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Livelihood depends on variety of hats

When I grow up, I want to have Oliver Sacks’ new job. He gets to float around Columbia University as its first ‘artist’ in residence. This means he can enter any department and raise issues or comment on any subject in any creative way he sees fit. They just want him around with a quizzical look, watching what they do, where they fit in the big world picture and then lecturing on it. I am sure he gets a big salary, too.
This man wears a lot of hats, and speaking of hats, he wrote a wonderful book, ‘The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat,’ that is a recounting of some of his more bizarre neurological case studies. He is first and foremost a neurologist. He is also a writer of more books and has written for The New Yorker. He even knows Bobby Deniro who starred in the movie ‘Awakenings’ about one of his coma patients. He dabbles in musicology, art and who knows what all. He is the epitome of the Renaissance Man.
Columbia hired him because he knows so much about so much. To attain this kind of knowledge background, might a college liberal arts degree be a possibility? I’ve always suggested liberal arts when you aren’t sure about your career goals but want to go to college. In the last 20 years, this is tantamount to trying to sell them an Edsel. A liberal arts graduate would know what that is.
I am also sure there was a bidding war between the CIA and Columbia over who signed Oliver Sacks first. I’ve been reading how the CIA is desperate for ‘connect-the-dots’ types who can read over information collected from newspapers, articles, all our phone calls and unshredded memos from around the world, and come to some educated guesses about what terrorist types might think up next.
Let’s pretend. You are in your office at CIA Langley. You have a nice chair to loll back in with your coffee while listening to Russian rap music in order to get a feel for what is going on with the streetwise population of Moscow. It ain’t good. You are reading a French street flyer (people who are in liberal arts can read French) sent by an operative that is observing the immigrant unrest in Paris.
At the same time, you are looking at an Internet site that appeals to bilingual Russian and French readers who talk in code taken from ‘A Remembrance of Things Past.’ You read this in college when you took that oddball course ‘Length and Weight in French Novels: Hugo Versus Proust.’
Hmm, wasn’t there a 20-percent sales increase of that novel last February in the European edition of Publisher’s Weekly? And remember that NPR blurb about some Chelyabinsk library that reported all four of its French novels stolen? Plus the fact that the user names aren’t really characters in the book at all. They are anagrams for chemical formulas of several controlled substances that the UN keeps on a list. Also, didn’t MacGyver use them to explode a water tank and flood his way out of a collapsing mine? You use ‘the company’ connections to get some credit card readouts, library card numbers and tap the phones of Proust devotees who watch old TV shows, and bang, you’ve got an anarchist!
As usual, our educational system is behind the curve and going in the opposite direction. We are narrowing down and not broadening out. An emphasis and prejudice toward math and science are fast dismantling our production facilities for creative thinkers and problem solvers. End an award-winning industrial arts class? Go ahead. Drop French from the curriculum? Yikes. Are we replacing it with Chinese? Probably not, and that is too bad.
I read a book by Leo Tolstoy called ‘On Education.’ He wanted to open a free, noncompulsory school on his huge Russian estate for all the workers to attend, so he traveled the world studying educational systems. This was in 1862. The United States was in the middle of the Civil War so he didn’t have much to say about us, but his comments about Germany were fascinating.
He concluded that a heavy leaning toward logic, math and science are not conducive to a healthy, productive mind. He saw fault lines forming without a balance of philosophy, languages, the classics, arts, music and regular outdoor work. Considering the history of Europe that was to follow, I call that rather prophetic.
One last point. Job security is a thing of the past. In this work world, you have to be versatile, quick adjusting and ready to change lanes without more than a backward glance. All of us need a variety of hats to wear for all seasons and occasions. Our livelihoods depend on it.