Counterpoint: Individual vs. Institutional Thinking

After I finished my last post defending a liberal arts education--especially in terms of an entrepreneur's willingness to challenge convention--a friend pointed me to this column by David Brooks. Titled "What Life Asks of Us," the column quotes a Harvard report as saying the purpose of a liberal education is to teach individuals to "think for themselves ... break free from the way they were raised, examine life from the outside and discover their own values."

While not dismissing the value of that entirely, Brooks argues for the worth of alternative approach to life; one based on "Institutional Thinking" ... or, living our lives with a respectful eye toward the longer-lasting values and institutions that create the enduring fabric of our society.

Clearly, there is a tension between the entrepreneur's zest for newer, better, faster and the traditionalist's understanding of things worth preserving. I, for one, would welcome a little of the "good old days" personal customer service we used to enjoy before automated phone menus and "cost-efficient" international call centers became the norm and fashion. And living in Silicon Valley, I am reminded daily of what a world run by entrepreneurial 27-year-olds would look like: exciting and trendy, to be sure ... but lacking in some steadiness and with a far-too-prevalent tendency to throw some valuable babies out with the bathwater.

So I agree with Brooks' belief in the importance of respect. And of learning the old way, and why the old way exists, before questioning whether or not it ought to be changed.

But a good liberal arts education shouldn't be in conflict with that idea. As part of my Semiotics studies, I had to take a rigorous writing course, with a professor who was absolutely fanatical about punctuation and grammar rules. On our weekly assignments, one error gave you an automatic "C." Two, and you flunked the paper and had to redo it, in addition to the next assignment, the following week. I was not fond of that professor. But make no mistake about it ... every single one of us learned the rules of punctuation and grammar that semester.

Twelve years later, I went before a NASA review committee to get approval on a book manuscript I'd just completed. The same kind of review committee that okays flight tests and shuttle launches. Five engineers faced me down, across the table. Most of the questions related to facts and conclusions I'd made regarding NASA research. But one panel member took exception to my writing style and punctuation. Didn't I know the rules of grammar, she asked? I went through each of her questions, citing each relevant grammar rule, and noting, if I had broken it, why I'd broken it. "I know the rules," I explained to her at the end. "Sometimes I choose to break them."

In that example, I think, is the key to how a liberal arts education ... or any education, for that matter ... should work. First, it should teach the conventional wisdom and rules. Then it should teach that it's okay to question, bend, or even break them, if there's a good reason to. Because if life asks anything of us, I think it's to be both entrepreneur and traditionalist, all wrapped up in one; learning what we should change, what we shouldn't change, and enough wisdom to know the difference between the two.