That’s True, As Far As It Goes

The essay, “The False Promise of ‘Practical’ Education” (CHE, 19 May 2014, subscription required), by Michael S. Roth, president of Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut, delivers a wonderful defense of liberal arts education. In past blog posts, I too have defended liberal arts education (here and here), though not as eloquently. Yet, there is a limitation in perspective that results from President Roth’s long career in higher education.

Lean sensei’s would often say to us, “That’s true, as far as it goes.” Meaning, something is true until one is taught to see things that they have not seen before. In other words, there is a difference between conventional thinking and Lean thinking, the latter being capable of instantly invalidating truths long associated with conventional thinking.

Towards the end of his essay, Michael Roth says (italics added):

“Even philosophers as disparate as Allan Bloom, Richard Rorty, and Martha Nussbaum have agreed that liberal education has mattered because, by challenging the forces of conformity, it becomes deeply relevant to our professional, personal, and political lives. That relevance isn’t just about landing one’s first job; it emerges over the course of one’s thinking life. When liberal education works, it never ends.”

The same is true of Lean management, which requires people to ask “why?” It is, by definition, the essence of challenging the forces of conformity, and a mind infused with Lean principles and methods, through practical experience, sees no end to challenging traditional ways of thinking and doing things.

“The calls for ‘practicality’ we are hearing are really calls for conformity, for conventional thinking that will impoverish us.”

Actually, it is conventional thinking to suggest that the liberal arts education is the only effective route to challenging the forces of conformity. ‘Practicality’ need not impoverish us; it can strengthen and enrich us.

Were Dr. Roth to receive kaizen training from Shingijutsu consultants as I did, he would see that the liberal arts education is just the beginning. It is one of many steps to improving one’s capability and effectiveness in challenging conformity. Lean principles, kaizen, and related methods and tools are advanced ways of improving the level of critical thinking that liberal arts education gives to undergraduate students.

I wonder what Welseyan’s core administrative and academic processes are like. Are they like most colleges and universities: designed for the convenience of staff and faculty (vs. students), batch-and-queue, long cycle times, long lead-times, costly, low quality, etc.? Liberal arts education does not normally result in that kind of critical thinking.

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