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PHRAGMENTS FROM PHYLLIS: What's most important to you?

Phyllis Britt

Phyllis Britt

Last week, in the midst of concerns over what’s happening in our schools, someone posed the suggestion that schools should be, first and foremost, teaching toward an occupation, a career. This person was advocating for kids to go back to school, because particularly those at places like Aiken County Career Center need that hands-on experience that will lead to such a “useful” education.

I’m not here to argue about the plan to return kids to school almost full-time this week. That is a complicated issue for another time.

What I’m concerned about is the direction education has taken in the last generation.

During colonial times those people who ended up “in charge” were men of letters. By that I mean that from a very young age, the educated population learned Greek and Latin, often before the age that our children are even in school. I realize times were different then. There wasn’t the constant pull of technology to occupy our time. There wasn’t the vast wealth of information – for good or bad – at their fingertips. But there were books to read, musical instruments to master, artwork to experience.

As life got more complicated the push for what I call “training,” not “education” became paramount. Part of that is necessity – the longer you extend your “education,” the more in debt you’re likely to become. For example, one of my daughters went to grad school in 2005, and if her husband had not received a small inheritance, Cat would still be paying off student loans – 15 years later – with no end to that debt in the foreseeable future. As a result, kids in 2020 often work hard to get through college as quickly as possible.

So what’s my problem?

Well, even when I was in college, undergraduate years were spent getting an education, not getting a career, necessarily. By that I mean we were still required first to have taken four years of foreign language just to get into college. Who does that now? When the rest of the world – even those in poorer settings – seems to speak multiple languages, Americans are lucky to get English right a great deal of the time.

Second, once I got to college, I still had a requirement to take more foreign language, to take classes in the arts, to read the classics.

For me, that meant I minored in Latin, I took Greek and Roman art and architecture, I read untold numbers of books – classics and modern.

Yes, I thought about what I would do after I got a bachelor’s degree. In those days I expected to spend my life teaching. I had begun as a math major, but as I took those required “softer” classes, I found that my interests wandered. I finally locked in on a plan that worked for me. I changed my major to Religion, while I took enough Latin and Math to teach both.

My focus wasn’t just a career.

My husband, meanwhile, started out as a pre-med student. Then he, too, saw the joy in learning more than math and science. He moved to pre-law and, like me, eventually ended up a Religion major. By the time he graduated he thought he had found a career in the ministry, so he applied to seminary. He took a job as a lab tech to help pay the bills and found his “calling” elsewhere – chemical engineering.

He spent his career at SRS, but he had more than one colleague who marveled at his knowledge of things other than engineering. He’d often quote Dante’s “Inferno” at the beginning of reports. He would read technical journals in German. He would translate Biblical passages from Hebrew into English for fun at lunchtime.

Fast forward to today. If a kid wants to be an engineer, he could never do what Tom did. An engineering major at Clemson, for example, starts required math and engineering classes as a freshman and never sees the light of day. There’s no time to learn about Beethoven or Michelangelo or Dante. There’s only time for his chosen career.

One of the advantages of my husband’s background is that such a diverse education taught him to “think outside the box.” He noticed through the years that engineers who were educated in many foreign countries were very good at their jobs, but when faced with an unusual problem, they couldn’t look beyond the engineering and math “rules” they had learned.

For me, that’s the crux of the matter. In 2020 I feel we often are not teaching kids to think as much as we’re teaching them to pass a test. Our young people no longer come out of college as well-rounded, well-educated persons ready for all that life throws at them. Rather, they’re coming out of college as engineers – or even teachers – who don’t know much else.

That makes me sad. Long ago I had a friend whose daughter went to Salem College, then transferred to USC to become a nurse. Her mother commented that she was so glad her daughter was no longer “wasting” her time. I disagreed. I still think undergraduate school should be the place where a person is exposed to all sorts of interesting things on his/her way to a career, not just trained for that career.

And you never know where that may lead. My other daughter started as a pre-vet major but struggled with organic chemistry. I kept saying she needed to realize she was a poet, not a scientist. And sure enough, she called one day to say she’d switched her major to English. She said she walked into the English Department office, looked around at all those books and thought, “This must be what heaven is like.” It still makes me tear up when I think of that.

And what use is an English major, you ask. Well, she went on to write brochures for a real estate company. From there she had a very successful 10-plus years as an advertising rep for a large company. And now she’s in charge of the media aspects of public relations at Clemson – not too shabby for a “useless” degree in English, is it?

So I’m still a proponent for getting an education and then finding a career. I’m sorry most kids don’t get that experience today.