Wednesday, March 30, 2005

The Question

My question a couple of weeks back received six responses. Only one opted for A. Oddly, (fittingly?), it was from the person who unknowingly years ago started me thinking about the question in the first place.

In the early 90's I was asked what college course of study I wanted for my daughter. This was when emerging computer driven, high-technology (pre-internet I might add) was rapidly changing practically every business and occupation. This was causing many to question the value of the traditional liberal arts education. The future was going to reward specialized, technically savvy individuals. So those with a crystal ball were advising young people to take math and the sciences, become technicians, programmers, and engineers, not dead-end graduates in the humanities.

At the time I was responsible for training in a large, ultra-modern manufacturing facility. I was seeing first hand the need for greater technical skills for even the most entry level factory worker. I watched office functions wired together for the first time in local area networks. Learning the latest software became the key to success for "white collar" workers and entry-level managers. Those who could not make a database sing or express themselves with a fancy Lotus spreadsheet were doomed.

So when the question came up - I can't remember the exact circumstances - I was a little surprised at my response. I said that I wanted my daughter to be able to understand the natural and man-made world around her, to understand herself and others, love the process of learning, and, most practically, develop the skills to convince others to take a particular course of action. I reasoned that no matter what specialized knowledge one might have, high-tech or not, without the ability to change the behavior of others - to "make the sale" - even the most profound knowledge, best ideas or most brilliant insights have little value. As we moved deep into a "service" economy within the "information age" it seemed to me those who were good at manipulating others were more likely to be successful than those who could just manipulate data with the latest digital device.

Time passed. My daughter indeed found herself a good liberal arts college. She majored in French, met all sorts of people, traveled abroad, and graduated - pretty much the full package. Good fortune then placed her in a very small law office doing everything from watering the plants, writing legal documents, to appearing before a judge on behalf of the boss and their clients. With no formal legal training, it was OJT without a net. She didn't fall. I doubt she even looked down. A second job in another law office gave her a chance to expand her skills working with clients and their adversaries. Today she teaches middle school students, maybe outside of a used car salesman the most manipulative profession of all. Tomorrow, who knows?

Now back to the question and the two choices. Yes, imbedded none too deeply in the choices is the looking-at yourself-in-the-morning-mirror issue of who really benefits from those well-developed manipulation skills. Is it the manipulator, the manipulator's employer, or those who have changed their behavior? Ideally, of course, one gets to convince others of the truth, at least as it is best understood. Then all benefit - a win-win. But those same convincing skills can be used successfully to sell a lie, to get people to act in ways good for others rather than themselves. You don't have to look far for examples. Within this win-lose situation we still have winners, at least in the short term.

Am I suggesting that my daughter learned her liberal arts lessons too well? After all she wrote that she would rather be successful in convincing someone of a falsehood than a failure at convincing someone of the truth. Not really. Remember the other things I wanted her to leave college with? Contained within those are the values, knowledge and skills that should moderate any tendency to misuse her considerable and growing powers of persuasion. Such is my trust of the full liberal arts package. She could have learned many of those same persuasion skills in a business program. Ugh!

Maybe the most complete response that would have been closest to my own came via email.
I think that success or lack thereof is tied to human ego (though I'm quite a fan of it myself, being a human with an ego), & as such the higher, grander thing is to be honest to truth, regardless of fulfillment of ego.
Being "honest to truth" is what a good liberal arts education is all about. Having the skills and opportunity to convince others of the truth - to create win-win's for all - is as good a situation as one can hope to find in our international, digital, 24/7, high-tech, brave new world marketplace.

1 comment:

Malindi said...

i feel confused, like i 'get' your concept at the same time i don't 'get' it. i'm not going to dubb myself the reigning Queen of Question One quite yet, because i fear there is a sequel or something lying beneath the surface.

what i am confident of is my response. i deal with the communicating the truth every day as a teacher, and it's a terrible feeling to tell my children something truthful & have them dismiss me with a flick of a booger. i want people to believe me no matter what i say & i will be successful in whatever endeavour i attempt.