts will need to be provided to engineers—and, yes, the master’s degree should replace the bachelor’s degree as the entry degree into the field of engineering. Liberal arts graduates will need to have at least a rudimentary understanding of science and engineering. You will recall that British novelist C. P. Snow used to ask acquaintances whether they could describe the Second Law of Thermodynamics. When they failed, as they almost invariably did, he would delight in pointing out that his question was the technological equivalent of asking, “Have you ever read any Shakespeare?” Much greater emphasis will need to be placed on lifelong learning, particularly in the technical fields where it takes no effort to become professionally middle-aged by the time one is thirty-five years old.

Academia, government, and business must work together. This will not be accomplished without its challenges, because of the fundamental differences that exist between business and higher education. In academia the aphorism “publish or perish” is widely accepted, whereas in industry “publish and perish” might be better advice. In academia loyalty often tends to be more closely associated with one’s field than with one’s institution, whereas in industry the opposite is clearly true. Even the basic cadence of the two differs, with academia marching to a nominal four-year beat, and industry, sadly responding to the short-term pressures of the financial markets, is increasingly marching to a next-quarter drum. Academia is accustomed to potential customers beating down the doors to be admitted; industry seldom suffers from this problem. Government makes its own rules, interprets the rules, and enforces the rules—all while owning a printing press for money. In my experience, the best way to overcome such barriers is to make it easy for people to move across the barriers—something we do not do particularly well today.

Whatever the case, change is in the wind, and to prosper in the global village will require a balance of education in technology and humanities. I had the opportunity to study engineering in what was principally a liberal arts institution, and believe that served me well in my career, in my extracurricular activities, and in my personal life.

References

Augustine, N., and K. Adelman. 1999. Shakespeare in Charge: The Bard’s Guide to Leading and Succeeding on the Business Stage. New York: Hyperion.

Babcock, P., and M. Marks. 2010. “Leisure College USA: The Decline in Student Study Time.” Education Outlook, no. 7, August, http://www.aei.org/article/education/higher-education/leisure-college-usa/.

Cairncross, F. 1997. The Death of Distance: How the Communications Revolution Will Change Our Lives. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Business School Press.

Carnevale, A. P., N. Smith, and J. Strohl. 2010. Help Wanted: Projections of Jobs and Education Requirements through 2018. Washington, DC: Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce.

Crovitz, L. G. 2011. “Steve Jobs’s Advice for Obama.” Wall Street Journal, October 31, http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052970203687504577003763659779448.html.

Defense Science Board. 1996. Report of the Defense Science Board Task Force on Outsourcing and Privatization. Washington, DC: US Department of Defense.

Friedman, T. L. 2005. “The World Is Flat.” MIT Video, 1:15:13. May 16. http://video.mit.edu/watch/the-world-is-flat-9145/.

Linden, G., J. Dedrick, and K. L. Kraemer. 2011. “Innovation and Job Creation in a Global Economy: The Case of Apple’s iPod.” Journal of International Commerce and Economics 3 (1): 223–39.

Mourshed, M., D. Farrell, and D. Barton. 2012. Education to Employment: Designing a System that Works. Washington, DC: McKinsey and Company.

National Research Council. 2007. Rising Above the Gathering Storm: Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Economic Future. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.

National Science Board. 2012. Science and Engineering Indicators 2012. Arlington, VA: National Science Board, Appendix Table 2-32.

Neal, A. D., and J. L. Martin. 2000. Losing America’s Memory: Historical Illiteracy in the 21st Century. Washington, DC: American Council of Trustees and Alumni.

Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. 2010. PISA 2009 Results: What Students Know and Can Do—Student Performance in Reading, Mathematics and Science (Vol. 1). Paris, France: Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

Rojstaczer, S., and C. Healy. 2012. “Where A Is Ordinary: The Evolution of American College and University Grading, 1940–2009.” Teachers College Record 114 (7): 1–23.

Times Higher Education. 2013. “World University Rankings, 2012–2013.” Times Higher Education. Accessed March 22. http://www.timeshighereducation .co.uk/world-university-rankings/2012-13/world-ranking.

US Department of Labor. 2013a. “The Employment Situation —January 2013.” Bureau of Labor Statistics, February 1, http://www.bls.gov/news.release/archives/empsit_02012013.pdf.

———. 2013b. “Job Openings and Labor Turnover – January 2013.” Bureau of Labor Statistics, March 12, http://www.bls.gov/news.release/jolts.nr0.htm.


Norman R. Augustine is former president and chief executive officer of Lockheed Martin. This article was adapted from the author’s address to a special plenary session of the 2013 annual meeting of the Association of American Colleges and Universities.


To respond to this article, e-mail liberaled@aacu.org, with the author’s name on the subject line.

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