Guest column: Education in critical thinking important, too

As I was walking across Central Campus at 8:05 last Wednesday, skipping for the first time this semester to go hang out with a friend, I was absolutely taken by the sight of Beardshear Hall. In the bright sun, under a pristine blue sky, the striking stone columns appeared as one of the more impressive things I have ever seen.

Iowa State is an institution of higher learning, first and foremost. Its primary function, since its inception, is providing an education to the people who wish to receive it. Education in the United States has always been a liberal affair, not in the sense of politics, but in the sense of freedom. A well-rounded education, strong in a diverse base (all of the Gen Eds you are required to take), frees the mind to think.

Thus, the symbolism of the massive Greek columns standing and supporting the front of the building that is the “brain” of the university is apt. It is no coincidence that some of the best-known thinkers in history are Greek. Even those not well-versed in history or philosophy know the names Plato, Socrates and Aristotle. Those men were shining examples of what the Greeks espoused: an understanding of the world around them, strength through freedom of the mind, and the power of people to come together and do politics. However, it is depressing how much the university has strayed from this.

Humanities, more than any other field, teach you how to think. In other majors, you learn processes. You memorize equations and learn causal relationships, and you use them to accomplish whatever goal you set out to do. In the humanities, you learn how to process information. More importantly, you learn how to form opinions using them, and how to defend them. They really are sublime to know, because they teach you to distinguish yourself as an individual so that you can be a functioning member of the public. They’re useful in any situation; put an engineer in a group of people with unfamiliar dispositions, and ask them to complete a task, and the engineer will struggle. Put a classically trained person in a similar situation, and he or she will have the tools to thrive. The problem is universal in the United States.

Sadly, we think less as a result of our personal freedom. We are not oppressed; we don’t always have to think, act and defend ourselves, so we allow the few who are interested to do it for us. When those we have trusted betray us, and hold the country hostage for their own personal gain, we don’t know how to fight it. This is the absolute goal of those who oppress. In places such as Iran, the humanities are not ignored (as they are here), they are treated with outright hostility by the government. Freedom of thought is the only true and dangerous enemy to oppressors, particularly within their own country.

In my major, and the others categorized as humanities, we feed off the scraps left by the engineering, agriculture and business schools. The computers in my department’s library are ancient; they may actually still run Windows 98. Three out of the four support staff in our department were lost last year, and worse yet, professors leave and simply are not replaced. It used to be (before my time) that every office on the floor was occupied by a professor, now my undergraduate friend has her own office.

It is because we don’t bring in large quantities of grant money, so we are not “valuable.” However, this is not a for-profit university. Money is not, and should not ever be, the bottom line. Iowa State is not a trade school, either, although it appears to be rapidly heading that way. Don’t get me wrong, the world needs engineers, farmers and businessmen and women, too.

However, when there are major, transcendent issues in the world, it isn’t the farmers and engineers we rely on. It is the politicians and other free thinkers who must come up with workable solutions. While they are informed by the data and programs the others come up with, they must actually think out and act on solutions for the public as a whole. With the budding problems facing the world, such as climate change, overpopulation, and declining resources, these free thinkers will be as important as any others. If we don’t change and take the “liberal” part of our education as seriously as the part we “will actually use,” there may not be any free thinkers left.