Hypocrites, or signs of changing times?

Back in November, I attended the International Digital Media and Arts Association conference, conveniently hosted at Ball State University. It was for this conference that my Confluence project was developed. I did not attend many talks, spending most of my time babysitting the Surface. (Turns out the system was perfectly stable, by the way.)

One of the events I attended was a panel discussion of “digital media and arts” folks. I’m leaving their names out for now—maybe I’ll edit later—but suffice it to say that they are successful in the field. Two related questions were raised: how did they become successful, and how should modern college students be educated to succeed in digital media. I should acknowledge here that I don’t ever call myself a “digital media” person. They seem to mean something different by it, even though all of my scholarship is digital and expressed in various media. That’s a topic for another discussion, perhaps.

Three of the four panelists explicitly credited a liberal arts education with their success. Only one of the four had a “pre-professional” higher educational experience in media studies. However, when asked about what students should learn, all four immediately jumped on skills training. I noticed this contradiction immediately and wrote it as a question in my pocket notebook, but perhaps for fear of being branded an apostate, I did not take the opportunity to ask the question. The panel also ran out of time, incidentally, so maybe more time would have given me more courage.

What I am left with then is this question: Why did the majority of these experts recommend paths to success that were substantially different than their own paths?

I have three hypotheses. One is that times now are simply different. Graduates are expected to be more productive much sooner, and the literacies of digital media are significantly more advanced than they were 20 years ago. This is not unreasonable. The media and higher education intelligencia make a big deal about digital natives, but I’ve seen it myself: these students are not technically literate. They know a few clicks, but their digital literacy skills are pretty much on par with their reading & writing skills, which is to say, lacking. There are always diamonds in the rough, but I’m frankly disappointed with the critical thinking, analysis, and literacy skills of  college students, but that’s another topic for another post. My point here is that maybe the bar of digital literacy is too high for the majority of students to get in K-12, and so we have to do training in college for students in digital media. (NB: I doubt it. Civilization has not yet collapsed because college students are not perfect.)

Another hypothesis is that it’s a sinister—albeit potentially subconscious—desire for these experts to stay on top. If they tell the rest of the world to go learn Photoshop, and meanwhile they have knowledge of history, literature, arts, etc., they will always be the boss and the rest will always be amazed by their intelligence. (NB: I doubt it.)

That leaves my third hypothesis: these experts haven’t really thought about it. They have spent too much time with HR trying to hire people with specific skills to serve the company’s purpose. They have not thought about how to actually make a better company — kind of like Christensen’s observation that companies cannot disrupt themselves. Although they know their own success, they are blind to the key factor: critical thinking and lifetime learning skills development fostered by a liberal education. (NB: Yes.)

It’s Saturday before the new semester, and this has been on-and-off of my mind for weeks. I wanted to put it somewhere, so here it is. Is it proper to apologize, on a blog that almost no one reads, that I have no grand conclusions and am still looking for answers? I do think that this is a deep and wide issue, and that most of us are just skating on the frozen surface, impressed by how very graceful we are.

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