January 11, 2017 10:31:22 AM
Slim Smith - [email protected]
In his five-plus years as president of Mississippi University for Women, Jim Borsig has frequently talked about the importance of a liberal arts education and The W's unique role in those fields.
"We look like, feel like, smell like a small liberal arts college," Borsig confessed.
On Tuesday, Borsig made that argument again, this time before the Columbus Rotary Club, offering no apologies for it.
On the contrary, Borsig believes that message has a special sense of urgency as the nation tries to come to terms with what he refers to as America's second mechanical revolution -- the era of robotics and automation in manufacturing.
"The manufacturing GDP has been flat for more than 50 years," Borsig said Tuesday. "What has changed is that the number of manufacturing jobs has gone down. Automation has made manufacturing 30 percent more efficient than it was even 20 years ago. As automation continues to play a bigger role in manufacturing, there will be a growing surplus of labor."
No doubt, the explosion of new technology has driven many young people into those fields of study, he said. But liberal arts -- academic subjects such as literature, philosophy, mathematics, and social and physical sciences as distinct from professional and technical subjects -- play an equally important role. Professional and technical curricula create the new world of work; liberal arts show us what to do with it, Borsig maintained.
"We are still very early in this new mechanical age," Borsig said. "That's why a liberal arts education is so important. For the growing number of people who will not be in manufacturing, we have to figure out what to do. We have no idea what those jobs will be.
"That's why we have to start talking differently about education. Who is going to apply the technology and how do we react to it as a society?"
Borsig said the skills acquired from a liberal arts education are essential to making emerging technology work for all.
"Many of the jobs we have today won't exist in 10 years, and the jobs we will have in 10 years don't exist today," he said. "That requires the kind of curiosity, critical thinking, communication skills and problem-solving that a liberal arts education is all about."
Borsig said there is probably no better example of that than MUW alumna Doris Taylor.
Taylor grew up in Steens and earned a bachelor's degree in biology from MUW in 1977.
"At the time, she hoped that maybe she would be able to work in a doctor's clinic," Borsig said. "But thanks to some of her professors, who pushed her to think bigger, that wasn't how her story turned out."
Today, Taylor works at the Texas Heart Institution in Houston as director of regenerative medicine research. She and her team pioneered the field, which focuses on removing the existing cells from hearts of laboratory animals, and even humans, to leave a framework for building new organs. The hope is that this research is an early step toward being able to grow a fully functional human heart in the laboratory, which if it can be achieved would revolutionize the field of organ transplantation.
What is true for Taylor, Borsig said, may well be true for many of the 3,000 students currently enrolled at MUW, about half of them studying in health-related fields.
"It took 30 years to see the value of her education at The W and where it would lead," Borsig noted. "What she is doing now didn't exist when she was a student here."
Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is [email protected]